The cantakerous grandfather of the Scottish school, Lord Kames, died in 1782, at age eighty-six. His protégé, David Hume, had preceded him in death by six years. Adam Smith followed in 1790. Two years later Robert Adam died, and William Robertson a year after that. Boswell passed on in 1795, and Thomas Reid in 1796.
The front rank of the Scottish Enlightenment was gone. But over the next three decades their impact became decisive, as their works, students, and disciples spread their message far beyond Scotland. Edinburgh, now decked out in gleaming neoclassical splendor, came to stand for a type of modern intellectual culture that the rest of Europe understood to be quintessentially Scottish.
Inquisitive, penetrating, unsentimental; impatient with pious dogmas or cant; relentlessly thorough, sometimes to the point of pedantry; rational, but buoyed by a tough-minded sense of humor and a grasp of the practical. We see these qualities reflected in the portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn of the leading Scottish minds of the age: dressed in black coats with elegant white cravats, their strong, clean-shaven faces and clear features projecting an air of imperturbable self-confidence that their predecessors, for all their accomplishments, never knew. And no wonder. Having helped to create one new nation—America—Scots now set about saving another—their own.
Since 1780, Britain had entered a period of crisis. It had lost the war to prevent American independence, and had taken a beating at the hands of the French and Spanish. Its politics were stuck in permanent factionalism and gridlock. A sense of malaise had settled over its ruling class, while popular unrest, encouraged by the French Revolution, spread across the provinces. In 1797 mutiny broke out in the British navy; Ireland was on the brink of revolt; the Bank of England, symbol of the nation’s stability, had to suspend cash payments.
For nearly a hundred years the main cultural current in Britain had flowed from south to north. Now it reversed itself. Out of Scotland came thinkers, politicians, inventors, and writers who would restore Britain’s self-confidence, and equip it with the tools to confront modernity on its own terms. They remade its politics. They galvanized its intellectual and educational institutions; they gave it a new self-image and a new sense of its place in history. They also redid its infrastructure and refitted its empire. The “Scottish invasion” of the first three decades of the nineteenth century prepared the way for the great triumphs of the Victorian age.
The keynote of the new Britain was self-confidence: confidence in its own powers, confidence in its future, confidence in its relationship with the past. Edinburgh epitomized this energy and optimism. It had grown up from a provincial town of just 50,000 persons as late as 1760 to an internationally recognized capital of nearly 100,000 by the turn of the century. It had burst its old boundaries. New buildings swarmed over the new South Bridge to the south, and residential terraces and graceful curved streets or “crescents” appeared to the north and west of Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square.
The Adam style had given birth to a permanent Greek Revival, with an army of offshoots and imitators. One, Robert Reid, completed Charlotte Square with his West Register House and gave Parliament House a new, harmonious neoclassical façade. Another, William Playfair, turned Calton Hill overlooking the New Town into an Acropolis of elegant porticoed buildings and monuments. More than any other architect, Playfair gave Edinburgh the look to match its sobriquet of the “Athens of the North.”
The University of Edinburgh had also outgrown its bounds and desperately needed a new home. On November 2, 1789, Principal William Robertson opened a public subscription to construct new buildings suitable “to the flourishing state of that seminary of learning,” which now educated “not only a great part of the Youth of Scotland, but many students from different places in the British Dominions, as well as Foreign Countries.” Robert Adam supplied the overall plan; it included a double pavilion of buildings, and a central tier with a dome and a massive, columned portico. Adam died before much of it had been built. Then events abroad, with the coming of the French Revolution and war with France, stopped construction completely. Almost thirty years would pass before William Playfair finished what Adam had started. But the new university, like its original design, expressed a sense of civic pride in Edinburgh’s rise as a center of learning, both for Britain and Europe.
It offered an honor roll of distinguished teachers. William Cullen, professor of medicine, friend to Adam Smith, and mentor to the American Benjamin Rush, had died in 1790. But there was still Joseph Black, discoverer of carbon dioxide and professor of chemistry, and John Playfair, the architect’s father and a brilliant mathematician. Above all, there was Dugald Stewart, who had replaced Adam Ferguson in the chair of moral philosophy in 1785. For the next quarter-century he would influence the mind of Europe and the English-speaking world to a degree no Scotsman ever equaled, before or since.
He was born and bred to the academic life. His father succeeded Colin Maclaurin in the University of Edinburgh’s chair in mathematics. Young Dugald attended both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and was versatile enough to substitute for his father as math professor, as well as for Adam Ferguson in moral philosophy. When Ferguson retired and Stewart took his place at age thirty-two, he brought with him a depth and breadth of learning probably unmatched by anyone else teaching at a British university. As one student recalled him: “He was of middle size, his forehead was large and bald, his eyebrows bushy, his eyes grey and intelligent, and capable of conveying any emotion, from serene sense to hearty humor. . . .” Mathematics, natural science, jurisprudence, history, political economy, ethics, the philosophy of mind—these were the fields over which Stewart ranged at will and which he opened up to successive generations of devoted students. He was the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the flesh (almost literally, since he wrote the preface for the famous third edition, published after his death, in 1822).
