Political Change: The Anglo-Saxon World

By the end of the nineteenth century the United Kingdom had created an identifiable sub-unit within the ambit of European civilization, with an historical destiny diverging from that of the European continent. The components of this Anglo-Saxon world included growing British communities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (the first and last containing other important national elements, too) and at the heart of it were two great Atlantic nations, one the greatest world power of the nineteenth century, one that of the next. So many people found it profitable to keep on pointing out how different they were that it is easy to overlook how much the young United Kingdom and the United States of America had in common for much of the nineteenth century. Though one was a monarchy and the other a republic, both countries escaped first the absolutist and then the revolutionary currents of continental Europe. Anglo-Saxon politics, of course, changed quite as radically as those of any other countries in the nineteenth century. But they were not transformed by the same political forces as those of continental states nor in the same way.

Their similarity arose in part because for all their differences the two countries shared more than they usually admitted. One aspect of their curious relations was that Americans could still without a sense of paradox call England the mother country. The heritage of English culture and language was for a long time paramount in the United States; immigration from other European countries only became overwhelming in the second half of the nineteenth century. Though by the middle of the century many Americans - perhaps most - already had the blood of other European nations in their veins, the tone of society was long set by those of British stock. It was not until 1837 that there was a president who did not have an English, Scottish, or Irish surname (the next would not be until 1901, and there have been only four such down to the present day).

Post-colonial problems made, as they did in far later times, for emotional, sometimes violent, and always complex relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. But they were also much more than this. They were, for example, shot through with economic connections. Far from dwindling (as had been feared) after independence, commerce between the two countries had gone on from strength to strength. English capitalists found the United States an attractive place for investment even after repeated and unhappy experiences with the bonds of defaulting states. British money was heavily invested in American railroads, banking and insurance. Meanwhile the ruling elites of the two countries were at once fascinated and repelled by each other. Some Englishmen commented acidly on the vulgarity and rawness of American life but others warmed as if by instinct to its energy, optimism and opportunity; Americans found it hard to come to terms with monarchy and hereditary titles but sought to penetrate the fascinating mysteries of English culture and society no less eagerly for that.

More striking than the huge differences between them was what the United Kingdom and the United States had in common when considered from the standpoint of continental Europe. Above all, both were able to combine liberal and democratic politics with spectacular advances in wealth and power. They did this in very different circumstances, but at least one was common to both, the fact of isolation: Great Britain had the Channel between herself and Europe, the United States had the Atlantic Ocean. This physical remoteness long masked from Europeans the potential strength of the young republic and the huge opportunities facing it in the West, whose exploitation was to be the greatest achievement of American nationalism. At the peace of 1783 the British had defended the Americans’ frontier interests in such a way that there inevitably lay ahead a period of expansion for the United States; what was not clear was how far it might carry nor what other powers it might involve. This was in part a matter of geographical ignorance. No one knew for certain what the western half of the continent might contain. For decades the huge spaces just across the eastern mountain ranges would provide a big enough field of expansion. In 1800 the United States was still psychologically and actually very much a matter of the Atlantic seaboard and the Ohio valley.

If at first its political frontiers were ill-defined, they imposed relations with France, Spain and the United Kingdom. None the less, if the settlement of frontier disputes could be arranged, then a practical isolation might be attained, for the only other interests which might involve Americans in the affairs of other countries were, on the one hand, trade and the protection of her nationals abroad, and, on the other, foreign intervention in the affairs of the United States. The French Revolution appeared briefly to pose the chance of the latter, and caused a quarrel, but for the most part it was frontiers and trade which preoccupied American diplomacy under the young republic. Both also aroused powerful and often divisive or potentially divisive forces in domestic politics.

The American aspiration to non-involvement with the outside world was already clear in 1793, when the troubles of the French revolutionary war led to a Neutrality Proclamation rendering American citizens liable to prosecution in American courts if they took any part in the Anglo-French war. The bias of American policy already expressed in this received its classical formulation in 1796. In the course of Washington’s Farewell Address to his ‘Friends and Fellow Citizens’ as his second term as president drew to a close, he chose to comment on the objectives and methods which a successful republican foreign policy should embody, in language to be deeply influential both on later American statesmen and on the national psychology. In retrospect, what is now especially striking about Washington’s thoughts is their predominantly negative and passive tone. ‘The great rule of conduct for us’, he began, ‘in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.’ ‘Europe has a set of primary interests,’ he continued, ‘which to us have none, or a very remote relation . . . Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course . . . It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.’ Moreover, Washington also warned his countrymen against assumptions of permanent or special hostility or friendship with any other nation. In all this there was no hint of America’s future destiny as a world power (Washington did not even consider other than European relations; America’s future Pacific and Asian role was inconceivable in 1796).

