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The Rhetorical Process in Eighteenth Century England
Michael C. McGee
The University of Iowa
(p. 99) There has been a tendency among rhetoricians
to think of "broad" rhetorical principles operating in much
the same way regardless of intellectual or political climate.(1)
This tendency has made students of British and American public address
more prone than most to what Herbert Butterfield calls the "Whig
fallacy" in our understanding of the history of Anglo-America. We
tend to accept a discounted portrayal of the history of Anglo-America
as a God-driven progression from the absolute evils of autocracy, aristocracy,
and monarchy to the absolute goods of democracy, representative government,
and free speech.(2) Because
rhetorical principles were conceived in a democracy of sorts, and because
they currently operate most visibly in western democracies, it is assumed
that rhetoric functioned in the past as it does today. We take fashionable
prejudices about communication and persuasion in "free societies"
as a touchstone and proceed to trace the "origins" of these
prejudices. This bias, though at times illuminating, is counterproductive
first because it tautologically reinforces a monistic view of rhetoric
but more than that, the bias undercuts an opportunity to see rhetoric
functioning in relatively "closed" societies. We who work in
ages when democracy was heresy defeat ourselves when we look for the effects
of public argument in election results, votes in national assemblies which
are only apparently "deliberative," or in legislated "reforms"
which "anticipate" democracy.(3)
The Whig fallacy in rhetoric as in history is essentially
a psychological one.(4) If
we assume the rhetorical process in a free society to be perfect, our
past can only be imperfect, as a child is an imperfect adult. We take
(p. 100) it to be right that the people are
employers of ministers. And when we look back to Swift's Observor
or Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, we note
the tremendous popular response to them but we characterize their
importance as a link in a chain of causation from past to present, hardly
looking at all for the intrinsic significance of popular will in
the eighteenth century. Think, for example, how it would change our notion
of rhetoric if, instead of thinking of the eighteenth century as a period
of imperfect democracy, we think of it as a period of perfect limited
monarchy. It was, of course, neither; but the supposition allows us to
see how thoroughly a psychological set can mislead us in understanding
the rhetorical process.
The purpose of this paper is to isolate the rhetorical process in a predominantly
closed society-England in the eighteenth century. It is an unusual undertaking
because, in an attempt to avoid a Whiggish bias, scant attention is paid
the usual theme of British public address. Though there is some evidence
of social "movement" from a predominantly "closed"
society in 1688 to a predominantly "open" society in 1832, I
believe such a theme to be misleading. If only because of the intrusion
of the French Revolution and the near-pathogenic reaction to it, English
society remained nearly as closed in 1800 as it was in 1700.(5)
Rather than think of the eighteenth century rhetorical process as an imperfect
form of the one we enjoy today, I would reinforce the notion that rhetoric
functions differently in different political systems.
The Structure of Power
Without constructing speculative myths about the origins of government,
one may safely suggest that politics is the art of giving form to that
power which inherently resides in the state. Through the medium of law,
precedent, or perhaps a written constitution, power is distributed in
societies and "rules" established for its exercise.
Persons who are made arbiters of power are governed to a great
extent by the form of power itself, what might be called the "political
structure." But, because they are men
human, each has the opportunity to choose whether that portion
of the state's power he manipulates should be used, how it should be used,
when and where it should be used. This capacity to choose gives rise to
public argument in two ways. First, and most obviously, there are men
persons who can assume power that they are not entitled to by persuading
the officers of state to use their powers in certain (p.
101) ways. Secondly, public officials who are entitled to power
use public argument to justify their decisions as Sir Lewis Namier
observes, even "monarchs feel constrained to give reasons."(6)
It is obvious that advocates whether they intend to persuade or
to justify must be governed by the form which persuasion must take
if it is to be effective. The form which persuasion must take,
what I am calling a "rhetorical process," is like steps in a
ballroom dance, the movements of the body that make this dance a waltz
and not a samba.(7) may
be called a "rhetorical process." The rhetorical
process parallels the political structure in that the means of persuasion
must vary according to the relative power, accessibility, and inclination
of the individual official addressed. This is so
because rhetoric has no real power in itself. It is entirely dependent
on political power and the whims of those who control it. Theoretically,
in short, all rhetorical processes are peculiar to the power structure
in which they operate.
Though democratic or "open" in appearance, the eighteenth century
English political structure was autocratic or "closed" in at
least three ways directly affecting the rhetorical process: (1) elections
served more to guarantee public service than to affect national policy;
(2) deliberative assemblies were more formal than functional; (3) because
of deliberative apathy, executive authority was in practice
The eighteenth century House of Commons was divided into 558 constituencies:
489 elected in England, 24 named from Wales, and 45 for Scotland. The
Commons was composed of representatives "elected" by "the
people" every seven years or at the death of a monarch. "The
people," however, meant 2.3 percent of the population, those who
had the franchise. "Election," too, had an unusual meaning:
excluding Scotland (where the Duke of Argyll in effect named all 45 members),
a total of 106 borough "patrons" determined or influenced the
election for 192 seats in Commons. An additional 32 seats were under the
immediate patronage of the Crown. Thus, 234 of the English seats in Commons,
some 41.9 percent of the votes in Commons, were determined without what
modern men would call an "election"(8).
