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The Growth of Political Stability Reconsidered*

  • Clayton Roberts

Extract

It has been twenty-seven years since Professor Plumb, now Sir John Plumb, delivered the Ford lectures at Oxford University. In a prose that was elegant, spirited, at times colloquial, always luminous, he offered a persuasive explanation for the growth of political stability in eighteenth-century England. Later published as The Growth of Political Stability in England, these lectures were widely read and the explanation offered in them widely accepted. Professor Plumb's thesis became and remains the orthodox interpretation of the political stability that England enjoyed in the eighteenth century.

During the past twenty-seven years, however, a considerable literature has appeared concerning the growth of political stability, some of it occasioned by Professor Plumb's own fertile suggestions. Historians such as J. V. Beckett, Lloyd Bonfield, Christopher Clay, Linda Colley, Norma Landau, John Owen, John Phillips, and Nicholas Rogers have studied the rise of the great estates, the decline of party, the role of patronage, and the politics of deference. The appearance of this literature offers a useful occasion for looking once again at the growth of political stability. In particular, it offers an opportunity to ask how valid is the Plumb thesis, and, if found not to be valid, what alternative explanation can be given for the growth of political stability in eighteenth-century England.

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*

An earlier version of this article was read at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians held in London in July 1988. Research for it was made possible by a National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship.

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1 Plumb, J.W., The Growth of Political Stability in England (London, 1967), see esp. pp. xviii, 65, 97, 127, 173.

2 Ibid., pp. xvii, xviii, 1-2, 10, 29-30, 63, 64, 65, 72, 158, 186.

3 Ibid., pp. 9-10, 83, 85-86, 94, 95-96, 134, 139.

4 Habakkuk, H. J., “Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century,” Trans, of the Royal Hist Soc., 4th ser., 32 (1950), and The English Land Market in the Eighteenth Century,” in Britain and the Netherlands, eds. Bromley, J. S. and Kossmann, E. H. (London, 1960). Plumb does not cite Habakkuk's, English Landownership, 1680-1740,” Economic History Review 10 (1940), in which Habakkuk most boldly describes the growth of the great estates, and concludes (p. 5) that “In the character of these changes in the ownership of land lies an important part of the stability of the eighteenth century.” But this thesis does seem to lie behind Plumb's argument.

5 Clay, Christopher, “Property Settlements, Financial Provision for the Family, and Sale of Land by the Greater Landowners 1660-1790,” Journal of British Studies 23, 1 (1981): 18.

6 Holderness, B.A., “The English Land Market in the Eighteenth Century: the Case of Lincolnshire,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 27, 4 (Nov. 1974): 573.

7 Howell, David, “Landlords and Estate Management in Wales,” in The Agrarian History of England and Wales. Vol. V, 1640-1750; Vol. II, Agrarian Change, ed. Thirsk, Joan, p. 261.

8 Jenkins, Philip, The Making of a Ruling Class: the Glamorgan Gentry 1640-1740 (Cambridge, 1983), p. 21.

9 Roebuck, Peter, Yorkshire Baronets 1640-1760 (Oxford, 1980), p. 289.

10 Hughes, Edward, North Country life in the Eighteenth Century: The North-East, 1700-1750 (Oxford, 1952), p. xviii.

11 Beckett, J. V., “English Landownership in the Later Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: the Debate and the Problems,” Economic History Review, 2nd Ser., 30, 4 (Nov. 1977): 575.

12 Thompson, F. M. L., “The Social Distribution of Landed Property in England since the Sixteenth Century,” Economic History Review, 2nd Ser., 19, 3 (1966): 512.

13 Bonfield, Lloyd, Marriage Settlements, 1601-1740: The Adoption of the Strict Settlement (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 101-15.

14 Clay, Christopher, “Marriage, Inheritance, and the Rise of Large Estates in England, 1660-1815,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 21, 3 (Dec. 1968): 507-13.

15 Beckett, J. V., “English Landownership in the Later Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Debate and the Problems,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 30, 4 (Nov. 1977): 573-87.

16 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 13, 35, 83, 9596; idem., “The Growth of the Electorate in England from 1600 to 1715,” Past and Present 45 (Nov. 1969): 111.

17 Holmes, Geoffrey, The Electorate and the National Will in the First Age of Party (Lancaster, 1975), p. 18.

18 See O'Gorman's, Frank table of the electorate and the population throughout the eighteenth century, in Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electoral System of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989), p. 179.

19 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 96.

20 Cannon, John, Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832 (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 278-89.

21 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 29.

22 Phillips, John, Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters and Straights (Princeton, 1982), p. 61.

23 Ibid., p. 64. Phillips excludes the burgage boroughs from these calculations.

24 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 69, 85.

25 Phillips, , Electoral Behavior, pp. 56, 85.

26 Ransome, Mary, “Some Recent Studies of the Composition of the House of Commons,” The University of Birmingham Historical Journal 6 (1958): 139-42.

27 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 91.

