1The conceptualisation and dynamics of society are subjects of lasting interest and significance. This is doubly so when society, or part of it, has been reified and given explanatory weight in related fields. And so for eighteenth-century Britain. Society and social trends have provided a universal catch-all to describe and explain a range of developments and characteristics, from the growth of a consumer society to the ethos of politeness, from the rise of the public political sphere to the arrival of Evangelicalism. It is to the good that scholars in these and other fields seek a social location and dynamic for their work, but there is also a tendency both to simplify social pressures and to adopt a progressive, indeed teleological, account when considering their impact, not least when discussing the idea of a public sphere (Lake & Pincus, Rospocher). The problem becomes more acute because this approach provides a basis for a national exceptionalism, or at least description, for Britain and, separately, the USA.
2In Britain and the USA, the impact of the middling sort was (and is) mediated through the notions of the “people” and/or “the nation,” and, more particularly, if moral or political approaches, rather than economic, are adopted. These are significant notions in which the theme of the “golden mean” is important, for the people/nation can be held to represent that “golden mean” by avoiding the dangers of passion, ignorance and corruption implied in some of the rhetoric. Instead, they embody the values of sense, reliability and patriotism. This contrast in values is one that serves to resonate with the distinction between humans and animals. More particularly, those who are approved do their duty as humans best, and can thereby be defined as moral.
3This device, indeed ideology and doctrine, is always rhetorical and, aided by its inherent conceptual looseness, capable of contradictory ideological and tactical readings by different politicians. Indeed, it was linked to the way in which the “middling sort” were feared, courted and appropriated to all sorts of causes. Crucially, this was not a one-way process, and, indeed, the “middling sort” were defined in part in this context. For example, the growth of literacy was not only the function of the desire to read (be it newspapers, or sermons, or other written material), but of the need and desire to write. This was a mark of the middling sort, and the purpose of writing was wide-ranging to include religious experiences and political views as well as business goals. This writing was important to the construction of identity, and an aspect of it was writing in response to that by others. It was crucial that the writing, reading and speaking was in English. The use of the vernacular was fundamental to English culture and a key way in which social segregation in culture and intellectual life was less to the fore than in some other parts of Europe.
- 1 The key work is J. Barry and C.W. Brooks (eds), The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and (...)
4In the space of a paper, it is possible only to attempt a particular contribution, and my emphasis is on the political dimension, both in terms of the reality of social context and also with reference to its conceptualisation. I will not suggest that this political dimension is necessarily the most significant when considering the “middling sort,”1 and past contention over the rise of the “middle class” has made this an unpopular approach. Even at the time, there was a tendency to discern this element as part of a long-term, stadial approach to history. This approach became more prominent in the early nineteenth century when the model of Classically-inspired British civilisation was linked to an account of social value that made sense of the expansion of the franchise in contemporary Britain. Thus, the Oxford-educated London barrister Edward Quin (1794-1828), in his posthumous Atlas in a Series of Maps of the World as Known in Different Periods (1830), associated progress with the rise of the middle class, writing of Europe in 1100-1294:
Notwithstanding the gross superstition which prevailed, the undefined state of regal power and popular rights, and the many atrocious acts which were perpetrated, Europe was fast emerging from the state of barbarism in which it had been sunk for several centuries. In England, France, Germany and Italy, the Commons or third estate, began to be recognised and respected; industry and commerce were acquiring their due weight and estimation, and through the study of jurisprudence, the rights of persons and of property were better understood. (Quoted in Black, Maps 60)
5Subsequently, “the darkness of the Middle Ages was dispelled and the way cleared for the progress of the Protestant religion by the light of science, literature, and commerce” (quoted in Black, Maps 60).