By and large, a pragmatic approach, case by case, to the foreign relations of the young republic was indeed the policy pursued by Washington’s successors in the presidency. There was only one war with another great power, that between the United States and Great Britain in 1812. Besides contributing to the growth of nationalist feeling in the young republic, the struggle led both to the appearance of Uncle Sam as the caricature embodiment of the nation and to the composition of the ‘Star-spangled Banner’, which became the national anthem. More importantly, it marked an important stage in the evolving relations of the two countries. Officially, British interference with trade during the struggle with the Napoleonic blockade had caused the American declaration of war, but more important had been the hopes of some Americans that the conquest of Canada would follow. It did not, and the failure of military expansion did much to determine that the future negotiation of the boundary problems with the British should be by peaceful negotiation. Though Anglophobia had been aroused again in the United States by the war, the fighting (which had its humiliations for both sides) cleared the air. In future boundary disputes it was tacitly understood that neither American nor British governments were willing to consider war except under extreme provocation. In this setting the northern boundary of the United States was soon agreed as far west as the ‘Stony Mountains’ (as the Rockies were then called); in 1845 it was carried further west to the sea and by then the disputed Maine boundary, too, had been agreed.

The greatest change in American territorial definition was brought about by the Louisiana Purchase. Roughly speaking, ‘Louisiana’ was the area between the Mississippi and the Rockies. In 1803 it belonged, if somewhat theoretically, to the French, the Spanish having ceded it to them in 1800. This change had provoked American interest; if Napoleonic France envisaged a revival of French American empire, New Orleans, which controlled the mouth of the river down which so much American commerce already passed, was of vital importance. It was to buy freedom of navigation on the Mississippi that the United States entered a negotiation which ended with the purchase of an area larger than the then total area of the republic. On the modern map it includes Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, both the Dakotas, Minnesota west of the Mississippi, most of Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming and a big piece of Colorado. The price was $11,250,000.

This was the largest sale of land of all time and its consequences were appropriately huge. It transformed American domestic history. The opening of the way to the trans-Mississippi West was to lead to a shift in demographic and political balance of revolutionary import for the politics of the young republic. This shift was already showing itself in the second decade of the century when the population living west of the Alleghenies more than doubled. When the Purchase was rounded off by the acquisition of the Floridas from Spain, the United States had by 1819 legal sovereignty over territory bounded by the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Maine to the Sabine river, the Red and Arkansas rivers, the Continental Divide and the line of the 49th Parallel agreed with the British.

The United States was already the most important state in the Americas. Though there were still some European colonial possessions there, a major effort would be required to contest this fact, as the British had discovered in war. None the less, alarm about a possible European intervention in Latin America, together with Russian activity in the Pacific north-west, led to a clear American statement of the republic’s determination to rule the roost in the western hemisphere. This was the ‘Monroe doctrine’, enunciated in 1823, which said that no future European colonization in the hemisphere could be considered and that intervention by European powers in its affairs would be seen as unfriendly to the United States. As this suited British interests, the Monroe doctrine was easily maintained. It had the tacit underwriting of the Royal Navy and no European power could conceivably mount an American operation if British sea-power was used against it.

The Monroe doctrine remains the bedrock of American hemisphere diplomacy to this day. One of its consequences was that other American nations would not be able to draw upon European support in defending their own independence against the United States. The main sufferer before 1860 was Mexico. American settlers within its borders rebelled and set up an independent Texan republic, which was subsequently annexed by the United States. In the war that followed Mexico did very badly. The peace of 1848 stripped her, in consequence, of what would one day become Utah, Nevada, California and most of Arizona, an acquisition of territory which left only a small purchase of other Mexican land to be made to round off the mainland territory of the modern United States by 1853.

In the seventy years after the Peace of Paris the republic thus expanded, by conquest, purchase and settlement, to fill half a continent. Less than four million people in 1790 had become nearly twenty-four million by 1850. Most of these still lived east of the Mississippi, it was true, and the only cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants were the three great Atlantic ports of Boston, New York and Philadelphia: none the less, the centre of gravity of the nation was moving westward. For a long time the political, commercial and cultural elites of the eastern seaboard would continue to dominate American society. But from the moment that the Ohio valley had been settled a western interest had been in existence; Washington’s farewell address had already recognized its importance. The West was an increasingly decisive contributor to the politics of the next seventy years, until there came to a head the greatest crisis in the history of the United States and one which settled her destiny as a world power.

Expansion, both territorial and economic, shaped American history as profoundly as the democratic bias of her political institutions. Its influence on those institutions, too, was very great and sometimes glaring; sometimes they were transformed. Slavery is the outstanding example. When Washington began his presidency there were a little under 700,000 black slaves within the territories of the Union. This was a large number, but the framers of the constitution paid no special attention to them, except in so far as questions of political balance between the different states were involved. In the end it had been decided that a slave should count as three-fifths of a free man in deciding how many representatives each state should have.