Dugald Stewart served as the intellectual bridge between the Scottish Enlightenment and the Victorian age. The jurist Henry Cockburn remembered, “To me, Stewart’s lectures were like the opening of the heavens. I felt I had a soul.” His pupils included no less than two future prime ministers, Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell. (The latter’s English father told him “there was nothing to be learned at English universities,” and sent him to Edinburgh instead.) They also numbered a future First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Minto), a future Lord Chancellor (Henry Brougham), members of Parliament by the handful, and a cluster of leading philosophers. Through Dugald Stewart, “the Scottish philosophy” touched nearly every aspect of public life in Britain, for Stewart was not just a revered teacher; he was also a great synthesizer and organizer, who put the disparate works of the Scottish school together as a system, the foundation for what we call classical liberalism.
For example, it was Stewart who put Adam Smith on the intellectual map. Prior to Stewart’s lectures on him in 1798, most Edinburgh people knew little about Smith except, as Cockburn (who attended that first class) noted, “that he had recently been a Commissioner of Customs, and had written a sensible book.” Stewart’s lectures turned Wealth of Nations into the fountainhead of all economic theory, and made the book virtually Holy Scripture to generations of Edinburgh-educated thinkers, economists, and politicians—who in turn spread its influence to Oxford, Cambridge, London, and the rest of the English-speaking world.
Stewart merged Smith’s moral realism with the commonsense philosophy of Thomas Reid, who had been his own teacher at Glasgow. Stewart became Reid’s great champion at Edinburgh, almost his alter ego. He gave Reid an air of sophistication, smoothing out his more robust edges and making him attractive to the liberal English temper, just as he did with Smith. In fact, Stewart proved to have more success with English readers than any Scot before him, offering up a smooth synthesis of the Scottish school in a prose “as pleasing and as regular as their own rich fields bounded by hedgerows.”
For example, Stewart downplayed the “common” aspect of the commonsense philosophy, and implied it should really be read as “good sense”—in other words, that our commonsense judgments reflect “that prudence and discretion which are the foundation of successful conduct.” While the foundations of truth were still equally available to all human beings, it was also clear that, in that respect, some are more equal than others. A trained political economist such as Adam Smith, Stewart would argue, will have more insight into the laws of human behavior, and be better able to predict how a certain fiscal policy will compel people to act, than the people themselves. Likewise, an experimental scientist such as Joseph Black will be able to offer a more comprehensive and more precise account of our daily reality than our own untrained and unscientific understanding.
Indeed, for Stewart, science became a powerful, even loaded, word. It represented the operations of the human mind at its highest pitch and turned our common experience of the world into a window on truth itself. The advance of science marked an aspect of human progress as important as civilization itself, Stewart believed; in fact, for him, it virtually defined progress. And although the other aspects of life—art, literature, ethics, politics, and political economy—remained important, Dugald Stewart wanted every student of human nature to strive for the same level of exactitude and precision as the chemist, the physicist, or the biologist.
Of course, other Scottish thinkers had talked about politics as an exact science—David Hume had even written an essay on it. But they had looked for a scientific model as a way to understand politics and human conduct. Stewart was looking for a scientific way to organize it, and perhaps even create something new and better. He taught his students, including future prime ministers, to see the legislator in almost the same position as the experimental scientist or the inventor: applying mind and method to matter, in order to facilitate human happiness. Stewart was no utopian; this was not a blueprint for building a new society from scratch. Rather, he saw “the science of legislation” in Adam Smith’s terms, removing the obstacles that hinder the natural progress of commercial society and its social order. But he did introduce a new notion to the Scottish school. Political progress could take place in the same way it took place in mathematics or chemistry: by exhaustive investigation and research, by developing a clear theory that explained the facts, and then applying it.
Stewart conceded that a true “political science” might not have been possible in the past. But now, in modern Britain, it was. This was Stewart’s other major point. Commercial society was not just more civilized or more productive or more rational than its predecessors; it was qualitatively different from every society that had preceded it. It broke the mold, in a profound sense, of the four-stage theory of civilization. A new dividing line now appeared in history: between the “modern” and the “premodern,” meaning all those efforts at organizing the human community over thousands of years, which had all had their moments of glory and then had come to grief. Something new, great, and permanent was here—the modern world—and the possibilities were limitless.
This buoyant sense of optimism is partly what drew Dugald Stewart to the French Revolution. Stewart was in Paris that fateful summer of 1789, and it was with great excitement that he watched the dramatic events unfolding: the formation of the National Assembly, the storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. A new constitutional order was being born, he believed, based on justice, law, and natural right. He was repelled when the great spokesman of the old Whig Party, Edmund Burke, wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, forecasting doom, death, and dictatorship. Stewart’s student, James Mackintosh, wrote an impassioned reply vindicating the French revolutionary cause. Even the occasional outbreaks of mob violence did not deter Stewart. He wrote to a friend in late November 1791, “The little disorders which may now and then occur in a country, where things in general are in so good a train, are of very inconsiderable importance.”
Then, over the next year, it turned out Burke had been right all along. Edmund Burke, Irishman and Episcopalian, was a strange figure in relation to the Scottish school. He knew many of its members; they heavily influenced his own view of history. But he had rejected their most characteristic conclusion, that the great driving force in the progress of civilization was economic change. Burke insisted it was the other way around: it was the elaborate network of civilized “manners,” meaning morality, law, and tradition grown up over generations, that made a system of commercial exchange based on trust possible, and hence human progress possible. He wrote, “Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our oeconomical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures” of a higher moral order embedded in the fabric of society. Strip that away, he warned, and the entire edifice would come crashing down.