6In the early eighteenth century, this teleology was less evident or politically pressing. Indeed, the role of the Commons was not to the fore when the Glorious Revolution was considered. Yet, other elements were significant. For example, considering what is sometimes referred to as an ancien régime, and bringing in the fashionable theme of consumerism, it is easier to make a case for the role of the “middling sort” as consumers, because their place as definers of material culture was far more established than that as consumers or creators of political services. If the vote represents a means of consumption, then it was far more circumscribed than the purse, and not least due to the gender dimension: women did not get the vote until 1918, whereas they were very important to consumerism. Taken a stage further, however, and underlining the multiplicity of narratives on offer, the role of the “middling sort” as consumers had great political significance. This role contributed directly to the development of trans-oceanic trade. Indeed, the economic background to Britain’s rise as a major power owed much to the “middling sort,” not least their ability to combine consuming with producing functions, and the ready availability of investment income. There was a key political element as well, namely the role of the “middling sort” in defining, and using, a political space within which pressure could develop to focus on maritime and colonial expansion. This was readily apparent in the pressure to expand at the expense of Spain and France, most readily with the background to the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739, the opposition in 1748 to the agreement to return Louisbourg to France, and the pressure in 1754-56 for a firm stance, first over North America and then over Minorca. Without implying that the “middling sort” formed a united bloc, there is no doubt that contemporaries who focused on urban activism were correct to do so.
7At the same time, there is room for considerable caution about the influential, almost formulaic, theory of the role of a bourgeois public space, and, in particular, Alan Downie has been clearly and directly critical of the work of Jürgen Habermas. The idea of a public space that is clearly defined is useful, and yet also faces problems. Despite this, the historiographical imperative to have a rising, and more active, bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, however, has not gone away. It is even stronger in the USA where historical narratives organised around linear ideas of historical change are still more influential. The pressure for a social location for political change in the late eighteenth century is particularly apparent.
8Yet, the situation looks somewhat different from the perspective of the start of the century. In the understanding and use of political space, structure and agency, or, rather, structures and agencies, played a role. So also, in this, did the play of contingency. The “middling sort’s” engagement in politics can be seen across the seventeenth century, including in the intense public debates during the Civil War, the Exclusion Crisis, and the reign of James II. These debates, which focused on London, established and sustained assumptions and patterns of behaviour.
9At the same time, a key political context for this influence by the “middling sort” was provided by the dynastic changes in 1689 and 1714, and these repay consideration as this dimension has been underplayed.
10In particular, the replacement of James II and VII by William and Mary in 1689 challenged the relationship between Crown and people, King and subjects, at the very same time that it reconceptualised this relationship. Moreover, the reconceptualization involved a marked increase in political tension, for there had not been comparable division over whom should be monarch since the mid-Tudor period. This reconceptualisation was different to the republicanism of the mid-seventeenth century and acted to complicate the practice and symbolism of monarchy. The Williamite moment in British politics was linked to a rapid and disruptive process of state formation, constitutional and governmental change, and ideological formulation.
11The dynastic situation was exacerbated by the Hanoverian succession in 1714, and for a number of reasons. The disturbing novelty represented by William III had been tempered by the presence of Queen Mary, by the fact that they had no children, and by the succession being left to Anne and her children. However, the death of Anne’s son, William, Duke of Gloucester, the Act of Settlement of 1701, and the resulting Hanoverian succession, created the need, among critics of the policies of the monarch, for a new conceptualisation of Britain. This was one in which the country and its people could be differentiated from those policies, and thus the state. That distinction was to prove crucial to the use of the “nation” as a key tool in political discourse. This use was seen both with British commentators and with foreign counterparts, notably diplomats. It offered an account of British society in which the middling sort stood for the nation as a whole, and was presented accordingly. In particular, the “middling sort” appeared as the sound basis for a national response.
- 2 All dates are new style apart from those marked (os).
12This point can be amplified by considering the variety of meanings attached to the “people,” and the potential tension this set in place for other readings of the “middling sort” and the nation, both in terms of working definition and of usage. In general, a contrast can be noted. In part, this variety and contrast reflected the extent to which “the people” were believed important, both in reality and as an aspect of the constitution. There was a widely-expressed view that the people offered a core component of sense. In 1745, the London newspaper Old England published a tale of a Sussex fisherman in the 1690s, who told the French admiral Tourville with reference to James II and William III who both then claimed the throne: “God bless them both: As to matters of government, how should he know anything of them, for he could neither read nor write,” but that he would not fight against his country. A variant was the view that the ordinary people were primarily, and often unfortunately, concerned with the immediate issues of livelihood, such that “the accounts of prices of corn and stocks are to most of our readers of more importance than narratives of greater sound” (London Chronicle, 1 Jan. 1757).2 In 1748, it was claimed, this attitude led to support for grain exports to France even though the two powers were at war.