Within the next half-century three things revolutionized this state of affairs. The first was an enormous extension of slavery. It was driven by a rapid increase in the world’s consumption of cotton (above all in its consumption by the mills of England). This led to a doubling of the American crop in the 1820s and then its doubling again in the 1830s: by 1860, cotton provided two-thirds of the value of the total exports of the United States. This huge increase was obtained largely by cropping new land, and new plantations meant more labour. By 1820 there were already a million and a half slaves, by 1860 about four million. In the southern states slavery had become the foundation of the economic system. Because of this, Southern society became even more distinctive; it had always been aware of the ways it differed from the more mercantile and urban northern states, but now its ‘peculiar institution’, as slavery was called, came to be regarded by Southerners as the essential core of a particular civilization. By 1860 many of them thought of themselves as a nation, with a way of life they idealized and believed to be threatened by tyrannous interference from the outside. The expression and symbol of this interference was, in their view, the growing hostility of Congress to slavery.


That slavery became a political issue was the second development changing its role in American life. It was part of a general evolution in American politics evident also in other ways. The early politics of the republic had reflected what were to be later called ‘sectional’ interests and the Farewell Address itself had drawn attention to them. Roughly speaking, they produced political parties reflecting, on the one hand, mercantile and business interests, which tended to look for strong federal government and protectionist legislation, and on the other, agrarian and consumer interests, which tended to assert the rights of individual states and to advocate cheap money policies. At that stage slavery was hardly a political question, although politicians sometimes spoke of it as an evil which must succumb (though no one quite knew how) with the passage of time. Such quiescence had gradually to change, partly as a result of the inherent tendencies of American institutions, partly because of social change. Judicial interpretation gave a strongly national and federal emphasis to the constitution. At the same time as congressional legislation was thus given new potential force, the law-makers were becoming more representative of American democracy; the presidency of Andrew Jackson has traditionally been seen as especially important in this. The growing democratization of politics reflected other changes; the United States was not to be troubled by an urban proletariat of those driven off the land, because in the West the possibility long existed of realizing the dream of independence; the social ideal of the independent smallholder could remain central to the American tradition. The opening up of the western hinterland by the Louisiana Purchase was as important in revolutionizing the distribution of wealth and population which shaped American politics as was the commercial and industrial growth of the North.

Above all, the opening of the West transformed the question of slavery. There was great scope for dispute about the terms on which new territories should be joined to the Union. As the organization first of the Louisiana Purchase and then territory taken from Mexico had to be settled, the inflammatory question was bound to be raised: was slavery to be permitted in the new territories? A fierce anti-slavery movement had arisen in the North, which dragged the slavery issue to the forefront of American politics and kept it there until it overshadowed every other question. Its campaign for the ending of the slave trade and for the eventual emancipation of the slaves stemmed from much the same forces which had produced similar demands in other countries towards the end of the eighteenth century. But the American movement was importantly different, too. In the first place it was confronted with a growth of slavery at a time when it was disappearing elsewhere in the Europeanized world, so that the universal trend seemed to be at least checked, if not reversed, in the United States. Secondly, it involved a tangle of constitutional questions because of argument about the extent to which private property could be interfered with in individual states where local laws upheld it, or even in territories that were not yet states. Moreover, the anti-slavery politicians brought forward a question which lay at the heart of the constitution, and, indeed, of the political life of every European country, too: who was to have the last word? The people were sovereign, that was clear enough: but was the ‘people’ the majority of its representatives in Congress, or the populations of individual states acting through their state legislatures and asserting the indefeasibility of their rights even against Congress? Thus slavery came by mid-century to be entangled with almost every question raised by American politics.

These great issues were just contained so long as the balance of power between the Southern and Northern states remained roughly the same. Although the North had a slight preponderance of numbers, the crucial equality in the Senate (where each state had two senators, regardless of its population or size) was maintained. Down to 1819, new states were admitted to the Union on an alternating system, one slave, one free; there were then eleven of each. Then came the first crisis, over the admission of the state of Missouri. In the days before the Louisiana Purchase French and Spanish law permitted slavery there and its settlers expected this to continue. They were indignant, and so were representatives of the Southern states, when a Northern congressman proposed restrictions upon slavery in the new state’s constitution. There was great public stir and debate about sectional advantage; there was even talk of secession from the Union, so strongly did some Southerners feel. Yet the moral issue was muted. It was still possible to reach a political answer to a political question by the ‘Missouri Compromise’, which admitted Missouri as a slave state, but balanced her by admitting Maine at the same time, and prohibiting any further extension of slavery in United States territory north of a line of latitude 36° 30'. This confirmed the doctrine that Congress had the right to keep slavery out of new territories if it chose to exercise it, but there was no reason to believe that the question would again arise for a long time. Indeed, so it proved until a generation had passed. But already some had foreseen the future: Thomas Jefferson, a former president and the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, wrote that he ‘considered it at once as the knell of the Union’, and another (future) president wrote in his diary that the Missouri question was ‘a mere preamble - a title-page to a great, tragic volume’.