Most of the remaining 324 seats belonged to the counties, where the influence
of what Namier calls "the squirearchy" determined the outcome
of elections. The squires owned the land and dictated the votes of the
various freeholders in their areas. J. S. Watson writes: (p.102):
The village lived very much unto itself. . . . The multitude of
small producers ... would find their best patron in the local squire
or lord. To offend him was desperately bad for business. The squire
was the centre of authority and of culture.(9)
Though Namier believes that "not more than one in twenty voters
at county elections could freely exercise his statutory rights,"
that fact is misleading for a modern reader.(10)
The squires did not permit "free" elections, and that from a
modern bias is bad; but the squires did pride themselves on their "independence"
from the government and thus constituted the most "democratic"
element in the House of Commons.(11)
Elections could be called meaningful in a modern sense only in the twenty-two
boroughs with an electorate in excess of one thousand. In commenting on
these so-called "open constituencies," Namier agrees with Aristotle
that "the many are more incorruptible than the few": quoting
an election agent of Newcastle's, he concludes that "it's not in
the power of any single person, let his weight [influence]
be what it will, to determine the mood of sixteen or seventeen hundred
Even here, however, there was nothing approaching "democratic elections"
as we understand that term, for though the "large constituencies
opened a field for mass movements," it was nonetheless true that
"power to exercise decisive influence in problems of national importance
... was used primarily to satisfy local or even personal needs."(13)
If elections in Michigan counted for no more, we would say that the system
there was "corrupt." But that judgment can be passed on the
eighteenth century system only if we assume that voters in that period
present-day political ethic. This was not the case. Elections in
the eighteenth century were not meant to guarantee a voice in government.
Voting was a "right" for the freeman, but it was a property
right in the eighteenth century, not the human right it has become. In
an age of limited government, the election system guaranteed governmental
services now provided by the vast bureaucracies in Washington, London,
or Ottawa. There was no Ministry of Labor or Department of Health, Education,
and Welfare not even an Army Corps of Engineers but there
was a local patron, who, in return for the freeman's vote, provided the
public services we have come to expect from legislation.(14)
So the very conception of "people" and "election"
in the eighteenth (p.103) century political
system precluded an open rhetorical process. Though in another time substantive
political issues would be debated on the hustings and decided at the polls,
the elections of the eighteenth century were, in modern terms, meaningless
formalities. Persuasion aimed at influencing the outcome of elections
could end only in alienating important arbiters of power, the various
patrons and squires who determined the membership of the House of Commons.
If elections were mere formalities, deliberations in Parliament were only
a little less so. It was true in the eighteenth century, as it is
the twentieth today, that no minister
could sustain a government without a working majority in the House of
Commons. As Commons was anxious to demonstrate to their erring American
cousins in the passage of the Declaratory Act of 1766, ultimate effective
power rested in Parliament as a result of settlements reached in 1688.(15)
That power, however, was exercised so capriciously that parliamentary
authority became a technicality, not a matter of fact. Characteristically,
Parliament deferred its power to the Cabinet Council. The Council consisted
of the king and his most trusted advisers, or of men who, for one reason
or another, were deemed essential for the maintenance of a majority in
the House of Commons. Only on a whim, or on rare occasions when it appeared
that the power or privilege of Parliament was threatened, was there a
confrontation between either the Council and the Parliament or the king
and the Parliament.
It was a matter of constitutional principle that the king's ministers
were "accountable" to "the people." "The people"
of course were represented in Parliament. "Accountability" referred
to the responsibility of ministers to outline their intended actions,
explain them, and offer some justification for them. The justification
did not have to be one with which all Members agreed; it
merely had to be one which all Members could understand and think reasonable.
Strangely enough, John Wilkes, an outspoken and demagogic opponent of
the Bute ministry, stated this principle (and then ridiculed it) in one
of the North Briton essays:
I have happily taught myself the useful lesson that those who are
superior to me in rank, must, of consequence, be superior in understanding
also.... Till (p. 104) the contrary
appears, it is justice we owe to every administration, to suppose
they have some reason for what they do.(16)
So ingrained was this sense of presumption on the part of government
that we find Sir Fletcher Norton, the king's Attorney General, perplexed
in the debate on General Warrants that speakers could continue arguing
against the legality of the General Warrant:
He should regard a resolution of the Members of the House of Commons
no more than the oaths of so many drunken porters in Covent Garden
when the Administration found that no justification, no precedents,
no usage of office, would avail [to quiet the opposition].(17)
As a consequence of government's presumption, ministers in the eighteenth
century were not "forced" from office for lack of a majority
in the House of Commons. Several men, under pressure from mob violence
and an organized opposition, were "persuaded" to leave their
posts, but in each such case there had been a demonstrated majority for
the key policies of their administration.(18)
This, of course, is not to say that the administration always voted in
the majority. The balance of power in the House of Commons was always
held by "independents." From time to time, particularly in the
last quarter of the century, they were wont to demonstrate their intractability
by voting against the government, as in the passage of the Dunning Resolution.(19)
Such votes, however, were, according to Brooke and Namier, "whims
and caprices" rather than calculated to "force a change of hands."
They see as characteristic of antiministry votes the mood detected by
an agent of the younger William Pitt in 1785:
The explanation to all this is neither more nor less than that
the House of Commons being at present perhaps too independent ...
has many whims and caprices, and will decide against any minister,
sometimes without ill-will to him in the main (20).
And the presumption of government even overrode Commons' "whims
and caprices". North, for example, lost four votes of middling significance
in 1773, 1774, 1779, and 1780, each unconnected with his American policy.
He begged to be allowed to resign in 1778, but the king would not allow
it and, though he lost skirmishes, he held his government and his
majority (p. 105) together for four years
until George III decided to give up his American ghost!
Parliament balked, hesitated, and complained, but in the end it supported
the existing government (21).
Though "oppositions" arose in moments of crisis, it is also
true paradoxically so that the government's presumption
was strongest in such times. With but few exceptions between 1688 and
1814, momentary threats to ministerial policy were marked by poor attendance
in the House of Commons, and votes were cast in preponderance for the
established government. In the crucial division over the treaty proposed
to end the Seven Years War, for example, a noisy opposition led by the
Great Commoner himself, William Pitt, garnered only 65 votes to the ministry's
319 this in spite of the fact that most political observers believed
that Pitt and his followers could defeat the peace. Fully 174 Members
were not in attendance.(22).
