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18th Century Fox

The nobility of mass-market conservatism.

By From the November 2013 issue

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TWO THINGS ALL  conservatives love are narratives of decline and talking about conservatism. Put those together and you have the popular argument that conservatism ain’t what it used to be. The chart of that supposed decline, if you were to draw it Ascent of Man style, would start with Edmund Burke looking intelligent and walking upright, followed by William F. Buckley as Australopithecus, slouching. The present age would be represented by some knuckle-dragging, prognathous creature like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. First comes very smart, then pretty smart, and then not very smart at all.

Some of those on the right who call themselves “Burkean conservatives” seem to have picked that adjective with this devolution in mind. By identifying with the 18th-century statesmen, these 21st-century conservatives may be indicating an affection for tradition or chivalry, but they are also indicating their own intellectual sophistication. Their arguments were not learned from talk radio. They read books and dislike shouting. Hence the emphasis on the mild and reflective Burkean “temperament” by dissident conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks, and hence their detection of it in our bookish-seeming but otherwise entirely un-Burkean president. In a 2010 column Brooks detailed the specific ways modern American politics had, in his estimation, betrayed Edmund Burke’s legacy. The list of offenses climaxed with “polemicists of left and right” and their “ideological Jacobin style of politics.” The gist of all this is that Edmund Burke never had to put up with, and never would have put up with, anything as vulgar as talk radio or Crossfire.

But is that really true? Was Burke really spared the indignity of seeing his arguments peddled to the masses in plebified form? He was not—nor did he consider it much of an indignity. Even in that golden age of conservative genius, there were pamphleteers, satirists, and hacks on the same side who were no more sophisticated than what you see today. Some of these lesser polemicists were even friends of Burke’s, including one whom the reviewers called “an encyclopedia of all literary vices” and “one of the most detestable writers that ever held a pen.” The same decade that saw the birth of intellectual conservatism as we know it, with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, also saw the birth of unintellectual conservatism, and if we today are more their heirs than the sage of Beaconsfield’s, that might not be such a terrible thing.

Lowbrow conservatism first came into being in the 1790s, because that was the first time that British authors felt it at all necessary to address any political arguments to the common people. Before the late 18th century, most writers would have agreed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that “it is the duty of the enlightened Philanthropist to plead for the poor and ignorant, not to them.” Not that pleading to them would have been much use when most of them were illiterate. But reading had become more widespread in the decades before the French Revolution, and in the final quarter of the 18th century the amount of reading material published in Britain increased by a factor of four. Attracted by this growing market and exhilarated by events in America and France, radicals like Tom Paine decided to invite the British common man into the world of political debate.

The accessibility of Paine’s style frightened his opponents more than the extremism of his ideas. When the attorney general brought his seditious libel case against Paine for part two of Rights of Man, he explained that he had not prosecuted him for part one because, “reprehensible as that book was…it was ushered into the world under circumstances that led me to believe that it would be confined to the judicious reader.” Part one had sold for three shillings. Part two, on the other hand, was released as a sixpenny pamphlet, and the attorney general was moved to have Paine arrested “when I found that even children’s sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands, in the hope that they would read it.”

But another lawyer thought that it would be better to answer Paine than to muzzle him. This was John Reeves, an ultra-monarchist barrister and journalist who in 1792 founded the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers. (If only the modern Tea Party had resurrected that name.) Later, when Reeves was charged with seditious libel for having written a pamphlet so fulsomely pro-monarchy that it appeared to reduce parliament to a mere appendage, Burke wrote eloquently in his defense, claiming that while the pamphlet had probably gone beyond what was strictly orthodox, its author was guilty of nothing more than a few ill-chosen metaphors.

Within a year of the Association’s first meeting—in a tavern, the Crown and Anchor—there were more than 1,000 clubs spread throughout the kingdom, their mission to halt the spread of Jacobinical ideas among the British public. Modern historians have focused on the Association’s more rambunctious pastimes, like burning Tom Paine in effigy and throwing the occasional radical in the local river, but far more of their effort was spent distributing loyalist literature. Reeves loved the excitement of publishing more than the practice of law, and he took great relish in reprinting suitable tracts—such as the Rev. William Paley’s unselfconsciously titled Reasons for Contentment, Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public—and, later, in accepting unsolicited submissions from amateur scribblers eager to help the cause. Prices were kept low partly to entice poorer buyers and partly to allow rich sympathizers to buy literature in bulk and hand it out for free. One pamphlet was listed at “Price only ONE HALFPENNY, or 3s. per Hundred to such as give them away.”

BEFORE LOOKING AT these curious pamphlets, it is worth reemphasizing just how novel this whole enterprise was. The sorts of people who sent Reeves submissions—curates, bluestockings, schoolteachers, etc.—had no idea how to talk about politics in a way the lower classes would understand, and there was not much in the way of precedent for them to turn to. The covering letters that came in with their submissions betray this sense of being completely at sea. This one, which arrived on Reeves’s desk attached to A Dialogue Between a Tradesman and His Porter, is positively bashful:

Perhaps the 10th and 11th pages savor too much of the old passive obedience. I have therefore sent also a few words which, should the former be disapproved of, may be put in their place. I confess that I think we cannot speak too highly of the subject of the monarchy to the common people, in arguing with whom we can only oppose prejudice to prejudice, and leave it to their reason to find a medium. To talk to them of the constitution is vain.

