The ancient Greeks used to debate whether the polis was natural or artificial. Nowadays, as states fall apart and boundaries are redrawn almost daily, it is not only the devotees of postmodernist jargon who accept that political societies are “invented” or “constructed.” States are not the spontaneous and inevitable product of “natural frontiers,” or “national character,” but emerge from conflict and are maintained by a mixture of physical force and a carefully nurtured myth of national identity. A nation is what Benedict Anderson famously called “an imagined political community.”1 In any such community there will inevitably be some groups who benefit from this arrangement and readily identify themselves with the prevailing myth, just as there will be others who take a subordinate place and feel estranged. The political unions will cohere so long as those in the former category are more powerful than those in the latter.
Eighteenth-century Britain is an example of just such an invented community. The Act of Union of 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales to form the new United Kingdom of Great Britain. (Wales and England had been united since 1536.) Three countries which had long been divided by history, language, law, and culture were now expected to function as a single unit. They did so with spectacular success. By the end of the eighteenth century Britain was economically the most advanced of all nations. Its military and naval power would prove strong enough to defeat Napoleon and its overseas colonial empire became the largest the world had ever known.
How was it that this heterogeneous amalgam of peoples proved so effective a unity? What held it together as a community in face of so many obvious forces for disintegration? This is the problem that Linda Colley sets out to answer in a dashingly written and firmly unsentimental book, which consolidates her claim to be regarded as one of the leading contemporary interpreters of eighteenth-century Britain and a worthy successor to her former mentor Sir John Plumb.
But what of the underclass of this new nation? How did the proletariat of Hanoverian London fare under a regime which used the gallows as the ultimate sanction for the security of property and the growth of capitalism? Did the superficial unity of British nationhood not conceal a fierce underlying class struggle between haves and have nots? These are the questions posed in Peter Linebaugh’s bitterly sardonic study of the men and women who were hanged at eighteenth-century Tyburn. Based on closer research than Colley’s broad interpretative essay, but careless in detail and much less persuasively argued, it reveals its author as a committed practitioner of old-style Marxist history, following self-consciously in the early steps of E. P. Thompson, who nearly twenty years ago supervised the thesis from which his book has grown, and with whom he collaborated in producing Albion’s Fatal Tree, that eloquent manifesto of criminological history as then conceived by the Warwick Centre for the Study of Social History.2
Linda Colley identifies three decisive factors in the formation of the British nation: Protestantism, war, and the empire. Protestantism had long been used to foster the notion of the English as a chosen people. “God is English,” wrote the Elizabethan bishop John Aylmer in 1558; and the sentiment was widespread during the following century. The successive deliverances from the Spanish Armada and Gunpowder Plot were invoked to demonstrate that England was an elect nation, a people providentially chosen by God to carry out divine purposes. The flight of the Catholic James II and the subsequent formal exclusion of Catholics from the throne consolidated the myth. When the Hanoverian succession was secured against the Jacobite threat to return the Stuarts to power, Protestantism was confirmed as the national ideology.
Colley stresses the central importance of militant Protestantism in eighteenth-century Britain. She notes how Handel regularly inserted into his oratorios comparisons between Old Testament heroes and the Hanoverian triumph; and she reminds us how Hogarth identified Catholicism with poverty and tyranny. She could have quoted the Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, who saw the Seven Years War as a means of resisting French attempts to “deprive us of our holy religion and in its stead institute popery.”3 But not all Britons shared these prejudices. Presbyterian Scots could readily accept a Protestant definition of Britishness, but Catholics, whether Scots or English, did not. Catholics were the object of mob violence in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Their emancipation did not come until 1829 and even then was passionately opposed by much of the population. Colley takes this as proof that Protestantism shaped “the way that ordinary Britons viewed and made sense of the land they lived in.” But it also reminds us that, as a unifying ideology for a nation which included not just native Catholics and Jews but also, by 1831, half a million Irish immigrants, Protestantism was necessarily inadequate.
