- The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s by John Barrell
Oxford, 278 pp, £53.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 19 928120 3
In the 1790s revolutionaries on both sides of the Channel abandoned wigs and powder for hair worn au naturel. The English jacobin John Thelwall, tried for treason in 1794, cut his short in the Roman manner. A radical songster celebrated the look: ‘Each Brutus, each Cato, were none of them fops/But all to a man wore republican crops.’ In 1795 the style took on added significance when Pitt introduced a guinea tax on hair powder. Now every poor man who could not afford to be a ‘guinea pig’ looked like an enemy of the state. This could be hazardous: an army of spies and informers was crawling across Britain, bribing servants, stealing letters, listening in to conversations. Thelwall’s friend Tom Poole, a left-wing tanner and philanthropist living at Nether Stowey in Somerset, was denounced by local spies who took note of his short unpowdered locks. In Pittite Britain it took a brave man to expose his neck.
John Thelwall was a very brave man, but by 1797, after years of unremitting persecution, he’d had enough. Vilified by press and government, even after his acquittal, he had been attacked repeatedly by mobs, his correspondence intercepted, his family hounded. He retired from the battlefield, charging his enemies with violating every ‘consideration of private justice’: ‘The ordinary transactions of life have been interrupted – the intercourses of the closest relationships violated and impeded.’ But even in his rural retreat he was besieged by vigilantes. His friend Coleridge, also a target of attention, denounced their persecutors as a modern-day plague of frogs: ‘little low animals with chilly blood and staring eyes, that come up into our houses and bed-chambers’. Britain had become a land of ‘imposture and panic’. ‘Our very looks are deciphered into disaffection,’ Coleridge said, ‘and we cannot move without treading on some political spring-gun.’
Coleridge and Thelwall were entitled to be indignant, but they should not have been surprised. Britain’s ruling elite was rattled. Several decades of hard campaigning by parliamentary reformers had shaken the rich and powerful. Lower down the social ladder, economic dislocation and hardship had generated fierce, often violent discontent. Now insurrectionary winds blowing from Paris brought the nightmare prospect of a revolutionary alliance between genteel reformers and the ‘swinish multitude’. In 1792, a small band of metropolitan radicals, mostly tradesmen and artisans, formed the London Corresponding Society. By 1794 the LCS had grown into a national network of plebeian activists causing the government to panic. The LCS was ‘an enormous torrent of insurrection’, the ‘most powerful combination … the world ever saw’. Repression was imperative – of the organisation, its intellectual gurus (notably Tom Paine), the levelling delusions it encouraged. The revolutionary imagination had to be quashed, literally: in the treason trials of 1794 the charge against Thelwall and his LCS comrades was that of ‘imagining the King’s death’. ‘Imagining’ was medieval legalese for ‘intending’, but in the political hysteria surrounding the trials even regicidal fantasies, expressed or attributed – the ‘levities of imagination’, as John Thelwall wrote, a touch disingenuously – were enough to hang a man.
In Imagining the King’s Death (2000), John Barrell explored with great precision the interplay between law, politics and language during Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. The Spirit of Despotism revisits this culture of repression and tracks its incursions into the private sphere. The title is taken from a 1795 jeremiad by the Tonbridge headmaster Vicesimus Knox, which charged Pitt and his cronies with infusing British society with a tyrannical spirit. The government had declared war on its people, Knox claimed, and the front lines were everywhere: in newspapers, pulpits, taverns, the ‘sequestered walks of private life’. Coffee houses, famous for political gossip, were particularly suspect. In November 1792, John Frost, a leading parliamentary reformer, was leaving the Percy Coffee House in London when a man engaged him in conversation. Frost was heard to say, ‘I am for equality and no kings.’ He was arrested, and the trial that followed became a boundary war between public and private. Were coffee houses places of private resort where a man might speak his mind freely, even indiscreetly, without fear of reprisal, as Frost’s attorney claimed? Or were they public venues where inflammatory words, even if spoken in one-to-one conversation, were illegal, as the prosecution insisted? Frost’s lawyer appealed to the jury to respect the privacy of a gentleman (Frost was an Eton-educated attorney); he lost the case. As Barrell writes, ‘activities and spaces which had previously been thought to be private, in the sense not just that they were “outside” politics but … positively insulated from it, suddenly no longer enjoyed that protection.’ Everything ‘had suddenly been or could suddenly become politicised’.