The author was right to worry that he laid it on too thick in places, such as when the tradesman admonishes his porter to “bless God for having placed over us a King whom, while we obey him by the divine command, we cannot help loving, as the best father, the best husband, and the best master in the land.” But as we read lines like that, we must remember that behind the bombast was often a first-time author who could only take his best guess at what sort of stuff the laboring classes would go for.

One of the earliest and most popular loyalist pamphlets, which will serve as a representative example, was the dialogue Village Politics (1792). Its author, Hannah More, was a personal friend of Burke’s, having lived in Bristol when he was the city’s representative and later meeting him again as a member of Dr. Johnson’s circle. It was More who made the myrtle-and-laurel cockade that Burke wore on the day of his Bristol election victory in 1774. By the 1790s, More had become a full-time moralist, publishing several essays aimed at the upper classes on such subjects as the abominable practice of instructing servants to tell unwanted visitors that the master is “not at home,” which More thought would only teach them a disregard for honesty. When she observed the popularity of Rights of Man and other republican tracts among poorer readers, More decided to address a new audience.

Village Politics opens with Jack Anvil the Blacksmith coming upon an unhappy looking Tom Hod the Mason, who is reading Paine’s Rights of Man:

“What is the matter?”

“Matter? why, I want liberty.”

“Liberty? That’s bad indeed. What, has any one fetched a warrant for thee? Come, man, I’ll be bound for thee. Thou art an honest fellow in the main, though thou dost tipple a little at the Rose and Crown.”

“No, no, I want a new constitution.”

“Indeed! why I thought thou hadst been a desperate healthy fellow. Send for the doctor.”

Once Tom Hod’s meaning is made clear, Jack Anvil refutes him with homely concreteness:

“Suppose in the general division our new rulers should give us half an acre of ground apiece, we could, to be sure, raise potatoes on it for the use of our families; but as every man would be equally busy in raising potatoes of this family, why then, you see, if thou wast to break thy spade, I, whose trade it is, should no longer be able to mend it. Neighbor Snip would have no time to make us a suit of clothes, nor the clothier to receive the cloth; for all the world would be gone a-digging.”

“But still I should have no one over my head.”

“That’s a mistake. I’m stronger than thee, and Standish the exciseman is a better scholar; and we should not remain equal a minute.”

This passage (and the dialogue continues in much the same vein until Tom is converted back to sense) may strike modern readers as didactic and patronizing—Burke for Beginners—but More’s writing was quite popular at the time. Her series of “Cheap Repository Tracts” achieved a collective circulation of a million copies in their first year alone, which is five times more than the Reflections had in its first year. Later they were collected and republished in book form, subdivided into the sections “Tales for the Common People” and “Stories for Persons of Middle Rank.”

OF COURSE, WITH More’s tracts and other Association pamphlets, it is difficult to tell what portion of their circulation came from the voluntary purchases of rural laborers as opposed to the bulk purchases of the well-intentioned wealthy. But there was one genre of conservative literature in the 1790s that had to rely entirely on its commercial appeal, and that was the anti-Jacobin novel. Over fifty such books appeared between 1790 and 1814 (out of only 1,800 novels total), and their publishers printed them not because they were true believers like Reeves and More, but because the books sold.

Anti-Jacobin novels all had essentially the same structure: A naïve main character of either sex falls under the spell of a radical philosopher with a name like Strongbrain, Sourby, Myope, or Nincompoop (all real examples) and thus meets with a series of self-inflicted calamities climaxing in destitution, the gallows, or an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The radical philosopher is sometimes grotesquely villainous, as in Isaac D’Israeli’s Massouf where the “enlightened” character’s principles yield a dystopia where children play with the limbs of their grandparents. Sometimes he is simply bumbling. In John Henry Pye’s The Democrat, the Jacobin “missionary” from France mistakes a Jacobite for a likely ally and ends up being driven out of town by a jeering mob after getting a pie in the face.

Many authors used direct quotations from radicals like William Godwin for their dialogue, sometimes with citations listed in the footnotes. George Walker, in Vagabond, or Practical Infidelity (1799), has his protagonist encounter a real-life version of Godwin’s famous thought experiment about the house fire that threatens to kill the Archbishop Fenelon and a chambermaid. Godwin argued that if you can save only one, you should pick the man who will go on to write The Adventures of Telemachus, even if the chambermaid is your mother, because the archbishop’s life is worth more to mankind and such decisions must be made without regard for sentiment. Walker’s protagonist stands pondering whether his mentor Dr. Stupeo would want him to save his mistress Amelia or her father for such a long time that both perish. (Godwin, for his part, was aware of the mockery to which he was being subjected and reacted with his usual humorlessness: “The cry spread like a general infection, and I have been told that not even a petty novel for boarding-school misses now ventures to aspire to favor unless it contains some expression of dislike or abhorrence to the new philosophy.”)

