Eighteenth-century middle-class English radicalism

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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 English radicals.2

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 Age, (1825).

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)].