Yet the tragedy did not come to a head for another forty years. In part this was because Americans had much else to think about - territorial expansion above all - and in part because no question arose of incorporating territories suitable for cotton-growing, and therefore requiring slave labour, until the 1840s. But there were soon forces at work to agitate public opinion and they would be effective when the public was ready to listen. It was in 1831 that a newspaper was established in Boston to advocate the unconditional emancipation of Negro slaves. This was the beginning of the ‘abolitionist’ campaign of increasingly embittered propaganda, electoral pressure upon politicians in the North, assistance to runaway slaves and opposition to their return to their owners after recapture, even when the law courts said they must be sent back. Against the background abolitionists provided, a struggle raged in the 1840s over the terms on which territory won from Mexico should be admitted. It ended in 1850 in a new Compromise, but one not to last long. From this time, politics were strained by increasing feelings of persecution and victimization among the Southern leaders and a growing arrogance on their part in the defence of their states’ way of life. National party allegiances were already affected by the slavery issue; the Democrats took their stand on the finality of the 1850 settlement.

The next decade brought descent into disaster. The need to organize Kansas blew up the truce which rested on the 1850 Compromise and brought about the first bloodshed as abolitionists strove to bully proslavery Kansas into accepting their views. There emerged a Republican party in protest against the proposal that the people living in the territory should decide whether Kansas should be slave or free: Kansas was north of the 36° 30' line. The anger of abolitionists now mounted, too, whenever the law supported the slave-owner, as it did in a notable Supreme Court decision in 1857 (in the ‘Dred Scott’ case) which returned a slave to his master. In the South, on the other hand, such outcries were seen as incitements to disaffection among the blacks and a determination to use the electoral system against Southern liberties - a view which was, of course, justified, because the abolitionists, at least, were not men who would compromise, though they could not get the Republican party to support them. The Republican presidential candidate in the election of 1860 campaigned on a programme which in so far as it concerned slavery envisaged only the exclusion of slavery from all territories to be brought into the Union in the future.

This was already too much for some Southerners. Although the Democrats were divided, the country voted on strictly sectional grounds in 1860; the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, who was to prove the greatest of American presidents, was elected by northern states, together with the two Pacific coast ones. This was the end of the line for many Southerners. South Carolina formally seceded from the Union as a protest against the election. In February 1861 it was joined by six other states, and the Confederate States of America, which they set up, had its provisional government and president installed a month before President Lincoln was inaugurated in Washington.

Each side accused the other of revolutionary designs and behaviour. It is very difficult not to agree with both of them. The heart of the Northern position, as Lincoln saw, was that democracy should prevail, a claim assuredly of potentially limitless revolutionary implication. In the end, what the North achieved was indeed a social revolution in the South. On the other side, what the South was asserting in 1861 (and three more states joined the Confederacy after the first shots were fired) was that it had the same right to organize its life as had, say, revolutionary Poles or Italians in Europe. It is unfortunate, but generally true, that the coincidence of nationalist claims with liberal institutions is rarely exact, or even close, and never complete, but the defence of slavery was also a defence of selfdetermination. At the same time, though such great issues of principle were certainly at stake, they presented themselves in concrete, personal and local terms which make it very difficult to state clearly the actual lines along which the Republic divided for the great crisis of its history and identity. They ran through families, towns and villages, religions, and sometimes around groups of different colours. It is the tragedy of civil wars to be like that.

Once under way, war has a revolutionary potential of its own. Much of the particular impact of what one side called ‘the Rebellion’ and the other side ‘the War between the States’ grew out of the necessities of the struggle. It took four years for the Union forces to beat the Confederacy and in that time an important change had occurred in Lincoln’s aims. At the beginning of the war he had spoken only of restoring the proper order of affairs: there were things happening in the Southern states, he told the people, ‘too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings’ and they would require military operations. This view broadened into a consistent reiteration that the war was fundamentally about preserving the Union; Lincoln’s aim in fighting was to reunite the states which composed it. For a long time this meant that he failed to satisfy those who sought from the war the abolition of slavery. But in the end he came round to it. In 1862 he could still say in a public letter that: ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that’, but he did so at a moment when he had already decided that he must proclaim the emancipation of slaves in the rebel states. That became effective on New Year’s Day 1863; thus the nightmare of Southern politicians was reality at last, though only because of the war they had courted. It transformed the nature of the struggle, though not at once very obviously. In 1865 the final step was taken in an amendment to the constitution which prohibited slavery anywhere in the United States. By that time the Confederacy was defeated, Lincoln had been murdered and the cause which he had imperishably summed up as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ was safe.

