- Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policies in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Joanna Innes
On June 2, 1780, a hot and dry Friday in London, members of the Protestant Association—estimated at more than 45,000—gathered in St. George’s Fields, Southwark, to protest against the toleration of Catholics, specifically the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Prominent among the belligerent crowd was William Payne of Bell Yard, a onetime carpenter but now an informing constable and marshalman for the City of London. In depositions taken during enquiries into the subsequent Gordon Riots—which raged for nearly a week and left parts of London in ruins—it became clear that Payne “was very active, that he encouraged the mob and exhorted them to have the bill repealed.” While Payne may be familiar to some Scriblerians, many others have likely never heard of him, nor of the intriguing life he lived in Hanoverian London. All are fortunate for the publication of the Inferior Politics. It brings Ms. Innes’s unrivalled expertise on social policy and skillfully situates the likes of William Payne within her portrait of Hanoverian Britain.
Most of the chapters have been published elsewhere. Important as they were individually when they appeared, collectively they are equally impressive. Divided into three sections, Inferior Politics considers the formal and informal structures of governance, the information gathering and inquisitorial capabilities of eighteenth-century authorities, and the common experiences of Hanoverian Englishmen and women. Central to her concerns are “issues of domestic government” and the roles that Parliament, parliamentarians, “officers of the crown,” “officers of the state,” and “inferior” office holders in the provinces and parishes played in dealing with the perennial problems of poverty, vagrancy, crime, vice, and sin. The eighteenth-century English state was routinely reactive and responsive to challenges precipitated by social change and economic crisis. But the solutions invented and implemented reflected not so much the expectations of officials in Whitehall or Westminster, as those of “inferior office holders” in the parishes and the provinces.
Discretion and local autonomy were part of a system reliant on voluntary and partially paid individuals to keep the machinery of parochial administration working. Such circumstances would have been as familiar to Augustan Englishmen and women in 1787 as they had been to Queen Mary and Queen Anne.
The images in Inferior Politics confirm and complicate those we have inherited from writers, artists, and historians alike: the scathing satirical prints of Hogarth, the caustic cartoons of Gillray or Rowlandson, the earnest writings of Josiah Child, John Cary, or William Hay, the skeptical prose of Defoe and the vitriolic criticism of Mandeville [End Page 271] or Swift. Building on such offerings, righteous Victorians condemned and caricatured their eighteenth-century fore-bears as superstitious, corrupt, ignorant, enthusiastic, and excessive. But Ms. Innes provides an important corrective to aspects of this distorted Victorian vision of that age; her chapters on Parliament, politics and policy, on legislation, statutory and local authorities, and especially on the emerging capacity of the state—in all of its metropolitan and municipal, and regional and rural guises—reveal a Hanoverian England much more aware and able to acquire, to assimilate, and to act upon information and instruction, if not immediately.