Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mud From a Muddy Spring

The Peterloo Massacre of August 16 1819, engraved by Richard Carlile, Wikimedia Commons.

Another day, another Brooks ("How Nations Recover")Ten paragraphs of a miscellany of facts about early 19th-century British political economy, from around 1819 to 1847, finally naming a book, David Cannadine's Victorious Century: The United Kingdom. 1800-1906, which gets its official release February 20—you can't see any text online at all yet, and it won't be possible to do any kind of David Brooks Plagiarism Watch on this until we've forgotten this particular column, four Brooksdays from today (indeed I expect I will have forgotten about the column by sometime this afternoon)—and then three more paragraphs of purloined anecdote and a couple of paragraphs of a Magisterial Thesis, that, as you might expect, their politicians were sadly better, back in the day, than ours are now, when both sides did it but in a good way:
We have not passed a steady drumbeat of pragmatic reforms the way the Whigs and the Tories did. Over the past 15 years, the United States has managed to pass just a few major pieces of social reform — Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and I guess the Trump tax reform.
The biggest gap is in the realm of political leadership. The Victorian politicians had a stewardship mentality. They listened to the people, but stood slightly apart, deliberating, seeing governance as a shared professional responsibility. Our leaders come from a much broader swath of society, but they have lower standards of behavior, and less of a shared stewardship mentality.
Yes, if we must have two parties, why can't both of them be the same, with a "stewardship mentality" and a commitment to "pragmatic reforms" the way they were in the United Kingdom in the 1840s? It's a mystery!

Or maybe their parties were different too. In fact, this was the period when the old Tories (High Church, monarchist, protectionist) were turning into the Conservative Party (the name adopted over the period from 1830 to 1834), and that old Whigs (Dissenting, oligarchic, pro-trade) joining with the new Radicals to form the Liberal Party (the name adopted between 1839 and 1859). The Liberal reforms Brooks cites were enacted under a series of five different prime ministers (Grey, Melbourne, Russell, Palmerston, Aberdeen), and the Conservative reforms under just one, Robert Peel, hated by his own party as a "Whig in Tory's clothing" and driven out after he joined with Whigs to pass the last of his great achievements, the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws, while his followers, the "Peelites", became a main constituent faction of the Liberals (the greatest Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, was a Peelite).

Brooks obscures this by refusing to use the word "liberal" at all in the course of the column, and "conservative" only once (to describe Peel as the man who "turned his party into a moderate conservative party", although in fact he turned it into a very conservative party by leading the moderates out of it). He could have gotten a clearer idea of the whole picture if he'd tried reading the three fifths or so of the book he didn't look at at all, I imagine. But he probably didn't want a clear idea anyway.

One more thing:
Britain was roiled by economic and demographic changes. There were financial crises, bad harvests and a severe depression. There was crushing inequality. The average life expectancy nationwide was 40, but in the industrial cities of Manchester and Liverpool it was around 28. There were widespread riots and government crackdowns. In 1819, 1,206 “radicals” were given the death sentence, though only 108 of them were executed.
Question to Radio Yerevan: is it true that in Britain in 1819 1,206 "radicals" were sentenced to death, though only 108 of them were executed?

Answer: In principle, yes. But
  • first of all, the exact numbers are difficult for Rectification Central to verify, in that there don't seem to be online statistics on the treatment of radicals as opposed to other offenders in the British justice system in the period, and indeed I can only find one case of lethal consequences for radicals with or without scare quotes in 1819, in the famed Peterloo Massacre of August 16, in which 15 were killed and several hundred injured when armed cavalry charged a crowd of sixty to eighty thousand demonstrators in Manchester demanding expanded suffrage, but these victims, while no doubt guilty of  radicalism, were never properly tried;
  • second of all, we can't find any good evidence that radicalism was even a chargeable offense, although I can learn that five men were executed and five transported to Australia for involvement in the London Cato Street Conspiracy to murder the prime minister and his entire cabinet in February 1820, and another three hanged and a large number transported following the Radical War of that April in Scotland (which itself had 18 casualties, nine of them fatal)—you'd think I'd be able to find something for 1819 as well, but I can't;
  • and third of all, I can find the numbers Brooks cites, 1,206 death sentences and 108 executions, but these were for all sorts of crimes, including  murder, burglary and robbery, rape, counterfeiting, forgery, stealing sheep, cattle and horses, and "a vast range of offenses as slight as the theft of goods valued at twelve pence" as these numbers represent all the death sentences and executions imposed and carried out in England and Wales in 1819;
  • so true only to the extent that you define "radical" as "being sentenced to death", which may be how David Brooks sees it but is unconventional. Or putting it another way, he's not reading his source at all carefully, once again.
From Jeremy Gregory and John Stevenson 2012, The Routledge Companion to Britain in the Eighteenth Century.

ABonus, from Percy Bysshe Shelley, inspired by rage at the Peterloo Massacre, "England in 1819":
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Shelley totally would have mentioned those 108 radical executions, or been one of the victims.

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