In the debate over General Warrants, where an important constitutional
liberty was at stake, Commons sustained the Council's opinion that such
warrants could be issued by a vote of 234 to 220 this in the face
of contrary decisions by two of England's foremost jurists. Lord Chesterfield
said that he "never knew a stricter muster and no furloughs allowed,"
yet 103 Members were not in attendance.(23)
In sum, though the Parliament was an important arbiter of power, it derived
that power more from its de jure existence than from its actual
legislative function. As C. J. Fox observed:
Suppose ... a person in a distant country had no other way of judging
the temper of this House, and of the motives of their conduct, but
from our printed votes; could such a man form any judgment of the
reasons why such a line of conduct was approved, and why such a
one rejected? Sir, it would be ridiculous in the extreme to suppose
contemporary observer, like the
"a person from a distant country,"
would look precisely at the votes in the House of Commons to locate the
end of the rhetorical process. But, as Fox argues, that would be a mistake.
The Commons characteristically approved policies which were explained
and which were reasonable, whether or not the majority of Members were
in agreement with them. This is not to say that the House of Commons was
"corrupt." On the contrary, though "venality" in eighteenth
century Parliaments became a popular myth of the reform years of the nineteenth
century, Members of (p.106) the eighteenth
century House of Commons deferred their considerable power to the
executive because, in terms of their political morality, it was
duty of Members to do so until they were
persuaded that the constitution itself was in danger.(25)
King and Council
Because Parliaments characteristically deferred their considerable power
to the Cabinet Council, the executive exercised what was, in effect, final
authority. According to Charles Yorke, later the crown's Solicitor General,
it was the second "great policy of the Constitution" that in
all cases "Whatever the King does should seem to come ex moro
motu; the result of his own wisdom and deliberate choice."(26)
In other words, any governmental policy prepared and debated in the Cabinet
Council was made public from the mouth of the sovereign, in his words,
expressed as his idea. Theoretically, the Council spoke through the king,
with the authority of a king; but as representatives of Parliament, they
were supported by "the people," and spoke also with the authority
of a nation.
Though it was common practice for policies to be decided in the Council
and made public as the wish of the monarch, officials did not think of
themselves as the possessors of power. Namier makes the
[Leaders of the political nation] had no conception of a party-government
unconnected with the King.... For the King was to them a real factor
in government, and not a mere figurehead or an abstract idea....
The mere conception of a "Sole Minister," a de facto ruler,
was indignantly disclaimed by them. It was the King's business to
see the government of the nation carried on, and for that purpose
he had a right to choose his "instruments"; and "support
of Government" was considered "a duty, while an honest
man could support it." To try to impose oneself on the King
by means of a systematic opposition, "to force a change of
hands," was considered by them factious and dishonest.(27)
So long as the king accepted the "advice" of the Council, that
advice assumed the proportions of a royal edict supported by popular authority.
The attitude which this constitutional policy generated is illustrated
in a letter of the Bishop of Gloucester:
Let us private men endeavour to preserve and improve the little
we have left of private virtue, and if one of those infected with
the influenza of politics should ask me, what then becomes of your
public virtue? I would answer him with an old Spanish proverb; The
King has enough for us all.(28)
Such an attitude toward executive authority was by no means a matter
of private opinion. The sanctity of ministerial policy was preserved in
law. According to the law as interpreted in 1760, anything written or
spoken "that shall disturb the government, or make a mischief and
a stir among the people, is certainly a slander."(29)
What was thought to "disturb government" is specified by Lord
Chief Justice Holt:
If people should not be called to account for possessing the people
with an ill opinion of the government, no government can subsist....
Nothing can be worse to any government than to endeavour to procure
animosities as to the management of it. This has been always looked
upon as a crime, and no government can be safe without it be punished.(30)
Nor did it matter that a "slander" was in fact true:
If any person have slandered the government in writing, you are
to examine the ... slander which it imports ... and, be it never
so true, yet if slanderous to the king or the government, it is
a libel and to be punished.(31)
Particularly in the last third of the century, after the explosion attending
Grenville's suppression of John Wilkes' North Briton, the
libel laws were rarely enforced. Indeed, the standard mode of opposition
throughout the century involved a scurrilous attack on ministers raising
questions as to parentage, private motives, occasionally even policies.
Yet, the ministry had an omnipresent option of suppressing opposition
argument, an option freely exercised during the Napoleonic Wars.(32)
Law, custom, and the current political ethic thus combined to make the
executive's authority nearly final. This does not mean that either the
king or his ministers could abuse their power by disregarding either "the
people" or their representatives in Parliament. Every administration
of the century had to be "capable" in the eyes of the nation.
A ministry's ability, however, was assumed until inability was demonstrated.
Even ignorant and drunken men such as Francis Dashwood were tolerated
in important offices simply (p. 108) because,
though ignorant, they were neither foolish enough to insult Parliament,
significant enough to cause riots, nor naive enough to accept responsibility
for their actions.(33)
We have seen that direct appeals for voter intervention at the polls were
futile, perhaps even counterproductive, because elections had no real
bearing on matters of national policy. We have seen that a direct appeal
for votes in Parliament held only a remote chance of success (though there
was a chance) because the legislature was more formal than functional,
inclined in all cases that mattered to leave the business of government
in the hands of a Cabinet Council. And we have seen that only a Council
composed of devils, democrats, or idiots could fail to exercise authority
effectively. It seems clear, then, that the rhetorical process of the
eighteenth century could not have been more than barely parallel to that
which operates in modern democracies. The elements of autocracy in the
"balanced" eighteenth century constitution meant that no executive
could be forced to abandon policies or office except in the unlikely circumstance
of a direct ministerial attack on the principles of the constitution.
