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The Landed Elite and Political Authority in Britain, ca. 1760–1850

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2014


Significant change in the relationships between rulers, elites, and political authority is a common feature of the major European states in the last half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries. In Russia, under Peter III and Catherine II, the nobility was released from the obligation to serve the state as established by Peter the Great and allowed to own property, engage in trade and manufacturing, and participate in local assemblies. In the course of the nineteenth century the hereditary landowning nobility, particularly the wealthiest elements of it, became firmly entrenched in the upper reaches of the bureaucracy without ever being able to dominate it. In Prussia, under Frederick the Great and Frederick William III, noble and gentry landowners were allowed to filter into the ranks, especially the higher ranks, of the bureaucracy; this reversed the embourgeoisement that had occurred under Frederick William I, but not so far as to threaten seriously the bureaucracy's loyalty to the Hohenzollerns or to weaken its reputation for efficiency. Thus the great reforms that followed the defeat by France in 1807 and were designed in part to lay the basis for recovery were executed by a combination of noble and non noble officials, and the latter were especially encouraged in order to ensure that merit rather than birth prevailed as the qualification for state service. In both cases, it could be argued, rulers found it necessary to recruit officials as well as an officer corps from the landed classes when war and territorial aggrandizement expanded the scope of government; they were loath to encourage the idea that landed wealth could automatically bestow political authority.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 1990

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10 The number of select committees rose from an average of ten per year in the period 1715–60 to seventeen per year from 1761–1800, but it would seem that until the 1780s most of these were concerned with routine and crisis problems, rather than longterm ones. For both the figures and comment on select committees, see Lambert, S., House of Commons Sessional Papers of the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (London, 19751976), passim, and 1:4548Google Scholar; see also Tompson, R., The Charity Commission and the Age of Reform (London, 1979), pp. 4950Google Scholar.

11 Lambert, 1:32, 41, 48–49, 60.

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14 In the shapes of the first and second viscounts Melville. In 1783 the eleventh earl of Buchan remarked that the “noblesse” of Scotland “felt the disgrace of being obliged to truckle to such a man” as the first viscount; Buchan to Lord Surrey, March 28, 1783, Arundel Castle, Sussex, Arundel Castle MSS. Talk of a minister for Scotland arose following the second viscount's resignation from government on the formation of Canning's ministry; see, e.g., Lord Binning to Huskisson, Wednesday, [May 1827], Tyninghame, Dunbar, East Lothian, Haddington MSS.

15 Best symbolized by the merging of the Irish with the British Treasury in 1817.

16 Greater Whitehall and Westminster authority is, I think, one of the consequences of Bathurst's remodeling of the Colonial Office from 1822–27 and the contemporaneous increase of interest in colonial affairs in Parliament. See Young, D. M., The Colonial Office in the Early Nineteenth Century (London, 1961), esp. pp. 104–6, 228–34Google Scholar. My own study of the Colonial Office records during the Wellington administration suggests that there was constant pressure from Whitehall to further improvements in the conditions of slaves, to abolish religious discrimination, and to replace fees for local officials with salaries paid largely out of local revenues.

17 See, e.g., Lord Colchester, , ed., A Political Diary, 1828–1830, by Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, 2 vols. (London, 1881), 1:325–26Google Scholar (hereafter the Ellenborough Diary).

18 This was a regular argument of radicals. See, e.g., Wade (n. 8 above), pp. 332–33.

19 Aspinall, A., The Early English Trade Unions (London, 1949)Google Scholar; a good example is the correspondence between the duke of Newcastle and the Home Office in 1819 about the Nottinghamshire framework knitters, pp. 323–27.

20 Thome, R. G., ed., The House of Commons, 1790–1820, 5 vols. (London, 1986). 1:336Google Scholar.

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22 Parris, H., Constitutional Bureaucracy (London, 1969), pp. 165–66Google Scholar.

23 Aspinall, A. and Smith, E. A., eds., English Historical Documents, vol. 11, 1783–1832 (London, 1971), pp. 67Google Scholar. For Pitt's famous defense of the role of a prime minister, see Ehrman, J., The Younger Pitt, 2 vols. (London, 1969, 1983), 1:281Google Scholar.

24 Malcomson, A. P. W., John Foster (Oxford, 1978), p. 65Google Scholar; Aspinall, A., “The Cabinet Council,” Proceedings of the British Academy 38 (1952): 190–91Google Scholar; on the subject of “old property,” see Gray, D., Spencer Perceval (Manchester, 1963), p. 271Google Scholar; and Cookson, J. E., Lord Liverpool's Administration, 1815–1822 (London, 1975), pp. 1415Google Scholar.