Frost’s trial is the subject of ‘Coffee house Politicians’, the second of the five essays that make up The Spirit of Despotism. The four remaining essays examine the class geography of London radicalism, George III’s personal reputation, the hair-powder tax controversy, and the country cottage as political icon. These ‘diverse collections of instances’ from the 1790s culture wars don’t quite add up to a book. But if they are, as I suspect, outtakes from Barrell’s massive and extraordinary Imagining the King’s Death, they are none the worse for that. Barrell is a superb interpreter of 18th-century culture, a master of interdisciplinary analysis who segues easily between close readings of legal arguments about criminal speech, statistical calculations of the impact on food supply of flour being consumed in hair-powder production, and detailed criticism (with illustrations) of the country cottage aesthetic between 1770 and 1800. Cultural historians who turn their attention to the 1790s tend to rely on ready-made, broad-brush accounts of the politics of the decade. But here are coalface reports, with 14 pages devoted to Charing Cross, an epicentre of London radicalism, accompanied by maps, views and more than a hundred footnotes (including one which qualifies the description of John Lewis, a Charing Cross rioter, as a ‘Guards drummer’ by noting that while two authoritative sources describe Lewis in this way, several other contemporary reports describe him as a fifer). As one admirer of Barrell has remarked, thick description doesn’t get much thicker than this.
Public and private are protean terms whose boundaries have always been contentious and unstable. Ancient usage confined ‘public’ to the political sphere, and ‘private’ to the familial household, but by the late 18th century the term ‘private’ was used to apply to a host of activities – from business transactions to novel-reading – and the scope of the word ‘public’ had widened into something closer to ‘society’, although this broadening was incomplete and controversial. Today their meanings are even more diffuse. But the dividing line, regulation, remains the same, with privacy basically a residual sphere containing those areas of life that, in theory at least, fall outside public regulation. In practice, of course, the two spheres are inextricably joined. Well-run families are essential for an orderly society; public policy shapes private conduct. Governments that fail to regulate the private lives of the governed risk public havoc.
In 18th-century Britain, religion had long been the key site of public/private conflict. In the 1640s private religious belief had catalysed civil war, and memories of this surfaced regularly throughout the 1790s. But by the end of the 17th century the puritan conscience had lost much of its political edge. State persecution of ‘fanatiques’ gave way to legal tolerance, and the rights of private conviction were officially acknowledged, up to a point. Anglican moralists who had inveighed against Dissent began to expend their energies elsewhere, in the Societies for the Reformation of Manners which proliferated in the 1690s, targeting impiety and vice among (mostly) the lower orders. If the private beliefs of the hoi polloi couldn’t be disciplined, surely their private behaviour could. The campaign continued, with increasing middle-class input, throughout the 18th century, until by the outbreak of the French Revolution Britain was swarming with moralists dedicated to policing the personal lives of the poor.
The invasions of privacy that Barrell identifies with the 1790s were, for British plebs, merely further episodes in a continuing saga of regulation and repression. But if Barrell overstates the novelty of these interventions, it is also true that counter-revolution lent them greater urgency and coerciveness. Political life acquired a hysterical edge which made it a playground for right-wing careerists such as the London magistrate John Reeves, founder of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, and evangelical activists such as Hannah More. Barrell’s final chapter, ‘Cottage Politics’, brilliantly positions Reeves’s and More’s loyalist polemics inside the propaganda campaign over rural life waged after 1792, as conservatives conjured up an Old England of paternalist landlords and grateful, king-loving ‘peasants’ to set against radical discontent. More’s sensational attacks on Paine’s Rights of Man (‘What is Equality? For every man to pull down that is above him, till they’re all as low as the lowest. What is the new Rights of Man? Battle, murder and sudden death’) were echoed in prints, mass-produced by Reeves’s Association, which contrasted the happy condition of the English cottager to the brutalised domestic life of the Parisian sans-culotte. Home and family became a key theme, with the poor exhorted to shun political aspirations in favour of a life of private, domestic virtue. Good conduct, not good government, was Everyman’s concern.
