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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2019

Mark Knights*
History, University of Warwick


This essay explores those in pre-modern Britain (chiefly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) who were accused of corruption and yet denied their guilt and made defenses, disavowals, justifications, protests, vindications or at least sought to explain away, rationalize, or legitimize their behavior, both to themselves and to others. Six, sometimes overlapping, categories of rationales are identified. Focusing on the strategies and arguments used by the allegedly corrupt has both historical and philosophical value. Thinking about such cases helps both the state and its citizens to be as clear as possible about how to define integrity, and judge whether there was, or is, an intention to break, subvert, or manipulate moral codes. Thus it is not merely the legislator or the law court, but also the court of public opinion, that decides such matters; and debates about the acceptability of such defenses are an important part of a process of public debate about where society has drawn, or does now draw, ethical lines. There are degrees of corruption that need careful evaluation. Thinking about the past also raises interesting questions about whether corruption can be judged across time, culture, and space by a set of universal values. I argue that what appear to be universal values evolved over time as a result of particular cultural circumstances and contests over historical scandals. Contesting corruption allegations was an inherently political process: corruption is not just an economic issue but also a political and moral issue that demands contextualization. That process must include an understanding of national histories.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2019 

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I am grateful to the journal’s reviewer for comments on an early draft.


1 Spedding, James, ed., The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon (London: Longman and Co., 1874), vii. 252–62. For an overview of Bacon’s case seeGoogle Scholar Noonan, John, Bribes (New York: MacMillan, 1984), chap. 12;Google Scholar Mathews, Nieves, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

2 Spedding, Letters, vii. 213, 225–26.

3 Ibid., 236–38.

4 This essay is part of a larger project examining pre-modern corruption, to be published by Oxford University Press.

5 Hayton, David, “Moral Reform and Country Politics in the Late Seventeenth-Century House of Commons,” Past and Present: A Journal of Historical Studeis 128, no.1 (1990): 4889;Google Scholar Ingram, Martin, “Reformation of Manners in Early Modern England,” The Experience of Authority, ed. Griffiths, Paul, Fox, Adam, and Steve Hindle, (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 1996), 4788.Google Scholar

6 Bruce, Buchan and Hill, Lisa, An Intellectual History of Political Corruption (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2014);Google Scholar Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975);Google Scholar Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Healy, Margaret, Fictions of Disease in Early Modern England: Bodies, Plagues, and Politics (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ryan-Lopez, Bianca, “Corruption and Infected Sin: The Elizabethan Rhetoric of Decay,” UCLA PhD (2009).Google Scholar

9 See my “Anti-corruption and the Notion of Trust” in Prevenire La Corruzione, ed. Nicoletta Parisi, Gianluca Potesta, and Dino Rinoldi (Naples: Editoriale Scientifica, 2018).

10 For reflections on scandal, see Adut, Ari, On Scandal. Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Google Scholar

11 A social science literature also explores how corruption can become routinized through rationalizations in business: Anand, Vikas, Ashforth, Blake E., and Joshi, Mahendra, “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” The Academy of Management Executive (1993–2005) 19, no. 4 (2005): 923;Google Scholar Guerber, Amy, Rajagplan, Aparna, and Anand, Vikas, “The Influence of National Culture on the Rationalisation of Corruption” in Burke, Ronald and Tomlinson, Edward, eds., Crime and Corruptions in Organisations: Why it Occurs and What to do about it (Aldershot: Gower, 2011).Google Scholar There is much less on rationalization of public sector corruption, but see Allen Gannett, “The Rationalisation of Political Corruption,” Public Integrity 17, no. 2 (2015): 165–75.

12 The maxim is attributed to Thucydides.

13 Heal, Felicity, The Power of Gifts: Gift Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 T[he] N[ational] A[rchives] SP 14/111/18 is an accusation against the earl of Suffolk “Concerning Several Sums of Monies taken corruptly for rewards and gratuities.”

15 The word, in the sense of a monetary gift, was coined in 1540 [OED].

16 We shall return later on to consider “presents” in relation to foreign or colonial cultures.

17 Tadmor, Naomi, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship, and Patronage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Extortion was an established crime (first articulated in 1275) and many corruption cases were prosecuted as such.

19 What follows summarizes parts of Knights, “Samuel Pepys and Corruption,” Parliamentary History 33, no. 1 (2014): 19–35.

20 My italics.

21 A Hue and Cry after P and H [1679], 1–2, 6.

22 Pepys to the Brooke House Commissioners, January 6, 1670, The Letters of Samuel Pepys, 16561703, ed. Bédoyère, Guy de la (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 81–82. See alsoGoogle Scholar Graham, Aaron, “Auditing Leviathan: Corruption and State Formation in Early Eighteenth-Century Britain,” English Historical Review 128 (2013): 533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Historical Manuscripts Commission . . . Salisbury: Volume 22, 1612–1668, ed. G. Dyfnallt Owen (London, 1971), 102.

24 Ibid., 108.

25 State Trials, xxii. 56. He was convicted in a judgment that helped codify the law on misconduct in public office.

26 For patronage see Peck, Linda Levy, Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990).Google Scholar

27 Tadmor, Family and Friends, 232.

28 In 1828 Ellenborough put the figure at £16,000 (Three Early Nineteenth Century Diaries, ed. Denis le Marchant and A. Aspinall [London: Williams and Norgate, 1952], 25).