In the aftermath of its military victory that cause could hardly appear as an unequivocally noble or righteous one to all Americans, but its triumph was pregnant with importance not only for America but for mankind. It was the only political event of the century whose implications were as far-reaching as, say, the Industrial Revolution. The war settled the future of the continent; one great power would continue to dominate the Americas and exploit the resources of the richest untapped domain yet known to be open to man. That fact in due course settled the outcome of two world wars and therefore the history of the world. The Union armies also decided that the system which would prevail in American politics would be the democratic one; this was not, perhaps, always true in the sense of Lincoln’s words but the political institutions which in principle provided for the rule of the majority were henceforth secure from direct challenge. This was to have the incidental effect of linking democracy and material well-being closely in the minds of Americans; industrial capitalism in the United States would have a great pool of ideological commitment to draw upon when it faced its later critics.

There were other domestic consequences, too. The most obvious was the creation of a new colour problem. In a sense there had been no colour problem while slavery existed. Servile status was the barrier separating the overwhelming majority of blacks (there had always been a few free among them) from whites, and it was upheld by legal sanctions. Emancipation swept away the framework of legal inferiority and replaced this with the framework, or myth, of democratic equality when very few Americans were ready to give this social reality. Millions of blacks in the South were suddenly free. They were also for the most part uneducated, largely untrained except for field labour, and virtually without leadership of their own race. For a little while in the Southern states they leant for support on the occupying armies of the Union; when this prop was removed blacks disappeared from the legislatures and public offices of the Southern states to which they had briefly aspired. In some places they disappeared from the polling-booths, too. Legal disabilities were replaced by a social and physical coercion which was sometimes harsher than had been the old regime of slavery. The slave at least had the value to his master of being an investment of capital; he was protected like other property and was usually ensured a minimum security and maintenance. Competition in a free labour market at a moment when the economy of large areas of the South was in ruins, with impoverished whites struggling for subsistence, was disastrous for the black. By the end of the century he had been driven by a poor white population bitterly resentful of defeat and emancipation into social subordination and economic deprivation. From this was to stem emigration to the North and new racial problems in the twentieth century.

As another consequence of the war the United States retained a two-party system. Between them, Republicans and Democrats have continued to divide the presidency to this day, not often threatened by third parties. There was nothing to make this probable before 1861. Many parties had come and gone, reflecting different movements in American society. But the war was to rivet upon the Democratic party a commitment to the Southern cause which at first was a grave handicap because it carried the stigma of disloyalty (no Democrat was president until 1885). Correspondingly, it won for the Republicans the loyalty of Northern states and the hopes of radicals who saw in them the saviours of the Union and democracy, and the liberators of the slave. Before the inadequacy of these stereotypes was clear, the parties were so deeply rooted in certain states that their predominance in them, let alone survival, was unchallengeable. Twentieth-century American politics would proceed by internal transformation of the two great parties, which long reflected their primitive origins.

For the moment the Republicans of 1865 had it all their own way. Perhaps they would have found a way to reconcile the South if Lincoln had lived. As it was, the impact of their policies upon a defeated and devastated South made the ‘Reconstruction’ years bitter ones. Many Republicans strove honestly to use the power they had to ensure democratic rights for the blacks; thus they ensured the future hegemony of the Democrats in the South. But they did not do too badly. Soon the economic tide was with them as the great expansion interrupted briefly by the war was resumed.

This expansion had been going on for seventy years and was already prodigious. Its most striking manifestation had been territorial; it was about to become economic. The phase of America’s advance to the point at which her citizens would have the highest per capita income in the world was just opening in the 1870s. In the euphoria of this huge blossoming of confidence and expectation, all political problems seemed for a while to have been solved. Under Republican administrations Americans turned, not for the last time, to the assurance that the business of America was not political debate but business. The South remained largely untouched by the new prosperity and slipped even further behind the North; it had no political leverage until an issue capable of bringing support to the Democrats in other sections turned up.

