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Rhetorical Process


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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. Men 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 final absolute.

The People

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 English electors."(12) 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 accepted a modern 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.

The Parliament

If elections were mere formalities, deliberations in Parliament were only a little less so. It was true in the eighteenth century, as it is in 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 it.(24)

A modern man 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 their the 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 point well:

[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:
(p. 107)

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 executive:

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.

Popular Rhetoric

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 ridicule.(50)

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 modern contemporary democracies.


1. See Michael C. McGee, "Thematic Reduplication in Christian Rhetoric," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 56 (April 1970): 196.
(p. 116)
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 [1947]: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, l: 93.
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, 1: 100.
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), pp. 39-47.
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, 1966.
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 about 1780. He 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, p. 51.
28. Bishop of Gloucester to Richard Berenger, July 4, 1762; Historical MSS Commission Reports 17 (1892), Fortescue Papers.
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, 3: 55-56.
34. Namier, Age of Revolution, pp. 157-58.
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" ministry.
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), pp. 207-8.
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 [1959]: 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, p. 76.
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, 4:132.)
51. Edmund Burke, "Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies", in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (London: Rivington, 1803), vol. 3, pp. 23-132.



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