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Pasi Ihalainen:
The Discourse on Political Pluralism in Early Eighteenth-century England

A conceptual study with Special Reference to Terminology of Religious Origin

ISBN: 951-710-100-7 (printed version)
ISSN: 1238-3503
120 FIM
375 pages


Whereas studying the eighteenth century in order to understand developments towards modernity is certainly important, focusing on conceptualisations among eighteenth-century Englishmen who were experiencing a transition from a traditional polity – in which the uniformity of political values formed the ideal – towards a more diverse polity is also of particular interest to an historian. This latter approach is to study past thought via the terms of eighteenth-century people themselves and not merely on terms set by what late twentieth-century observers conceive as having had a significant role in later intellectual change.

Historians studying intellectual history now generally agree that reactions to political innovations should be studied by analysing the language of politics and conventions of political discourse, political discourse being a series of mostly written and published utterances addressing a public question in a given time period.1 The political discourse which forms the subject of this study concerns increasing diversity of political values within early eighteenth-century English society. This plurality of political values meant a break with the ideal of unity which had been characteristic of traditional early modern societies. Pluralism in thought was connected with pluralism within the polity: the connected structural developments include the emergence of perpetual party divisions, a possibility for the political elite and even the public at large to choose between alternative political groupings, the extension of public political debate and the rise of parliamentary opposition. Instead of such structural developments, however, this study focuses on how the early eighteenth-century political nation experienced and conceptualised the plurality of values in general and the plurality of political parties in particular. With political pluralism is meant: (i) the existence of rival value systems in political thought, and (ii) the open competition of party organisations for power within one polity. With discourse on political pluralism is meant early eighteenth-century utterances addressing the phenomena (i) and (ii). In some utterances, the existence of rival value systems in political thought and rival party organisations within the polity were recognised and even approved, but a genuinely pluralistic society did not yet emerge. A pluralistic society, which was only in formation, can be defined as one in which groups of people holding differing political values can coexist and cooperate with other groups in some political issues while continuously differing in others. In a pluralistic society, it is commonly believed that the existing political differences are of a lasting, not of a temporary kind.2 In this study, the concept political pluralism is used simply as a way of translating two connected early eighteenth-century phenomena to modern language. This study does not claim that the early eighteenth-century English thinkers possessed some modern concept of political pluralism. They were using their own terminology to discuss developments that we connect with political pluralism. It is the purpose of this study to determine what that terminology consisted of and what kind of alternative meanings it carried. Indeed, the discourse on political pluralism in early eighteenth-century England concerned much more than merely the possibility of recognising political parties.3

The growth of political pluralism was a development that could not escape the attention of the political elite even if many of its members wished to close their eyes to such an undesired transformation. Indeed, pluralism was a major factor distinguishing eighteenth-century England from other early modern nations.4 For conceptualising their experiences of an emerging political pluralism, participants in political discourse could only use terminology they had inherited from previous centuries. Of course, they had possibilities for innovation when using language to describe contemporary developments. Still, the associations and connotations of the available terminology set strict limits to such possibilities. Indeed, it is obvious that, in the early eighteenth-century context, what we would call ‘political discourse’ could not be purely ‘political’ in the late twentieth-century secular meaning of politics. In a parallel manner, ‘political pluralism’ could not be a purely ‘political’ issue in the late twentieth-century meaning of the term.

Why can political discourse in early eighteenth-century England not be defined in the same way as political discourse today, knowing that the concept even today remains far from strictly defined? Why can it not be said for sure, for instance, that a text discussing political parties belongs to political discourse whereas another discussing the right of religious communities to exist side by side in a country does not? Why must early eighteenth-century political discourse be approached from a different perspective?

The reason is plain: the present understanding of various discourses being political or religious dates from a far later period than the early eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century, religion and politics had been deeply intertwined, and political debate had been conducted by appeals to Scripture. 5 Still in the early eighteenth-century context, religion is as difficult to separate from politics as economics is from late twentieth-century politics. The general understanding of politics differed from that of today. For us, ‘politics’ can signify any actions or opinions expressed in the public sphere that have a potential effect on public policy. ‘Religion’, as we understand it, belongs to the private sphere of each individual with which the state has nothing to do. In the early eighteenth century, however, ‘religion’ was far from a private matter; it was necessarily a public matter of first importance, as a fundamental unity between Church and state was generally held and the public significance of religion widely maintained. For early eighteenth-century English thinkers, ‘religion’ concerned matters such as public morals and ideology which today we would readily define as political discourse. Therefore, the wide twentieth-century conception of politics, when applied to the early eighteenth century, must also include religious issues. 6 As an example of this interplay between religion and politics is the suggestion that political parties and religious sects were for long intimately linked.7 Political pluralism was connected with ecclesiastical pluralism, and the conceptual aspects of this linkage are of particular interest to this study.