The Rhetorical Process
We are accustomed to thinking of a tripartite rhetorical process. We
picture as antagonists an "administration" and an "opposition"
who argue with one another and are judged by a third party, a "legislature"
or "the people." Therefore, we say an administration is forced
from its office when either the legislature or the people decide against
it. But in the eighteenth century there was no third party. The people
had not the opportunity to judge, and the Parliament in nearly all cases
thought it immoral to judge. Those who disagreed with administration policy
and those who wished to be rid of an administration had to persuade the
executive itself, for there was no one with functional power over the
The paralyzing atmosphere of hostility, and the Minister's own consciousness
of his inability to carry on, would make him withdraw, though still
assured of a majority. Revolutions often succeed merely because
the men in power despair of themselves, and at the decisive moment
dare not order the troops to fire; and it repeatedly happened in
the eighteenth century that a Minister, while retaining the full
confidence of the Crown and a comfortable majority in Parliament,
no longer dared to avail himself of either. It was thus that (p.
109) Newcastle resigned in 1756, Bute in 1763, and that North,
in 1778, begged to be allowed to resign.(34)
The rhetorical process in the eighteenth century thus was more epideictic
than deliberative in nature, an exercise in praise and blame designed
to seduce the executive into changing policies or resigning office.
Plato made the point that rhetoric deals more with appearances than with
fact. Whether or not our vanity allows us to see a truth in that statement,
it is nonetheless an accurate description of public argument in the eighteenth
century. Though they lived in a relatively closed system, the English
had clothed their politics in the rhetoric of a much more open society,
and it was that rhetoric which provided a basis for praise and blame in
public argument. The supremacy of Parliament established in the previous
century had been justified because two kings reduced their subjects to
"slavery," abusing their lawful "prerogatives," "usurping"
the rights of Parliament, and instituting a "tyranny" in place
of monarchy. These actions were said to restrict "social liberty,"
a thing so precious that to an Englishman "tyranny" was symbolic
or spiritual death (35). To
guarantee "social liberty," William and Mary had agreed "That
it is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments
and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal," and "That
freedom of speech, and debates or proceedings in Parliament, ought not
to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament."(36)
It was unethical to be "factious" in the eighteenth century,
but it was also a "duty" to oppose "tyranny." "Opposition"
proceeded normally through exercising the rights of petition and debate,
but should such normal exhortations fail to persuade the executive to
abandon its "tyranny," Whig writers maintained a right of revolution
inherent in the people governed.(37)
There were no bloody revolutions in eighteenth century England. When the
latent power of the masses, so central to the rhetoric of Whiggism, threatened
on occasion to become active, Parliament and the executive cooperated
to control it. Similarly, the Parliament never actively rebelled against
the executive. When there was danger of a parliamentary uprising, ministries
changed policy or kings changed ministers. The rhetoric of the Glorious
Revolution, however, made it possible to blame ministers by associating
them with "tyranny" and to threaten them with the possibility
of that revolution which tyranny justified. It also made "opposition"
possible (p. 110), for a man is to be praised
in dutifully arguing against "tyranny," though his method of
argument might be "seditious," "libelous," or "factious"
were there no "tyranny."
Two forms of public argument were used to create what Namier calls a "paralyzing
atmosphere of hostility" and a "consciousness of inability to
carry on" in an administration. The right of petition spawned a genre
of public argument which might be called "popular rhetoric,"
a coordinated series of documents meant to produce action in a mass audience.
Petitioning and civil disorder, though all but irrelevant in the functioning
political structure, created an atmosphere of hostility and posed a rhetorical
threat of revolution. Without "credit" in the House of Commons,
a ministry could not exercise authority, so the right of debate generated
public argument designed primarily to discredit an administration, associating
it with impositions on "social liberty." "Popularity"
in the nation and "credit" in the Commons were stick and carrot
used to seduce the executive into abandoning policies or office.
The most common medium for popular rhetoric in the eighteenth century
was printed propaganda.(38)
Pamphlets, newspapers, and broadsides were used by incendiaries (often
hired by politicians intent upon gaining or extending their power) to
incite popular unrest. Almost
to a man
always, the incendiaries attacked the character of individual ministers
more than administration policies. John Wilkes, for example, compared
the Earl of Bute (a Scots minister, George III's "Dear Friend,"
who concluded the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War) with all
the "usurpers" and "Favourites" he could find lying
about in English history. He found in the reign of Edward III an Earl
Mortimer who had seduced the Queen Mother and, through her offices, persuaded
the king to conclude a "dishonourable" peace with Scotland.(39)
Bute was rumored to have been the Princess Dowager's lover.(40)
Arguing obliquely through historical parallels allowed incendiaries such
as Wilkes to circumvent the libel laws and to avoid a burden of proof
for their insinuations. Such propaganda was entertaining because it exposed
to ridicule the misadventures of the great. But more than that, rumors
and innuendo in the eighteenth century were deadly. All ministers claimed
the nation's loyalty by proclaiming themselves to be noble and (p.
111) unselfish "servants" of the Crown doing no more
than their sworn duty. Incendiaries typically sought, first of all, to
undercut that image. They pursued two epideictic topics, arguing that
the administration was "ambitious," perhaps even "tyrannical,"
and asserting that it was the duty of all "honest men" to preserve
English "liberty" by opposing abusers of power.
Because incendiaries started fires among the people, administrations in
times of crisis hired propagandists of their own to put out the fires.