A far cry from Dugald Stewart’s liberal optimism. In the event, Burke’s dire predictions were borne out in almost every detail—including, after his death in 1797, his strong conviction that the revolution must inevitably give way to a military dictator such as Napoleon. It gave Edmund Burke a posthumous reputation for prescience and sagacity that no other British political thinker could challenge. Certainly Stewart looked rather foolish; he was virtually ostracized by Edinburgh society. James Mackintosh publicly apologized for having challenged Burke, and turned into a stalwart critic of the French regime, and of revolutions in general.
But in Stewart’s mind the issue of political progress persisted. He spent the next ten years making the lecture hall ring with his original conviction. A modern society deserved a modern political system, based on liberty, property, and the rule of law. If the French experiment had failed because it had gone too far, that did not mean that something less sweeping and more measured was not possible for Britain—and particularly for Scotland.
Although everyone could now acknowledge that the union with England had been a blessing, it was also clear that the new society that had taken shape in Scotland had outgrown the tight constrictions first imposed in 1707, and then reconfirmed after 1745. Thanks to a rigidly high property qualification, barely one man in twenty had the vote. Economic growth had created an affluent middle class in Glasgow and Edinburgh and Aberdeen that had no voice in how their affairs were governed. “There was no class of the community,” wrote Henry Cockburn years later, “so little thought of at this time as the mercantile. . . . They had no direct political power; no votes; and were far too subservient to be feared.” Instead, political power resided with the lairds and landowners, and with the government’s longtime representative on Scottish affairs, Henry Dundas, or Lord Melville. Cockburn described him, with understandable exaggeration, as “the absolute dictator of Scotland,” who “had the means of rewarding submission and of suppressing opposition beyond what were ever exercised in modern times by one person in any portion of the empire.”
Dundas, or “King Harry the Ninth” as he was known, did control a vast network of patronage and appointments, and nearly half of Scotland’s seats in Parliament. In good times his political machine had kept Scotland on an even keel. In bad times it provoked hostility and frustration. And the 1790s were bad times, not just in Scotland but across England as well. Glasgow weavers had struck in 1787 against rising food prices; harvests failed in 1792 and then again in 1795 and 1796, as the specter of starvation spread across the land (it was, in fact, the backdrop for the first serious wave of Highland clearances). In July 1792, at Fortune’s Tavern in Edinburgh, a group of citizens calling themselves the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People launched a National Convention for a Britain-wide program of reform.
In England, the coming of war with France in 1793 led to a massive crackdown on every suspected “subversive” or “Jacobin” individual or group the government could get its hands on. For twenty years radicals had demanded extension of the franchise, and a voice for ordinary men in Westminster. Now, with the French crisis and the Scottish National Convention as an excuse, they faced savage retribution. Several went on trial for their lives; those in England were acquitted, but Prime Minister William Pitt suspended habeas corpus.
The bad harvests compounded the crisis. Magistrates in Berkshire organized a system of “outdoor relief” or welfare payments for the destitute based on the price of bread, and in October 1795 London broke into violent demonstrations against the opening of Parliament and against the King, Pitt, and the war against France. Two years later things had become so bad, with more suspensions of habeas corpus, a mutiny at the naval base at Spithead, and legislation banning gatherings of more than fifty persons, that opposition Whigs walked out of Parliament in protest.
It was during this crisis that Dugald Stewart introduced his first course on political economy. He was determined to chart a new direction for Britain, just as a coterie of his former students—Francis Horner, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Cockburn, Henry Brougham, and a transplanted Englishman, Sydney Smith—were determined to turn the Whig Party from political pariahs and has-beens into standard-bearers for change.
The group was a volatile mix of youthful spirits, powerful intellects, and burgeoning egos. What drew them together was their commitment to Stewart’s vision of political progress. Smith was a minister, a gifted writer, and a genuine wit. Horner, “grave, studious, honourable, kind,” was studying to be a lawyer, since Edinburgh was a lawyer’s town, although he had tremendous gifts as a mathematician (at twenty he translated Euler’s standard work on algebra into English and composed a short biography of the German mathematician, both of which were published) and scientist. Horner regularly rose two hours before breakfast to do his chemical experiments, and spent his time away from the law books at lectures on anatomy and physiology.
Francis Jeffrey was also a lawyer, and, although not yet thirty, one of Scotland’s best. The house he bought at Craigcrook, three miles from Edinburgh, was the hub of its robust intellectual society. It still stands, a crenellated Renaissance castle remodeled by Jeffrey’s friend William Playfair, where at three o’clock every afternoon writers, artists, painters, lawyers, and university faculty would gather for dinner. At Jeffrey’s table, “the talk [was] always good, but never ambitious, and those listening never in disrepute.” In fact, Edinburgh’s social pace was as relentless as ever, a habit left over from the days when everyone lived next door to one another in the Old Town. Long afterwards, Henry Cockburn calculated that in the first thirty years of his marriage, he and his wife never spent more than one night a month at home alone. Friends, men and women, met night after night at dinner and supper parties, with sumptuous supplies of food, drink, and intellectual discussion.