25 Ehrman, 1:324.

26 Jupp, P., Lord Grenville, 1759–1834 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 381, 395–98Google Scholar.

27 Gray, pp. 305–352.

28 Hilton, , Corn, Cash, and Commerce (n. 13 above), pp. 14–15, 165–69Google Scholar, and The Political Arts of Lord Liverpool,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 38 (1988): 147–70, esp. 150Google Scholar.

29 The best source for this point is the Ellenborough Diary (n. 17 above), passim. Middleton, C. R., The Administration of British Foreign Policy, 1782–1846 (Durham, N.C., 1977)Google Scholar, argues in chap. 2 that throughout that period most foreign policy was essentially the work of a small coterie of cabinet officials.

30 Ellenborough Diary, 1:307 (January 21, 1829)Google Scholar; Peel to W. V. Fitzgerald, January 27, 1829, British Library (BL), Additional (Add.) MSS 40,323, fol. 31.

31 Ehrman, 1:260–67; Jupp, pp. 56–57; Hilton, pp. 246–56.

32 Hilton, Corn, Cash, and Commerce, chap. 1; Cookson, pp. 301–2; N. Gash, , Aristocracy and People (London, 1981), pp. 106–7Google Scholar.

33 Gash, N., Mr. Secretary Peel (London, 1961), pp. 348–50Google Scholar.

34 Ibid., pp. 308–43, 493–97. Public interest in the work of committees of both Houses grew as a result of increasing comment in the national and provincial press on their deliberations; see, as just one example of many, the lead article in the Alfred (April 1, 1828).

35 It is on this point that 1 would take issue with Cannon (n. 5 above), pp. 115–17; and Beckett (n. 6 above), pp. 406–8.

36 Parris (n. 22 above), chap. 1.

37 Sainty, J. C., Treasury Officials, 1660–1870 (London, 1972), pp. 315Google Scholar; for the reorganization of 1805, see Emsley, C., British Society and the French Wars, 1793–1815 (London, 1979), p. 107CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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39 Collinge, J. M., Navy Board Officials, 1660–1832 (London, 1978), pp. 117Google Scholar.

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41 Herries, E., Memoir of … John Charles Herries, 2 vols. (London, 1880), 1:23113Google Scholar.

42 Sainty, J. C., Officials of the Boards of Trade (London, 1974), pp. 69Google Scholar; Emsley, p. 179; W. V. Fitzgerald to Peel, August 13, 1828, BL, Add. MSS 40,322, fol. 278. In 1822 Huskisson expressed the view that the president should be a member of the cabinet and a commoner because of the importance of the post and the fact that it was in the Commons that trade and commerce had their agents and representatives; Huskisson to Charles Ellis, December 29, 1822, BL, Add. MSS 38,743, fol. 294. A good illustration of the volume of work by Fitzgerald's time is provided by the fact that between February 1 and the end of April 1829, twelve deputations representing eight different commercial interests visited it to press for special consideration—calculated from the reporting of such events in The Times for that period.

43 Duke of Wellington, , ed., Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of [the first] Duke of Wellington, 8 vols. (London, 18601879), 4:684Google Scholar (letter no. 1028) (hereafter Wellington Despatches).

44 Sainty, J. C., Colonial Office Officials, 1794–1870 (London, 1976), pp. 15Google Scholar; Young (n. 16 above), passim. The change is indicated by comparing Perceval's invitation to Lord Harrowby to be colonial secretary in 1809 because it was suited to an invalid and Lord Ellenborough's complaints about the burdens of the post in 1828; Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, Harrowby MSS, vol. 11, fols. 222–23; Ellenborough Diary (n. 17 above), 1:118 (May 23, 1828)Google Scholar.

45 Parris, pp. 135–38.

46 Erhman, p. 324; Brock, W. R., Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism (Cambridge, 1941), p. 78Google Scholar; Hilton, , Corn, Cash, Commerce, pp. 165–69Google Scholar. See also for similar suggestions Gash, N., Aristocracy and People (n. 32 above), p. 70Google Scholar; and Cookson (n. 24 above), pp. 14–15.

47 The thirty-two are as follows: C. Arbuthnot, the third earl Bathurst, G. Canning, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Colchester, J. W. Croker, H. Dundas, W. Eden, Lord Ellenborough, Lord Eldon, W. V. Fitzgerald, H. Goulburn, C. Grant, Lord Grenville, J. C. Herries, H. Hobhouse, W. Holmes, W. Huskisson, the second earl Liverpool, C. Long, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Palmerston, R. Peel, S. Perceval, W. Pitt, Lord Redesdale, F. J. Robinson, G. Rose, Lord Sidmouth, W. Sturges Bourne, N. Vansittart, the duke of Wellington.