Administration spokesmen "undeceived" the people by writing
encomia on their employers. Each ministry's apologist claimed with conviction
that England had never had a greater set of ministers. The historical
parallel was the primary form for the argument, as it was with the incendiaries,
but the men compared to the existing ministers were those of the highest
reputation. As the government was praised, the opposition was roundly
condemned. Like Tobias Smollett's appraisal of the Pittites in his debate
with Wilkes, administration writers based their attack against opposition
on a charge of "faction":
The tools of faction are fairly convicted of the vilest calumny
levelled at the present administration, and glanced at the S-------n
himself. Deluded in this worst species of detraction, they have
shuffled and evaded: they have endeavoured to explain away their
own meaning: they have pleaded insanity in excuse of sedition, and
floundered from one absurdity into another until they have excited
the compassion, even of those who detest their malice.(41)
Administration writers actually had the easier job, for it was widely
assumed that "the people" did not "pretend to direct"
the government unless "deceived" by those who "practised
the black art of faction."(42)
The more visible incendiary propaganda became, and the more effective
it was, the easier it was for writers such as Smollett to warrant their
charges of "faction" and creeping "republicanism."
In fact, despite the administration's propaganda efforts, the more popular
elements did tend traditionally to oppose the government.(43)
It was thought that mobs did not riot unless paid and that petitions did
not appear unless conjured by demagogues but, apparently on their
own, the popular elements in times of crisis petitioned government in
behalf of opposition and engaged in riots to make their annoyance with
ministerial policy painful for an administration.(44)
When the open constituencies petitioned and the mobs (p.
112) rioted, public discontent was taken to Parliament to be used
both as a warrant for conducting a formal opposition and as an indication
of the current ministry's "incapacity" (meaning their inability
to preserve order and enforce the law).
Rhetoric in Parliament
In more normal times, deliberations in Commons (if they can be called
that) consisted of formulary approval of ministerial recommendations.
The session would begin with the reading of an "Address from the
Throne" (composed by a "minister of measures," approved
by the Council and the king), which contained an outline of the "duties"
the executive expected Parliament to fulfill. The king would be thanked
for "his" speech and assured that "his servants" in
Parliament would do what they could. Representatives of the government
(usually appointed by the ministry's Leader in the House,
but, again, always with the fiction that such appointments came from the
Crown) would then introduce and defend the specific bills the Council
wanted. Several speakers would rise in favor of the administration bill,
a few to carp about high taxes and "the good old days." The
Commons would then approve ministerial legislation as a matter of form.
When there was an opposition and an uproar out-of-doors, however, orators
used their right of debate to find out why, to make the ministry justify
their policies. "The House of Commons then had little legislation
to discuss," remarks Peter Brown. "Concentration on first principles
of state resulted." One of those first principles was a guarantee
of "social liberty," another was a guarantee of order in the
state. When incendiaries were successful in their propaganda, either or
both of those guarantees was apparently threatened. Commons' orators had
topics to challenge their prowess-and a man made his reputation in Commons
primarily with his skill in the art of public speaking: "The evidence
of the importance then attached to this art is overwhelming."(45)
As a rule, it was wealthy borough patrons anxious for power-men such as
the Marquis of Rockingham and the Duke of Bedford-who came together in
various combinations to make a nucleus of "opposition." Neither
they nor the ministry commanded an absolute majority in times of crisis;
though, because of its presumption, the administration could probably
count on the largest single bloc of votes in the Commons. The balance
of power was held by "independents" who, on paper, constituted
a majority or near majority in the House.(46)
Of this group Namier writes: (p. 113)
Their votes being determined by individual convictions, and not
by pursuits or manoeuvres of party, on ordinary problems they were,
as a rule, so much divided as roughly to cancel out each other.
But whenever a strong movement of public opinion produced some degree
of unity among them, their weight made itself felt.(47)
Though there was little probability that the squires would try to "force
a change of hands," opposition debaters in Commons sought to provide
an appearance of unity among them which might seduce a ministry into resignation.
"Independent" members were swayed primarily by a speaker's "weight,"
of which his skill in public speaking was but a part. Perhaps the most
difficult measure Grenville managed, for example, was John Wilkes's expulsion
in 1763. He did not himself want to introduce the business, wishing there
to be as little connection as possible between the expulsion and the ministry.
He cast about for some months looking for the right man to handle the
bill, "one whose high rank and unspotted character, and whose experience
and knowledge in Parliament, will give it the utmost weight and authority."(48)
He settled on James Stanley, Lord Strange. Strange had been connected
with Newcastle until, in the wake of the ministry's victory on the Peace
Preliminaries in 1762, he switched allegiances to Bute's government. His
"high rank" was established by his property and his birth, for
he was a wealthy country gentleman from Lancashire and the eldest son
of the eleventh Earl of Derby. His "unspotted character" was
established by his "independence," his sympathy and friendship
with large numbers of the country gentry, and his family's Whig connections
dating back at least to 1688. He had been in Parliament since 1741 and
had served as Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire since 1757. He spoke often
in Commons and was reckoned by Walpole among the foremost speakers in
the House.(49) Such were the
qualifications of a man considered to have "weight and authority."
These men were sought by the ministry as spokesmen for pending legislation
and courted by those who would attempt to build an opposition. When such
men did find their way into opposition, their considerable "weight"
combined with out-of-doors pressure to make a minister's life uneasy.
The very "independence" which gave a parliamentary opposition
some slim hope of making a minister feel his "inability to carry
on" also prevented any but the barest thread of unity among a government's
opponents. There was never a coherent "opposition policy," little
for opponents of government (p. 114) to argue
for. Argument in the House of Commons, therefore, tended
to be justificatory on the part of the government and almost purely refutative
on the part of opposition spokesmen. Pitt, for example, viciously attacked
Grenville's justification of the Cider and Perry Excise in 1763, but he
never broached an alternative proposal. When pressed by Grenville for
a countersuggestion, the Commoner refused, dismissing the demand with
Burke's famous "Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies" is
a classic example of opposition argumentative strategy in the House of
Commons. Burke urged "conciliation" as a general contrary of
"force" in handling civil disorders in America he did
not make specific recommendations to the ministry. A tone
of refutation pervades the speech. He asserts that colonials were Englishmen
and entitled to the same consideration given Britons living at home, thus
casting doubt on the administration's picture of a land totally subject
to the whims of English government. Burke denies that force can attain
its object. He denies that it is the duty of the weaker to make concessions,
asserting the contrary, that the superior power can offer peace with honor
and safety, while the weaker power can offer peace only as an admission
of fear. He finally denies that conciliation would in any way impair the
whole authority of England.(51)
Even though Burke appears to be arguing for a specific "opposition"
policy, the whole chain of argument does little more than attack ministerial
justifications for the use of force. In no way is the speech "presumptuous"
it neither recommends an alternative "system" nor casts
doubt on the right of the ministry to conclude any plan it wished. The
speech is not aimed so much at gaining votes and ousting a ministry as
at indirectly persuading the ministry to change policy.
