Lecture: The Eighteenth Century
This lecture will cover England in the 18th century, with the exception of industry. Industry and commerce will be covered in the next lecture.
The Early Empire
England's first attempts at empire beyond the British Isles began under Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, you'll recall, had chartered privateers and approved of exploration and colonization. Drake's circumnavigation of the globe had made possible global trade, and the beginnings of colonies in America and India. During the 1550s, traders had sought markets for English woolen cloth in Russia, the Baltic, southern Europe, and Turkey. The crown had chartered companies, giving them a monopoly to trade in certain regions: the Muscovy Company (1554) in Russia, the Eastland Company (1579) in Scandinavia, the Guinea Company (1588) in West Africa.
During the 17th century, international trade had continued to expand. The East India Company was founded in 1600 to further trade with India, where competition with Portugal and France was fierce. The result was mass importation of Indian tea, which became an English staple The founding of the future United States occurred through two companies: the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company. The former started up Jamestown Colony (1609) in Virginia ("Jamestown" for King James, "Virginia" for the Virgin Queen). Slaves were imported to grow tobacco in Virginia in 1619, and the English became slave carriers for both these colonies and Spanish colonies in Central and South America. The Puritans who left England in 1630 came under the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, and set up Boston as a Puritan "city upon a hill" for the Church of England to emulate (it didn't). English interests also were vast in the West Indies (the Caribbean), where members of the new gentry owned sugar plantations.
A good cup of English Breakfast tea represents the empire, with tea from Ceylon and East Africa, sugar from the West Indies, and milk from England, served in "china" copied from the Chinese.
American colonists in the 1770s, of course, weren't so fond of tea. Colonization of the eastern seaboard of North America had begun in earnest in the 17th century. The Navigation Acts (1651; renewed in 1660) made clear England's priorities: mother country first, colonies second. America, like India and other colonies (you have great maps in your book of where the colonies were) was to export her precious raw materials only to England. In return, Americans were to provide a market for English goods. American colonists were forbidden to export goods to anywhere but England, or buy from anywhere except England. After 1707, of course, "England" meant "Britain", because Scotland was on the inside instead of the outside of this arrangement. But America and India were the largest colonies subject to the Acts.
Interestingly enough, the British government didn't do much to enforce the Acts in America from about 1688 to 1756. India was the big interest, with spices and silks and gemstones. America was raw-mart, with lumber, naval stores, tobacco. So for about 80 years, American colonists were subject to "benign neglect", as Britain didn't enforce its laws. The colonists naturally began to think they could trade with anyone, and do whatever they wanted. But in 1756, war broke out between England and the big global competitor: France.
What had happened to Spain, the big competitor of the 16th century? She had pretty much gone bankrupt. The Armada disaster in 1588 had destroyed many of her ships and her hopes. The gold and silver she brought back from Mexico and South America, if it weren't taken by English Sea Dogs, was exported to pay off loans from French and Dutch banks. Spain was still a primarily agricultural country, exporting low-value agricultural goods like wool and wine while importing expensive manufactured goods. New World gold and silver was in Spain just long enough to cause inflation before it went out again to pay Spain's debts. Although she was still a threat in Florida and the Caribbean, and dominated Central and South America, England's primary competition for North America and India had become France.
The Seven Years War (1756-63) was fought on several continents by Britain and France, and ultimately involved Sweden, Prussia and Spain as well. By the end of it, Britain had won domination over North America and India. In North America, France gave up everything on the mainland, everything west of the Mississippi going to Spain (who would later sell it back to get money, then France will sell it to the new U.S.A. to get money). Everything east of the Mississippi went to Britain. There were only minor French holdings left in the Caribbean. In India, France gave up almost all of her trading ports; the treaties with local rulers transferred to the British East India Company.