The real uniting force was foreign war, particularly war against France. It was during the years linking the War of Austrian Succession (1739–1748) to the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that many of the symbols of British cultural identity were instituted: not just Rule Britannia (1740) and God Save the King (1745), but also the British Museum (1753) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768), the latter, significantly, a Scottish enterprise. To these, Linebaugh adds the rules of cricket (1744) and of whist (1745). In the pursuit of foreign war and the ruthless search for colonial markets the landed oligarchy showed itself to be at one with the goals of the trading community. Jacobitism was unacceptable to the populace in 1745 because it would have meant civil war and the disruption of trade. In the fashionable political theory of the day, commerce was believed to induce luxury and sap martial spirit, but, in reality, traders were militantly anti-Jacobite and antiFrench. Stout-hearted commercial activity and patriotism went together.
The British thus defined themselves by opposition to their rivals across the Channel. Parliament, Magna Carta, roast beef, and plum pudding symbolized their freedom and prosperity by contrast with the wooden shoes of the downtrodden, ragout-eating, Catholic French. This antagonism was an old theme, but it gained strength in the eighteenth century as anti-Gallican sentiment was exacerbated by military conflict and commercial and colonial rivalry; and it would long survive. Colley reminds us that as late as 1940 a Methodist grocer in Lincolnshire, Alfred Roberts, gave it as his opinion that the French as a nation were “corrupt from top to bottom.” He was the father of that great anti-European, Margaret Thatcher.
Yet what really consolidated British nationalism was the empire. As early as 1740, the opposition to Robert Walpole’s Whig government had been able to exploit the imperial aspirations of large numbers of people who were not represented in Parliament.4 The elder Pitt exploited the same aspirations to even greater effect with his victories in the Seven Years War. (Two hundred years later in a South Wales grammar school, we were still encouraged to sing Garrick’s chauvinistic ballad of 1759: “Heart of Oak are our ships / Heart of Oak are our men.”) The acquisition of colonial possessions in Canada, India, and the West Indies meant new opportunities for employment overseas. Among those who seized them were the North Britons, who in the later eighteenth century frequently moved south to pursue careers in the law, the army, and the East India Company. Scots, many of them ex-Jacobites, made a disproportionate contribution to the empire, bringing with them, thinks Colley, a new ruthlessness in the administration of subject peoples, unimpeded by English constitutional inhibitions. She cites Ian Fleming’s James Bond, as the fag end of this tradition, but Kipling’s ships’ engineers are perhaps a more representative literary example of the Scottish imperial presence. The name “Great Britain” was slow to catch on as the title of a home country which natives and foreigners alike would persist in calling “England.” In the twentieth century its literature remained “English” literature and its history “English” history. But no one ever referred to the empire as anything other than “British.”
The second half of Britons is devoted to the “officially constructed patriotism” which, in Colley’s view, marked the half century after the traumatic defeat of 1782 and loss of the American colonies. As in the US after Vietnam, loss of face was followed by a move to the right and a determination to shore up the power of the state. The ruling elite expanded to absorb the Scottish aristocracy and, so far as there was one, its Welsh counterpart. It had become unambiguously British and it reformed its patrician style, turning itself into a less frivolous, harder-working, and publicly more responsible class. In the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France the nobility and gentry had a conspicuous part. They benefited from the new cult of military heroism which gave leaders like Nelson and Wellington an unprecedented status as popular stars. In contrast to the supposedly effeminate ways of the French, they developed a tough and “manly” style, fostered by the public schools and universities and by the gentry sports of cricket and fox-hunting.
At the same time, they took a new interest in British art. There was no provision for a national gallery until 1824, for the principle of private ownership was strictly maintained. But some patrician collections were open to the public and the foundation in 1805 of the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts provided a gallery to which gentlemen could patriotically lend their pictures. Colley comments that it was the British Institution which generated
the quite extraordinary idea that even if an art object comes from abroad, and even if it remains securely in private ownership, as long as it resides in a country house it must somehow belong to the nation and enhance it…. Only in Great Britain did it prove possible to float the idea that aristocratic property was in some magical and strictly intangible way the people’s property also. The fact that hundreds of thousands of men and women today are willing to accept that privately owned country houses and their contents are part of Britain’s national heritage is one more proof of how successfully the British élite reconstructed its cultural image in an age of revolutions.
