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The "New Sort of Specialty" and the "New Province of Writing": Bank Notes, Fiction and the Law in Tom Jones

From: ELH
Volume 68, Number 3, Fall 2001
pp. 633-653 | 10.1353/elh.2001.0025

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ELH 68.3 (2001) 633-653

The Power of the Purse

Bearing in mind the prominence of the quarrel over the Ancient Constitution in the overthrow of James II and the fact that the Jacobite Rebellion forms the historical background to The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), Henry Fielding's statement, in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751), that "the Constitution of this Country is altered from its antient State" suggests that an important displacement has occurred in political argument. This is not at all to say that the Constitution had ceased to be an issue; indeed it is "a Word in the Mouth of every Man." The problem is that nothing is "so little understood in this Country." In fact, in the wake of Montesquieu, Fielding is proposing a fundamental, and particularly modern, revision in the meaning of the word. "The Constitution" must be understood to embrace not only the body of laws and institutions so dear to English liberty, but also the "constitution" of the country understood as "the Customs, Manners, and Habits of the People"--what we would now call their "culture." The current crisis derives from the fact that these two senses no longer coincide. Although the legal and institutional constitution had remained largely intact (barring the abolition of tyrannical feudal tenures), the cultural constitution had changed profoundly, with the result that key legal structures were no longer operative, particularly in the field of public order. In short, from Fielding's perspective, the freedoms for which Tom Jones had been so willing to fight in 1745 were now in danger not so much from absolutism and popery as from crime and moral decay. In his capacity as magistrate at Bow Street from 1748 to 1754, Fielding dedicated much of the last years of his life to reinvigorating the ancient institutions of English legal administration -- the justice of the peace, the constable, the watch, and so on -- in order to respond to the changed cultural climate.

According to the Enquiry, the principal cause of the fracture in the meanings of "the Constitution" was "the Introduction of Trade." Despite its undoubted national virtues, trade "hath indeed given a new Face to the whole Nation, hath in a great measure subverted the former State of Affairs, and hath almost totally changed the Manners, Customs, and Habits of the People, more especially the lower Sort." In particular, it had raised up what should be a subservient component of "Political Power": what Fielding calls "the power of the Purse." Of all the forms of political power, he argues, "none is more rebellious in its Nature, or more difficult to be governed, than that of the Purse or Money."

Crime, then, was the symptom of this destabilization in the English "constitution." The importance of criminal biographies and confessions for the development of the novel is well known. Such narratives conventionally traced a mechanical progression from the apparently minor vices of the disobedient child or the lazy apprentice to their inevitable destiny on the scaffold. Tom Jones's juvenile behavior promises just such a literary career. Because of his origins and his early "Robberies," "it was the universal Opinion of all Mr. Allworthy's Family, that he was certainly born to be hanged." Indeed, Fielding brings Tom close to this destiny, advertising the fact that he will pull his hero out of the clutches of tragedy without breaching the literary decorum he seeks to establish for his work. He presents this in the form of a contract with the reader:

This I faithfully promise, that notwithstanding any Affection which we may be supposed to have for this Rogue, whom we have unfortunately made our Heroe, we will lend him none of that supernatural Assistance with which we are entrusted, upon Condition that we use it only on very important Occasions. If he doth not therefore find some natural Means of fairly extricating himself from all his Distresses, we will do no Violence to the Truth and Dignity of History for his Sake; for we had rather relate that he was hanged at Tyburn (which may very probably be the case) than forfeit our Integrity, or...



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