If argument in opposition in the House of Commons were perceived to be
weighty enough to negate a ministry's justification, another justification
would have to be found. Opposition speakers attacked it in like fashion.
When the ministry had exhausted every possible justification for its program,
an opposition was said to be "successful." A change of policyperhaps
even a corresponding change of government-was at length effected.
In sum, there were three arbiters of power involved in the eighteenth
century rhetorical process: the executive, wherein lay functional power;
the (p. 115) House of Commons, wherein lay
a superior but quiescent power; and the popular masses, wherein lay the
latent power of numbers. The political structure in effect precluded the
tripartite rhetorical process we associate with twentieth century politics,
for the executive could not be forced to abandon policies or office except
in the unlikely circumstance of a direct attack on the principles of the
constitution. The ministry had rather to be persuaded to abandon or modify
its program or to resign from office. Because of the functional power
of the executive, only an appearance of rebellion in the Commons or of
a popular uprising could warrant an "opposition." Opposition
could succeed only when the Council was demonstrably unable to rule. So,
when an opposition was contemplated, propagandists were hired to generate
popular petitions and encourage civil disorder not to influence
elections, but to create the impression that the Council was unable to
maintain order and keep subjects content. In this atmosphere of hostility,
opposition debaters attacked the "credit" of the administration
in the House of Commons not expressly to secure a majority against
government (though that was a bare possibility), but to discredit the
king's ministers, thereby seducing them into voluntarily abandoning a
policy or an office.
We may conclude that the rhetorical process in eighteenth century England
ended much more subtly than in the counting of heads at elections or in
deliberative assemblies. Rhetorical principles operated in that time as
they do in any time but, tied as they must be to the political
process, rhetorical maneuverings bore only the faintest resemblance to
rhetorical processes in more open societies. The eighteenth century experience
strongly suggests that those who would deal with rhetorical operations
in a closed society do so on the basis of assumptions and hypotheses appropriate
to that society, not on the basis of an ideological history or values
derived solely from the litany of
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See Michael C. McGee, "Thematic
Reduplication in Christian Rhetoric," Quarterly Journal of Speech,
56 (April 1970): 196.
2. Herbert Butterfield, The
Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1965).
3. The problem lies largely
in our language. Consider the term "public opinion" as an example:
"The people" (meaning the masses who are governed) are inherently
powerful in any political system if only because they are the many. So
we can say that public opinion, and the public argument which helps to
mold it, is always important. But is it always important for the same
reasons and in the same way? Today a government in Anglo-America draws
its power periodically from "the people" who "appoint"
ministers of state by election. A president or a prime minister governs,
not at the pleasure of a monarch, but at the pleasure of the people. Expressions
of public opinion are therefore orders from "the boss." In the
eighteenth century, however, "the boss" was the king himself.
It was at his pleasure, and his alone, that ministers of state were appointed.
Public opinion was important, but when the people spoke, they spoke as
subjects outside the polity, not as employers who possessed a real power.
Modern men looking at eighteenth century public argument, thus, are apt
to commit two errors of language: we must always make clear our realization
that the "public" in "public opinion" then was not
the same "public" our readers see today; and we must never assume
that political leaders then reacted to "public opinion" for
the same reasons or in the same way modern leaders react to it. See A.
F. Pollard, The Evolution of Parliament (New York: Longmans-Green,
1926), p. 343.
4. See Butterfield, The
Whig Interpretation, pp. 9-33, 107-32.
5. There can be no doubt that
the eighteenth century produced what Archibald Foord called "The
Waning of `the Influence of the Crown."' English Historical
Review 58 :484-507. That trend was nonetheless halted by
the nation's violent reaction against the revolution in France. Though
E. C. Black sees in developing extraparliamentary political associations
a "key to the future," he also notes that "the ministry
stayed in tune with the temper of the nation" in passing even more
severe sedition and libel laws than had been in effect in 1700. What he
calls, from his modern democratic writing bias, "repressive legislation"
passed between 1793 and 1800, reflected a "public opinion" which
"did not want and would not tolerate seditious republicanism."
See E. C. Black, The Association: British Extraparliamentary Political
Organization, 1769-1793 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1963), pp. 273-74. In the end, "reform" was a nineteenth
and not an eighteenth century phenomenon, a product of the emergence of
party government. See L. B. Namier, "Monarchy and the Party System,"
in Personalities and Powers, Selected Essays (New York:
Harper, 1955), pp. 13-38.
6. L. B. Namier, England
in the Age of the American Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1930),
p. 63. (p. 117)
7. The means of persuasion
shift so rapidly with circumstance that they cannot be said to form a
"structure." As Bryant argues, "rhetoric does rather than
is," it is a "motion" or "process." Donald C.
Bryant, "Rhetoric: Its Function and its Scope," p. 210.
8. All statistics descriptive
of the political structure are taken from L. B. Namier, The Structure
of Politics at the Accession of George III, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan,
1929), vol. 1, passim.
9. J. S. Watson, The
Reign of George III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 37.