Along with the aristocracy, the monarchy also improved its image. The early Hanoverians had been markedly lacking in charismatic qualities and George III had got off to a shaky start. But despite his illness and his disreputable sons, the popularity of this rather simple man, who “gloried in the name of Britain,” soared as his reign went on. His very domesticity and ordinariness were used by royal propagandists to establish the still abiding notion that, as Colley puts it, “members of the Royal family were just like everyone else, yet at the same time somehow different.” George’s apotheosis came in 1809 with the nationwide celebration of his Jubilee. The most extraordinary feature of this event was that the idea came not from the government, but from an obscure middle-class widow from the Welsh borders, one Mrs. Biggs. She wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, suggesting that a festival marking the king’s fiftieth anniversary would be a good way to “excite a spirit of loyal enthusiasm” to counteract the effects of the sexual scandal arising from the public exposure of the affair between George’s second son, the Duke of York, and his mistress, Mrs. Clarke (she had taken bribes from army officers to secure their advancement by the duke, who was commander in chief of the British Army). Since the Prince and Princess of Wales were also living apart, the need to improve the monarchy’s public image was obvious and it was speedily embraced.
Mrs. Biggs’s intervention was characteristic of the new role that women were playing in public life. Linda Colley does not deny that this counter-revolutionary period saw a reaffirmation of the doctrine of separate sexual spheres. But she maintains that its effect was to give women a distinctive function as the moral guardians of public culture. The first British woman to make a fortune with her pen was Hannah More, author of pious conservative tracts. Women had a leading part in the campaign against slavery and the slave trade (its success a further demonstration of the superiority of the British, this time of their humanitarianism). Women also sustained the new cult of military heroism. The subscribers to the statues in Hyde Park of the Duke of Wellington as a naked Achilles were all women; and it was not from them that the idea came of veiling its masculinity by adding a fig leaf.
The ultimate proof that the British nation had been successfully established was that, at a time of need, its citizens were prepared to fight for it. Colley’s most detailed research is to be found in her analysis of the ways in which people reacted to the Defence of the Realm Acts of 1798 and 1803. She is able to show that, although some Britons were averse to fighting and said so, there was an overwhelming response to the nation’s call for volunteers, particularly from the industrial and urban areas; and 15 percent of the volunteers came from Scotland. Moreover, those who enlisted were moved around the country in the course of military service, thereby gaining an enhanced sense of belonging to a larger nation.
British patriotism is a complex subject and Colley would not claim to have said the last word on it. But her account is consistently lively and stimulating. She makes excellent use of artistic evidence, drawing on the works of Hogarth, Canaletto, Benjamin West, Gillray, Turner, and many lesser figures to make shrewd points about the nature of British patriotism. Whereas so many earlier eighteenth-century historians have concentrated on radicals, rioters, and dissidents, she unashamedly stresses the loyalists and conformists who made up most of the British nation. It is a salutary shift in emphasis.
Peter Linebaugh’s approach could not be more different. His book, he tells us, “explores the relationship between the organized death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital).” He asserts that the hangings at Tyburn prison in London were “the central event in the urban contention between the classes, and indeed were meant to be so.” They symbolized the existence of fundamental social conflict within the British people. That conflict was not new, for the civil war of the seventeenth century had been a struggle in which “the bourgeoisie, led by Oliver Cromwell and organized in Parliament, aroused the English proletariat to make war against Charles I, the High Church and the aristocracy.” During the war, “the many-headed multitude…had developed a movement of teeming freedom that was antithetical to the capitalist order that Cromwell and Parliament sought to impose.” In the eighteenth century the class war took new forms. Novel methods of capitalist exploitation gave rise to new kinds of crime. Conversely, new kinds of crime caused major changes in capitalism.