29 British Museum Satires 16578 ‘Lork what a long tail our cat has got’ (1831). The satire also has the £60,000 figure, detailing the emoluments for each of his relatives. Image accessible at

30 Carpenter, William, Peerage for the People (London: W. Strange, 1837), 374–75.Google Scholar

31 Hansard, HL Deb 09 July 1834 vol 24cc.1316–17.

32 Pepys Diary, August 16, 1660.

33 Sackville mss Wardrobe “My submission to his Majesty” 7 Dec. 1634, cited Prestwich, Cranfield, 500–4; TNA SP16/282 f.223.

34 Army commissions were sold until as late as 1871.

35 HMC Lords 1695–7, 512.

36 Oracle and Public Advertiser, January 20, 1798.

37 An Appeal to the Public on behalf of Samuel Vaughan Esq (1770), 100–1. See also A Refutation of a False Aspersion First thrown out upon Samuel Vaughan (1769).

38 Ibid., 99.

39 Pepys Diary, January 5, 1664

40 Pepys to the Brooke House Commissioners, January 6, 1670, The Letters of Samuel Pepys, 82.

41 The Tryal of Thomas Earl of Macclesfield, in the House of Peers, for High Crimes and Misdemeanours (1725), 229.

42 Ibid., 229.

43 He was also appealing to the prevalent notion that an office was a piece of private property that was disposable by the possessing individual so long as its holder met basic standards of competence.

44 First Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the Nature, State, and Condition of the Fast India Company (1772), 148.

45 London Evening Post, May 25–27, 1773. There is an account of the debates about Clive in Christopher Reid, Imprison’d Wranglers. The Rhetorical Culture of the House of Commons 1760–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chap. 8.

46 Commons Journals, xxxiv. 331.

47 The Defense of Sir Thomas Rumbold (1783), 15.

48 The Answer of Warren Hastings to the Articles exhibited . . . against him (1787), 4–6.

49 The Answer, 254.

50 BL MS Lansdowne 167, f.83 Proctor to Sir Julius Caesar, December 12, 1610.

51 The Defense of Sir Thomas Rumbold (1783), 14.

52 Ibid., 19.

53 Ibid., 68.

54 Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1623–5, 214, April 14, 1624.

55 Dunn, Bill Newton, The Man who was John Bull. The biography of Theodore Edward Hook 1778–1841 (Allendale Publishing, 1996), 182.Google Scholar

56 Price, Joseph, The Saddle put on the Right Horse; or, an Enquiry into the Reason why Certain Persons have been Denominated Nabobs [1783], 51.Google Scholar

57 Ibid., 41.

58 Ibid., 18.

59 Ala’i, Padideh, ‘The Legacy of Geographical Morality and Colonialism: A Historical Assessment of the Current Crusade Against Corruption’, Vanderbuilt Journal of Transnational Law 33, no. 4 (2000): 877932.Google Scholar

60 Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1827), vii. 104.

61 The Answer of Warren Hastings, 257.

62 Ibid.

63 Joseph Price, The Saddle, 21.

64 Cited in Nicholas Dirks, The Scandal of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 17. It is worth noting that this quotation is often cited but I have been unable to locate the original source. Clive did, however, certainly make a similar statement: First Report from the Committee Appointed to enquire into the Nature, State and Condition of the East India Company (1772), 148.

65 BL Add. MS 29,133, f.349, Sykes to Hastings, January 28, 1773, quoted by Peter Marshall, East Indian Fortunes. The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 205.

66 Source: “Heads of Objections to be Enquired into before it will be adviseable to take Paul Benfield Esquire again into the Company’s Service,” MS, copy in I.O.R., General Court Minutes, B/260, 30–1 in Marshall, P. J. and Todd, William B., eds., The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 5: India: Madras and Bengal: 1774–1785 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

67 Case of Mr. Paul Benfield (1781), 1, 10–11.

68 BL Add MS Add. MS 36,859–36,865, Minute-books of the Commission for examining the Public Accounts, 1702–04.

69 Dunn, The Man who was John Bull, 182–83.

70 State Trials 22, 66–67; Parl. History xxxiii, 801 seq, and 900–24; Wraxall, Sir Nicholas, Historical Memoirs of my Own Time (Philadelphia: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1845), 400–4.Google Scholar Burke seems to have considered the attack on Bembridge as a proxy attack on himself and “compared himself to an Indian savage, roasted by one of his countrymen and served up as a dish, or as an entre-met.”

71 Katchadourian, Herant, Guilt: the Bite of Conscience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010);Google Scholar Greenspan, Patricia, Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar At its extreme, a lack of guilt, rationalization of behavior, denial, and attempt to blame others may constitute the personality disorder of psychopathy but, while this may be true for some individuals, I am more interested here in cultural than medical or psychological factors.

72 Olivier de Sardan, J. P., “A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa?Journal of Modern African Studies 37, no. 1 (1999), 2552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar I am grateful to Mark Philp for this reference and for discussions on this theme more generally.

73 Hurstfield, Joel, Freedom, Corruption and Government in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), chaps. 5 and 7, quotations at 139, 159–60.Google Scholar

74 Scott, James C., Comparative Political Corruption (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 3.Google Scholar

75 Scott, Comparative Political Corruption, 7.

76 Granovetter, Mark, “The Social Construction of Corruption,” in Nee, V. and Swedberg, R., On Capitalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).Google Scholar

77 See also my “Old Corruption: What British History Can Tell Us about Corruption Today,” report for Transparency International, downloadable at

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