“It was,” Cockburn admitted, “a discussing age.” None of the great intellectual breakthroughs of those years would have been possible without the incessant give-and-take of after-dinner table talk, with flashing wits, sharp ripostes, bursting laughter, glittering candles, and glowing, ruby-red glasses of sherry and port. As in old Edinburgh, drink opened the doors for free intellectual exchange. The demands of patriotism and a war against France replaced claret with sherry and port (making John Home’s earlier dire prediction come true25), and among the lesser orders, whisky was making a steady progress. This was the final unexpected consequence of Union; the massive increase of taxes on all alcoholic beverages meant that illegal distilling was the only alternative. In 1708, only 50,000 gallons of whisky were produced in all of Scotland; by 1783 the Highlands alone were putting out nearly 700,000, and the Lowlands more than a million. Robert Burns worked briefly in that loneliest of all jobs, whisky excise agent. He gained his keen appreciation of the Scottish countryside while scanning the hills and crags for that telltale smudge of smoke on the horizon, marking an illegal still.
The Scots Magazine in those years noted that Scotland is “the most drunken nation on the face of the earth”—worse even, it confessed shamefacedly, than the Irish. The dinner parties of the smart and respectable flowed with alcohol. Courtesy demanded that after dinner the host offer a toast to each guest in turn, with a respectful nod and flourish of the hand, intoning “your health” or some suitable sentiment with each glass. Then each guest did the same thing, first to the host then each of the other guests. This meant, as Henry Cockburn noted, that “when there were ten people, there were ninety healths drunk.” Henry Brougham remembered being one of a group drunkenly roaming the streets afterwards, wrenching brass knockers off doors and stealing street signs before the Edinburgh night watch could catch them. At one party at Craigcrook, a visiting Englishman (the English were not exactly famous for their sobriety) watched with astonishment as, after innumerable healths and toasts, one of Jeffrey’s guests, an eminent fellow lawyer, “put his wineglass in his pocket and saying, ‘We have sat long enough’ threw up the window and leapt through it to the grass plot and, being followed by the rest, they drank champagne and played at leap-frog.”
Yet on intellectual matters, and especially politics, these hardy carousers were deadly serious. It was at one of these soirées that Sydney Smith casually suggested to Jeffrey reviving the old Edinburgh Review, which had gone defunct in 1757. The idea caught fire: here was a chance to turn a rather routine literary chore, reviewing books, into a powerful vehicle for enlightened liberal opinion, not just on politics but on a whole range of topics, including literature, philosophy, and science. Smith, Jeffrey, and Horner took on the job of writing the essays and reviews for the first issue, to appear that following June of 1802; but the first issue of the new Edinburgh Review did not actually appear until October. The reason was that another person had pushed his way onto the project, someone they did not entirely trust, but whom they realized they could not do without: Henry Brougham.
Brougham was the youngest of the group, only twenty-four, but he was in some ways already the most intellectually accomplished. He was an Edinburgh man by birth; his mother was a niece of William Robertson.26 He represented Dugald Stewart’s intellectual ideal more than any other of Stewart’s students. Horner called him “an uncommon genius, of a composite order,” determined to master every branch of human knowledge; with a mind that could bring mathematical precision to each, and a gift for brilliant prose as well. Like the rest, he was trained as a lawyer. But he also read papers on mathematics to the Royal Society in London (the youngest man ever to do so), founded the Edinburgh Society of Physics in 1796, and then, together with Horner, the Edinburgh Chemical Society. When he joined the Edinburgh Review, he was finishing a two-volume masterwork on colonial policy, which James Mackintosh pronounced the most enlightened work on how to run the British Empire since the Wealth of Nations. Like the rest of the group, he knew all the classical authors and major figures in English literature, almost by heart. He was also a devoted Whig.
Jeffrey and Smith realized Brougham would give enormous assets to the new review, and he was certainly eager to join. The problem was his personality. Overbearing, vain, sarcastic, temperamental, at times almost emotionally unstable: with his dark, piercing eyes, long, pointed nose, and rapid-fire delivery in a slight but unmistakable Scottish burr, Brougham was a dangerous man to cross, at a dinner party, in a court-room, or in the pages of a literary journal. He was, in short, insufferable; but he could not be denied. He wrote nearly one hundred pages of prose for the Review ’s opening issue, with six different articles: three on “Travel,” one on the sugar colonies, one on optics, and one on geology. Thereafter, although Jeffrey served as principal editor, it was Brougham more than anyone else who gave the Edinburgh Review its characteristic tone—and its controversial success.
The impact of that first issue was, as Henry Cockburn described it, “electrical. And instead of expiring as many had wished, in their first effort, the force of the shock was increased in each subsequent discharge.” Everyone in Scotland and England recognized that the Edinburgh Review represented “an entire and instant change of everything that the public had been accustomed to in that sort of composition.” It was the first literary journal to appeal to a broad but educated and serious reading public, not just scholars and literati, but informed citizens, lawyers, doctors, government officials, and, of course, politicians. Its goal was not simply to entertain, or even to educate; it sought to keep readers up to date on the latest state of progress in every important field of human endeavor, and addressed its readers as partners in a single great undertaking, the progress of modern society.