American colonists had fought on the side of the British. They were loyal British subjects and hated the French, who were Catholic and spoke a different language. After the war in 1756, American traders planned to resume business as usual, in benign defiance of the Navigation Acts. But now Britain was in trouble. Although it had been won, the war had been very costly, and the debts had to be paid. Parliament's re-enforcement of the Navigation Acts, and institution of various acts and taxes, were designed to get the American colonists to pay their share. As you may know from American History class, the colonists were upset at the pressure on their pocketbooks. They responded with petitions. Britain responded with rigorous enforcement. The Americans responded with acts of violence. The British responded by sending troops and suspending civil rights. The Americans responded by taunting the troops and raising an army. The British responded by firing on the Americans. Combine this with the political liberalism of John Locke (i.e. King George III of England was depriving them of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness), and you get what the British call "The War of American Independence". The British lost this war, because their supply lines were too long, they had an empire in India to hold onto, and they didn't expect that the colonists would either fight well or declare independence. It also helped that the French joined on the American side, hoping to regain a foothold in North America (they didn't).
Classical Economics and Political Liberalism
The expansion of empire was the result of expanding markets. Prior to the 18th century, such markets were controlled by the crown. The monarch chartered either individuals or companies, giving them a monopoly on certain areas. The system they espoused was called mercantilism. Mercantilism is the direct control over the economy by the government. It is based on principles like bullionism, which claims that a country's wealth is determined by the amount of bullion (gold and silver) in her possession. Because the wealth of the world was believed to be finite (the "fixed-pie" theory), a country's increasing wealth had to be at the expense of another country. So, the idea was for a country to export as many products as possible, and import as much bullion as possible. Mercantilist rulers created strict policies to make sure that this happened. The Navigation Acts, for example, were mercantilist. They enriched England by importing cheap raw materials, and exporting more valuable manufactured goods.
The people who favored mercantilism, in addition to the crown itself, tended to be the merchants enriched by participation in the chartered companies. Members of the East India Company, for example, would naturally be big fans of mercantilism. But the theory was developing enemies, because it prevented anyone who wasn't part of a chartered company from participating. As markets and money expanded, more people wanted an opportunity to participate. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations (the shortened title of a book which should have been shortened too), attacked mercantilism. The book was published in 1776, at the height of the war with America. (Smith, by the way, was a Scottish professor who was so distracted by economic thoughts that he would fall into potholes walking through town, and often forgot where his house was.) Smith theorized that wealth was not bullion or control of trade itself, but rather control of markets through fair competition. The laws of supply and demand should guide trade, not mercantilism.
Although he was not the first to develop capitalist theory, or promote free trade, Smith's ideas became famous because he was writing the right thing at the right time. He claimed that the government should not interfere with trade. Internationally, if a nation produced a product, and it was sold by anyone who could make it or sell it, it would compete with another nation's product. As a result of competition, the price would go down to its natural level, and the nation creating the best product at the best price would win domination of that market. Domestically, all the needs of all consumers would be filled, as demand for products would create a supply, because people would seize the opportunity to make that product to make money. Natural human greed (well, Smith called it "The Invisible Hand") would run the system. Government was not only unnecessary, but also harmful. Free trade should be the name of the game. We call this "Smithian economics" or "free-trade capitalism".
Such thinking about economics can be extended to politics. One of the many things Smith was saying was that the role of government was to ensure prosperity by keeping out of things. Essentially, Locke had said the same thing politically regarding liberty. Government exists to protect liberty. In the 18th century, Locke's philosophy was no longer seen as radical. It was a justification for the propertied classes to assert their liberty. In America, the patriots used this principle of liberty to provide underpinnings for the revolution and war against Britain. In England, ideas of liberalism took off among the increasingly prosperous middle class. This class, which was growing at the expense of the upper class or aristocracy, made money off trade. They became liberals in both the economic sense (they wanted competition in trade) and the political sense (they wanted liberty from unnecessary government).