Furthermore, in the study of early modern political thought, religion must be understood as a much wider phenomenon than simply theology or religious beliefs which may have been ambiguously defined and indifferently followed and may indeed have had little direct impact on politics. At the same time, religious conventions and customs had a considerable influence on political behaviour and thought.8 In early modern England, religion was an identity comparable to gender or socio-economic status, and such a religious identity was not necessarily based on either theological knowledge or active piety.9 It is the significance of religious conventions to the debate of political pluralism that must be placed in focus and not the potential political meaning of abstract theological tenets. Religion should be seen as an umbrella concept. Even if its political dimensions may have been secondary to its main purposes, several of its aspects necessarily had connections with political life, as spiritual beliefs had a fundamental impact on people’s conceptions of the purpose of life and their understandings of their real interests.10 In those circumstances, it was natural to practise political theology, that is, to use religious symbols to justify or to criticise political events and systems. The discourse on political pluralism was frequently based on such political theology.

In early modern England, political discourse was not the dominant area of discourse but, instead, was dominated by more powerful areas of discourse. The powerful areas of discourse include, in addition to the religious discourse of Anglican 11 Protestantism, martial language, the legal discourse of common law, and, to some extent, even the discourse of traditional medicine. An entirely independent terminology of politics hardly existed. Whenever terminology was needed to discuss what we would call politics, religious, legal and medical vocabularies were there to provide useful analogies and concepts already familiar to large audiences.

By the early eighteenth century, the language of politics was being increasingly influenced also by secular, or at least heterodox, elements of discourses such as those of classical republicanism and Lockean Whiggism. The growth of classical republicanism and secular, progressive and potentially modernising discourses has received much scholarly attention in Anglo-American research, particularly among the prevalent Anglophone history of discourses, languages or ideologies. The two dominant interpretations of eighteenth-century political thought in English-speaking countries have been that of ‘liberalism’ and that of ‘English republican, classical republican, republican, or civic humanism’. The former has focused on Lockean concepts such as rights, consent, liberty, equality and reason. By the 1990s, however, this Lockean natural rights paradigm has been almost totally replaced by the neo-Machiavellian civic humanism as the most conventional means of interpretation. The latter, advocated by John Pocock and Quentin Skinner among others, has considered concepts of the classical tradition, which were revived at the Italian Renaissance and applied by the opposition to Walpole in its criticism of those in power, as worth particular attention. These concepts include virtue, corruption, patriotism, empire, arms and property, and they are seen to have formed a dominant meta-discourse of politics. Classical republicanism was particularly concerned with civic virtues of individuals and their active participation in the government of their communities. It viewed with suspicion trade and vindicated agrarian values, cared for political morality and criticised corruption, and emphasised the importance of the ancient constitution. Standing armies, luxury, placemen, electoral bribery and long Parliaments were its main objects of criticism.12

The influence of this tradition of civic humanism on ideas of pluralism, however, was inconsistent. Whereas, in principle, ideas of equality and openness within a republic would seem to have justified diversity, a typical fear of privatism as a threat to the commonwealth contributed to calls for uniformity. Though classical republicanism underscored the need of men ‘to come together in a union of an honourable and mutually beneficial kind if they are to succeed in realising their highest potentialities’,13 its advocates generally rejected parties. Hence classical republicanism did not offer a discourse unambiguously supporting political diversity. Neither did pluralism form a dominant theme within the tradition of civic humanism in the early eighteenth century.

Both the discourse of natural rights and that of classical republicanism were undoubtedly present in early eighteenth-century England. However, this study does not aim at examining the already much studied concepts of ‘liberalism’ or ‘republicanism’ which rarely appeared in the discourse on political pluralism. The concepts of classical republicanism were not the only dominant concepts in contemporary political discourse. Isaac Kramnick, for instance, has referred to the continuous importance of the discourse of ‘political’ Protestantism.14 The dominant traditions of historical interpretation have not, until very recently, seen this underlying religious discourse as one deserving critical analysis in the study of the history of political thought. Recent studies suggest, however, that religious concepts were of the utmost importance to the early modern political discourse. This study focuses on the use of religious concepts in the discourse on political pluralism while it also takes the secular aspects of that discourse into consideration.

