Front Page Titles (by Subject) 283.: WAKEFIELD'S POPULAR POLITICS EXAMINER, 29 JAN., 1837, PP. 70-1 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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283.: WAKEFIELD’S POPULAR POLITICS EXAMINER, 29 JAN., 1837, PP. 70-1 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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WAKEFIELD’S POPULAR POLITICS
Mill’s return to the newspapers after an absence of more than a year shows his continued interest in the views of Wakefield, especially at a time when his hopes for Radical coherence and strength were high. This review, in the “Literary Examiner,” is headed “Popular Politics. By Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Esq. [London:] Charles Knight. [1837.]” It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A notice of E.G. Wakefield’s ‘Popular Politics’ in the Examiner of 29th January 1837”
(MacMinn, p. 48).
this is not a new book, but consists of “Extracts from various publications, by the same author, all of which are out of print.”1 They are mostly from his writings on the Punishment of Death,2 or from England and America—a work which, though very extensively known to be from his pen, Mr. Wakefield had not, so far as we are aware, hitherto avowed.3
Mr. Wakefield is one of the most vigorous and effective writers of our time. But we do not think that this little volume gives an adequate notion of his merits. It is a book of fragments, and Mr. Wakefield, whether as a thinker or a writer, shines less in parts than in the whole. As a writer, his forte is general effect, while the means by which he produces it will not always bear a critical inspection. His thoughts, indeed, like all thoughts of value, might be exhibited, successfully, for some purposes, in small compass: but such is not his way of exhibiting them; he rather (and it is to this he owes the great success of his works) places a principle before us, clothed in properties and circumstances, than nakedly, and in the abstract he shows us the principle actually at work, makes us see how many things it explains, and even in how wide a sphere its influence is exerted. Though his thoughts are large and comprehensive, it is by an accumulation of details that he makes them tell. If those details are exhibited partially, the effect is not produced.
The fundamental idea, for instance, of England and America, was, that the peculiarity in the economical condition of most old countries is a scarcity, not of labour in proportion to capital, nor of capital in proportion to labour, but of land, in proportion both to the one and the other.4 The mode in which he proved this was by a survey of all the leading economical circumstances of English society, the condition of every particular class, and especially the uneasinesses of every particular class; and of these he gave a picture, which for graphic power and coarse vigour of colouring, has hardly ever been exceeded. Having brought these various phenomena thus vividly before the imagination, he showed that the cause he had assigned, deficiency of land in proportion to labour and capital, or excess of labour and capital in proportion to land, was at the root of them all. His conclusion was, that the resource is to remedy the disproportion; to extend our soil, partly by rendering foreign soils virtually ours, through the free admission of their produce, and partly by systematic colonization of the immense uncultivated tracts of our ultramarine possessions, on the only rational plan possible—the plan which Mr. Wakefield invented, and which Parliament has adopted as the basis of the new colony of South Australia.5
All this is done, and done most powerfully in the book: but comparatively little of the same power is apparent in the fragments now detached from it, because the effect depends on the concatenation. Nevertheless, some of the passages are sufficiently long, and sufficiently complete in themselves, to be read with interest, and with some, though far from an adequate feeling of the author’s powers. We would instance, particularly, his sketch of the middle, or, as he terms it, the “uneasy” class (pp. 26-47).6
The passage in which is extracted most of the marrow of the book, is that entitled “Ships, Colonies, and Commerce” (pp. 87-97).7 Some of the passages from his writings on capital punishment, and on transportation, bear extraction better; such as that most highly-wrought description of a “Condemned Sermon:”8 but the interest in these topics is, for the present, at least, comparatively suspended.
There are some few passages, mostly near the beginning, which we regret to see; that, for instance, which is headed “The bold Peasantry of England,”9 to which the author has had the grace to prefix “written in 1831;” but it would have been better, we think, not to have included among his extracts a passage which the light since thrown upon the condition of the people has shown to be fundamentally erroneous. The peasantry are not, and were not, in the condition of physical privation described in that passage; and the higher classes, though chargeable with most of the other offences he imputes to them, were far from meriting the reproach implied in such expressions as “they make rates of wages, elaborately calculating the minimum of food that will keep together the soul and body of a clodhopper.” [P. 7.] On the contrary they produced boundless mischief by errors on the contrary side—that of profuse distribution of relief, and misplaced humanity. Again, we altogether question Mr. Wakefield’s position that gin-drinking is the effect of poverty.10 The Poor Law Inquiry has gone far to establish that, in the towns where alone gin-drinking prevails, the wages even of the lowest class of labourers are such as utterly to preclude anything like actual want where there is reasonable industry and economy.11 We believe that the gin-drinking population is the vicious population, not the indigent. We have objections to make to some other passages, but we waive the invidious task of selecting the bad particles from so much good. Mr. Wakefield’s fault as a writer is that of overcolouring for effect, and his tints generally require to be lowered a little to render them consistent with nature; but his outlines—always bold—are generally correct. Some of his political doctrines, we may add, require considerable qualifications.