The editors also realized an important secret in publishing, that information is made more memorable when it is tinged with bias. The Edinburgh Review’s motto was, “The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted.” The magazine became famous for its likes and dislikes, although “hatreds” might be a better word—in politics, of course, as the unashamed voice of reform Whigs, but also in literature. It lambasted the Lake Poets and savaged the rising star of the Romantic movement and fellow Scot, Lord Byron, who replied with his satiric poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The editors swung verbal punches at the radical leader William Cobbett (who dismissed them as “shameless Scotch hirelings”) and the Tory poet Robert Southey. Years later, John Stuart Mill’s wife, Harriet Martineau, upbraided Sydney Smith for the savagery of their book reviews. “We were savage,” came the reply, “I remember how Brougham and I sat trying one night how we could exasperate our cruelty to the utmost.”
Yet the cruelty was part of what drew the large audience. Although it riled some of those who were political allies, such as the radical Whig reformer Samuel Romilly, who complained, “the Editors seem to value themselves principally upon their severity,” it made even their enemies read the Review. At the end of 1803, after a year of publication, Smith wrote to Jeffrey from London, “it is the universal opinion of all the cleverest men I have met with here, that our Review is uncommonly well done, and it is perhaps the first in Europe.”
For more than a century, and even after it changed editors in 1827, the Edinburgh Review was the most politically influential, the most intellectually exciting, and the wittiest reading matter in the English-speaking world. As Walter Scott said, “No genteel family can pretend to be without it.” It inspired a host of imitators, including Blackwood’s Journal and the Quarterly Review (both also published in Edinburgh), The Westminster Review, The North American Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. From college rooms in Aberdeen and Oxford to legal chambers in London and Bombay, and government offices in Ottawa and Melbourne, the arrival four times a year of the new issue of the Edinburgh Review, with its blue and yellow cover, was a major event.
What was the key to its success and impact? Part of it was due to its publisher, Andrew Constable, who insisted that the editors pay their reviewers generously. This meant that Jeffrey, and later McVeigh Napier, could hire the best writers in Britain. Their stable of authors included Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, William Hazlitt, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay, G. H. Lewes, Nassau Senior, and Sir James Stephen. Also, despite their clear political bias, the editors always made it clear that literary quality, and intellectual integrity, came first. They made readers feel that the Edinburgh Review was, despite its name, a British publication, with a British sense of national culture. And publishing a piece in the Edinburgh Review made an aspiring author part of an elite; to be known as “an Edinburgh Reviewer” made people stop and stare at dinner parties or literary gatherings—although sometimes it made other people stand up and walk out.
Above all, the Edinburgh Review, for all its political wrangling and literary raillery, communicated a sense of high national purpose. The editors had one mission: to create what Dugald Stewart had said was indispensable to a modern nation, an “enlightened public opinion.” They wanted to take the mantle of reform away from working-class radicals such as Cobbett and ideological extremists such as the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and place it on the shoulders of Britain’s middle class. Jeffrey saw the middle class as the heart of the nation, and the cutting edge of progress. “The example of the middle classes descends by degrees to the ranks immediately below them,” he wrote in 1803, “and the general prevalence of just and liberal sentiments . . . are thus spread by contagion through every order of society. . . .”
The contagion of progress: the Edinburgh Review aspired to be its carrier. Yet when Jeffrey wrote that sentence, its staff was already breaking up. Smith had returned to England. James Mackintosh was in India. Francis Horner, having passed the bar, decided to move his practice to London. After his bibulous farewell dinner in 1803, the group of friends staggered from Fortune’s Hotel to Manderson’s chemist shop, where they twisted off its enormous bronze serpent sign, which Brougham carried home as a souvenir. A few months later Brougham himself was heading to London, as well. The scene of battle was shifting, from Edinburgh to the corridors of power in Westminster.
On January 21, 1806, Brougham and Horner sat together in the gallery of the House of Commons, watching Prime Minister William Pitt fend off the latest Whig challenge to his long-standing primacy. Two days later Pitt was dead. Although he had been the leader of their enemies, the Tories, the Edinburgh Review editors owed him a grudging respect. Pitt had fought hard to bring Britain back after the depths of decline, following the nadir of the 1780s and the American Revolution—fighting often against his own party. He had turned to Adam Smith to revivify British commerce under the banner of Free Trade. He had even praised the Wealth of Nations as “the best solution of every question connected with the history of commerce and with the system of political economy,” six years before Stewart made the book liberal Holy Writ.
But in other areas, Pitt had failed. His attempt to reform the electoral system had gone down to defeat; so had abolition of the slave trade. Despite the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801, legal emancipation for Roman Catholics seemed a long way off. The coming of war with France had forced Pitt to throw off his reformist clothes, and his crackdown on radical elements with the suspension of habeas corpus and the so-called Gagging Acts had an air of hysteria, even desperation, about them. Although Nelson’s victory over the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 meant Britain was safe from invasion, the nation, and its political class, were at deadlock.
