Party in Eighteenth-Century Politics

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Max Skjönsberg, of the University of Liverpool. On 2 March 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Max will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper, based on his recently published book: The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain and we will also be welcoming Professor David Hayton as guest chair for the session. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Party is a crucial theme in William Hogarth’s four election paintings from the second half of the 1750s. The paintings were in part inspired by the controversial Oxfordshire election of 1754, one of the last major strongholds of Tory-Jacobitism in eighteenth-century England. The four paintings depict how Tories dressed in blue and Whigs in orange entertain and canvass voters, the polling where Tories and Whigs alike engage in dubious practices to gain votes, and finally the ‘chairing’ of the winning candidate. The Oxfordshire election is often said to have been violently partisan to an unusual degree for mid-century politics, but it was mirrored by comparable developments elsewhere at the same time, notably in Bristol and Nottingham. In any event, Hogarth clearly captured something peculiar about eighteenth-century Britain: its party-dominated politics.

Parties or partisanship in a broad sense may be as old as the earliest societies where there was competition for office. But what did ‘party’ mean in eighteenth-century Britain? Some historians have applied lists of criteria to identify specific parties at particular moments, but such an approach may say more about how we understand the concept than about the period of enquiry. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) defined a political party as: ‘[a] number of persons confederated by similarity of designs or opinions in opposition to others; a faction’.

Johnson’s ostensibly simple definition hints that political party in the eighteenth century carried more than one meaning in British discourse, although many of them overlapped. (1) Party could simply mean internal division in general terms. (2) It could more specifically refer to the Whig and Tory parties. (3) It frequently related to religious divisions, such as Anglicans and Dissenters – a crucial division since the ‘Clarendon Code’ in the 1660s – or high churchmen and latitudinarians, with countless theological subcategories. (4) It could refer to the Court and Country ‘parties’, in other words those of government and opposition. (5) It could refer to the Jacobite threat. (6) It could mean political or parliamentary connection, that is, a smaller political group led by an identifiable leader, for example the Rockingham party connection. (7) It more rarely denoted different parts of the constitution, as in Commons and Lords. (8) Lastly, it could be synonymous with faction.

‘Faction’ in turn did not strictly correspond to our modern usage, when it denotes a splinter group or a party within a party. In the eighteenth century, it could broadly mean four things. Firstly, it could denote the Whig and Tory factions, in other words be interchangeable with party. Secondly, it could mean something akin to ‘interest-group’, notably an economic interest. Thirdly, it could refer to a party connection purely motivated by ambition and self-interest, with little or no interest in principles or opinions. This was sometimes described as a degenerated party, underlining the loose terminology. Finally, it could imply the even more negative connotation of a conspiracy within the state to destroy the constitution.

Following Sir Lewis Namier, the eighteenth century is often described as a period of personal factionalism followed by a clear two-party system in the nineteenth century. The truth is that most of the eighteenth century can be viewed as a period of fluctuation between personal factionalism and two-party division. Although ‘party spirit’ waxed and waned, and the British press was often quick to celebrate when it diminished, ‘party’ was a persistent key word in political debate. Moreover, the British parties continuously confounded foreign visitors and commentators in the Hanoverian period especially. Voltaire observed in his Letters on the English Nation (1733) that the prevalence of party spirit in the country meant that ‘[o]ne half of the nation [was] always the enemy of the other’.

Denouncing party division was a commonplace in eighteenth-century political discourse, and suspicion of party would remain strong at the end of the century, notably in William Pitt the Younger. Many paid lip service to the ideal of consensus. The most fundamental reason why parties were so widely disliked was that division was seen as posing an existential threat to the political community. But parties were also disliked for what we may call lesser reasons. One of the most common criticisms of party was that it impeded independence as it encouraged a form of herd mentality.

We should not exaggerate the dislike of party, however, since it could also be a powerful principle for rallying support. Sir Robert Walpole’s speech to followers and potential followers, at the height of the Excise Crisis of 1733, ahead of a crucial vote in the Commons, is a case in point. Walpole professed that he was ‘not pleading [his] own cause, but the cause of the Whig party’, adding that ‘it is in Whig principles I have lived, and in Whig principles I will die.’ Lord Hervey commented that the speech reignited ‘party spirit’ and helped secure a favourable outcome. Edmund Burke was thus not being anachronistic when he wrote in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) that Walpole had governed by ‘party attachments’. This example shows that it would be too simplistic to conclude that ‘party’ was simply an accusatory term at the time. Indeed, it often formed part of the glue which helped maintain co-operation between leading politicians in the eighteenth century.

MS

Further Reading

Max Skjönsberg, The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

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