28 Ibid., pp. 44-46.

29 Landau, Norma, “Independence, Deference, and Voting Participation: The Behaviour of the Electorate in Early Eighteenth-Century Kent,” The Historical Journal 22, 3 (1979): 561-82; Rogers, Nicholas, Whigs and Cities (Oxford, 1989), pp. 228, 367, 390-91, 398402; O'Gorman, , Voters, Patrons and Parties, pp. 3-10, 104-05, 224-25, 237-45, 265, 281, 385-86.

30 Plumb, , “Political Man,” in Man versus Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, ed. Clifford, James (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 9-10, 2021.

31 Plumb, , “Growth of the Electorate,” Past and Present 45 (Nov., 1969): 116.

32 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 187.

33 Cannon, John, Aristocratic Society (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 105-13.

34 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. xvi, 13, 14, 19, 32, 33, 99-100 108, 112, 118, 120, 122, 125, 126, 129, 132.

35 Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, 13 vols. (London, 1935), 1: 556, 2: 17; Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 99; Clowes, William Laird, The Royal Navy, 7 vols. (London, 1898), 3: 5.

36 Collinge, J. M., Office-Holders in Modern Britain. Vol. 7, Navy Board Officials (London, 1978), pp. 2180.

37 Horn, D. B., The British Diplomatic Service: 1689-1789 (Oxford, 1961), p. 44.

38 Sykes, Norman, Church and State in England in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1934), p. 155; Sainty, John, A List of English Law Officers, King's Counsel and Holders of Patents of Precedence (London, 1987), pp. 41, 59, 77, 8394.

39 Sainty, John, Office-Holders in Modern Britain. Vol. 2, Officials of the Secretaries of State, 16601782, pp. 59, 60; Vol. 3, Officials of the Board of Trade, 1660-1870, pp. 78, 79; Vol. 4, Admiralty Officials, 1660-1870, pp. 100, 101; Vol. 1, Treasury Officials, 1660-1870, pp. 101, 102.

40 Hughes, Edward, Studies in Administration and Finance (Manchester, 1934), pp. 306-16; Hoon, Elizabeth, The Organization of the Customs System (New York, 1988),pp. 199201.

41 Speck, W. A., Stability and Strife:England 1714-1760 (London, 1977), p. 160.

42 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 33, 189.

43 Owen, John, “Political Patronage in Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Triumph of Culture, eds. Fritz, Paul and Williams, David (Toronto, 1972), pp. 374-75, 377, 382-85. For the number of those who deserted the government see Sedgwick, Romney, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1715-1754, 2 vols. (London, 1970), 1: 81, 87. Dickinson, H. T., (Walpole and the Whig Supremacy [London, 1972], pp. 66-67, 74, 80) assesses the importance of patronage much as Owen does; Colley, Linda (In Defiance of Oligarchy [Cambridge, 1982], p. 232) defends Plumb's assessment.

44 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 82, 102, 126, 127-28, 137, 153-54, 157, 186.

45 For the story of the formation and fall of these ministries, see Horwitz, Henry, Parliament, Policy, and Politics in the Reign of William III (Manchester, 1977), pp. 94-96, 117-19, 216-17, 257-58, 260, 269-70; Roberts, Clayton, Schemes and Undertakings (Columbus, Ohio, 1985), pp. 113-116, 121-126, 134, 145-55, 169-70, 186-98, 219.

46 H.M.C., Downshire MSS, I, pt. 2, p. 867.

47 Commons Journal, 16: 684.

48 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 82, 163-65, 167-73. 189.

49 O'Gorman, , Voters, Patrons and Parties, pp. 108-09.

50 Rogers, , Whigs and Cities, p.7.

51 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 82, n.2.

52 Hill, B. H., The Growth of Parliamentary Parties, 1689-1742 (London, 1976), pp. 147231; Cruickshanks, Eveline, Political Untouchables (London, 1979), pp. 113, and her Introductory Survey to Sedgwick, , The House of Commons, 1715-1754, 1: 178; Colley, Linda, In Defiance of Oligarchy, pp. 7, 55-84, 118-45; Clark, J. C. D., “The Decline of Party, 1740-1760,” English Historical Review 93 (1978): 499527. Rogers, Nicholas, (“Party Politics During the Whig Ascendancy,” Canadian Journal of History 18, 2 [August, 1983]: 253-60) and Speck, William (“Whigs and Tories Dim Their Glories,” in The Whig Ascendancy, ed. Cannon, John, pp. 5670) have criticized the works of these authors-but less to reject than to modify their views.

53 The surface stability of these years was also promoted, as Jeremy Black has shown (Robert Walpole and the Nature of Politics in Early Eighteenth Century Britain, [London, 1990]), by Walpole's financial acumen, his skillful management of Parliament, his widespread use of patronage, and his avoidance of contentious legislation.

54 Speck, , Stability and Strife, pp. 146-59.

55 Plumb, Political Stability, p. xvi.

56 Ibid., pp. 102, 157. For an extensive but inconclusive discussion of the definition of political stability, see Cannon, , ed. The Whig Ascendancy, pp. 180-87.