These concepts of liberty, both economic and political, provide the background for the development of the middle class in England during this time. The middle class itself was not new. The middle class had always been comprised of merchants and artisans and moneylenders. Anyone who was not upper class (income deriving from land) or lower class (income deriving from manual labor, such as a peasant or wage worker) was middle class. This new group is sometimes called the "new gentry". The "old gentry", presumably, was the class created by Henry VIII when he distributed monastic lands to his supporters 200 years earlier. This new gentry became large, but their wealth was based on money rather than land. Money was not really respectable, so the new gentry tried to imitate the aristocracy in every way. Some (the "landed gentry") bought estates in the countryside, and made up family crests for themselves, pretending they'd owned the land for generations. They then increased their wealth with investments (such as a Caribbean sugar island) and profitable agriculture. They used famous designers and architects to renovate their estate homes and make them fashionable. They got portraits of their ancestors done to hang in the Great Hall. They got into hunting and country parties.
Although they thought they were imitating the upper class, I'm amused about the new gentry because true aristocrats never went to all this trouble. Real upper class people tended to dress conservatively, rarely renovated their homes, only possessed the occasional portrait, and had very small parties.
During the 18th century, the lifestyle of the rich (including the new gentry) differed greatly from that of the poor. The division in wealth and lifestyle is noted in the literature and art of the day. But even recipe books and diaries provide information. The diet of the wealthy consisted of much meat and fish, very few vegetables (animal food, you know), and some fruit. Delicacies included New World sugar, chocolate, and the newly "refined" flour (i.e. all nutrition removed). Even if Marie Antoinette didn't say "let them eat cake", the aristocracy and gentry ate a lot of it. They frequently got gout, a buildup of uric acid in the body that causes aching feet (Ben Franklin had it); everyone knew gout was caused by "eating too well".
For the poor, the choices were expanding. Agricultural improvements had increased the food supply, as had the adoption of other foods from the New World: potatos, tomatos, yams. Many of these new foods contained Vitamin C and other nutrients which had been in short supply for the lower class. As a result, the poor ate better nutritionally than the rich. This increased their health and life expectancy. The population rose, as children lived to maturity and had their own children. The population boom of the 18th century is at the heart of England's expansion. Classical economist Thomas Malthus took a grim view of this, as evidenced by his population theory.
Differences between rich and poor were also evident in marriage. The rich were most affected by new ideas of sentiment, with the increase in literacy and the birth of the romantic novel. In his 1977 book The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, Lawrence Stone says the change was also the result of the economy and the decline in religion. He calls the growth of sentimentalism the "growth of affective individualism". This included the concept that each person is unique, combined with a belief that domestic life and affection are the best route to happiness. The ideal "Man of Sentiment" was moved to action by cruelty or unfairness; he was led by his feelings. It was this idea that made war a romantic pasttime. The old view of marriage was as an alliance between families; it became an alliance of individuals who were "in love". But remember, money was of great concern to the middle class. Novels of the day show the conflict between love and money: an heiress falling in love with a poor man, or a wealthy man in love with a peasant girl. Statistics also show the trend. In 1700, 40% of the sons of peers married heiresses. In 1750, it was 20%. In 1800, it was only 10%.
In 1753, Parliament passed the Marriage Act, demonstrating that marrying for love had become epidemic. It contained the following provisions:
Divorce was even more complicated, and shows class divisions. It was not legal in the Anglican Church to remarry after divorce (despite Henry VIII). But the very rich had recourse to Parliament. An Act of Parliament could dissolve a marriage and thus permit remarriage. The very poor had a folk custom called "wife-sale", in which a wife could be sold at public market (usually to the man she preferred to marry). But the middle class had no recourse, and could be stuck in a bad marriage. Perhaps that's why they took to the romantic novels and ideas of sentiment the way they did. A happy marriage really was the stuff of life, because there was no acceptable way out of an unhappy one. By the beginning of the 19th century, sentimental love was seen as the basis of such a marriage, as you can see in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Childbirth in the 18th century was dangerous for women. The biggest danger, post-partum infection, threatened women of all classes. The poor women were delivered by mid-wives. Some mid-wives were well-trained, hygenic, and knew how to turn a breech baby and give herbs against infection. Others were poorly trained and dirty. The rich were beginning to shift away from female mid-wives to male ones, and ultimately to male doctors. It was the new fashion to have a doctor deliver your child. Doctors were trained at universities, and were the only ones allowed by law to use "instruments" (like the new forceps). They were very expensive, and the new trend became controversial. Male mid-wives and doctors tried to corner the obstetrical market, getting towns to create charters for incorporating mid-wives. They said mid-wives were poorly trained, and offered to train them properly.
