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Reviewed by:
  • A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? England 1783–1846
  • Albert J. Schmidt
A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? England 1783–1846. By Boyd Hilton ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xxvi plus 757 pp. $45).

Hilton's questioning whether Englishmen who lived during the years 1783--1846 deserved the label `mad, bad, and dangerous' neatly encapsulates the substance of the latest volume in The New Oxford History of England series. The author makes the case that during the late eighteenth and early and middle years of this `long nineteenth century' the unruly `crowd' (which has garnered so much attention in recent English historiography) gradually became a `respectable society'. This remarkable change was rooted in despair from having lost colonial America and concluded in jubilation derived from imperial resurgence in the mid-nineteenth century. Hilton calls this new colonialism a `moral' empire and suggests labeling the entire epoch the Great Transformation (p. 1).

All the diverse themes notwithstanding, this book deserves top billing as one of periodization, and it is an extraordinarily good one at that. Hilton regards Chartism's demise as having settled the `mob' matter; the Great Exhibition just a few years later projected the image of a new and quite different England: "An inescapable conclusion that the political events of 1846 did not point forwards, but brought to a close the hegemony of a governing order and a set of political ideas that had preponderated since 1783." (p. 513). This assumption, which undercuts E. L. Woodward's logic of 1815 in the earlier Oxford History as a starting point, is equally dismissive of the Industrial Revolution as an epoch marker.

Having pronounced this Mad, Bad, etc. as one on periodization, this reviewer feels compelled to admit that it is not obtrusively so. While the defining structure is political/ chronological, this narrative is softened by a vibrant, sometimes [End Page 233] folksy style and enlivened and amplified by sketches of great lives, and thematic essays on religion, science and literature.

Specifically, Hilton produces four political/chronological chapters, each followed by a thematic one to embellish or establish a context. For example, a chapter (2) on "Politics in the Time of Pitt and Fox, 1783--1807" is scrutinized through the lens of "Pittism and Plutocracy: the Social and Psychological Foundations" (ch. 3), which discusses the "part social and part psychological" reasons for the Conservative Party's electoral successes from 1783--1830 and 1841. "Ruling Ideologies" (ch. 5) explains how "evangelicalism, natural theology, utilitarianism, and political economy" (p. 439) won favor with the political leadership in `Politics in the Time of Liverpool and Canning, 1807--1827' (ch. 4). Here Hilton's very substantial knowledge of evangelicalism, especially, provides a backdrop to the politics. "The Crisis of the Old Order, 1827--32", (ch. 6) which treats the Catholic Question and the Reform Bill, is buttressed by "Contesting Mechanical Philosophy" (ch. 7). In this the author examines the Oxford Movement, medievalism, and evolution--all contradictions to mechanistic philosophies. Finally, "Politics in the Time of Melbourne and Peel, 1833--46" is juxtaposed to "The Condition and Reconditioning of England" (ch. 9), which Hilton neatly summarizes as follows:

he public life of the 1830s and 1840s\ldotss was a mass of contradictions: a two-party system without coherent parties; attempts to find national solutions to social problems while reducing the size of the State and allowing scope for greater a local independence; a determination to export British freedom by extending Britain's control over more and more of the world. Yet no feature was quite so paradoxical as that of a working-class protest movement, the most dangerous in English history, which ultimately fostered an ethos of self-improvement and respectability. Somehow the mad, bad, and dangerous classes of later Hanoverian period became the loyal, docile, and dutiful subjects of Queen Victoria.

(p. 627)

And so the Queen's subjects out of control ceased being the hallmark of English society; instead an interventionist state responded to the educational needs, poverty, crime, and unsanitary conditions of an industrial/urban society while at the same time muting old fears of disorder and famine. Hilton suggests that "a moral revolution at work subliminally" allowed for replacing the mob with...


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