“In every society,” said Adam Smith, “where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have always been two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which one may be called the strict or austere, the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people, the latter … more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.”17 John Wesley, who belonged to the austere class, described English morality in 1757 as a medley of smuggling, false oaths, political corruption, drunkenness, gambling, cheating in business, chicanery in the courts, servility in the clergy, worldliness among Quakers, and private embezzlement of charitable funds.18 It is an old refrain.

Then, as now, sexual differentiation was far from complete. Some women tried to be men, and almost succeeded; we hear of cases where women disguised themselves as men and maintained the deception till death; some joined the army or navy as men, drank, smoked, and swore like men, fought in battle, and bore flogging manfully.19 Toward 1772 “Macaronis” became prominent on London streets; they were young men who wore their hair in long curls, dressed in rich materials and striking colors, and “wenched without passion”; Selwyn described them as “a kind of animal neither male nor female, but of the neuter gender.”20 Homosexualism had its brothels, though homosexual acts, if detected and proved, were punishable with death.

The double standard flourished. A thousand bordellos served tumescent men, but those men branded female unchastity as a crime for which only death could atone. So the gentle Goldsmith:

When lovely woman stoops to folly
And finds too late that men betray,—
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover
And wring his bosom, is—to die.21

Early marriage was advised as a preventive of such calamities. The law allowed girls to marry at twelve, boys at fourteen. Most women of the educated classes married young, and deferred their deviations; but then the double standard checked them. Hear Johnson on adultery (1768):

Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime, and therefore the woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God, but he does not do his wife a very material injury if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife has not been negligent of pleasing.22

In Boswell’s own circle it was taken as quite ordinary that men should occasionally go to a prostitute. In the aristocracy—even in the royal familyadultery was widespread. The Duke of Grafton, while chief minister, lived openly with Nancy Parsons, and took her to the opera in the face of the Queen.23 Divorce was rare; it could not be obtained except by act of Parliament, and as this cost “several thousand pounds,” it was a luxury of the rich; only 132 such grants were recorded in the years 1670-1800.24 It was generally supposed that the morals of the commonalty were better than those of the aristocracy, but Johnson thought otherwise (1778): “There is as much fornication and adultery amongst farmers as amongst noblemen,” and “so far as I have observed, the higher in rank, the richer ladies are, they are the better instructed, and the more virtuous.”25 The literature of the day, as in Fielding and Burns, pictured the peasant as celebrating almost every weekend with a carouse, spending half his pay in taverns, and some on tarts. Each class sinned according to its ways and means.

The poor fought one another with fists and cudgels, the rich with pistols and swords. Dueling was a point of honor in the nobility; Fox fought Adam, Shelburne fought Fullerton, Pitt II fought Tierney; it was difficult to get through a titled life without at least one puncture. Many stories attest the sang-froid of British gentlemen in these encounters. Lord Shelburne, having received a wound in the groin, assured his anxious seconds, “I don’t think Lady Shelburne will be the worse for it.”26

Worse than the looseness of sexual morals was the brutality of industrial exploitation: the merciless consumption of human life in the grasp for profits; the use of children six years of age in factories or as chimneysweeps; the reduction of thousands of men and women to such destitution that they sold themselves into payless bondage for passage to America; the governmental protection of the slave trade as a precious source of England’s wealth ...

From Liverpool, Bristol, and London—as from Holland and Francemerchants sailed to Africa, bought and captured Negroes, shipped them to the West Indies, sold them there, and returned to Europe with lucrative cargoes of sugar, tobacco, or rum. By 1776 English traders had carried three million slaves to America; add 250,000 who died in passage and were thrown into the sea. The British government granted an annual subsidy of £ 10,000 to the African Company and its successor, the Regulated Company, toward the maintenance of their forts and posts in Africa, on the ground that they were “the most beneficial to this island of all the Companies that were ever formed by our merchants.”27 George III (1770) forbade the governor of Virginia “to assent to any law by which the importations of slaves should be in any respect prohibited or obstructed.”28 In 1771 there were in England about fourteen thousand Negroes, who had been brought in by their colonial masters, or had escaped from them; some were used as domestic servants with no right to wages;29 some were sold at public auction, as in Liverpool in 1766. 30 In 1772, however, an English court ruled that a slave automatically became a free man the moment he touched English soil.31

Slowly the conscience of England awoke to the contradiction between this traffic and the simplest dictates of religion or morality. The finest spirits in Britain denounced it: George Fox, Daniel Defoe, James Thomson, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, William Paley, John Wesley, William Cowper, Francis Hutcheson, William Robertson, Adam Smith, Josiah Wedgwood, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox. The first organized opposition to slavery was by the Quakers in England and America; in 1761 they excluded from their membership all persons engaged in the traffic; in 1783 they formed an association “for the relief and liberation of the Negro slaves in the West Indies, and for the discouragement of the slave trade on the coast of Africa.”32In 1787 Granville Sharp formed a committee to advance abolition; in 1789 William Wilberforce began his long campaign in the House of Commons to end the English trade in slaves. The merchants repeatedly persuaded the House to defer action; it was not till 1807 that Parliament enacted that no vessel should carry slaves from any port within the British dominions after May 1, 1807, or to any British colony after March 1, 1808.33

In political morality England now touched nadir. The rotten-borough system flourished, and the nabobs outbid all other purchasers. Franklin deplored the American war for a peculiar reason: “Why did they not let me go on? If they [the colonies] had given me a fourth of the money they have spent on the war, we should have had our independence without spending a drop of blood. I would have bought all the Parliament, the whole government of Britain.”34 Corruption ruled in the Church, the universities, the judiciary, the civil service, the army and navy, and the councils of the King. Military discipline was more rigorous than in any other European country35 with the possible exception of Prussia; and when the men were demobilized nothing was done to ease their transition into a useful and law-abiding life.

Social morality hovered between the essential good nature of the individual Englishman and the irresponsible brutality of mobs. Between 1765 and 1780 there were nine major riots, nearly all in London; we shall see an example presently. Crowds ran to a hanging as a holiday, and sometimes bribed the hangman to be especially thorough in flogging a prisoner.36 The penal code was the severest in Europe. Language in nearly all classes tended to violence and profanity. The press engaged in orgies of vituperation and calumny. Almost everyone gambled, if only in the national lottery, and almost everyone drank to excess.

The faults of the English character were allied to its basic quality—a hearty, lusty vigor. The peasant and the factory laborer expended it in toil, the nation showed it in every crisis but one. Out of that vigor came the voracious appetite, the high spirits, the resort to prostitutes, the brawls in the pubs and the duels in the park, the passion of parliamentary debate, the capacity for suffering silently, the proud claim of every Englishman that his home was his castle, not to be entered except by due process of law. When, in this age, England was defeated, it was by Englishmen who had transplanted to America the English passion for freedom. Mme. du Deffand noted the diversity of individuals in the Englishmen whom she met, and most of whom she never saw. “Each one,” she said, “is original; there are no two alike. We [French] are just the opposite; when you have seen one of our courtiers you have seen all.”37 And Horace Walpole agreed: “It is certain that no other country produces so many singular and discriminate characters as England.”38Look at Reynolds’ men: they agree only in their pride of country and class, their ruddy faces, their bold confronting of the world. It was a powerful breed.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!