But it was not just plebeian privacy that was targeted. Anglican right-wingers also turned their fire on aristocratic ‘friends of liberty’. Charles Fox and his cronies, with their flagrantly libertine lifestyles, were easy targets, made easier for Pittite loyalists by their own hero’s reputation for sexual purity. ‘Public men’ such as Fox and Pitt had always been required to behave well in public ways, but their private lives had been their own affair. After the mid-18th century, however, a new decorum began to take hold, fuelled by religious revivalism and the growing influence of the middle class. The follies of high life became a stock literary theme, and diatribes against ‘fashionable manners’ proliferated. So did drinking clubs and gambling dens; but more alert bluebloods sensed the change of mood. Private virtue became the new mantra: a cultural shift personified in George III, whose public displays of ‘conjugal felicity and domestick enjoyment’, and penchant for appearing among his subjects in the persona of a kindly country gent, made him the perfect figurehead for the new propriety. That George was also a self-satisfied buffoon made him a delight for satirists. Barrell gives a wonderfully funny account of royal holidays spent in Weymouth, where one of the king’s favourite recreations was riding out to meet the locals. The book’s cover illustration is a Gillray caricature, ‘Affability’, showing George in his country garb, terrifying a farmworker with his aggressive joviality. ‘If we make the people laugh, their hearts are always with us,’ he wrote complacently after one episode, oblivious to the ridicule surrounding him.
But if ordinary Britons laughed at the king, they admired the values he embodied. This was as true of radicals as of loyalists. Barrell acknowledges this, but underplays its significance. British jacobins, for all their political heterodoxy, were as keen on personal propriety as any bourgeois moralist. Sobriety, chastity, self-improvement, were promoted alongside the expanded franchise, although in rougher LCS circles these ideals weren’t always well received. The ethos was not merely repressive, however. Respect for women, even occasionally support for women’s rights, was a leitmotif, as was kindly treatment of children, servants and other dependents. Family loyalties received only qualified endorsement. While conservatives urged plebeians to concentrate on domestic affairs and leave politics to their betters, radicals exhorted them to look beyond their private concerns to the public good, or rather to treat the two as inseparable. Lecturing to LCS audiences in 1795, John Thelwall denied that there was any distinction between private and public virtue: ‘there is but one principle of virtue – benevolence’, which requires us to be ‘constantly considering how we can ameliorate or improve the condition of mankind’. In all spheres of life, a good citizen’s ‘energies are the property of his country, of all mankind’. Sitting in Newgate prison in 1794, awaiting trial for treason, Thelwall wrote a series of poems celebrating ‘Patriot Virtue’ (‘patriot’ was a republican tag) and calling on fathers to instil it in their sons:
His youthful reason with the sacred creed,
That not for self alone – not for the few
Whom kindred ties endear, we live. The soul
By Justice warm’d pants for the kindred whole.
‘Republican manners’, as one radical dubbed this code, was a democratised version of the elite political discourse known as civic humanism, a classically inspired ethical tradition that viewed participation in public life as man’s highest moral duty (women had only low duties). Civic humanism was one of the dominant discourses of public and private in 18th-century Britain. The Spirit of Despotism briefly alludes to it, but one of Barrell’s earlier books, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt (1986), gives an excellent account of it, tracing its roots in Aristotelian political theory and demonstrating its hold over the aristocratic imagination until the mid-century, when it gradually withered only to flower again in radical circles. It was the appropriation of civic humanist values by jacobin activists that helped set the scene for the public/ private conflicts of the 1790s. Patriot duty was a strong moral ground from which to launch democratic claims. But it was a hard ground to stand on. The Spirit of Despotism is full of images of personal suffering, of radicals persecuted, imprisoned, impoverished. Small wonder many, like Thelwall, retreated from the fray. Barrell’s final essay on the country cottage ideal shows the vision of privacy that drew them.