48 Thome, ed. (n. 20 above), 4:807; Ehrman (n. 23 above), vols. 1 and 2.

49 Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce.

50 Clark (n. 6 above), pp. 393–400, 418.

51 Wellington Despatches, 4:453Google Scholar. Wellington remarked: “This, I know, that this country was never governed in practice according to the extreme principles of any party whatever; much less according to the extremes which other opposing parties attribute to its adversaries.” On the subject in general, see also Derry, J. W., “Governing Temperament under Pitt and Liverpool,” in Cannon, J., ed., The Whig Ascendancy (London, 1981), pp. 125–45Google Scholar.

52 Compare K. Hickel's oil of the Commons in 1793 with Sir William Hayter's of 1833.

53 Jupp (n. 26 above), pp. 98–100.

54 Wade (n. 8 above), pp. 215, 221.

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56 The most famous example is Thomas William Coke.

57 Thorne, ed., 1:334; Luke Hansard recollected that it was in the 1780s when “the public business rapidly indeed increased,” quoted by Lambert (n. 10 above). 1:76.

58 According to my calculations from Statutes at large … (London), the figures are as follows: 17601779, 3,323Google Scholar; 1780–99, 4,116: 1800–1819, 7,360; 1820–29, 3,407; the proportion of Irish acts is taken from Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons (London, 1834), 48:281Google Scholar. “Acts of Parliament passed 1800–1833.”

59 Calculated from the indexes of the Commons Journals (n. 12 above).

60 Calculated from the above source. My figures are as follows: 1774–89, 2,546; 1790–1800, 1,267; 1801–20, 5,285; 1821–37, 6,578.

61 Aspinall, , “The Old House of Commons and Its Members,” Parliamentary Affairs 14, no. 3 (19601961): 299Google Scholar.

62 Clark (n. 6 above), seems to overlook this point in his assessment of the key political issues of the early nineteenth century; see, e.g., p. 409.

63 Egremont to Lord Holland, December 30, 1827, BL, Holland House MSS.

64 Clokie, D. and Robinson, J. W., Royal Commissions of Enquiry (London, 1937), pp. 5659Google Scholar. See also Collinge, J. M., Officials of Royal Commissions of Inquiry, 1815–1870 (London, 1984), pp. 18Google Scholar; Tompson (n. 10 above), pp. 50–54.

65 Clokie and Robinson, p. 62.

66 For a discussion of Lord Liverpool's use of select committees, see Hilton, , “The Political Arts of Lord Liverpool” (n. 28 above), pp. 157–59Google Scholar.

67 This is the tentative conclusion I have formed from examining the ways a proportion of the committees of this period were selected. In this first period, it was common for members of the House to submit lists of their favored candidates—a method that could play into the hands of ministers; see, e.g., the way the members of the finance committees of 1786 and 1797 were chosen; Commons Journals, 41:314; 52:386, 393Google Scholar.

68 The history of the finance committees of 1807–9 is a good example. In February 1807 Robert Biddulph (later Myddelton Biddulph), an independent supporter of further economical reform, moved for the setting up of a committee to examine public expenditure. The chancellor of the Exchequer accepted the initiative but saw to it that it was packed with government supporters. Later, in June 1807, another such committee was appointed but in that the new government did not have a secure majority of supporters. Later still, in 1809, the composition of this committee became a matter of dispute, the government eventually securing a balance of members that suited it; see Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates 8:cols. 703–17; 12:cols. 114–31; Journals, 62:115, 597Google Scholar. Note also Perceval's reluctant agreement to the setting up of a bullion committee in 1810; see Gray (n. 24 above), pp. 368–69.

69 A good example is provided by the discussions leading to the formation of the finance committee of 1828 in which Huskisson made it clear that its terms of reference had to be limited to matters of fact and not policy. The government then ensured a measure of control over its deliberations by proposing its membership to the House and ensuring that several ministers were elected. A number of members of the Wellington administration were highly suspicious of the encroachment of select committees on the authority of government; see Barrow, J. H., ed., The Mirror of Parliament (London, 1828), 1:124–35, 195204Google Scholar. It was Peter Moore, M.P., 1803–26, who referred to the 1809 finance committee as a committee of “public safety”; see Thorne, ed. (n. 20 above), 4:629.

70 Aspinall, , “The Old House of Commons and Its Members,” 14, no. 1:18 and n. 2Google Scholar.

71 Aspinall, A., Politics and the Press, 1780–1850 (London, 1949), pp. 158–59, 202–3Google Scholar.

72 Clokie and Robinson, p. 67, n. 11.

73 For London, see Aspinall, , Politics and the Press, p. 6 and n. 5Google Scholar. For the provincial press in England and Wales, see Tercentenary Handlist of English and Welsh Newspapers, Magazines and Reviews, 1620–1920 (London, 1920), pp. 217–26Google Scholar.