Even though the achievements of the history of discourses, languages or ideologies are considerable, they should not prevent an historian from asking slightly different questions, from applying alternative methods and from consulting more varied sources. This possibility for an alternative approach becomes particularly worthwhile when it is taken into consideration that the republican paradigm, despite the best of the historians’ intentions, may have involved a tendency to overemphasise the role of canonical authors. An emphasis on the rising secular discourses may also have led to linguistic continuities and transformations within what may be considered more traditionalist discourses being ignored simply because such continuities and transformations appear as essentially non-progressive, non-secular and non-modernising.15

While excellent research has been devoted to the secular character of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century political discourse, the influences of traditional religious discourse, for instance, have thus far received only marginal attention. Instead of focusing on the well researched secular areas of political discourse, this study addresses the rather more traditionalist religious influences in political discourse. Though potentially less significant for later developments in political thought, religious terminology as applied in political discourse may reveal essential features about patterns of thought that were important to early eighteenth-century English thinkers themselves, including collectively shared assumptions about the character of the political system. Indeed, everyday applications of religious terms in political discourse, which was so characteristic particularly in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, may tell more about the then prevalent assumptions about the political system among Englishmen at large than do secular contemplations of abstract philosophers that later generations have come to consider as particularly significant figures.

This study hopes to contribute to current debates within the history of political thought by providing an alternative approach. This approach builds, to a great extent, on the results of previous work within this school but asks different questions, employs a greater variety of sources, and applies an overlooked methodology, which might lead to new findings. In this study, the method of the history of concepts – a methodological approach developed by continental researchers of conceptual change – has been applied to English source material which have conventionally been studied through other methods. This present study, rather than representing an attempt to repeat the methodological approaches followed in the history of political thought, represents a modified version of the history of concepts.

In the history of concepts, the results of the work always remain somewhat preliminary, as by increasing the amount of sources and limiting the number of concepts the analysis could be extended into more and more detail. As John Pocock has pointed out, modes of discourse may change and fragment, and a historian can never argue that he has reconstructed a complete picture of them in any given period.16 In this study, the concepts analysed have been limited to ones which appear to have been closely connected with the major theme: the early eighteenth-century discourse on political pluralism. Yet it has been considered necessary to study several politico-religious concepts instead of merely concentrating on some few, as changes in the meanings of a concept are likely to have caused changes in the meanings of other concepts. In the case of most of the concepts analysed below, source material has been so wide that it has started to ‘repeat’ itself. In other words, the introduction of new sources has not brought about differing senses of the concept.

The history of concepts is inherently contextual, although the relationship between structural and conceptual changes can be difficult to prove. Also the variety of source material serves to diminish possibilities for detailed contextualisation. In order not to suggest simplistic connections between political and religious change and changes in the meanings of political and religious concepts, a separate chapter has been dedicated to summarising the major features of early eighteenth-century contexts; whereas conceptual developments are discussed in detail in the body of the study. Should the reader be unfamiliar with the major features of early eighteenth-century English history, it is advisable to consult chapter four before proceeding to chapters two and three (which discuss the state of research, methodology and sources). An informed reader, however, may well skip the first half of chapter four.

Political and conceptual change often have different paces, and the time limits of a conceptual study cannot be decided strictly on the basis of momentous historical events. The timing of this study between 1700 and 1750 is a fluid one and could, with good reason, be extended to both directions. Therefore, texts written in the 1690s and dictionaries first published after 1750 have also been consulted for this study. However, fifty years can be considered an optimal length for a conceptual study, as it is long enough to reveal noteworthy linguistic change but is not excessively long to prevent proper contextualisation of the source texts. In the course of the study, the 1720s appeared as a period of accelerating change in the concepts of political pluralism, and, therefore, it was considered necessary to study both the preceding and following decades. As will be shown in the discussion on the state of research in chapter two, the beginning of the eighteenth century has often been considered a turning point in the secularisation of the language of politics. The late seventeenth-century language of politics has been discussed in recent scholarship, whereas less work has been done on the early eighteenth-century political discourse. The early eighteenth century was, however, the time of a considerable intensification in party division and discourse on political pluralism. 1750 as another time limit may also appear as arbitrary. Yet it finds justification not only in the need of limiting the scope of the study but also in the fact that late eighteenth-century English society already differed considerably from that of the early century. The fall of Walpole’s government (1742) brought about no sudden conceptual changes, and some of earlier language was revived in connection with the crisis of the mid-1740s, but the concepts of political pluralism had already experienced some noteworthy changes by the end of the 1740s. The question of the time limits will be recalled in chapter three when the thesis of a conceptual transition to modernity is discussed.