Mid-wives accused these doctors of trying to keep them ignorant, and of promoting the use of instruments over the use of hands. Since forceps weren't sterilized (any more than hands were), the infection rate was the same anyway. Ultimately, it was the standards of decency that may have made mid-wives a better choice. To keep a woman modest, male practitioners had to cover the woman's parts with a sheet. The practitioner could not look under the sheet, but had to do everything by feel. Since they couldn't see what they were doing, they were handicapped more by the standards of the day than female mid-wives. Yet the rich continued to prefer them.
Childrearing similarly involved controversy. There used to be a theory (I was taught it at university) that parents were not very attached to their children in the old days. Infant mortality was high (about 50% for the entire 18th century), so parents could not afford to get emotionally attached to their children. Instead, they focused on strict discipline, and only after 1750 (with the growth of sentimentalism) did they start to truly love their kids.
Well, studying the diaries of both parents and children of the 18th century reveals a different picture. Births were celebrated events. There was much concern over the treatment and feeding of babies, and controversies over swaddling. Swaddling wraps the baby's limbs next to its body, immobilizing it. Some people were in favor of swaddling, saying it kept the baby calm and helped its limbs grow straight. Others, particularly after reading Rousseau's theories about nature and children, wanted swaddling done away with.
There were other concerns over breastfeeding. Poor women naturally breastfed their children, supplementing with soup or going to other nursing mothers in their village if they needed help. But for years the rich had "nursed out", sending their children to wet nurses. As with the medieval noblewomen, rich mothers believed they were doing the best for their children. Wet nurses often lived in the country, where the air was cleaner (and where, we now know, they were eating better than the natural mothers). We know, of course, that some were "killing nurses", charlatans who took the money and let the child die of hunger or neglect. The diaries of parents and grandparents show many visits out to the wet nurse's house to check on and visit with the child. Some mothers tried to breastfeed first, then gave up due to social pressure. Husbands' diaries show much involvement in the process and the decisions about breastfeeding, not the distance one would expect if they didn't care about their kids. As the century ended, breastfeeding became the fashion among the rich, but only because it was felt that the milk imparted moral values to the baby. A middle class baby was seen to need middle class milk to have middle class values. Twisted, but it got everyone breastfeeding.
The reason, I think, that historians used to think that 18th century parents were emotionally distant, was the emphasis on morality. Play was seen as natural for children, but the emphasis was clearly on a moral education: lessons and usefulness for the rich, or hard work and usefulness for the poor. During the past fifty years, our culture has seen this emphasis as too strict, as not letting children be children. Perhaps this led historians to feel that 18th century parents didn't love their children enough, supported by the psychological effects of having so many of them die. But documents show that when death came, the grief was very real, and untempered by any emotional distance.
Scotland and the Jacobite Risings
Problems with Scotland were also part of the 18th century experience, and it's here that my lecture returns to politics from the realm of social history. You may recall that the Pretender "James III" (the son of James II, ousted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688) had attempted a comeback to the throne in 1715 and had failed. This was the first "Jacobite rising". After the rising, George I declared all Tories to be traitors and Jacobites, causing loyal Tories to grumble.
