John Brewer

John Brewer is a professor of history at Harvard and author of Party, Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III.

Eighteenth-century states were built for war. Their largest organisations were armies and navies, the bulk of their taxes funded the armed forces, and their heroes were the leading soldiers and sailors whose valiant deeds attested to the power of the armigerous nation. War was the norm, peace an aberration – a pause when the great and little powers drew breath and prepared to continue the fight. Thus the period from the Glorious Revolution to the end of the Napoleonic wars was one of almost unmitigated hostility between England and France. Both nations mobilised an ever-growing war machine in the struggle for European supremacy and hegemony on three continents.

Tory Phylogeny

John Brewer, 2 December 1982

Edmund Burke, who spent most of his life either in the wilderness of Parliamentary opposition or as a champion of lost causes, knew how uncharitably we treat political failure. ‘The conduct of a losing party,’ he wrote, ‘never appears right: at least it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgments – success.’ Burke might have been speaking of his old enemies, the Hanoverian Tories, who have now been rescued from ignominy by Linda Colley. Her book brilliantly rehabilitates the 18th-century Tory Party and lambastes the ‘vulgar judgments’ of those historians who have dismissed it as an insignificant political presence.


John Brewer, 5 August 1982

British social history, for so long in protracted adolescence, seems finally to have come of age. The work of two generations of researchers, led by such avatars as Alan Everitt, Peter Laslett, J. H. Plumb, Lawrence Stone, Keith Thomas and E. P. Thompson, now constitutes a substantial body of knowledge that has transformed our conception both of British history and of what constitutes legitimate historical inquiry. The modish topics of birth and death, the family, sex, marriage, leisure, crime, ceremony and ritual have begun to supplant the time-tested topics of the more traditional curriculum. What began as periphery is now core. This development is much more of a mixed blessing than its chief proponents admit it to be. At its worst, social history degenerates into the antiquarian elevation of the picayune, and even at its best it raises intractable problems of historical explanation that are very rarely tackled head-on. It is significant that the sum of the parts of the most successful books on British social history is nearly always greater than their whole.

Progressive Agenda

John Brewer, 18 March 1982

Thomas Bewick was a creature of paradox: an artist who laboured as a craftsman, a proud provincial whose work achieved national fame, a portrayer of the countryside who spent most of his life in an industrial town, and a rational man of the Enlightenment who fed the fierce streams of Romanticism. Thanks to four people – Bewick himself, who wrote a marvellous autobiographical Memoir, his two spinster daughters, who nursed and guarded his reputation with ferocious filial piety, and now Iain Bain, whose sympathetic but rigorous scholarship is epitomised by his two-volume monograph on Bewick’s watercolours and drawings – as much is probably known about Bewick, despite his minor status among the luminaries of British art, as about any other native artist. Born in Northumberland in 1753, Bewick was apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver. After a youthful excursus to Scotland, which he loved, and to London, which he loathed, he returned to his native Tyneside, where he spent the rest of his life practising as a job engraver and book illustrator until his death in 1828. By the end of his life, thanks largely to his illustrations for A General History of the Quadrupeds (1790) and for the even more popular History of British Birds (1797), Bewick had acquired national renown as the artist who most truthfully depicted the flora and fauna of the British countryside.

Smoke and Lava: Vesuvius Observed

Rosemary Hill, 5 October 2023

While the Romantic view of Vesuvius saw it as a unique phenomenon, a spectacle, for the scientists it was a specimen, a comparator for investigations into the nature of volcanic activity. Newtonian physics...

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The mutable nature of our relationship with the past is the underlying theme of Sentimental Murder, John Brewer’s compelling and surprising pursuit, across two and a half centuries, of the...

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Two descriptions of pleasure gardens, a novel feature in the cultural life of 18th-century Londoners: Vauxhall it a composition of baubles, overcharged with paltry ornaments, ill conceived, and...

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Strong Government

Linda Colley, 7 December 1989

Anyone seeking to make sense of British history from the last quarter of the 17th century to the first quarter of the 19th must confront two closely-related questions. How did this small island,...

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In Praise of Lolly

Linda Colley, 3 February 1983

The American historian J. H. Hexter once complained that the myth of an assertive and ascendant middle class had distorted accounts of almost every century of English history. Yet for the 18th...

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