Fortunately, Linebaugh’s argument is a good deal more interesting than the intellectually archaic frame in which it is presented. Starting with the indisputable truth that the London hanged were usually the poor and their judges and jurors men of property, he sets out to link the nature of their poverty to the economic circumstances of the eighteenth century. He analyzes a large sample of condemned persons whose biographies are contained in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn, a grim newspaper issued by the prison chaplain after each batch of hangings. He shows that many of those executed had been driven to theft, burglary, or highway robbery by poverty and unemployment. He takes each of the most represented occupations and analyzes the particular circumstances that made them vulnerable. Highwaymen, for example, were likely to be ex-butchers, whose trade had become more centralized in the eighteenth century, to the disadvantage of the smaller men. Seamen endured grim conditions and their pay was dismal: in the 1720s the total bill for their yearly wages was a mere £360,000 at a time when the annual value of exports and imports was £14.5 million. Watch-makers, shoemakers, silk-workers, hatters, and tailors all lived on the brink of subsistence. The Irish formed 14 percent of those executed. Victims of colonial appropriation, they were rootless, desperate migrants. “People became so poor that they stole to live.”
The originality of Linebaugh’s approach does not lie in demonstrating the poverty of most of the London hanged, for that will surprise no one. What makes his book distinctive is its sustained attempt to show that the eighteenth century was a period when concepts of property were shifting and ambiguous, so that what an employer might denounce as theft a worker might regard as a customary right. In company with his former Warwick colleagues,5 he believes that the essence of the problem was that the monetary wage had not yet established itself as the sole form of remuneration. Just as, at a higher social level, the rewards of public office lay not in the salary, which was usually only nominal, but in the opportunities afforded for influence and reward of a kind which a later generation would denounce as “corruption,” so, for the craftsman and artisan, the inadequate monetary wage was almost invariably buttressed by other customary methods of appropriation.
The extent to which these unofficial perquisites were available is hard to exaggerate, though it has hitherto been shrouded in the cant language of the time, most of which Samuel Johnson thought unworthy of inclusion in his great Dictionary. Just as domestic servants depended on “vails” (tips) and tailors had their “cabbage” (stolen remnants), so hatters engaged in “bugging” (stealing the beaver and substituting an inferior material), tobacco workers practiced “socking” (pilfering from hogsheads), sailors “knocked off” bits of the cargo, and dockyard workers expected their “chips” (scraps and waste). Every trade had its distinctive cheats, frauds, and perquisites.
Linebaugh stresses that these additions to other payments were essential to lower-class subsistence. The employed therefore resented the increasing determination of eighteenth-century employers to make them criminal and disputed the new tendency to label ancient customary rights as “fraud” or “pilfering.” The employers’ solution was to move to an adequate monetary wage and to outlaw all perquisites. Linebaugh brings out the crucial importance of late eighteenth-century figures like Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s brother), who as inspector general of naval works reformed the wage structure of the shipyard workers, and Patrick Colquhoun, who came to London from Glasgow to expound what he called the “new science” of “police: the prevention and detection of crimes,” thus becoming what Linebaugh calls “the planner and theorist of class struggle in the metropolis.” In this way crime indirectly encouraged capitalism by accelerating the movement to wage labor: the reaction against perquisites helped to shift production away from the home to the factory, where it could be supervised, just as the incidence of highway robbery was a powerful incentive to the growth of provincial banking.
In Linebaugh’s view, therefore, the poor of the metropolis were far from being loyal Britons. On the contrary, they “held the law in contempt.” They idolized figures like Jack Sheppard, the highwayman whom it seemed no prison could hold, and Dick Turpin, who supposedly robbed the rich to give to the poor. Often irreligious, they preserved memories of the revolutionary traditions of the 1640s and sang songs to “the older melodies of English communism.” The presence of dissident Irish and runaway blacks from the West Indies made them aware of colonial and slave rebellions elsewhere and gave their resistance an international character. In the Gordon Riots of 1780, in a protest against the removal of penal laws affecting Catholics that led to widespread destruction and looting, Linebaugh writes, “an international proletariat directly attacked the imperial ruling class.”
