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BRITAIN in the mid-1700s

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Britain in the mid-1700s

John Locke

Thomas Jefferson

John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Locke died in 1704, but his influence lived on through the century. His views on liberty and politics influenced Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others in the colonies. Jefferson was to write: "Bacon, Locke and Newton ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception." (The Letters of Thomas Jefferson: 1743-1826 Bacon, Locke, and Newton).

William Blackstone

William Blackstone (1723-80). Americans who first learned law by reading Blackstone include Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Britain was still predominantly rural like the continent. Fanaticism was more feared and intellect more respected. Restraint in the expression of passion had become more of a mark of a gentleman, and good manners had become more valued as a barrier against conflict.

Britain's bourgeoisie debated religion and politics in coffeehouses, clubs, salons, literary societies and academies. Mostly intellectuals favored the existing constitutional monarchy – as had Locke. But England still had its republicans and people dissatisfied with the liberal revolution of 1688 – the so-called Glorious Revolution.

As had happened among the Dutch, shifting religious beliefs and rising commerce was accompanied by a decline in demand for religious uniformity – a step away from the belief, prevalent in the Middle Ages, that those with views different from their own were evil.

The orderly cosmos described by Isaac Newton in the late 1600s was seen as a model for government organization. With Copernicus, Galileo and Newton a new optimism about the benefits of learning had arisen among an intellectual elite, in conflict with the old and common belief that the world was a mystery never to be fathomed by humanity. Many continued to believe in God's interventions, including people who believed in science, but the belief that the world functioned solely by God's magic was starting to decline, as was the belief that all humanity needed to get by was spontaneity and proper religious attitude.

Britain was becoming more literate. Personal correspondence and other forms of writing were on the rise. Literate folks gathered in groups interested in science or literature. A variety of learned journals were published. Book production increased, and so too did newspaper distribution. More people believed in the efficacy of literacy. In Scotland in 1700 around 45 percent the population could read, and by the end of the 1700s it would rise to 85 percent. England's literacy rate in this period would rise from 45 to 63 percent.

Improving Commerce

Until the 1720s, England's population growth had been held in check by periodic harvest failures and by diseases such as influenza, smallpox, dysentery and typhus. At around 5.25 million in 1720, England's population would be around nine million at the end of the century (note1). London's population in this period rose from around 700,000 to over one million (note2).  This was a larger population than that of Paris.

France had more than three times England's population, but Britain was taking a lead in commerce – ahead also of the Dutch, which was economically progressive but had a fraction of Britain's population: a little less than 2 million in 1720. With the rise in Britain's commerce, London had become a busier place and had been gathering more people from England's rural areas and from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And London also had migrants from Germany, Holland and France. London had become a great center for the arts and fashion.

In the 1700s England had an agricultural output that was "at least twice that of any other European country, and was to continued so until the 1850s" (Appleby,The Relentless Revolution, p. 83). And this benefited development in general.

Early in the century, Thomas Newcomen created a steam driven piston in a cylinder, used for pumping water from mines. However, Britain remained largely unadvanced in technology. Watches, for example, were still inaccurate curiosities. People kept time by the ringing of church bells. And more importantly, Britain was still dependent on waterpower. But in the 1700s, productivity and real wages were inching upwards. People's lives were improving materially. They were able to get more in return for their labor. Britain was exporting more grain than it was importing. Britain was a big producer of woolen cloth, and it led the world in maritime trade.

Trade with India made available new fabrics. English men and women had begun wearing lighter and brighter clothing instead of heavy wool and linen. A new interest in variety and consumerism had developed. The idea that it was okay to find delight in buying things was taking hold. With the rise of a cultural of trade, investing in trade, and the rise of consumerism, Christian asceticism was in decline. The Puritanism of Cromwell's time had faded. So was adherence to the biblical admonitions regarding the accumulation or lending of money.