A surprising number of anti-Jacobin novelists were women. One of them, Elizabeth Hamilton, wrote the anti-Jacobin novel that probably holds up the best, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, which was popular enough to go through three editions in two years. It features the splendidly named Bridgetina Botherim, who “never read anything but novels and metaphysics,” and the philosopher Mr. Glib, her idol. Bridgetina has gotten the idea from Glib that the primitive society of the Hottentots constitutes the nearest thing to paradise. Until she can relocate to Africa, she annoys her neighbors with lectures on noble savages and human perfectibility. Meeting the rather squat Bridgetina coming home from a walk, Mr. Glib calls out:

Exerting your energies, I see. That’s it! energies do all. Make your legs grow in a twinkling.…No short legs in an enlightened society. All the Hottentots tall and straight as maypoles.

But at the end of the book, Bridgetina is as hunched and homely as ever, and still unmarried. This dig at the purported physical ugliness of female radicals appears again in Hamilton’s other anti-Jacobin novel, Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, where the character Miss Ardent “anticipates the millennium [when] mental qualities alone will attract the sexes to each other, and accordingly the golden age will become the homely woman’s paradise.”

These delightful novels have received almost no attention from modern scholars, despite their popularity and, perhaps more interestingly, their having influenced the literary formation of the young Jane Austen. Perhaps this is because English professors are accustomed to thinking of the 1790s as the era of Romantics like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, whom they find both more interesting and more ideologically congenial. But even in the more sophisticated literary world that these poets inhabited, the anti-Jacobins had a role to play, and it was in the more elevated scene of the London periodical press that attacks on political radicalism reached their most vituperative.

IN NOVEMBER 1797—four months after Burke’s death—the future prime minister George Canning was granted government funding for a weekly newspaper, which he titled The Anti-Jacobin; or Weekly Examiner. By the end of its eight-month run The Anti-Jacobin could claim a readership of 50,000, “a most respectable minority of the Readers of the whole Kingdom.” The most popular newspaper of the period, The Times, was at that point printing around 3,000 copies per day.

The centerpiece of each issue of The Anti-Jacobin was a section dedicated to refuting claims made in the radical press, under the headings “Lies,” “Misrepresentations,” and “Falsehoods.” More amusing were the poetic satires (Canning was a gifted versifier). One of these, “The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-Grinder,” was modeled on an extremely maudlin poem Robert Southey had just published called “The Widow,” which featured such lines as “‘I am a widow, poor and broken-hearted!’ / Loud blew the wind, unheard was her complaining, / On drove the chariot.” The parody goes:

Tell me, knife-grinder, how came you to grind knives?
Did some rich man tyrannically use you?
…Drops of compassion tremble on my eyelids,
Ready to fall as soon as you have told your
Pitiful story.

The knife-grinder replies that his clothes are only shabby because “last night, a-drinking at the Chequers, / This poor old hat and breeches, as you see, were / Torn in a scuffle.” He concludes:

I should be glad to drink your honor’s health in
A pot of beer, if you will give me sixpence;
But for my part, I never love to meddle
With politics, sir.

The friend of humanity cries, “Wretch! whom no sense of wrongs can rouse to vengeance!” and kicks over the knife-grinder’s wheel before departing “in a transport of republican enthusiasm and universal philanthropy.”

The paper targeted politicians as well as poets. In one instance, it drew attention to a toast made by Charles James Fox at the Whig Club in which he had implored “the Friends of Liberty” to “shake off the yoke of our English tyrants.” The editors condemned the toast as nothing less than a cry for open rebellion, even though Fox had taken care to restrict his exhortation to “justifiable and legal effort.” Two days after this issue appeared, Fox’s name was removed from the membership list of the Privy Council. This was a great deal of influence for anyone to have, but especially for such young men (Canning was 28). Like other young men, they sometimes let their high spirits run away with them. Perhaps this is why, when the magazine’s verse was collected in an anthology in 1800, the individual poems remained anonymous at the request of the contributors—for, as one put it, “the publicity of the authors’ names would be very inconvenient.” 

WALTER SCOTT SAID that when he read Burke as a young man, “all the gibberish about the superior legislation of the French dissolved like an enchanted castle when the destined knight blows his horn before it.” In the case of the writers described here, the sound was less like a clarion and more like a derisive cackle, a schoolmarmish cluck, or a good old-fashioned raspberry. It may be that the contemporary conservative media sometimes makes noises of a similarly undignified nature. But enchantments are not necessarily broken by reason; sometimes a good jolt serves best. And whether Megyn Kelly knows it or not, they are part of a centuries-old—and occasionally glorious—tradition. 

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About the Author

Helen Rittelmeyer is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She blogs at First Things.