The temper of the times, and of the ruling Tories, was epitomized by the legacy of Edmund Burke. His impassioned defense of the English tradition of constitutional liberty, and his suggestion that 1688 was the only revolution England ever needed, had been turned into a justification for inertia. Any further changes, it was argued, would precipitate disaster, as they had in France, and a collapse of law and order. Parliament’s role was to keep the lid on the simmering pot of popular discontent, and if it occasionally boiled over, then the lid had to be pushed down harder.
Jeffrey, Horner, and Brougham were working to change the direction and terms of the national political conversation. They had started it in the pages of the Edinburgh Review; now they looked to Parliament itself. Horner was already contemplating taking a seat in Parliament when Henry Brougham arrived in London. He joined the Whigs’ exclusive social club, Brook’s, and then attended his first dinner party at Holland House, in the heart of fashionable London.
It was a glittering palace of London intellectual and artistic life, the center of Whig politics, and the hub of London’s “Scottish connection.” Lord Byron was poking fun, but also telling the truth, when he wrote:
Blest be the banquets spread at Holland House,
Where Scotchmen feed, and critics carouse.
The leading intellectual lights at Holland House were all Scotsmen. James Mackintosh was one. Another was John Millar, the brilliant and popular University of Glasgow professor, whose Historical View of the English Government had been dedicated to the former leader of the Whigs, Charles James Fox.
Millar first introduced the notion of class conflict into the understanding of modern history. He was also one of the first scholars to discuss the history of women and the history of sex as part of the larger story of civilization, or “the rise of opulence and refinement.” Millar argued that the advent of commercial society brought sweeping changes in the lives of those who were otherwise excluded from a significant social role in prior stages of civilization. Women, children, servants, peasants, and the laboring class, even slaves (Millar cited Kames’s 1774 decision freeing the Jamaican Joseph Knight), all benefited from commercial society’s expansion of opportunity and the breakdown of the age-old patterns of rigid patriarchal authority.
As a society becomes economically more active and affluent, Millar explained, “the lower people, in general, become thereby more independent in their circumstances.” They “begin to exert those sentiments of liberty which are natural to the mind of man.” But here Millar warned of a looming collision, as the people rise up to demand their liberty and the rulers try desperately to hang on to their old position and power. The result must inevitably be revolution. It had happened in Britain once before, Millar argued, during the English Civil War. It had happened again in France, in 1789.
The people will not, indeed cannot, give up their struggle. Responsibility for avoiding revolution, then, belongs to the rulers and ruling class. And it was in order to avoid Millar’s dire prediction from coming true that Brougham wanted to turn the Whig Party into the self-conscious champions of reform.
Even for someone of Brougham’s ego and abilities, it was a daunting undertaking. Since their earliest beginnings the Whigs had been dominated by great landed English families, and their efforts to raise the fortunes of merchants, shopkeepers, and “the lower classes” always had an offhand air of noblesse oblige. Brougham set out to broaden their base and elevate their sense of purpose, first by reaching out to leading radical elements, then by orchestrating a steady public-relations campaign, to make his own progressive views appear as the official Whig view, and vice versa.
The battle began with Brougham making speeches, publishing articles in the Edinburgh Review (he wrote more than fifty-eight in the magazine’s first five years), and using his private legal practice to generate publicity for the cause. His very first speech in Parliament, even before becoming an MP, was as spokesman for Manchester and Liverpool merchants protesting new trade restrictions. The Whigs, not the Tories, now emerged as the champions of free trade. In court, he successfully defended against libel charges the author of a piece condemning flogging in the British army, pointing out that distinguished British officers had condemned the practice in print, in far stronger language. As a result, the Whigs “owned” the issue of army reform.
When Brougham finally entered Parliament in 1810, the year his teacher Dugald Stewart retired, he proved unstoppable, despite his testy temper and overbearing manner. He rose to the front rank of Whig orators, and forced the party into the lists as the champions of “the people” and the enemies of “privilege.” He acted as defense counsel to Queen Caroline in the trial for her divorce from the king, skillfully turning her into a symbolic victim of heartless tyranny and a heroine to ordinary people around the country. He made speeches and wrote a string of articles on slavery, preparing the nation not only for ending the slave trade (which the Whigs finally forced through in 1807), but for its final complete abolition.
But the real battle still loomed on the horizon: parliamentary reform.
Although the English political system had been expanded and elaborated after two revolutions and a century of empire, it had not modified its basic principles since the days of Henry VIII. It was still dominated by the personal patronage of powerful aristocrats, who not only sat in the House of Lords, but could virtually name their friends and relatives to the House of Commons, through their control of county seats and local constitutencies, or “boroughs.” There was no rhyme or reason for deciding who could vote, or where: although the numbers of voters had grown substantially over the eighteenth century, they still represented a tiny minority of adult male Englishmen and Welshmen, barely one in eight—and an even tinier minority of Scotsmen, scarcely one in twenty.
