Dancing into the Houses of Parliament: the role of balls in Georgian electoral campaigns

The latest blog from the Georgian Lords investigates the importance of dance in the eighteenth-century political process. Our guest author, Hillary Burlock, is a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching the politics of dance in eighteenth-century politics, and currently holds a BSECS/Georgian Papers Programme research fellowship.

Eighteenth-century elections, rife with ritual and corruption, were not only responsible for electing MPs, but for developing civic identity. While elections were triggered by Parliament, they were inherently local, reaffirming the networks of dependence and interdependence within each town or county. Political rivalries made elections contentious affairs, punctuated by street fights and protests.

Against the backdrop of the American and French Revolutions, when concerns of democracy, representation, and governance were hotly debated in Parliament and pamphlets, politicians were aware of the importance of pacifying the local populace to retain control in a period of upheaval and crisis. Election balls formed a narrative of continuity in late Georgian Britain against a backdrop of protest and reform. Juxtaposed with the boisterous, bustling streets of electoral politics, election balls served as a conduit for issues of patronage and networking to be negotiated within an alternate, refined setting.

Election balls were complex social events, which helped to reinforce a sense of civic identity and citizenship. Elections were not decided solely by policy or local issues, but also by the candidates’ personalities and their ability to engender strong bonds with the community. For these community networks to thrive, they needed to be established, maintained, and renewed in the ballroom. Election balls were held either during the campaign to win approbation and votes, or after the election to thank the electors for their support.

As the candidate canvassed and treated during the election, his role encompassed delivering speeches on the hustings, paying constituency visits, and actively participating in election balls by dancing.  Although frequently commented upon in the context of ‘feminine’ accomplishment, dance skill was by no means limited by gender. Indeed, dance skill positively contributed to an MP’s public persona, artfully constructed to project his identity as the ideal candidate.

Dancing masters wrote treatises that encouraged men to learn the art, emphasising its importance in the careers of politicians. In the education of boys, dance was presented as a series of mental and physical exercises rather than a feminine accomplishment, a tool that could transform men into gentlemen. Francis Peacock quoted Quintilian when encouraging dance as ‘necessary to the formation of an orator…’ [F. Peacock, Practice of Dancing (1805), 77]. The value of first impressions and putting one’s best foot forward, both literally and figuratively, could not be underestimated at an election ball, particularly when the poll hung in the balance. Dancing master Giovanni Gallini advocated the study of dance and attainment of graceful movement as a reflection of internal qualities; ‘… upon the external figure and appearance depends often the regard we have to the internal qualities of the mind. A graceful behaviour, in the house of Lords or Commons, commands the attention of a whole assembly’ [Giovanni Gallini, A Treatise on the Art of Dancing (1762), 143].  Thus, dance was promoted as a means of preparing young men for their future careers as politicians, lawyers, and men of business.

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Four couples dancing the quadrille. Engraving, ca. 1825. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Whether canvassing or treating, the candidate was encouraged to be accessible and approachable, an embodiment of the ‘independent man’ [Matthew McCormack, Independent Man (2005), 2]. Lady Bessborough wrote that she and her brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer, attended a ball specifically to ‘visit some freeholders’ wives, whom he wanted to please’ and noted that ‘John and Fred danced with the Misses,’ thereby pleasing the public with their hospitality and attentions, and demonstrating their accessibility and sensitivity to his constituents’ desires [G. Leveson Gower, Private Correspondence (1916), i. 98-99].

An MP’s efforts to increase his connectivity created a web of community relationships, forged through reciprocal ties of obligation and expectation. Election balls were an element of the treating process, and the ballrooms in which social and political networks were made visible. The candidate’s capacity to hold an election ball, and his behaviour there, were indicative of his political abilities and social credit.

Although words were integral to a candidate’s campaign, performances were also potent, as actions could reveal more about an individual than his carefully crafted speeches. Dance was a nonverbal medium for communal assessment of candidate credentials and suitability communicating a person’s gentility and politeness through eye contact, body language, and movement. Following Lord Castlereagh’s election ball in 1830, The Belfast News-letter commented that he demonstrated his ‘warm devotion to his interest’, dancing every dance and ‘so well did he play his part’ that he won over tenants and freeholders alike to secure his seat in Parliament [The Belfast News-letter, 17 September 1830].

The candidate was as subject to scrutiny and judgment on the ballroom floor as he was at the polls, and afforded as good an opportunity as on the hustings to demonstrate his gentility, politeness, and ‘independence’. Over the course of his campaign, the MP wooed the electorate, both on and off the dance floor. The medium of dance became a physical signifier of character and identity, a necessary skill and polishing tool for politically-oriented men. Proficiency in dancing could be used as a stepping stone for MPs to dance their way into the Houses of Parliament.

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Further Reading

Paul Langford, Public Life and the Propertied Englishman, 1689-1798 (Oxford, 1991)

Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: citizenship and gender politics in Georgian England (Manchester, 2005)

Frank O’Gorman, Voters, patrons, and parties: the unreformed electoral system of Hanoverian England 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989)

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