Thinking was loosening up. Joyce Appleby writes that like other European societies in England "a censorship system was in place, but unlike them, it was rarely enforced." More people were writing, and there were more readers becoming accustomed to discussion. Silence while accepting authoritarian admonitions was not the virtue that it had been when there was less change and availability of variety and novelty. "Elsewhere in Europe," writes Appleby, vigorous censorship stifled the emergence of a reading and talking public. Everywhere there was fear of disorder." (p. 93)

In England a spirit of enterprise was growing. Writes Appleby: "Self assertive individuals did the innovating in England whether they were improving farmers and landlords, joint-stock trading company managers, interloping merchants, cheese mongers, or professional lenders."

According to Appleby, by the end of the 1600s, "Those who promoted the market economy were greatly aided by a public discourse about how nations grow wealthy. Efficiency, ingenuity, disciplined work, educated experimentation all became a part of a new ethic." (p. 118)

It was in this environment that the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-90) wrote his book the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

With the new hussle and bussle of English life, people were accepting a higher taxation than was common elsewhere, from which came appreciated services that were a part of that hussle-bussle. Taxes in Britain were orderly rather than the haggling that existed elsewhere – while economic success in England, according to Appleby, was demonstsrating the benefits that accrued from "allowing men and women to make their own self-interested choices."

Class and Power

Class privilege remained, with most men unqualified to vote because of a land qualification law. A few owned much of the country's agricultural land. Some others owned small farms. Some people rented land from the big landowners, giving the landowner a share of the wealth they produced. And many others labored for wages on the landowner's property and were able to graze a pig or a cow on the village common.

The king of England still exercised executive powers. His ministers gained powers in the 1700s, the king seen as a unifying force while parliament was torn by conflict between Tories (conservatives) and Whigs (liberals). Queen Mary II had died in 1694 and her husband William II in 1702, leaving Mary's sister, Anne, as queen of Great Britain and Ireland and as governor of the Church of England. And when Anne died in 1714 her Catholic half-brother, James, was passed over in favor of a distant Protestant relative – in keeping with Parliament's requirements. The new king was a Lutheran from Hanover, Germany, and held onto his rule there while taking on his duties in Great Britain as King George I. A rebellion by supporters of James – called Jacobites – was crushed. George I ruled to 1727, never having learned English, and he was succeeded by his more Anglicized son, George II, who ruled to 1760, followed by his grandson, George III.

The powers of the king remained limited. Britain had begun having constitutional monarchs. John Locks's argument prevailed that values preceded government, including monarchical government – rather than government and kings being the creators, with God, of all things well and good.

Religious Organization and Politics

Religious organization remained an issue as Great Britain moved into the 1700s. The dominant religious body remained the Church of England (the Anglicans), which conservatives considered the orthodox faith. The Church of England was favored by England's landowning elite, and parliament's House of Lords was an Anglican preserve. Referring to the Church of England, the conservative political party, the Tories, was also called the 'Church' party.

Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers were called Dissenters. In England in 1689, religious pluralism had been legalized, but the Blasphemy Act of 1698 had made denial of the Trinity punishable by imprisonment. Denying that Christianity was the truth or denying the authority of the Scriptures was also made illegal. But these laws were rarely invoked. In England, the last execution for heresy had been in the early 1600s, and the last to have been executed in Scotland for heresy was a nineteen year-old student at Edinburgh in 1698.

From 1710 to 1714, conservatives tried to revive the union between the state and the Church of England. They feared that if people were left free to choose their religion there would be a dramatic spread of Dissenters. Also they thought that religious disunity was an affront to God, that it threatened the salvation of individuals and national security. Some Anglican conservatives also blamed crime and vice on religious disunity. But the conservatives failed to pass their legislation. In the 1720s they also failed in their effort to strengthen the laws against blasphemy.