10. Namier, Structure,
11. Watson notes (p. 48) that
"County gentlemen ... felt themselves fully capable of running the
county without assistance and would indeed brook none." This spirit
of self-sufficiency meant that borough barons and governments alike had
to bargain for county support. The gentry's "independence" made
them a sort of "popular" influence in Commons-though, as Namier
underlines, the squirearchy "constituted the purest type of class
representation in Great Britain." (Structure, 1: 92-93.)
12. Namier, Structure,
13. Ibid., pp.
163-64. For an example of such a "mass movement" in the large
constituencies, see George Rude's Wilkes and Liberty (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1965). Dorothy Marshall says of the people's significance
in the political structure that "public opinion had only the right
to beat its unorganized waves against the Palace at Westminster."
In the eighteenth century, "the property owner ... dominated the
great institution of Parliament." (The English People in the
Eighteenth Century [London: Longmans-Green, 1956], p. 76.)
14. Namier, Structure,
1: 128, 195-98.
15. Parliamentary sovereignty
was not a completely settled matter, particularly in regard to America.
If George III were in a serious feud with the Commons, or if he had been
intent upon extending his "prerogative," he might legitimately
have supported the colonial position, claiming direct and independent
sovereignty over America. Had he done that, much of the force which led
ultimately to American rebellion might have been dissipated, but a potentially
more dangerous confrontation with Parliament would have been provoked.
A partisan but judicious statement of the dominant feeling in Parliament
in 1768 concerning their institutional power is provided by William Knox,
a propagandist writing for George Grenville, in his pamphlet The
Present State of the Nation (London and Dublin: John Almon, 1768),
16. The North Briton
(London), December 4, 1762.
17. [J. Debrett], Debates
of Both Houses of Parliament, 1743-1774 (London: Debrett, 1792),
vol 4, p. 173. (p. 118)
18. The only exception to this
rule is Shelburne's resignation in 1783. In that period, North, Fox, and
Rockingham all kept majorities. For a detailed description of the mood
of parliament in this period, see John P. Bakke, "The Debates on
the Fox and Pitt East India Bills, 1783, 1784: A Case Study in the Rhetoric
of the House of Commons," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa,
19. In what was taken in the
nineteenth century to be a budding democratic spirit, John Dunning proposed,
and carried in Commons, a resolution stating that "the influence
of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be dimin ished."
This was in the wake of disenchantment with North's conduct of the American
war and, as R. J. White points out, was more in keeping with the attitude
consistently displayed by country gentlemen throughout the century than
with any sort of embryonic democracy. See R. J. White, The Age of
George III (New York: Walker, 1968), pp. 32-33.
20. Daniel Pulteney to the Duke of Rutland, March
4, 1785, in L. B. Namier and John Brooke, The History of Parliament:
The House of Commons, 1754-1790, 3 vols. (London: Her Majesty's
Stationer's Office, 1964), 1: 194.
21. Lecky notes that on the
American question, a ministerial policy which mattered very much, the
North government was representative of the feeling in the Commons until
North consistently maintained large majorities rang ing from 64
to 73 to 186 to 187. (W. E. H. Lecky, A History of England in the
Eighteenth Century [London: Longmns-Green, 1890], vol. 3, pp.
524-45.) Namier and Brooke conclude that, in the crisis most resembling
a contest between the executive and the Commons, "An analysis of
the division lists for the last weeks of North's Administration shows
that there were 241 Members who supported Government, 237 who voted with
the Opposition, and 31 who concurred with the Opposition on the American
war yet opposed any censure of North's Administration." Namier and
Brooke, History Commons, 1: 202.
22. See Denis le Marchant,
(ed.), Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III (London:
R. Bentley: 1845), 1: 164; Thomas Birch to Lord Royston, November 13,
1762, in The Life and Correspondence of the Earl of Hardwicke
(Cambridge: At the University Press, 1913), vol. 3, p. 330; Thomas Ramsden
to Charles Jenkinson, November 8, 1762, in John Russell (ed.), The
Bedford Correspondence (London: Longman, 1846), vol. 3, pp. 159-60.
23. Chesterfield to Lord Stanhope,
October 19, 1764, in Namier, Structure, 1: 184.
24. The Speeches of the
Right Honourable Charles James Fox in the House of Commons (London:
Longman, Hurst, & Rees, 1815), vol. 1, pp. 105-6.
25. In opposing parliamentary
reform in 1781, Viscount Feilding made the point that "The balance
of power in the House ... [is held by] the country gentlemen. ... By the
support of these men, and not as had been asserted, by the low arts of
corruption, did the present minister stand." Namier and Brooke, in
quoting (p. 119) Feilding, note that "The
country gentlemen as a group were disposed to give any minister appointed
a fair trial ... and yet to watch Administration with a critical eye."
(Namier and Brooke, History Commons, 1: 146-49.) They voted
against government on specific issues, but rarely on motions of confidence.
Indeed, as indicated above, only once in the century did a minister so
fail his "fair trial" as to lose the support of enough of the
gentry to be forced from office. As Roger Newdigate put it, "I like
the King and shall be with his ministers as long as I think an honest
man ought, and believe it best not to lose the country gentleman in the
courtier." Namier and Brooke, History Commons, 1: 147.
26. Charles Yorke to Joseph
Yorke, February 15, 1745, in Namier, Age of Revolution, p. 47.
27. Namier, Age of Revolution,
28. Bishop of Gloucester to
Richard Berenger, July 4, 1762; Historical MSS Commission Reports 17 (1892),
29. Case of the Seven Bishops
(1688); Sources of English Constitutional History, translated
and edited by C. Stephenson and F. G. Marcham (New York and London: Harper,
1939), No. 117-E, p. 585 fn. 6.
30. The Queen vs. John Tutchin
(1704), ibid., No. 124-E, p. 641.
31. This is the doctrine of
De Libellis Famosis in Coke's reports as stated by Lord Chief Justice
Wright in the Case of the Seven Bishops (1688); ibid., No.
