“I have got rid of all the fateague, all the mortification that attends the fruitless endeavours to serve ones country”: The struggle of being an MP in the 18th century

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Maria Tauber of the University of Warwick. On 14 March, between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Maria will discuss MPs and political communication in the eighteenth century

The seminar takes place on 14 March 2023, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

One thing most 18th-century MPs had in common appears to be an overwhelming sense of fatigue. As I argue in my forthcoming presentation to the Parliament, Politics and People seminar, the fast-changing media landscape and resulting scrutiny contributed significantly to the frustration of Westminster representatives. The lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 and the establishment of regional newspapers around 1700 led to a substantial increase in published periodicals. Together with various oral, visual, written, and printed media, periodical newspaper reports played a significant part in everyday politics as MPs faced pressure and differing expectations from fellow politicians, constituents, neighbours and readers.

By the end of his career, Edward Clarke, MP for Taunton in Somerset, was a broken man whose friends and family were concerned about his health. In 1696, his wife, Mary, worried that ‘you […] will tire and weare out your self before your time for those that will not thanke you’. Mary herself felt burdened by her duties as an MP’s wife and her endeavours to represent Edward at home and in the constituency while he was away in London. She was aware of the importance of her role and the differences between Westminster and the locality, which interpreted news differently. Mary insisted, ‘you may make what resolutions you please wheare you are and keep them but do not promise yourself much in this part of the countrey wheare you must incounter with wild beast’.

Peter Shakerley, MP for Chester, contemplated leaving Parliament in 1713 when ‘he began to think the fateigue too great’. When he finally retired two years later, he refused to give advice or engage in any activity related to Parliament.

An oil painting of a white man with short dark hair sat on a chair in the middle of a room. His left arm is leaning on a writing slate desk. The desktop is green and the body is red. There is a book, quill and ink pot on the desk and four drawers on the right side of the desk. The man is wearing dark clothes and black shoes with buckles and is holding a piece of paper in his right hand. In the room are book shelves and a fire place.
A. Devis, Sir Roger Newdigate in the Library at Arbury Hall CC Wikiart

Frustrations and drawbacks equally plagued Member for Oxford University, Sir Roger Newdigate. Having decided to quit the ‘fruitless endeavours to serve ones country’ after losing his seat for Middlesex in 1747, he expressed relief to have been ‘rid of all the fateague’. Following a call to serve Oxford in 1751, he did find himself ‘drawn out to sea again’, but the frustration of over 30 years in Parliament speaks loudly from an exchange of letters in a newspaper, in which Newdigate justified his resignation.

In a 1780 issue of the General Evening Post, one ‘Pacificus’ criticised Newdigate’s decision to vote with the opposition without the approval of his constituents. He also reprimanded the MP for his ‘hasty’ decision to resign, which he made out to be a cowardly reaction to pressures inside and outside the University. In a public reply to ‘Pacificus’, Newdigate justified his actions as a vote of conscience, revealing his struggles when asking

if the head or judgement of such a one [‘honest man’, whose duty it was to give an opinion] be weak, is he to blame, or they that sent him? How is such a one to obtain the direction of the body which he represents? Or, as Pacificus recommends, ought he to follow the beck of the Minister, or should he take his lessons from Pacificus?

Finally, was it ‘not possible for a person, who has spent all his best days in the public service, to wish to spend the remainder in peace, without any one of those weak and paltry motives ascribed to him by Pacificus?’

A painting of a white man stood up with his head looking towards his left. He has thinning dark hair and is wearing a black and gold waistcoat, black trousers, black shoes with buckles, and a red robe. To his left is a table covered in a dark patterned cloth. On top of the table are papers strewn across it and a quill and inkwell. The background is a dark room and a window in which a view of the top of church buildings and houses can be seen. It is a cloudy day.
T. Kirby, Sir Roger Newdigate (1719-1806), 5th Baronet, University College, University of Oxford

Pacificus’s public allegations required public vindication. Yet, the biggest blow for Newdigate was that his loyalty and independence – the two pillars upon which his political image rested – had been openly questioned. Rather than representing any member of the public or freeholder, Pacificus wrote as a disappointed former supporter of Newdigate and his interest at the University. Doubting Newdigate’s knowledge of and trust in the University, he asked if the MP had bowed to pressures from below, from ‘any busy unauthorised electioneering man’, and whether, expecting to lose his seat at the next election, he had decided to resign voluntarily.

Traces of a politician’s actions and beliefs circulated through various media, including songs, the printed Votes of the House, reports of debates, and increasingly through media generated by MPs such as essays, printed and published letters, speeches, biographies, monuments, and paintings.

Two portraits of Newdigate present him as the true High Church and University man he had always wanted to be seen as. One depicts him as a writing gentleman in his Gothic library. The other, decorating his former college’s great hall, conveys an impression of a visionary statesman in front of a vista of the city of Oxford. Both paintings reflect a political image, which he, like other MPs of the time, carefully constructed using a variety of traditional and new media.


The seminar takes place on 14 March 2023, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. You can attend online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

Further reading

Bob Harris, Politics and the Nation. Britain in the Mid-Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2008).

Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain. Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford 2005).

Rudolf Schlögl, Public Sphere in the Making in Early Modern Europe, in: Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 45:2 (2019), pp. 23-39.

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