13At the same time, there was also the opinion that the people could be readily misinformed, were overly prone to follow their emotions, and, therefore, could be led astray and stirred up to dangerous ideas (True Patriot 25 Feb. [os], 11 Mar. [os], 3 June [os] 1746; A Dialogue). This opinion justified different policies on the part of government, as in March 1756 when Thomas, Duke of Newcastle, then the leading minister, favoured peace with France even though, as he correctly commented, “the people are still wild for war” (Newcastle to William). A pamphleteer writing in 1757 in favour of the militia, addressing “the People of England,” noted of those opposed: “It is true many of you, my countrymen, who compose the giddy multitude that oppose it are friends to the Constitution – but you think not for yourselves – you take reports for facts, and credit hearsays […] think for yourselves” (Letter 7-8). The pamphlet included an appeal to economic self-interest, by arguing that any reliance on foreign troops to defend Britain would lead to an increase in the cost of bread (Letter 6). In 1771, Samuel Johnson argued that, in the international crisis over the Falkland Islands, foreign states would be overly affected by reports of discontent in Britain, discontent that Johnson presented in a very harsh light as “the insolence of Common Councils […] the howl of Plebeian patriotism […] the chain of subordination broken” (53-72), the last an echo of traditional themes about the social order and the dangers of its dynamism, and the second remark a Classical location for such anxiety. To Johnson, it was clear that the nature of domestic politics, and notably in the forcing house of London, threatened to compromise Britain’s international position.
14There was also the view that public opinion over policy was divided, and that contradictory political demands could be generated, such that there was no real national view. Thus, in 1756, Josiah Tucker, a conservative commentator, observed of Bristol, where he had a clerical living: “Our city is at present tolerably free from the epidemical madness of addressing, instructing, etc. [...] If such an attempt shall be made, the government might depend upon a counter address, instructions, etc. if that measure should be thought advisable” (Shelton 158).
15Other commentators argued that the people had a right to address and instruct (London Evening Post, 1 Jan. 1757), and, indeed, that government should respond and must do so to retain legitimacy, not least links with the revolution Settlement. These processes were public. True or forged Instructions were given publicity by the press, which thereby attracted additional scrutiny, as in October 1756, when Robert, 4th Earl of Holdernesse, a Secretary of State, wrote from London to Charles, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, a fellow Yorkshire peer, about the report in the Public Advertiser about a Yorkshire Instruction (Holdernesse to Rockingham R1-85). A magnate of great landed wealth, Rockingham, as the Lord Lieutenant of the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire and of York, was the central figure in its established government and politics. However, he also had to be mindful of a new political culture. At the county meeting held in Yorkshire in July 1753 to nominate the candidates for the county seats in the national election due in 1754, there were numerous peers and gentry, but also dele-gations from the manufacturing centres of Halifax and Sheffield. This was a clear sign of a rising new political interest.
16“The nation” was the usual phrase adopted by foreign commentators, as in May 1753 by the French Foreign Minister when discussing Anglo-Prussian disputes; and in April 1756, at a time when Britain and France were already involved in hostilities and close to declaring war, when Count Viry, the experienced and well-connected Sardinian envoy, reported that the nation was against restoring captured French ships (Saint-Contest to La Touche, Viry to Charles Emmanuel III). Moreover, diplomats commenting on other states thought that their governments were influenced by views about the British nation. Thus, in October 1755, Aubeterre, the French envoy in Vienna, reported that the Austrian government thought that, if the naval and colonial conflict with France already being waged went badly for Britain, the British “nation” was capable of forcing George II to peace without thinking of Austria, and that this possibility worried the Austrian government and made it hesitant of entering into British views, even though the British alliance was essential (Aubeterre to Rouillé). This contrast between King and nation was very much seen in the assumptions of Frederick II of Prussia, who was a close and concerned follower of British politics (Frederick II to Klinggraeffen). This was not the sole vocabulary employed, including by critics. Thus, the contrasting of people and ministry was frequently made by British and foreign commentators. Baldassare Perrone di San Martino, Viry’s predecessor, referred to “le Public” (Perrone to Charles Emmanuel III).