Meanwhile, the North and West could look back with confidence that the astonishing changes of the previous seventy years promised even better times ahead. Foreigners could feel this, too; that is why they were coming to the United States in growing numbers - two and a half million in the 1850s alone. They fed a population which had grown from just over five and a quarter million in 1800 to nearly forty million in 1870. About half of them by then lived west of the Alleghenies and the vast majority of them in rural areas. The building of railroads was opening the Great Plains to settlement and exploitation which had not yet really begun. In 1869 the golden spike was driven which marked the completion of the first transcontinental railroad link. In the new West the United States would find its greatest agricultural expansion; already, thanks to the shortage of labour experienced in the war years, machines were being used in numbers which pointed to a quite new scale of farming, the way to a new phase of the world’s agricultural revolution which would make North America a granary for Europe (and, one day, for Asia, too). There were a quarter of a million mechanical reapers alone at work by the end of the war. Industrially, too, great years lay ahead; the United States was not yet an industrial power to compare with Great Britain (in 1870 there were still less than two million Americans employed in manufacturing), but the groundwork was done. With a large, increasingly well-off domestic market the prospects for American industry were bright.

Poised on the brink of their most confident and successful era, Americans were not being hypocritical in forgetting the losers. They understandably found it easy to do so in the general sense that the American system worked well. The blacks and the poor whites of the South now joined the Indian, who had been a loser steadily for two centuries and a half, as the forgotten failures. The new poor of the growing Northern cities should probably not be regarded, comparatively, as losers; they were at least as well off, and probably better, than the poor of Andalusia or Naples. Their willingness to come to the United States showed that it was already a magnet of great power. Nor was that power only material. Besides the ‘wretched refuse’, there were the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. The United States was in 1870 still a political inspiration to political radicals elsewhere, though perhaps her political practice and forms had more impact in Great Britain - where people linked (both approvingly and disapprovingly) democracy with the ‘Americanization’ of British politics - than in continental Europe.

Such transatlantic influences and connections were aspects of the curious, fitful, but tenacious relations between the two Anglo-Saxon countries. They both underwent revolutionary change though in wholly different ways. Yet here, perhaps, the achievement of Great Britain in the early nineteenth century is even more remarkable than the transformation of the United States. At a time of unprecedented and potentially dislocating social upheaval, which turned her within a single lifetime into the first industrialized and urbanized society of modern times, Great Britain managed to maintain an astonishing constitutional and political continuity. At the same time, she was acting as a world and European power as the United States never had to, and ruled a great empire. In this setting she began the democratization of her institutions while retaining most of her buttresses of individual liberty.

Socially the United Kingdom was far less democratic than the United States in 1870 (if the blacks are set aside as a special case). Social hierarchy (conferred by birth and land if possible, but if not, money would often do) stratified the United Kingdom; every observer was struck by the assured confidence of the English ruling classes that they were meant to rule. There was no American West to offset the deep swell of deference with the breeze of frontier democracy; Canada and Australia attracted restless emigrants, but in so doing removed the possibility of their changing the tone of English society. Political democracy developed faster than social, on the other hand, even if the universal male suffrage already long-established in the United States would not be introduced until 1918; the democratization of English politics was already past the point of reversibility by 1870.

This great change had come about within a few decades. Though it had deeply libertarian institutions - equality at law, effective personal liberty, a representative system - the English constitution of 1800 had not rested on democratic principles. Its basis was the representation of certain individual and historic rights and the sovereignty of the Crown in parliament. The accidents of the past produced from these elements an electorate large by contemporary European standards, but as late as 1832, the word ‘democratic’ was a pejorative one and few thought it indicated a desirable goal. To most Englishmen, democracy meant the French Revolution and military despotism. Yet the most important step towards democracy in the English political history of the century was taken in 1832. This was the passing of a Reform Act which was not itself democratic and was, indeed, intended by many of those who supported it to act as a barrier to democracy. It carried out a great revision of the representative system, removing anomalies (such as the tiny constituencies which had been effectively controlled by patrons), to provide parliamentary constituencies which better (though still far from perfectly) reflected the needs of a country of growing industrial cities, and above all to change and make more orderly the franchise. It had been based on a jumble of different principles in different places; now, the main categories of persons given the vote were freeholders in the rural areas, and householders who owned or paid rent for their house at a middle-class level in the towns. The model elector was the man with a stake in the country, although dispute about the precise terms of the franchise still left some oddities. The immediate result was an electorate of about 650,000 and a House of Commons which did not look very different from its predecessor. None the less, dominated by the aristocracy as it still was, it marked the beginning of nearly a century during which British politics were to be completely democratized, because once the constitution had been changed in this way, then it could be changed again and the House of Commons more and more claimed the right to say what should be done. In 1867, another Act produced an electorate of about two million and in 1872 the decision that voting should take place by secret ballot followed: a great step.

This process would not be completed before the twentieth century, but it soon brought other changes in the nature of British politics. Slowly, and somewhat grudgingly, the traditional political class began to take account of the need to organize parties which were something more than family connections or personal cliques of members of parliament. This was much more obvious after the emergence of a really big electorate in 1867. But the implication - that there was a public opinion to be courted which was more than that of the old landed class - was grasped sooner than this. All the greatest of English parliamentary leaders in the nineteenth century were men whose success rested on their ability to catch not only the ear of the House of Commons, but that of important sections of society outside it. The first and possibly most significant example was Sir Robert Peel, who created English conservatism. By accepting the verdicts of public opinion he gave conservatism a pliability which always saved it from the intransigence into which the Right was tempted in so many European countries.