74 Aspinall, , Politics and the Press, pp. 9, 23–25, and n. 1 on pp. 25, 350Google Scholar.

75 Ibid., p. 350.

76 Calculated from the indexes of the Commons Journals (n. 12 above). The increase in petitioning was not solely due to public interest in religious issues and parliamentary reform. In the first six months of 1828, e.g., some 350 petitions were received from all quarters of the country on the Friendly Societies Bill and about 160 on the effects of the 1827 Malt Act.

77 Reports from Committees of the House of Commons, 18311832, 18:292Google Scholar; Barrow, ed., (1829), 3:1784–85.

78 Thome, ed., 1:290, 318.

79 The Times (October 26, 1830).

80 Aspinall, A., ed., Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries (London, 1952), p. xxxGoogle Scholar.

81 I am indebted to the late Professor Peter Fraser for drawing this point to my attention.

82 Ehrman (n. 23 above), p. 324.

83 In December 1829, e.g., the society established a committee to prepare a pamphlet for the forthcoming parliamentary season that would spell out the merits of Huskisson's earlier financial policies; see James Loch to Huskisson, December 2, 1829, BL, Add. MSS 38,758, fol. 52.

84 Thorne, ed. (n. 20 above), 4:44. The Weekly Club, which included Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, Frederick Sylvester North Douglas, Charles Grant, Thomas Frankland Lewis, Robert Wilmot, Stratford Canning, and James Ward may be another example; see Ibid., 3:19.

85 Wellington's tour is outlined in F. Bamford and the duke of Wellington, , eds., The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820–1832, 2 vols. (London, 1950), 2:142–45Google Scholar; and Peel's tour, in The Times (October 1, 7, 8, 10, 11, 1828).

86 Members of Grillons' Club 1813–1863, printed privately December 1864 and vol. 1196A of the Harrowby MSS (n. 44 above).

87 Thomas, W., The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817–1841 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 54–55, 157–58Google Scholar. The relationship between Lord Grey and Samuel Whitbread is a good illustration of the social tension between the grandees and the parvenues; see Thorne, ed., 5:528–45.

88 See the Appendix.

89 Disraeli, B., Vivian Grey, Hughendon, ed. (London, 1882), p. 16Google Scholar.

90 McManners, J., “France,” in The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Goodwin, A. (London, 1953), pp. 2242Google Scholar.

91 Quoted by Brock (n. 46 above), p. 81.

92 Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780–1880 (London, 1969), pp. 183 ff.Google Scholar; Beckett (n. 6 above), pp. 385–91.

93 Essex Record Office (RO), Chelmsford, Braybrooke MSS D/DBy/C9/44, circular headed “Proposals” [1788], There is another version of this proposal, listing the names of seventy-seven lords and commoners (more than in the Essex list), in the William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Mich., Sydney MSS vol. 15, circular headed “Parliamentary Grouping of Independents” [1788].

94 Aspinall, A., ed., The Later Correspondence of George III, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 19621970), 2: xxvxxixGoogle Scholar.

95 Aspinall, A., ed., The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 8 vols. (London, 19631971), 7:45Google Scholar.

96 Hilton, , Corn, Cash, Commerce (n. 13 above), pp. 99104Google Scholar.

97 My own reading of the correspondence between leading Ultratories—Cumberland, Eldon, Newcastle, Vyvyan, and Knatchbull—suggests that their hostility to Wellington was based as much on economic and foreign policy issues as on religious and constitutional ones and that Clark's stress on the religious aspects (n. 6 above), pp. 393–408, is misleading. For a good outline of the Ultratory case, see Sir R. Vyvyan to the duke of Newcastle, August 25, 1829, “Trelowarren,” Helston, Cornwall, Vyvyan MSS.

98 One of the best illustrations of these intentions is Wellington's memorandum for the king drafted on August 7, 1828; see Wellington Despatches (n. 43 above), 5:254–68Google Scholar. The parallels with Pitt's and Grenville's thinking at the time of the Union are unmistakable; see Jupp (n. 26 above), p. 277.

99 Thomas (n. 87 above), pp. 336–37.

100 Joyce, P., Work, Society and Politics (London, 1980), chap. 1Google Scholar.

101 Beckett, pp. 391–92, 397–98; Bourne, J. M., Patronage and Society in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1986), pp. 2627Google Scholar. Members of royal commissions were unpaid after 1846. This may account for the increase in aristocratic membership of those bodies thereafter.