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This essay first appeared in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, vol.
III, no. 2 Summer 1980, published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979)
and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the
editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
Although the editorials were unsigned, they were probably written by
the Editor Leonard P. Liggio or the Managing Editor John V. Cody. It is republished with thanks
to the original copyright holders.
Eighteenth-century middle-class English radicalism represented a
rebirth. The earlier seventeenth-century English radicalism, achieving
a full flowering during the English Revolution, became a thin
intellectual connection after the Restoration. The stout advocates of
the "Old Cause"—the liberty-loving Commonwealthmen—are more significant
in the history of ideas than in the political movements of their time.
However, with the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Whig ascendency,
English radicalism was free to reemerge. There was much for the Middle
Class to be radical about.
The Whig ascendency brought both respect for individual rights from
arbitrary power and the vast growth of government power and its source
in taxation. To fight wars without sufficient popular support,
ministers resorted to deficit financing. New public financial
institutions were necessary to underwrite unpopular wartime
expenditures. A Public Finance Revolution materialized. The Bank of
England, with the powers of a central bank, was created by the
government to underwrite loans to the government; the National Debt was
organized to develop credit for the government.
The Bank of England, the National Debt, the standing army, and
increased taxation were the targets of the new generation of radicals
in the eighteenth century. Cato's Letters and the Independent Whig
of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon not only developed out of the same
intellectual atmosphere as John Locke's writings but equally had a
major impact on eighteenth-century radical though in the
English-speaking world—England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. John
Adams, writing in 1816, recalled that in the 1770s in America "Cato's Letters and the Independent Whig, and all the writings of Trenchard and Gordon, Mrs. Macaulay's History, Burgh's Political Disquisitions, Clarendon's History… all the writings relative to the revolutions in England became fashionable reading."
Carl B. Cone1 describes the mid-eighteenth-century middle-class culture from which dissenting
radicalism developed. Members were expelled from congregations because their
bankruptcies were disgracing their fellow believers. From such traditions,
came the organizers and leaders of the radical societies of the late eighteenth
century—societies which brought together advocates of liberty from very
differing cultural traditions. John Wilkes's aristocratic lack of seriousness
did not deter middle-class support in his battles for freedom of the press
or in the right of the freeholders of Middlesex county to elect him to Parliament
despite Parliament's repeated refusal to seat him.
In 1769 middle-class radicals organized the Society of the Supporters of the
Bill of Rights to provide financial and political backing to Wilkes's legal
and parliamentary contests.
Leaders of the merchant firms, the bar, intellectual circles, and
the Anglican and dissenting churches became the spokesmen for a very
active English Radicalism. Alderman John Sawbridge, M.P.; his sister,
the whig historian Catherine Macaulay; the Rev. John Horne Tooke; the
lawyer John Glynn, M.P.; and others fueled the Bill of Rights Society's
advocacy not only of Englishmen's rights, but of the rights of Irishmen
and Americans as well. Henry Grattan in the Irish Commons and Patrick
Henry in the Virginia Burgesses drew inspiration and support from the
Historical studies were a major element in the development of a radical consciousness.
The reality of the past had to be recaptured from the control of aristocratic
or court historians. Thomas Brand Hollis devoted himself to the publication
of the works of the seventeenth-century radicals. Mrs Catherine Macaulay's
histories of seventeenth-century English revolutionary events were widely read.
For the radicals, there was the strong desire "to go back to the early
times of our Constitution and history in search of the principles of law and
liberty".3 The radicals
had a strong commitment to the pre-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon constitution.
The Anglo-Saxon assemblies, the local associations of Hundreds, the customary
judicial systems with the ultimate powers in the jury, and regional defense
organization based on the popular militia—all were central ideas for
the eighteenth-century radicals. Their objective was the restoration of these
institutions and the elimination of those that had arisen in their place.4
For eighteenth-century radical thought, in addition to commerce and
history, there was an important role given to religion and science.
Many of the leading radical clergymen were not only teachers and
publicists but scientists. Unlike the Continent, England cultivated
science, religion and liberty in close connections. Radical clubs,
whose cores often were composed of clergymen, were the important
scientific centers since the establishment universities avoided new
ideas in science as they did in politics. [Cf. V. W. Crane, "The Club
of Honest Whigs: Friends of Science and Liberty," William and Mary Quarterly, 23 (1966) pp. 210–33].
1. Carl B. Cone, The English Jacobins, Reformers
in Late 18th Century England (1968).
2. Colin Bonwick, English Radicals and
the American Revolution (1977) for the influence of American revolutionary
ideas on English radicalisim.
3. William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the
4. Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman
and His History (1945), Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty (1979),
Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (1968), and J. G. A.
Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: English Historical
Thought in the Seventeenth Century (1957)].