Even more seriously, it remained fixed in a feudal, premercantile mindset. The big agricultural counties, and their landlords, dominated Parliament. Britain’s urban population found itself virtually frozen out, especially the new industrial cities. One of Brougham’s followers, Thomas Macaulay, pointed out that northern London, “a city superior in size and in population to the capitals of many kingdoms,” was totally unrepresented. “It is needless to speak of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, with no representation,” he added, “or of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with a mock representation.” This was not government by property, as its defenders claimed, but government “by certain detached portions and fragments of property . . . on no rational principle whatever.” The issue was, Macaulay concluded, “not whether the constitution was better formerly, but whether we can make it better now.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay was an example of just how far a young man could go in those years, if he had talent, ambition, and wrote for the Edinburgh Review. He was the son of a Scottish abolitionist from Inverary who moved to London, where he became the prime mover in the evangelical reform- and abolition-minded circle known as the “Clapham sect.” Although Zachary Macaulay’s precocious son went to Cambridge instead of Edinburgh or Glasgow, and trained for the English rather than the Scottish bar, he knew the Scottish historians almost by heart, and automatically fit in with the Edinburgh Review set now living in London. It was Brougham who recommended him to Francis Jeffrey as a potential reviewer, and it was his essay on John Milton in the August 1825 issue that made Macaulay famous almost overnight. By defending Milton’s revolutionary politics in the English civil war, and his role in the execution of Charles I, Macaulay turned England’s most famous epic poet, the author of Paradise Lost, into a champion of the radical Whigs. He became the latest sensation at Holland House dinner parties, leaving guests agog at his eloquence and erudition. Four years later, Lord Lansdowne, another of Dugald Stewart’s English pupils and leading Whig, offered him one of the seats in Parliament under his control. In the election of February 1830, Thomas Macaulay entered the House of Commons.
By now the demands for reform had reached critical mass. The year before, the Tories, under the Duke of Wellington, had consented to another major topic in the Whig reform program, Catholic emancipation, but now they dug in their heels on making any further changes. The country was in a deep economic depression. In the Midlands of England, workers and businessmen joined together in the Birmingham Political Union; in the south, laborers rioted and burned farm machinery. After twenty-three years as the party in opposition, the Whigs sensed that their moment had come. On November 2, Wellington made his speech in the House of Lords denying any need for a reform bill. On the fifteenth the Tories lost their last vote and Wellington, the Iron Duke, went to Buckingham Palace to resign.
Five hundred miles away, in far-off Lothian, a team of day laborers were breaking stones in a seaside quarry when the news came that the Tories were out of power. One of them, Alexander Somerville, who later wrote Autobiography of a Working Man, remembered: “We took off our hats and caps, and loud above the north wind, and the roaring sea, shouted ‘Henry Brougham forever!’”
The Whigs were in. In the new cabinet were no less than four former Stewart pupils: Lansdowne, Palmerston, Sir John Russell—and, of course, Henry Brougham. In his explosive, mercurial way, Brougham was the driving force behind the Whig program for reform. It was not as radical as some wished (no vote for working-class Britons and no secret ballot), but it was far more advanced and comprehensive than anything that had ever been proposed by a sitting government.
Brougham would, however, play no role in promoting it in his former arena, the House of Commons. The only position available for him in the Whig cabinet was lord chancellor. The new prime minister, Lord Grey, distrusted Brougham, as many of his own party did; even the prospect of having him as chancellor, a politically minor post, made them uneasy. When the cabinet learned that Brougham had accepted, one of them murmured, “Then we shall never have another comfortable moment in this room.”
But taking his seat in the upper house as Lord Brougham, he made huge efforts to push the bill through. And sitting as England’s most important judicial figure, he also began reforming its legal system and the Court of Chancery. He abolished the abuses and bottlenecks that had tied up lawsuits for generations (and which are described in comic yet horrifying detail in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House) and pushed England’s common-law system forward to meet the modern age.
Instead of Brougham, the party’s leading orator in the Commons was the Scottish abolitionist’s son, and in the end Macaulay’s contribution was more far-reaching and profound. His speeches gave the Reform Bill a historical grounding, and therefore a legitimacy, that even its most fervent supporters had never imagined was there. Thirty-three years old, upright and motionless, “a little man of small voice, and affected utterance, clipping his words and hissing like a serpent,” Macaulay hammered away day after day and in speech after speech. Each time he came back to the same point. This was a decisive moment in English history, and the history of Britain, and that humanity’s political progress now required another turn of the wheel.
It was all, or virtually all, the Scottish school, evoked as justification for a new way to see political change: as reform, an action that preserves at the same time as it alters and improves. Macaulay was quite capable of playing the demagogue, as other Whigs did, warning listeners of the tumult and even bloodshed that could erupt if the bill failed to pass. “The danger is terrible,” he would say. “The time is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.” He stressed, “The great cause of revolutions is this, that while nations move onwards, constitutions stand still.”
But most of his oratory evoked a larger historical canvas, as depicted by the leading figures of the Scottish school from Kames and Hume to Ferguson and Millar. It told of man’s progress from barbarism to civilization, of which an essential part was the growth of political liberty, and participation in self-government. He packed into his speeches a wealth of historical detail and imagery, which he later reused in his classic History of England: “In listening to him,” said one spectator, “you seemed to be like a traveler passing through a rich and picturesque country by railroad.” He mentioned the great figures of the English past, and familiar moments in the securing of constitutional liberty: Magna Carta, the Petition of Right of 1628, the Glorious Revolution of 1688—moments sacred to Tories as well as Whigs. This was another, he said: parliamentary reform was another step “in one great progress” toward Englishmen securing their rights and the nation securing its freedom. In this sense, he suggested that the Reform Bill was a matter of historical inevitablity. “Good or bad, the thing must be done,” he said at one point, “a law as strong as the laws of attraction and motion [in physics] has decreed it.”