By 1745, James III was being called the "Old Pretender". His son (the "Young Pretender") was Charles Edward, and he'd been living in France with his father, both of them exiles. They survived with the assistance of the French monarch. In 1745, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" (he was really cute) went to Scotland, raised an army and declared his father to be king of Britain. England did nothing at first, waiting for George II's son (the Duke of Cumberland) to return from Flanders with his army. Charlie's army did well, and almost attacked London itself. But when Cumberland landed, the Scots had to retreat. They lost the crucial battle at Culloden, where Cumberland ordered the army to massacre the Highlanders. This was the last Jacobite rising and a crucial moment in Scottish and English history. The Hanovers would retain the throne, and Bonnie Prince Charlie became a legend in story and song. The Jacobite heritage is not forgotten.
The French Revolution
It may seem unusual to put French history in this course, but the French Revolution (1789-1815) had a great impact on English history. It had several immediate causes. The king of France was an absolute monarch, and the only "parliament" was the Estates-General, comprised of the Three Estates: First (clergy), Second (nobility), and Third (everyone else: 95% of the population). Each estate had one vote (so the elites could outvote everyone), but even so the Estates General had not met since 1614, when Louis XIV had dismissed them. Taxation was similarly unfair, with the Third Estate paying all taxes although the other two were the wealthiest. There were also very poor harvests in 1789, and much starvation in the countryside, where poor roads and policies made things worse. Add to this the new Enlightenment ideas of political liberalism and you have the recipe for revolution.
In 1789, King Louis XVI had to call the Estates-General because he needed money (sound familiar?). Since there hadn't been a meeting since 1614, elections were held, and in this time of distress, the Third Estate ended up with educated members well-versed in political liberalism. They separated from the Estates-General and formed their own government (along with enlightened members from the first two estates). This National Assembly created a constitution along liberal lines, with the king becoming a constitutional monarch (as he was in England). Since this development was seen as an attack on the privileges of clergy and nobility, it was supported by urban workers and peasants. The king agreed to rule by the constitution (he was actually deciding how to reverse it), and it seemed the French Revolution was over.
You have a double document portraying the English response to this revolution. Edmund Burke was the conservative response, and Thomas Paine the more liberal response. American students tend to side with Paine, but I do not want you to see Burke as an unenlightened old fogey. He represents the emergence of an educated viewpoint opposed to radicalism. There is one very important thing to understand about Edmund Burke: he supported the American Revolution and the right of the Irish to rebel against Britain. Doesn't sound like an old fogey now, does he? He supported the Americans and the Irish because he claimed that they were fighting the crown to reassert their traditional rights. The situation of benign neglect, for example, had caused the American colonists to create, slowly and naturally, their own political and cultural systems. Britain was trying something extreme in pressuring them, and they had a right to fight for their tradition. Same with the Irish. But in France, a group of extreme liberals wanted to overturn the whole system overnight, throwing out all tradition and the rights of the monarch as they had developed naturally over time. To Burke, it was like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Paine, on the other hand, supported the French Revolution. The two men had many an argument, both in print and in person. Paine believed that the natural right to freedom was superior to the traditions of history, as you have read. Unlike Burke, he believed that man was inherently rational, and would develop rational governmental systems. But as the revolution played out, it looked less and less rational.
By 1792, France was at war with most of Europe. Absolutist European monarchs had rallied in support of Louis XVI , and against the liberalism that would restrict their sovereignty. Along with international war, poor harvests and bad food distribution continued inside France. With each election, more radical members were elected to the National Assembly. At this point, France moves (politically) past the English Civil War. It was as if the Levellers or Diggers had gotten more and more members into Parliament. The Assembly (or Convention, as it was now called) was no longer liberal -- it was radical. In the name of virtue, the revolution, and equality, the Convention imprisoned and executed King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They outlawed titles of nobility and clergy. They eliminated the Catholic Church and introduced a republican calendar. They directed a Reign of Terror, bringing not only aristocrats but also old National Assembly liberals to the guillotine (see the Guillotine Headquarters for more information about this unique device). Staunch liberal-radicals like Paine and Thomas Jefferson abhorred the violence, but noted that in France the corruption went much deeper than in America or Ireland. Extreme measures might be necessary to root out the evil.