17The common theme was a contrasting of nation and state, one given constitutional form in Addresses and petitions to the Crown. This contrast had a particular political dimension depending on the party identity of the government. During the Whig-dominated reigns of George I and George II, ideas of the nation proved significant for the concepts of freedom advanced by both Tories and opposition Whigs. In opposing the Whig state, the Tories, in a break with their tradition, reluctantly emerged as political radicals, even if this radicalism had scant echo in religious, social and cultural terms. This process was taken further by opposition Whigs (Wilson). The nation, indeed, was a more protean formation than the state, the nation often standing in opposition to the “ministry” and being perceived as doing so by foreign observers. They were very keen to explain that the bounds of political influence and political “opinion” both did and should extend further than the usual limits of the “republic of country houses.”
18Political and social discourse proved key ways in constructing identity and interest within and across Britain, and thus in presenting politics as far more than the quest for office. The social definition of the nation was generally vague or unspecified, but it approximated to the older idea of the commons, which was an honourable and long-standing concept in British politics. There was a potent cultural counterpart, with the criticism of Hanoverianism from 1714 matched by that of élite artistic preferences, notably for Italian opera and French actors. These preferences were presented in terms of an undesirable cosmopolitanism and of other tendencies ranging from crypto-Catholicism to effeminacy. In the Covent Garden Journal (1752), Henry Fielding railed against gambling, adultery, pornography, and the general problem of selfish and improper conduct. “People of Fashion” were criticised for their behaviour and their attitudes, real and alleged, and were presented as dangerous role models for tradesmen. This long-standing theme saw a reformulation of the Puritan-related criticism of the seventeenth century for a new age. This was a reformulation that repeatedly proved resonant and effective. It was ironical that this artistic-cultural critique could also be directed against Hanoverianism, the supposed preference of the Kings of Britain, as Electors of Hanover, for the interests of the Electorate of Hanover at the expense of Britain, as George I, George II and George III themselves were stolid Protestants.
19In opposition, the “middling sort” provided, or could serve to provide, a robust, self-reliant image of Englishness. This positioning did not capture the very real diversity within the group. Nevertheless, the positioning ensured that the political space of the nation had a cultural resonance that helped provide both an inclusiveness that overcame political divisions, and a continuity in content and resonance that was not dependent on individual periods of anti-Hanoverianism. Thus, in the 14 February (os) 1747 issue of the major opposition London newspaper Old England, Horace Walpole attacked the Duke of Newcastle, contrasting “a frugal citizen in Cornhill [London], whose whole family lives on a single dish of meat, while he cheerfully pays his taxes towards pulling down the French King,” with whom Britain was then at war, with a minister of state’s keeping a French cook and dining every day “more sumptuously than a city livery company.” At the same time, not only the “middling sort” but also much of the landed élite would have accepted the values endorsed by Horace Walpole, who was scarcely a frugal citizen.
20His thesis, or, at least, image, indicated the rhetorical function of the “middling sort” as they were invoked by various groups to embody the interests and opinion of the nation. Eighteenth-century political rhetoric posited the idea of the sturdy, rational “middling sort” (the soul of the nation), against various foes, real or imagined, such as aristocratic corruption, Frenchified foppery, plebeian disorder, the jobbery of Sir Robert Walpole, or the enemies of Admiral Vernon. It is instructive to note the degree to which this group was invoked after 1689 and also how it could be dissociated from its sectarian seventeenth-century baggage. This dissociation was highly significant for the political repositioning of social categories and, indeed, for the development of this categorisation. The dissociation made it acceptable to refer positively to the group.
21The concept of the nation also enabled the “middling sort” to offer criticism, or, rather, to offer criticism without considering themselves seditious. There is a parallel with discussion about the later role in France of opposition to the Austrian alliance in creating a sense of nation as separate to that of the Crown (Kaiser). Similarly, in Spain, the costs of the Italian commitment during the 1740s helped lead to the development of a national theme in the definition of identity and policy, as opposed to the more dynastic and Mediterranean themes that were to the fore under Philip V (r. 1700-46).
