Today’s blog from Philip Loft, currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge, is part of our week of social media activity about all things petitioning, protest and franchise reform. This is ahead of our public event on the Thursday in Westminster, ‘Parliament and popular sovereignty in the 19th century’. Philip’s paper on petitioning before the development of radical and mass-platform petitioning in the mid-eighteenth century was originally given in November 2017 at our joint conference with Durham University at the People’s History Museum in Manchester…
The later eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the great age of parliamentary petitioning. Millions of subscribers to tens of thousands of petitions increasingly called upon parliamentarians to pursue political and constitutional reform, the abolition of slavery, religious emancipation and the improvement of society. Such campaigning movements culminated with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and the Chartist Petition of 1842, which was signed by 3.3 million adults.
But before the development of radical and mass-platform petitioning from the 1760s and 1770s, were petitions presented by communities and interests in response to parliamentary legislation. These were often uncontroversial in a legal sense, but raised problems of misrepresentation and partisanship, as described in Mark Knight’s Representation and Misrepresentation (2005). The growth of this ‘responsive petitioning’ reflected the transformation in the capacity of the Westminster Parliament to create legislation after the Revolution of 1688-89. Through sitting predictability and for longer periods of time (during the Restoration, half of the 22 parliamentary sessions lasted less than fifty days, whilst after 1688-89 annual sessions lasted a hundred), Westminster was able to act as a sustained and regular point of contact for the political nation.
As a result, from the Revolution of 1688-89 to 1755, some eight thousand responsive petitions were presented to Westminster. Between seventy and eighty per cent of these related to three issues: communication schemes (particularly turnpikes and river navigation), the strength of manufactures and industry (most significantly the woollen and leather sectors), and overseas trade. Just seven river navigation schemes contributed over five hundred petitions, whilst nearly an eighth of the petitions related to the woollen industry alone.
Despite being overwhelmingly created in response to proposed acts regulating industry and society, these petitions were responsible for widening the political nation, spreading partisanship and division into the towns and counties of England and Wales, and ensuring that parliamentarians appreciated the importance of public opinion to the functioning and legitimacy of the state. From 1689 to 1722, Gloucestershire saw one petition sent to Westminster for every one hundred and sixty adult male inhabitants, and the counties of Wiltshire, Somerset and Worcestershire sent one petition to every two hundred and fifty. These areas therefore experienced a petitioning culture as strong as London (one petition to every two hundred adult males). Small Somerset towns and villages such as Ilminster, Crewkerne, Sedgemoor and Milverton sent petitions alongside larger regional centres like Taunton, Tiverton and Salisbury.
In addition to originating beyond the boundaries of incorporated boroughs, subscribers to these petitions also came from beyond the electorate. Petitions therefore operated as a supplementary mode of representation to the formal means of influencing the state via the vote. The descriptions petitioners provided of themselves are testament to the groups involved, and how the population chose to define their role in society. One petition came, ‘shipwrights, ropemakers, sailmakers, gunsmiths, anchor smiths, joiners, ship chandlers, brewers, butchers, block makers and artificers’ in London. Another represented ‘stage coachmen, coach owners, waggoneers, wagon owners, owners of carriers, drovers, clothiers, and the users of roads’ in Bradford-on-Avon, Hilperton, Melksham and Bath in 1717, cutting across county boundaries and social hierarchy. They showed that beyond the ‘rage of party’ between Whig and Tory, there was an ongoing ‘clash of interests’.
The extent of participation and conflict meant that these petitions demonstrated the contradictory and divided nature of public opinion. On the siting of the Buckingham Assize in 1748, a petition of the ‘gentry, clergy, freeholders and other inhabitants of the county’ was presented for the bill, then ‘gentlemen, clergy and freeholders of the county’ petitioned against it. Adding to division, the lord lieutenant petitioned for the bill, whilst the grand jury petitioned against. Members of the corporation of Doncaster petitioned both for and against the Don navigation in 1722. This opened up the question of who was the legitimate representative of opinion in boroughs and counties, and how to umpire between the two.
Although not on the same scale or intensity of later mass-petitioning, responsive petitions to parliament in the later Stuart and Hanoverian period performed an essential role to the functioning of the state and acted as its eyes and ears in a locality. In mobilising and expanding the political nation, they had a challenging side too, in demonstrating the contradictory nature of public opinion, raising questions of how to arbitrate between equally-qualified experts and interests. Together with the participatory nature of elections illustrated in William Hogarth’s 1755 Humours of an Election series and in Frank O’Gorman’s, Voter’s, Patrons, Parties (1989), partisan and participatory petitioning ensured that the Whig oligarchy of the mid-eighteenth century was open to negotiation and subject to the influence of public opinion. As Paul Langford wrote, if Britain was indeed governed by a landed oligarchy in the eighteenth century, it was a consensus-seeking one, permitting and seeking out a wide variety of non elite opinion and interests.