In July 1794, the middle class managed to reassert itself in the Thermidorian Reaction (Thermidor was the republican calendar's designation for July). The Directory they formed, however, was corrupt and unable to lead France in war against Europe. This was the opportunity for Napoleon Bonaparte to come to power.
War with France
The fact that anti-Napoleon propaganda in England was very popular gives you a clue how the British felt about this man. The fight against him became a battle of true British liberalism and freedom against the despotic "emperor" of France.
Note this cartoon as an example. It's called "The Corsican Crocodile dismissing the Council of Frogs". As the website explains, Napoleon is the crocodile. He was from Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean. The crocodile is an Egyptian image, and Napoleon took over the French government upon his return from Egypt in 1798. He then dismissed the Assembly, portrayed here as frogs in a "swamp" of debate. The British felt that the Assembly in France was chaotic due to its democracy. It discussed and discussed, but made few decisions. This, of course, is the nature of democracy -- rule by committee. It's not terribly efficient, and Napoleon was the model of efficiency. He took over to save the revolution, ruling like an absolutist monarch, but enforcing the republican values fought for in the revolution. Under his leadership, revolutionary France expanded, winning wars and taking over most of continental Europe.
British policy when it came to the Continent had many precedents. In the 18th century, preserving the "balance of power" was an international goal. The balance was preserved by preventing large nations from expanding, protecting small nations like the Netherlands. The policy had historic roots. Elizabeth had prevented the overexpansion of Phillip's Spain in the 16th century, and William III had prevented the domination of Louis XIV's expansionist France. So in 1793, William Pitt organized an alliance with Russia, Austria, and Prussia (with support from Holland and Spain) against France. By 1795 it became apparent that the alliance was woefully mismanaged, and it fell apart. Prussia was too focused on partitioning Poland with Russia, and made a separate peace with France. When France defeated Austria, the Netherlands allied with France to save itself. British troops were spread way too thin, trying to capture French colonies in the Caribbean and attacking France from too many directions. So Napoleon's control of Europe continued.
A second coalition in 1799 against Napoleon met with some success. The British fleet, led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, detroyed France's Mediterranean fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Then Pitt mismanaged the coalition again, not building up the British army enough to counter the selfishness of Russia, Prussia and Austria. But Nelson's naval battles did a great deal to control Napoleon. In 1805, Nelson's ships destroyed the heart of the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was an extremely charismatic man, able to inspire devotion in his men (and some women, notably Lady Hamilton -- you may read his last letter to her here). He died a hero's death at Trafalgar, where he used the radical technique of attacking the French line head-on instead of engaging in the usual broadside exchange of fire. Trafalgar Square in London has an unbelievably tall column with his statue on top. By 1807, Britain dominated the sea, but France still held the land.
In 1808, Napoleon blockaded Britain. This actually caused more problems for France, which had imported a lot, than for Britain. Spain seemed to be the weak spot in Napoleon's "continental system", so Britain's Duke of Wellington supported an anti-French rebellion in Spain, and from there blockaded France. In 1812, Napoleon experienced devastating losses against Russia. During this same year England was unable to take advantage, because she was engaged against the United States in the War of 1812. Agreeing to a stalemate and a favorable treaty with the U.S., Britain was finally able to help defeat Napoleon in the field in 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington led the British troops.
England emerged from this experience as the premier naval power in Europe. British people experienced a surge of nationalistic pride, and developed fiercely romantic ideas about liberalism and freedom. For some, it was the English victory that led to this response. But for others, it was the French Revolution itself, and the concepts it stood for, that seemed to promise even greater freedom to English citizens. In Wordsworth, you can see the concept of freedom presented as a cross between Reason and Romance.
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