22Discussion of the “middling sort” was far from static. Instead, it responded both to the political dynamic and to the significant social changes that were occurring in Britain and, indeed, the British world. These changes focused on a broadening of the significance of the social groups summarised as the “middling sort.” This was a broadening seen in economic growth and transformation, notably in trade, industry, agriculture, services and communications, as well as in the townscapes and urban life of the period (Borsay). London was the focus of urban life, urban images, and the idea and reality of the nation. It was a world city that worked, sometimes to the astonishment of outsiders, and in spite of its somewhat indifferent national political masters.
23The success of London as a city, as an urban community was important to the understanding of the “middling sort” which, more generally, grew in terms of wealth, status, consumer power, urban concentrations, capital accumulation, associational culture, and cultural, social and political assimilation with higher social groups. This development supported the rhetorical function of the “middling sort,” but was not a necessary condition of it. Moreover, there were more specific political resonances. In particular, trade became a key social and political indicator. Thus, both merchant representation and mercantile business played a growing role in the House of Commons. In the late 1730s, the celebration of the patriot merchant helped to make trade a potent political goal and language, one linked to the pressing call for British maritime hegemony and imperial advantage.
24Trade provided an important political, social and cultural space for the “middling sort,” although it scarcely defined the range of their economic activity. Thus, the urban “middling sort” included numerous professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and clerics, who were not involved in trade. The professionals helped provide social position and leadership. The “middling sort” expressed their desire for status and social achievement in the new building and rebuilding of the period. The desire to replace the old was particularly seen in the urban townscape, with brick in place of timber-frame, as well as in the creation of new streets, squares, crescents and circuses. New buildings often marked a change in local consciousness, and notably toward a rejection of old expressions of individual places. Instead, there was a welcoming of a literally open-ended urban environment. This development of the sense of place was important to the period’s self-image as an improving society. New townscapes were reproduced in engravings. As such, there was a representation at the level of the individual town of the more general situation at the national level, one in which the “middling sort” organised outcomes that created a representation of community. At the same time, they were responsive to the role of the élite who used the new town-scapes themselves.
25Signs of growing status and wealth created issues in terms of the locating of social mobility, although a key element was that the “middling sort” did not seek political change to benefit themselves collectively. Instead, they showed little sign of what would later be termed class consciousness. As an issue that would look familiar in nineteenth-century terms, this did not strongly emerge until the end of the century (Wahrman Imagining, Making). The rate of social change was far lower than was to be the case over the following two centuries, but social mobility was greater than on the Continent, as was the role of the “middling sort.” As a key indicator of mobility, the linkage between status and wealth was both limiting and malleable. Legislation was passed to ensure that only those with a certain amount of land could become Justices of the Peace but, looked at differently, this legislation reflected both the political impotence of Toryism and the failure to maintain such criteria, because a law was required. However, property qualifications for many posts were relatively low, enabling the lower middling orders to participate in the government of the localities. This was true both of the government of the state and of the Church. There was also a malleability in the relationship between status and behaviour as in the complex reality of the practice of politeness (Davison).
26Throughout the century, the relationship between capital and income greatly favoured the country gentlemen, despite their problem with the land tax. However, allowing for the potent role of inherited capital, and in the towns as well as the rural economy, many opportunities for self-advancement existed. While a distinct social group, the “middling sort” were one that demanded status, sought upward social mobility, and feared the opposite. Self-image, hierarchy, and background played leading roles in the positioning of the “middling sort,” alongside employment. However, the protection offered today by theoretically reliable systems of insurance and pensions, and by relatively secure investment, was absent. This fragility was ably captured by novelists with their frequent emphasis on prospects and on turns of fate, the latter seen, as they described, across society. Indeed, the difficulty fictional characters found in finding emotional constancy was not unrelated to similar problems in terms of social status. The volatility of trade, and of the economy as a whole, increased exposure to commercial developments, and the resulting anxiety fed interest in the news (Wennerlind).
27The “middling sort” were an appreciable group in society, although far less than the less well-off. Although this was not a complete measure of the group, fifteen per cent of households had annual incomes of between £50 and £400 in 1750. In rural society, the “middling sort” were represented by tenant farmers, the agents of landlords, and rural professionals, such as parsons. Shared values ensured that the clash between town and country was limited in provincial England (Eastbrook), and the same was true of Scotland. Nevertheless, alongside shared values, the “middling sort” was also presented socially and spatially in differing ways, including through images of distinctive lifestyles and locations. Alongside differences between town and country, tensions between both, on the one hand, and metropolis and politicians on the other, could be significant.