57 For a study of these riots and disturbances, see Stevenson, John, Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870 (London, 1979).

58 Morrice, Roger, Entring Book, 2: 645 (in Dr. Williams's library).

59 Roberts, , Schemes and Undertakings, pp. 10-13, 38-42, 60-66, 102104.

60 Browning, Andrew, Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby and Duke of Leeds, 3 vols. (Glasgow, 1931), 1: 166, 191-93, 238, 247, 265, 275, 283-84, 316317.

61 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp 33, 101, 107, 179.

62 Ibid, pp. 156, 178, 179.

63 Plumb, , England in the Eighteenth Century (Harrnondsworth, 1950), p. 73.

64 Roberts, , Schemes and Undertakings, pp. 134-41, 150-54, 174-95, 217-30; Hill, , Growth of Parliamentary Parties, pp. 69-74, 81-82, 108-09, 126-27, 177-78; Dickinson, , Walpole and the Whig Supremacy, pp. 5165; Fryer, W. R., “The Study of British Politics Between the Revolution and the Reform Act,” Renaissance and Modem Studies 6 (1962): 98; Owen, John, “George II Reconsidered,” in Statesmen, Scholars and Merchants, ed. Whiteman, Anne (Oxford, 1973), pp. 127-28.

65 Chandeman, C. D., English Public Revenue, 1660-1688 (Oxford, 1975), pp. 249-55.

66 Roberts, Clayton, “The Constitutional Significance of the Financial Settlement of 1690,” The Historical Journal 20 (1977): 5976.

67 Roberts, , Schemes and Undertakings, pp. 113, 114-15, 170, 215216; Hill, , Growth of Parliamentary Parties, pp. 181-91, 222-26; Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 189.

68 Ibid., p. 154.

69 Cowper, William, The Private Diary of William First Earl Cowper (Eton, 1833), pp. 4344.

70 For these various resignations, see Roberts, , Schemes and Undertakings, pp. 189, 215-16; Sedgwick, , House of Commons, 1: 25, 26; Owen, John, The Eighteenth Century (London, 1974), pp. 6667.

71 Roberts, , Schemes and Undertakings, pp. 127-28.

72 Sykes, , Church and State in England, pp. 38, 4647.

73 Walpole himself made good use of this fact. As a member of the Admiralty Council in 1705 he secured places for his two younger brothers, as Secretary at War in 1708 he weeded Tories out of the War Office and replaced them with Whigs, and in 1714 he used the Paymaster's patronage to help his friends and relatives at the expense of minor Tory officials (Dickinson, , Walpole and the Whig Supremacy, pp. 24, 28, 46).

74 A cursory review of the Newcastle papers from 1727 to 1760 shows that the nominations of the ministers were accepted by the king in roughly nine out of ten instances. I am now at work on a more precise study of the bestowal of office, seeking to give quantitative support to the merely impressionistic.

75 A similar cursory review shows that of some fifty quarrels between George II and his ministers over the bestowal of place, the ministers prevailed in over two-thirds of the cases. Dickinson, H. T. writes (Walpole and the Whig Supremacy, p. 71): Walpole “could never be certain that his friends would be appointed to important offices or that his dangerous rivals would be dismissed, though in most instances, after wearisome discussions with the King, he succeeded.” Pares, Richard observes (King George III and the Politicians [Oxford, 1953], p. 63): George II's “personal dislikes may really have obstructed the promotion of those whom his ministers did not very much want to promote….But when they really wanted to get their way, they got it….”

76 Plumb, , Political Stability, pp. 18, 21, 22; Plumb, , Men and Centuries (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), pp. 2021.

77 Plumb, , Political Stability, p. 112.

78 Ibid., p. 69.

79 Ibid., p. 26.

80 Cragg, G. R., From Puritanism to the Age of Reason (Cambridge, 1950), pp. 10, 13, 30, 67, 74, 86, 218, 219.

81 Watts, Michael R., The Dissenters, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1978), 1: 3, 261, 263-64, 270, 385-86, 391-92.

82 For a discussion of these social and economic forces working for stability, see Holmes, Geoffrey, “The Achievement of Stability: the Social Context of Politics from the 1680s to the Age of Walpole,” and the Colloquy upon that paper, in Cannon, The Whig Ascendancy, pp. 226.

83 Thompson, F. M. L., “The Social Distribution of Landed Property in England since the Sixteenth Century,” Economic History Review, 2nd. ser., 19, 3 (1966): 512. Lawrence and Jeanne Stone concur with this view, though they point out that most of the transfer of land occurred in the 1540s and early 1550s (Lawrence, and Stone, Jeanne C. Fawtier, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 [Oxford, 1984], pp. 30, 296).

84 Marshall, Dorothy, English People in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1957, p. 231.

* An earlier version of this article was read at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians held in London in July 1988. Research for it was made possible by a National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship.

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