To the surprise of the conservatives, the number of Dissenters remained stagnant. The Church of England remained dominant in rural England, in the universities and in grammar schools, while the Dissenters remained strongest in the cities and with the middle class. And from the Anglicans a small new denomination emerged. Two Anglicans at Oxford University, John Wesley and George Whitefield, started a movement dedicated to nurturing spirituality through prayers, devotional readings, self-examination, fasting, frequent communion and good works, which won them the nickname of Methodist.

Catholics remained a persecuted minority, largely clustered in remote parts of the country, as Protestants remained fearful of plots to bring Catholicism back via England's enemies abroad – Spain or France.

Protestant "dissenters" continued to be able to run for a seat in parliament, but their representation there was small, and Dissenters did not enjoy legal equality with the Anglicans. A law passed in 1753 held that only marriages performed by an Anglican clergyman were legal. Dissenters might be denied the right of burial in a churchyard. They might receive discriminatory consideration in a court of law. And Dissenters had to pay a special tax.

Values, Crime and Punishment

People in Britain drank, gambled and fought duels. Moralists worried about the rise in sexual promiscuity and a decline in family values. They preached on the need of women to resist men inflamed by libertine principles and pornographic literature and the need of women to remain virgins until marriage. Prostitution was rampant. A German visitor to London complained of passing a "lewd female" every ten yards on a December evening along Fleet Street, including girl prostitutes as young as twelve. (Wilfred Prest, Albion Ascendant: English History, 1660-1815, p 183)

Crime was increasing with the advancing economy. In London were habitual offenders and gangs of delinquent youths. Responding to crime, politicians made more offenses punishable by death. Capital crimes numbered in the dozens, including horse and sheep stealing and shoplifting to the value of five shillings. But rather than being hanged, many deemed guilty of a capital crime were sent to the Americas.

English Law

English law had been created across centuries. It was a gathering of complexities and contradictions – void of elegant simplicity. The influence of Roman law on English law remained a rumor – Roman law used only occasionally as a mere ornament to the considerations of jurists. Law in England was drawn from English experience, and it was criticized for its anomalies, complexity, uncertainties, its slowness, its tedious forms, its confounding of simple matters into confusing language that helped enrich lawyers at the expense of honest people.

In the mid-1700s, a lawyer named William Blackstone made a name for himself writing and lecturing in praise of English law. And in writing about the law he improved it. He tried to bring the law into conformity with science and the age of reason. Blackstone mapped the law's tortuous complexities and depicted the nation's constitution and laws as a reflection of the natural order of the cosmos and the nation's development across history. British law and liberty he wrote was the "noblest inheritance of mankind."

Blackstone approved of law which held that husband and wife were one person and that the husband was that person. In other words, Blackstone approved of law that held that a wife had no right to own property in her own name and that the wages she earned belonged to her husband.

Blackstone was not without his contradictions. He claimed that the power of parliament was absolute and elsewhere in his work that the legislature could not destroy human rights. But he advanced the use of such phrases as crimes and misdemeanors, ex post facto law, due process and judicial power. Blackstone denounced slavery as inimical to "natural rights" and to British law. He advanced the idea that the instant any slave landed in England he or she was free. And acting on general principles of "God-given right," English law, he claimed, protected "a Jew, a Turk or a heathen as well as to those who press the true religion of Christ." He described freedom of the press as "essential to the nature of a free state." And trial by jury he called the "glory of the English law."

In England the idea was widespread that common people had rights. It was an idea too among people in England's American colonies.


Albion Ascendant: English History, 1660-1815, by Wilfred Prest, 1998

Sir William Blackstone, by David A Lockmiller, University of North Carolina Press, 1938

Lichtenberg's Visits to England, edited by M Mare and W H Quarrel, 1938

Eighteenth-Century Europe, Tradition and Progress, by Isser Woloch, 1982

The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby, 2010

The Ancient Regime in Europe: government and society in the major states, 1648- 1789, by Neville E Williams, 1970

Good Reading

"The Forces of Nature: the Road to Revolution," Chapter One in The History of Britain, Volume III, by Simon Schama.

Copyright © 2001-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.