117-E, p. 585 fn. 6.
32. "Seditious libels"
were permitted in the House of Commons, where Members were protected from
governmental prosecution by their parliamentary "privilege,"
a "right" debated well into the eighteenth century which originated
in the reign of Henry IV. See "Parliamentary Rolls of Henry IV: Parliament
of 1399," ibid., No. 66-A, pp. 256-57.
33. Dashwood, later Lord LeDespenser,
incredibly proposed a tax on cider produced for household consumption,
to be levied on every subject over the age of nine years! The tax was
an excise, easily the most unpopular form of taxation
in England, and Dashwood could not even estimate its produce closer than
100,000 pounds. Yet the tax was approved, and it took two years and a
change of ministry to repeal it. See Lecky, History of England,
34. Namier, Age of Revolution,
35. See John Locke, An
Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,
IV, 21. (In Great Books of the Western World, 25: 25-81.)
36. The Bill of Rights (1688)
in E. N. Williams, ed., A Documentary History of England (Baltimore:
Penguin Books, 1965), vol. 2, p. 110.
37. Locke, XIV, 168; XVIII,
206. (p. 120)
38. See R. R. Rea, The
English Press in Politics, 1760-1774 (Lincoln, Neb.: University
of Nebraska Press, 1963). Techniques of agitation changed little during
the century: The same sort of newspaper, broadside, pamphlet, and book
was produced by Locke, Milton, Swift, Arbuthnot, and Bolingbroke in the
first quarter of the century as by Burke, Paine, Wyvill, and Reeves in
the last quarter. Indeed, with Burke the lone exception, the art of propaganda
seems to have deteriorated rather than prospered through the century.
The only refinement on techniques of popular agitation seems to have been
the brief emergence of the political "association" in 1769-1770
and 1782-1793. The association functioned as a channel for petitions and
protest much as the London Common Council had functioned through the entire
century. If we are looking for antecedents of modern systems, the association
is probably a forerunner of the political party though it was a
short-lived affair with only rhetorical significance, buried by the French
wars. See Black, Association.
39. North Briton
(London), July 3, 1762.
40. See Lecky, History
of England, 3: 12, 49. The lower orders of London were said to
have shouted "no petticoat government" in opposition to Bute,
and a jackboot tied to a petticoat was the popular symbol of the "Favourite's"
41. The Briton
(London), June 26, 1762.
42. "The mob," by
edict of Constitutional presumption, was mindless. A standard legal treatise
justified the election laws in force in 1768 as ideal: "Only such
are excluded, as can have no Will of their own: there is hardly a free
Agent to be found, but what is entitled to a Vote in some Place or other
in the Kingdom." See "A Gentleman of the Inner Temple",
Laws Concerning Elections (London: W. Owen, 1768). To George
III, everyone who did not actually sit in Commons practiced "faction"
simply by exercising their right of petition: "What times do we not
live in, when a parcell of low shopkeepers pretend to direct the whole
Legislature," he said of a petition from the City of London. George
III to Lord Bute, March 30, 1763 in R. Sedgwick (ed.), The Letters
from George III to the Earl of Bute (London: Macmillan, 1939),
43. See L. S. Sutherland, "The
City of London in Eighteenth-Century Politics," Essays Presented
to Sir Lewis Namier, edited by A. J. Pares and A. J. P. Taylor
(London: Macmillan, 1956), pp. 57-58.
44. As E. N. Williams notes,
there was an undercurrent of economic discontent in mass demonstrations
and riots of the eighteenth century: "In 1749 the mob uprooted turnpikes
in Bristol; in 1758 they tore down enclosures in Wiltshire. In Norwich
in 1740 there was a five-day riot over the price of mackerel." (Life
in Georgian England [London: B. J. Batsford, 1962], p. 119.) Rude,
however, claims that there was no "close general concordance between
high food prices and popular disturbances" in the larger boroughs,
where propagandists sought (p. 121) to pull
out the mob. ("The London Mob of the Eighteenth Century," The
Historical Journal 1 : 10-11.) Indeed, the mob seemed to
be politically conscious politics was a chief form of entertainment,
particularly in London: "All Englishmen are great newsmongers. Workmen
habitually begin the day by going to coffee rooms in order to read the
daily news." (H. de Misson, Memoirs and Observations in his
Travels over England [London: D. Browne, 1719], p. 6.) It is a
mistake to think of rioters, the audience for propagandists, as uniformly
the "unwashed masses." According to Rude's survey of arrest
records in 1768-1769, most were respectable citizens, gainfully employed.
See "The Middlesex Electors of 1768-1769," The Journal
of English History 75 (October 1960): 614.
45. Peter Brown, The
Chathamites (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 27.
46. Excluding Scottish and
Welsh Members, 267 seats in Commons were free of either crown or patron
"influence." See Namier, Structure, 1: 184-81.
47. L. B. Namier, "Country
Gentlemen in Parliament, 1750-84," Personalities and Powers,
48. George Grenville to Lord
Strange, October 15, 1763, in The Grenville Papers, edited
by W. J. Smith (London: J. Murray, 1852), vol. 2, pp. 134-36.
49. Namier and Brooke,
History Commons, 3: 453-55.
50. Grenville claimed that
the Cider Excise was a reasonable source of revenue and the only alternative.
In debates against Pitt, he repeated "with a strong emphasis two
or three times, 'Tell me where you can lay another tax!' Mr. Pitt replied,
in a musical tone, 'Gentle shepherd, tell me where.' The whole house burst
out in a fit of laughter, which continued for some minutes." The
House had a laugh, but Grenville got his tax. (Debrett, Debates,
51. Edmund Burke, "Speech
on Conciliation with the Colonies", in The Works of the Right
Honourable Edmund Burke (London: Rivington, 1803), vol. 3, pp.