In the history of concepts, quotations of primary sources are essential to clarify the exact formulations of contemporaries when applying given concepts in their texts. The content of a past statement can usually be expressed through paraphrasing, but this involves the risk of slight nuances of meaning being lost. Quotations have been used in abundance because some key points in primary sources may be difficult to explain exhaustively without giving the complete citation for the reader’s consideration. When quotations are used in this study, their initial capitalisation and spelling have been modernised in a way that is unlikely to have caused any shifts in meaning. The changes that modernisation requires are modest, as the standardisation of English had proceeded far by the turn of the eighteenth century. Punctuation has been reproduced unchanged, whereas the numerous italics that were fashionable in early eighteenth-century texts have been omitted. Short titles for primary works have been used, as early eighteenth-century titles tend to be particularly long, often summarising the major points of the work itself. The place of publication for each title is London unless otherwise indicated.

Before discussing the differences of the methodological approach and source basis in more detail, and in order to show that this study attempts to contribute to actual research questions within Anglophone historiography, it is necessary to place this study in the context of the current debate on the role of religion in early eighteenth-century political culture. By combining this relatively novel approach to eighteenth-century history and some features of a methodology not yet applied to early eighteenth-century source material, the following discussion wishes to bring new light to questions addressed by several English-speaking historians within the last decade or two.

    1.     According to Wilson, discourse stands for public and organised ways of speaking about constituted subjects – politics, medicine, science, society – in a specific historical period. Wilson 1995, 15–16.

    2.    For a useful definition of a pluralistic society, see Martin 1990, 67.

    3.    An historian is obliged to make use of modern concepts in order to make the past understandable from the point of view of the present. But when using a modern concept with reference to the past, an historian must make it clear that these tools of his are themselves historically conditioned. For applying modern concepts to the past, see Van Horn Melton 1996, 26, Pocock 1996, 55, and Skinner 1998, 116.

    4.    For the speciality of English pluralism, see Bradley 1990, 36.

    5.    For the seventeenth century, see Bennett 1975, 3, Ashcraft 1995, 75, and Hill 1995, 58.

    6.    Phiddian 1989, 66–7.

    7.    Mansfield 1965, 10, took up the suggestion that the toleration of political opposition was the secular product of religious toleration. This suggestion goes so far as to claim that political parties were secularised sects. Religious parties became parties in party government when the idea of toleration was extended from religious to political freedom. Mansfield did not carry this suggestion much further, and it has received little attention in subsequent research. Recent revisions in the study of the intellectual history of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, give reason to reconsider the mutual dependence of the spheres of politics and religion in this respect. The linkage between sect and party is also visible in Sommerville’s point that Protestant Dissenters were pioneers in the primary secular form of power, that is, in political party organisation. Secular parties were to copy the techniques developed by early eighteenth-century Quaker and dissenting religious organisations. Sommerville 1992, 124.

    8.    Bradley 1990, 4.

    9.    Albers 1993, 319–20.

    10.    Hole 1989, 3.

    11.    It should be noted that Anglican is an anachronism but a widely used one with reference to the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pocock 1995, 36.

    12.    Colley 1982, 90; Hamowy 1990, 273; Greene 1994, 28; Klein 1994, 145, 150; Kramnick 1994, 56; Matthews 1994, 14; Miller 1994, 102; Skinner 1998, ix.

    13.    Skinner 1996, 2, paraphrasing Cicero.

    14.    Kramnick 1994, 59.

    15.    Pocock himself has recently pointed out that historians all too easily consider the orthodoxy of any given moment as essentially static and look for changes only from heterodox thought opposing it. Orthodoxy or traditionalism as such is not usually conceived as worth studying, whereas its destruction is. In his recent writings, Pocock has argued in favour of studying the history of orthodoxy as well. Pocock 1995, 35; In previous research, traditionalist thinkers such as Robert Filmer have, of course, been taken into consideration.

    16.   Pocock 1988, 161.

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