The great political quarrel of Corn Law repeal demonstrated this. It was not only about economic policy; it was also about who should govern the country, and was in some ways a complementary struggle to that for parliamentary reform before 1832. By the middle of the 1830s the conservatives had been brought by Peel to accept the consequences of 1832, and in 1846 he was just able to make them do the same over the protective Corn Laws, whose disappearance showed that landed society no longer had the last word. Vengefully, his party, the stronghold of the country gentlemen who considered the agricultural interests the embodiment of England and themselves the champions of the agricultural interest, turned on Peel soon afterwards and rejected him. They were right in sensing that the whole tendency of his policy had been directed to the triumph of the free trade principles which they associated with the middle-class manufacturers. Their decision divided their party and condemned it to paralysis for twenty years, but Peel had in fact rid them of an incubus. He left it free when reunited to compete for the electorate’s goodwill untrammelled by commitment to the defence of only one among several economic interests.

The redirection of British tariff and fiscal policies towards free trade was one side, though in some ways the most spectacular, of a general alignment of British politics towards reform and liberalization in the central third of the century. During this time a beginning was made with local government reform (significantly, in the towns, not in the countryside where the landed interest was still the master), a new Poor Law was introduced, factory and mining legislation was passed and began to be effectively policed by inspection, the judicial system was reconstructed, disabilities on Protestant nonconformists, Roman Catholics and Jews were removed, the ecclesiastical monopoly of matrimonial law, which went back to Anglo-Saxon times, was ended, a postal system was set up that became the model on which other nations would shape theirs, and a beginning was even made on tackling the scandalous neglect of public education. All this was accompanied by unprecedented growth in wealth, whose confident symbol was the holding in 1851 of a Great Exhibition of the world’s wares in London under the patronage of the queen herself and the direction of her consort. If the British were inclined to bumptiousness, as they seem to have been in the central decades of Victoria’s reign, then it may be said that they had grounds. Their institutions and economy had never looked healthier.

Not that everyone was pleased. Some moaned about a loss of economic privilege: in fact, the United Kingdom continued to display extremes of wealth and poverty as great as any other country’s. There was somewhat more substance to the fear of creeping centralization. Parliamentary legislative sovereignty led to bureaucracy invading more and more areas which had previously been immune to government intervention in practice. England in the nineteenth century was very far from concentrating power in her state apparatus to the degree which has now become usual in all countries. Yet some people felt worried that she might be going the way of France, a country whose highly centralized administration was taken to be sufficient explanation of the failure to achieve liberty which had accompanied the French success in establishing equality. In offsetting such a tendency, the Victorian reforms of local government, some of which came only in the last two decades of the century but drove it further towards democracy, were crucial.

Some foreigners admired. Most wondered how, in spite of the appalling conditions of its factory towns, the United Kingdom had somehow navigated the rapids of popular unrest which had proved fatal to orderly government in other states. Britain had deliberately undertaken huge reconstructions of its institutions at a time when the dangers of revolution were clearly apparent elsewhere, and had emerged unscathed, its power and wealth enhanced and the principles of liberalism even more apparent in its politics. British statesmen and historians gloried in reiterating that the essence of the nation’s life was freedom, in a famous phrase, ‘broadening down from precedent to precedent’. Englishmen seemed fervently to believe this, yet it did not lead to licence. The country did not have the advantages of geographical remoteness and almost limitless land which were enjoyed by the United States - and even the United States had fought one of the bloodiest wars in human history to contain a revolution. How, then, had Great Britain done it?

This was a leading question, though one historians still sometimes ask without thinking about its implications that there exist certain conditions which make revolution likely and that British society seems to have fulfilled them. It may be, rather, that no such propositions need to be conceded. Perhaps there never was a potentially revolutionary threat in this rapidly changing society. Many of the basic changes which the French Revolution brought to Europe had already existed in Great Britain for centuries, after all. The fundamental institutions, however rusty or encrusted with inconvenient historic accretion they might be, offered large possibilities. Even in unreformed days, the House of Commons and House of Lords were not the closed corporate institutions which were all that was available in many European states. Already before 1832, they had shown their capacity to meet new needs, even if slowly and belatedly; the first Factory Act (not, admittedly, a very effective one) had been passed as early as 1801. Once 1832 was past, then there were good grounds for thinking that if parliament were only pressed hard enough from the outside, it would carry out any reforms that were required. There was no legal restraint on its power to do so. Even the oppressed and angry seem to have seen this. There were many outbreaks of desperate violence and many revolutionaries about in the 1830s and 1840s (which were especially hard times for the poor) but it is striking that the most important popular movement of the day, the great spectrum of protest gathered together in what was called ‘Chartism’, asked in the People’s Charter, which was its programme, for measures which would make parliament more responsive to popular needs, not for its abolition.