We cannot close without expressing our great admiration of the narrative and dramatic power displayed in the historical sketch of the recent political events in England, which Mr. Wakefield has given us in his England and America, and which we wish he had reprinted entire.12 The fragments of it which he has given in this volume, though sufficient to recal our fading reminiscences, can convey no adequate conception to those to whom the great original is not known. We quote, however, one passage:
At length, on the memorable 1st of March, 1831, the Whig cabinet produced their bill, themselves alone being aware of its contents until it was laid before the House of Commons.
An abstract of the Whig bill would not describe it so well as an account of its reception by the three great parties which then divided the country.
The Conservatives, including those who quarreled with Wellington on account of Catholic relief, were delighted with the bill; they chuckled, and laughed, and clapped their hands. Was there ever, said they, anything so extravagant? The Whigs must be mad: thank God, they had gone far enough. Such a bill! revolutionary was too good an epithet for it. So ridiculous, so preposterous a bill would not be read a first time. The Whigs must resign; they had cut their own throats; nothing could be better.
The feeling of the moderate Reformers was expressed by one of the richest men in England, a Whig, but leaning to utilitarian opinions. He declared in the House of Commons, that the bill took away his breath. Perhaps he was affected, not so much by the bill itself, as by the evidence, which the introduction of such a bill by the cabinet furnished of the force of the popular will.
The decided enemies of the Constitution having examined the bill, said—It is a good first step: pass it, pass it!13
We know not whether this passage, standing by itself, will be felt by others as we feel it, who are acquainted with the whole of which it is but a minute part; but to us it seems that a history of England, written in this style, would be one of the most popular historical productions ever printed.
[1 ]Taken from the heading of the Contents page.
[2 ]Including Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis (London: Ridgway, 1831) and The Hangman and the Judge (London: Wilson, ).
[3 ]It was published anonymously by Bentley in 1833.
[4 ]See, e.g., p. vi; the idea is developed passim.
[5 ]See, e.g., Wakefield’s Sketch of a Proposal for Colonizing Australasia, p. 15. The scheme was enacted in 4 & 5 William IV, c. 95 (1834).
[6 ]Extracted from England and America, Vol. I, pp. 82-105.
[7 ]Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 84-95.
[8 ]Pp. 97-103; extracted from Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death, pp. 158-66.
[9 ]Pp. 2-8; extracted from England and America, Vol. I, pp. 48-54, where it is presented as quoted from “one of the countless pamphlets on pauperism lately written by Englishmen,” in fact, from Wakefield’s own Swing Unmasked (London: Wilson, 1831), pp. 9-15.
[10 ]“Cause of Gin-Palaces,” pp. 8-14.
[11 ]See Extracts from the Information Received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor-Laws, pp. 321-4.
[12 ]The eight fragments beginning “The Working Classes in Our Fathers’ Time” and ending “Extension of the Suffrage,” which appear on pp. 54-78 of Popular Politics, are taken (with gaps) from England and America, Vol. I, pp. 150-91, where they appear in Note V (Wakefield uses “Note” rather than “Chapter”), “Political Prospects of the English,” which in full runs from p. 135 to p. 208.
[13 ]“Reception of the Reform Bill,” pp. 70-1 (extracted from England and America, Vol. I, pp. 175-6); Wakefield identifies in a footnote the rich Whig as John Smith (1767-1842), London banker, M.P. for Buckinghamshire, who made the remark in his speech of 4 Mar., 1831 (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 3, cols. 33-5). For Russell’s speech of 1 Mar., introducing the Reform Bill, see ibid., Vol. 2, cols. 1061-89. For such Conservative reactions as Wakefield describes, see the speeches on 2 Mar. by William David Murray (1806-98), later Earl of Mansfield, and by John Walsh (1798-1881), ibid., cols. 1182-87 and 1187-90, respectively, for the reaction of an “enemy of the Constitution” who thought the Bill a good first step, see the speech of 2 Mar. by Joseph Hume, ibid., cols. 1156-60.