No one who reads the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts can fail to be moved by so many descriptions of human misery and degradation, made all the more odious by the Ordinary’s sanctimonious commentary. But though my own acquaintance with these documents is much more casual than Dr. Linebaugh’s, I have to say that I do not find his interpretation of them very convincing. While we can accept that there was an intensified campaign against pilfering and embezzlement in the later eighteenth century (and not all historians agree about that),6 it is still hard to see much of a relationship between these practices and the offenses for which most of the condemned were executed, namely burglary, house-breaking, murder, robbery, and grand larceny. Their wretched biographies testify abundantly to the hardships of the eighteenth-century poor, but they also reveal a smaller preoccupation with perquisites among the victims and a lesser commitment to “international proletarian” values than Linebaugh implies. Nor do they suggest that the “criminal” population was indistinguishable from the poor population of London as a whole. On the contrary, laboring people were among the victims of the criminals; and the biographies show that many of the condemned were habitual offenders or members of gangs who had no hesitation in preying upon the poor as well as the rich. Of course, eighteenth-century courts judged them brutally and made little allowance for the circumstances which had made them what they were. But it would be wrong to imply that, when it came to recommending a reprieve, contemporaries were incapable of making any discrimination between offenders. Violence and a bad record were much more likely to take a criminal to the gallows than simple theft on its own.7
Moreover, Linebaugh’s transcriptions and paraphrases from the Accounts prove on examination to be worryingly unreliable. Names and circumstances are often misrendered; and though most of these slips reflect nothing more than carelessness, there are many omissions which have the effect of putting the accused in a more favorable light and their prosecutors in a harsher one. For example, he lists one John Masland as an example of a sailor brought to Tyburn by unemployment (“when he became too old for the work…he ‘straggled up and down the Town’ selling what he called ‘French Brandy”‘). He does not tell us that Masland was hanged for rape and had been guilty of child abuse, infecting his own daughter with a venereal disease.8
Linebaugh is frequently careless with names and references and some of his pictorial illustrations are the anachronistic imaginings of nineteenth-century artists. Moreover, his central argument, that the gallows were seen as necessary labor discipline for the growth of capitalism, is open to the obvious objection that the gallows were used much more freely in pre-industrial England and that the growth of capitalism coincided with the shift away from capital punishment for property offenses to “transportation” to penal colonies in Australia and imprisonment. We can be grateful for Linebaugh’s preliminary analysis of eighteenth-century criminal biography, while still feeling that, in the hands of a more sensitive and less obviously partisan commentator, these heart-rending documents would yield a more complicated and much more interesting story.
It can at least be said for modern Britain that the gallows are no longer deemed necessary for the security of property. To that extent perhaps, social relations are more stable than they used to be. But patriotism is also much less in evidence. In a declining economy no one any longer suggests that “British is best.” Most of the forces that, in Linda Colley’s account, made eighteenth-century Britain into a nation have ceased to function. Protestantism cannot be a unifying force in a secular age and in a country which is ethnically much more diverse than it was in the eighteenth century. Wars against the French are things of the past. The empire has sunk into oblivion. Even such ancient icons as fox-hunting and beef-eating have become politically controversial. In these circumstances, Linda Colley suggests that the ramshackle union of England, Wales, and Scotland could yet fall apart and that the future may be a federal Britain in a federal Europe. Almost certainly she underestimates the strength of the economic, social, and cultural forces that nowadays cut across those ancient territorial boundaries and hold the union together. Nevertheless, both past history and recent European experience suggest that national configurations are hard to establish and surprisingly easy to dissolve.
November 19, 1992
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London: Verso, 1991). ↩
Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, E. P. Thompson, and Cal Winslow, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Pantheon, 1976). ↩
David Vaisey, editor, The Diary of Thomas Turner (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 32. ↩
Kathleen Wilson, “Admiral Vernon and Popular Politics in Mid-Hanoverian Britain,” Past and Present, No. 121 (1988). ↩
See John Rule, The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century Industry (St. Martin’s, 1980), chapter 5. ↩
Cf. John Styles, “Embezzlement, Industry and the Law in England, 1500–1800,” in Manufacture in Town and Country before the Factory, Maxine Berg, Pat Hudson, and Michael Sonenscher, editors (Cambridge University Press, 1983). ↩
See Peter King, “Decision-Makers and Decision-Making in the English Criminal Law, 1750–1800,” Historical Journal, No. 27 (1984), an outstanding piece of research, not listed in Linebaugh’s bibliography; J.M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660–1800 (Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 430–436. ↩
Ordinary’s Account for March 14, 1739. ↩