Macaulay had found a way to fuse the conservatism of Edmund Burke, whom he greatly admired, with the radicalism of Brougham. The English constitution, with its unique brand of self-government, had saved itself through reform in the past, he asserted, and it was about to do so again. His speeches created a historical framework for Brougham’s political liberalism, and moved the assumptions of the Scottish school directly into the heart of Britain’s political consciousness. And in so doing he may have saved the Reform Bill.
At last, on the night of March 22, 1831, the bill came up for its crucial second reading. Macaulay described to a friend the drama as the house “divided” (that is, as members passed through opposite doors to register their vote) and the Whigs realized they had 302 votes in favor, but still had no idea how many the opposing Tories could muster:
The doors were thrown open and in they came. . . . First we heard that they were three hundred and three—then the number rose to three hundred and ten, then went down to three hundred and seven. Alexander Baring [later Lord Ashburton, and another Dugald Stewart pupil] told me that he had counted and that they were three hundred and four. We were all breathless with anxiety, when Charles Wood who stood near the door jumped on a bench and cried out—“They are only three hundred and one.” We set up a shout that you might have heard to Charing Cross—waving our hats—stamping against the floor and clapping our hands—The tellers scarcely got through the crowd—for the House was thronged up to the table. . . . You might have heard a pin drop as [Chief Whip] Duncannon read the numbers. Then again the shouts broke out—and many of us shed tears. . . .
As Macaulay left (it was now past four o’clock in the morning), he hailed a cab. The first thing the driver asked was, “Is the bill carried?” Macaulay answered, “Yes, by one.” “Thank God for it, sir,” the man replied.
The last chance the Tories had was the House of Lords. On October 8 the Reform Bill came before the upper house, and Brougham made a final speech in support of it, the longest ever given in the House of Lords. He finished dramatically, kneeling before the hushed house, his arms stretched out over his head, as he pleaded, “I solemnly adjure you—I warn you—I implore you—yea, on my bended knees, I supplicate you—Reject not this Bill.”
Yet reject it they did, by a wide margin. The question was what to do next; the country demanded reform or revolution, yet the Lords were adamant. It was Brougham who came up with the solution. There could be no compromise on the bill itself, he told the rest of the cabinet. It would be a mistake “to sacrifice a tittle of our principle or a grain of the Confidence we had gained in the House of Commons and Country by any thing like negotiation.” Instead, he urged, the government should threaten to create enough new peers to allow the bill to pass. It was pure political brinksmanship. If the House of Lords did not budge, they would see their influence diluted and their hallowed institution destroyed—and the Reform Bill would still pass.
It worked. The new King, William IV, agreed in advance to create sixty new peers if the upper house refused to pass the bill as it was, without amendments. The House of Lords gave way, and on June 7, 1832, the Reform Bill became law.
Exactly 125 years earlier, the Scottish old regime had abolished itself, under an onslaught of English-inspired ideas and hardball politicking by the Crown. All at once, Scotland found itself thrust into the glare of the modern world. Now the roles had been reversed. Scottish ideas and political brinksmanship had toppled the English old regime, and nailed together a constitutional formula suitable for a modern nation, both north and south.
The actual changes in English politics were less than met the eye. The number of male voters rose from perhaps one in eight to one in five—hardly popular democracy, let alone mob rule. The landed interest lost many of their old nomination boroughs, but otherwise remained firmly in power. The industrial cities won representation for their middle class, but not their workers. In Scotland and Ireland, change was more sweeping because there was so much further to go. Henry Cockburn, as Solicitor-General for Scotland, oversaw the Whigs’ Scottish Reform Bill that same year, which raised the number of voters from 4,500 to more than 65,000. Eight new burgh constituencies were created, with Dundee, Perth, and Aberdeen winning a seat apiece. But the old landed aristocracy was as important as ever, and the urban middle class was kept firmly in check. And, as in England, there was still no secret ballot.
But the direction of the future was clear, as was how to get there, thanks to Brougham and Macaulay. The British constitution had a new, self-conscious principle: change as reform, rather than revolution. Even the Tories learned the lesson Macaulay had set forth: “the great cause of revolutions is this, that while nations move onwards, constitutions stand still.” In fact, the next major expansion of the electorate, the Second Reform Bill of 1867, which gave the vote for the first time to members of the working class, was a Tory measure passed by a Tory government. By then the Whigs were calling themselves Liberals. Their chief was Dugald Stewart’s former pupil Lord Russell; their leader in the House of Commons was William Gladstone, son of a Glasgow businessman, who would be prime minister the following year. Yet another Liberal MP and son of a Scot, John Stuart Mill, even tried to amend the bill to include votes for women—without success.
In British politics, reverence for the past was giving ground to the demand for change. The forward-looking, results-driven manner of Scottish liberalism had won out. However, that backward-looking Burkean impulse discovered a new outlet in the realm of culture, and revealed unexpected reserves of strength—thanks to another Edinburgh man, Scotland’s greatest writer.