Yet it is not likely that parliament would have been called upon to provide reform unless other factors had operated. Here it is perhaps significant that the great reforms of Victorian England were all ones which interested the middle classes as much as the masses, with the possible exception of factory legislation. The English middle class came to an early share in political power as its continental counterparts had not and could therefore use it to obtain change; it was not tempted to ally with revolution, the recourse of desperate men to whom other avenues were closed. But in any case it does not seem that the English masses were themselves very revolutionary. At any rate, their failure to act in a revolutionary way has caused much distress to later left-wing historians. Whether this is because their sufferings were too great, not great enough or whether simply there were too many differences between different sections of the working class has been much disputed. But it is at least worth noticing, as did contemporary visitors, that in England traditional patterns of behaviour died hard; it was long to remain a country with habits of deference to social superiors which forcibly struck foreigners - especially Americans. Moreover, there were working-class organizations which provided alternatives to revolution. They were often ‘Victorian’ in their admirable emphasis on self-help, caution, prudence, sobriety. Of the elements making up the great English Labour movement, only the political party which bears that name was not in existence already before 1840; the others were mature by the 1860s. The ‘friendly societies’ for insurance against misfortune, the cooperative associations and, above all, the trades unions all provided effective channels for personal participation in the improvement of working-class life, even if at first only to a few and slowly. This early maturity was to underlie the paradox of English socialism, its later dependence on a very conservative and unrevolutionary trade-union movement, for a long while the largest in the world.

Once the 1840s were over, economic trends may have helped to allay discontent. At any rate working-class leaders often said so, almost regretfully; they, at least, thought that betterment told against a revolutionary danger in England. As the international economy picked up in the 1850s good times came to the industrial cities of a country which was the workshop of the world and its merchant, banker and insurer, too. As employment and wages rose, the support which the Chartists had mustered crumbled away and they were soon only a reminiscence.

The symbols of the unchanging form which contained so much change were the central institutions of the kingdom: parliament and the Crown. When the Palace of Westminster was burned down and a new one was built, a mock-medieval design was chosen to emphasize the antiquity of what would come to be called ‘the Mother of Parliaments’. The violent changes of the most revolutionary era of British history thus continued to be masked by the robes of custom and tradition. Above all, the monarchy continued. Already in 1837, when Victoria ascended the throne, it was second only to the papacy in antiquity among the political institutions of Europe; yet it was much changed in reality, for all that. It had been brought very low in public esteem by George Ill’s successor, the worst of English kings, and not much enhanced by his heir. Victoria and her husband were to make it unquestionable, except by a very few republicans. In part this was against the grain for the queen herself; she did not pretend to like the political neutrality appropriate to a constitutional monarch when the Crown had withdrawn above the political battle. None the less, it was in her reign that this withdrawal was seen to be made. She also domesticated the monarchy; for the first time since the days of the young George III the phrase ‘the Royal Family’ was a reality and could be seen to be such. It was one of many ways in which her German husband, Prince Albert, helped her, though he got little thanks for it from an ungrateful English public.


Only in Ireland did their capacity for imaginative change seem always to fail the British people. They had faced a real revolutionary danger and had had to put down a rebellion there in 1798. In the 1850s and 1860s things were quiet. But the reason was in large measure an appalling disaster which overtook Ireland in the middle of the 1840s, when the failure of the potato crop was followed by famine, disease and thus, brutally, a Malthusian solution of Ireland’s over-population. For the moment, the demand for the repeal of the Act of Union, which had joined her to Great Britain in 1801, was muted, the dislike of her predominantly Catholic population for an alien and established Protestant Church was in abeyance and there was no serious disturbance among a peasant population feeling no loyalty to absentee English landlords (or, for that matter, to the resident but equally grasping and more numerous Irish landlords) who exploited tenant and labourer alike. Problems none the less remained and the Liberal government which took office in 1868 addressed itself to some of them; the only significant consequence appeared to be the emergence of a new Irish nationalist movement, based on the Roman Catholic peasantry and demanding ‘Home Rule’. Dispute over what this might - let alone ought to - mean was to haunt British politics, overturn their combinations and wreck attempts to settle the Irish Question for a century and more. In the short run, it promoted two rival Irish revolutionary movements north and south and contributed to the wrecking of British liberalism. Thus Ireland, after a thousand years, began again to make a visible mark on world history, though, of course, she had already made one less obviously earlier in the century through the emigration of so many of her people to the United States of America.

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