28So also could be the theme of local interest. As a result, on some topics and in certain periods, the “middling sort” found a common national consciousness distinct from other social groupings, or on behalf of all. Indeed, the “middling sort” could operate best as expressions of a (supposedly) common local interest: of their town, country, parish or “country” (in the French sense of pays). Thus, at one level, the “middling sort” acted as the parish élites and better sort (French). The structure of Parliament and elections meant that the growth of parliamentary power encouraged the “middling sort” to exercise their influence via this local politics: in the larger towns and freer parliamentary boroughs by their direct representation, and in the lesser ones by the pressure they could put on gentry MPs to represent their views. In all these cases, there was a complex mixture, not least with social mobility and in terms of the possible tension between advancing the cause of the individual place (and people in it) and that of supporting the wider national “interest,” however conceptualised.
- 3 For excellent recent accounts of the alternative, Court-dominated, culture, see Winn and Marschner (...)
29Alongside this complexity, there was a growing cultural and intellectual role for the “middling sort.” 3 Unable individually to provide sustained patronage, they participated strongly in the cultural and intellectual world, notably through public performances of works that they paid to attend, public markets for the arts, and attending lectures. This participation was not value-free but, instead an aspect of a public culture that presented itself in terms of openness and reasoned argument. As such, there was an important equivalent to the English self-image of their own religious culture in the shape of the unique Church of England.
30There was no common modus operandi for the culture of the “middling sort.” An important aspect was domestic. Within this sphere, women were able to assert particular independence and self-control, notably in music-making and reading; just as religious devotion was possible through individual prayer and reading devotional works. Yet women were also crucial to the public consumption and production of culture, and to a degree that a public/private binary divide is unhelpful.
31A key cultural aspect was provided by public, commercial patronage in a world moulded by commercial entrepreneurs. Although much criticised by commentators concerned about the role of commercialism, the public culture, driven by the purchasing power of the “middling sort,” reflected and sustained a set of commercial practices and agencies that became stronger during the century. Moreover, this development was linked to national assertiveness. For example, Jonathan Richardson’s Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715) both advanced art criticism and argued that English painters could equal Italian old masters. Moreover, the critical study of Shakespeare in mid-century became caught up in a militant rhetoric of great-power rivalry between Britain and France (De Bruyn 147). The cultural activity of the “middling sort” was not only national in the sense that it was linked to assertion in the international context, but also national in that it reached across the country. Although activity centred in London, it was by no means confined to the capital. Whether music or libraries, scientific lectures or theatre, this cultural activity created a set of normative practices as well as values, and demonstrated as well as asserted what would subsequently be seen as enlightenment (Black, Culture).
32Alongside general developments, political moments require consideration. Just as 1689 and 1714 had provided one set of political conjunctures, so the same was to be true of 1760. Again, royal image and policy helped to redefine the “middling sort” politically. In this case, George III’s break with the “Old Corps” Whigs and his move toward a monarch above party (although unsuccessful in the 1760s itself) gathered momentum not least because, unlike his two predecessors, George was not identified with Hanover, nor with foreign cultural preferences. Instead, there was a strong and conscious cultural nationalism on his part, one calculated to appeal to the “middling sort.” As a consequence, there was a reknitting of Crown and “middling sort,” notably in the 1780s, before the fresh pressure for cohesion produced by the radicalism of the French Revolution. Then, the “middling sort” lined up with the privileged, not always easily, but far more so than had been the case in the 1720s and 1730s.
- 4 I would like to thank Jonathan Barry, Anne Bandry, Jacques Carré, Emma Clery, Alan Downie, Jean-Pa (...)
33Thus, the “middling sort” both provided a site for cultural statement and manoeuvre, and a key interlocutor of monarchy as a political and ideological system capable of sustaining crisis. In short, parliamentary monarchy as a constitutional practice required not only the participation of the aristocracy but also of a wide tranche of society, ready to criticise, but also feeling “ownership” in the political system and in society as a whole. As a result, it is useful to discuss the “middling sort” at least in part in terms of the establishment and working through of parliamentary monarchy. 4