‘My soul is sick of public turmoil,’ Thelwall wrote to Coleridge in 1797, as he turned his back on LCS activism for ‘sweet retirement’ in the countryside. His first plan, to join Coleridge in his retreat at Nether Stowey, collapsed in the face of local hostility, and eventually he found himself on a small farm in Wales, struggling to make a living. It was hardly Arcadian bliss, but for Thelwall, initially at least, it offered the prospect of release – not just from his persecutors, but from his own public personality. Pastoral solitude would liberate the private man, freeing him from ‘political feeling’ and ‘public woes’ into ‘poesy’. Yet (like Coleridge, who before repudiating radicalism wrote several poems on similar themes) Thelwall remained torn between personal inclination and radical duty. In later years Coleridge recalled a conversation with him in a remote beauty spot. ‘Citizen John,’ Coleridge said, ‘this is a fine place to talk treason in.’ ‘Nay, Citizen Samuel,’ Thelwall replied, ‘it is rather a place to make a man forget that there is any necessity for treason.’ But forgetfulness proved impossible (not least because his enemies would not permit it); rural retirement became a ‘solitude rude and barbarous’, and by 1801 Thelwall had abandoned life as a ‘Recluse’ for a career as an elocutionist, followed by an eventual return to politics.
‘Retirement’ was civic humanism’s opposite: a pro-privacy discourse, also with strong classical roots, that favoured solitude over society, country over city, poetry over politics. Rhetorical contests between the two traditions had been common in Britain since the Restoration, reaching a synthesis, in elite circles, in a lofty ideal of leisure as a temporary restorative retreat from public duties. The Spirit of Despotism ends with a discussion of one of the most influential retirement poems, James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-30), in which patrician hero-statesmen (men of ‘public Soul’) are portrayed enjoying brief winter breaks on their country estates before returning to the political fray. Men of ‘powerless humble fortune’, on the other hand, are consigned entirely to the private sphere. This isn’t a hard fate, since freedom from political responsibility permits a quietly happy life. As Barrell says, ‘it is hard to say which is more idealised, Thomson’s account of the virtue of the powerful, or of the compensations of powerlessness, or of society itself, supposed to be divided absolutely between public and private men.’ Public impotence offset by private felicity was Thomson’s – and the age’s – prescription for humble Britons.
Radicals such as Thelwall who refused this prescription forfeited their privacy, while draping themselves in the mantle of ‘civic virtue’ hitherto denied them. Common men too could be hero patriots. But the rhetoric soon had a hollow ring, and not just for Romantic poets sequestered in country cots. The poisoning of public life by the surveillance culture was partly responsible for this, as was the descent of the French Revolution into terror. But the main responsibility lay beyond the political arena, in what Thelwall called the ‘selfish system’: the competitive individualism of a commercial age. With Adam Smith’s invisible hand turning private interests into public benefits, and the economy displacing the polity as the engine of human melioration, public life was being drained of its heroic mission. Some radical Britons read the runes quickly. Government, Paine wrote, was a ‘necessary evil’ of which the less the better: ‘the more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs.’ Private men acting for individual motives will, by ‘the great laws of society’, produce public happiness. Other British radicals, including Thelwall, didn’t agree (and Paine himself, in his later writings, shifted his ground to argue for a redistributive politics). But the winds weren’t blowing in their favour.
The ‘commercial spirit’, Adam Smith admitted, narrowed men’s sensibilities and ‘extinguished’ the ‘heroic spirit’. A host of moralists, including Vicesimus Knox in The Spirit of Despotism, proclaimed the disappearance of the public: ‘everyone is immersed in private concerns – private pleasures, and private interest, acknowledging no public care – no general concern.’ By the next wave of democratic agitation, in the 1830s and 1840s, the rhetoric of patriot heroism was beginning to give way to the language of class conflict. A repressive state, as Barrell’s book shows with such damning lucidity, might trample the line between private and public, but capitalism would redraw it entirely.