This talk represents a crisis of principle. I have long held that a presidential address to a learned society should not belabor that society with laments or summonses, nor should it ask whither the discipline; rather, it should be a serious scholarly or interpretive effort. But it is an equally compelling principle with me that an after-dinner talk should suit the mood of relaxed good feeling that is likely to characterize the occasion. To answer both requirements is no easy task. In defining a genre new to the North American Conference on British Studies, my two predecessors have admirably fulfilled my criteria, combining the serious scholarship one would expect from their distinguished careers with the precise lightness of touch called for on such an occasion.
I will not, I fear, follow their example in either respect. The grand, refractory subject I have chosen has interested me for many years, but I have not earlier addressed it in either research or writing: it has been rather like the unheard theme that Elgar said was present in his Enigma Variations. In now making the theme explicit, as Elgar wisely never did, I shall begin by calling attention to some concerns and perceptions among the English Unitarians over a hundred years, concerns and perceptions that I think reflect a crisis of authority. I shall then suggest ways in which that same analysis might be applied to larger, more important and familiar, segments of nineteenth-century intellectual life.