« previous post | Main | next post »

May 27, 2005

blast from the past (three)

Don Herzog: May 27, 2005

Hannah More told a friend how she came to write it.

As soon as I came to Bath, our dear Bishop of London came to me with a dismal countenance, and told me that I should repent it on my death-bed, if I, who knew so much of the habits and sentiments of the lower order of people, did not write some little thing tending to open their eyes under their present wild impressions of liberty and equality.  It must be something level to their apprehensions, or it would be of no use.  In an evil hour, against my will and my judgment, on one sick day, I scribbled a little pamphlet called "Village Politics, by Will Chip;" and the very next morning after I had first conceived the idea, I sent it off to Rivington, changing my bookseller, in order the more surely to escape detection.  It is as vulgar as heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers.  I heartily hope I shall not be discovered; as it is a sort of writing repugnant to my nature; though indeed it is rather a question of peace than of politics.

Village Politics came out months after Paley's Reasons for Contentment — and was far more successful.  (I've linked to a transcript from the 1832 edition of More's works; it varies a fair amount from the 1793 edition I'll be quoting from, but you'll get the gist.  More also supervised the publication of the Cheap Repository Tracts, some of which are here.)  It had a much larger circulation, and it too was reprinted decades later in at least one conservative newspaper.  You should read More's pamphlet, too — but no, I do not think you're in the most vulgar class of readers.  Conservatives don't talk that way any more, and I daresay that they don't think that way, either.  But they used to, not as an embarrassing or accidental slip but as defiant principle:  they argued that democracy would mean the end of civilization, that ordinary subjects should defer to the authorities, that the idea of treating the lower orders as dignified equals and letting them vote was pernicious, even lethal.  There's another wrinkle about those conservatives who cling to tradition, but I'll leave that one to you to puzzle over.

Anyway, More's little pamphlet stages a dialogue between Jack Anvil, a blacksmith, and Tom Hod, a mason.  Tom has clearly just read Tom Paine's Rights of Man, that firebrand celebration of democratic radicalism that heaps abuse on aristocracy (the "no-ability"), monarchy ("something going much out of fashion, falling into ridicule, and rejected in some countries, both as unnecessary and expensive"), and Edmund Burke ("A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers").  Radicals circulated hundreds of thousands of copies of Paine's incendiary work.  And Hannah More's Tom is overheated.  It takes the wise hand of Jack Anvil to cool him off.

Jack urges the fundamental goodness of the English constitution:  "a glorious building it is, though there may be a trifling fault or two."  The local aristocrat is a fountain of paternal benevolence and the needy poor can rely on public support.  Equality is unnatural, "nonsensical," and would never last.  "I'm stronger than thou; and Standish, the Exciseman, is a better scholar; so we should not remain equal a minute."  And Jack echoes Paley's wisdom:  "Instead of indulging discontent, because another is richer than I am (for envy is at the bottom of your equality works) I read my bible, go to church, and think of a treasure in Heaven."

"I know what's what, as well as another," says Tom plaintively, "and I'm as fit to govern."  But, with some convenient fibbing about the contemporary franchise, Jack spurns this bid for democratic equality — with a paean to the division of labor.

Jack.  No, Tom, no.  You are indeed as good as another man, seeing you have hands to work, and a soul to be saved.  But are all men fit for all kinds of things?  Solomon says, "How can he be wise, whose talk is of oxen?"  Every one in his way.  I am a better judge of a horseshoe than Sir John:  but he has a deal better notion of state affairs than I; and I can no more do without him, than he can do without me.  And few are so poor but they may get a vote for a parliament-man; and so you see the poor have as much share in the government as they well know how to manage.

Poor Tom gets increasingly wide-eyed as he listens to the parade of French horribles and English excellences.  Jack piles on:  "These poor French fellows used to be the merriest dogs in the world; but since equality come in, I don't believe a Frenchman has ever laughed."  And then Tom is ready for this beautifully crafted antirevolutionary catechism:

Tom.  What then dost thou take French Liberty to be?
Jack.  To murder more men in one night than ever their poor king did in his whole life.
Tom.  And what dost thou take a Democrat to be?
Jack.  One who likes to be governed by a thousand tyrants, and yet can't bear a king;
Tom.  What is Equality?
Jack.  For every man to pull down every one that is above him, till they're all as low as the lowest.
Tom.  What is the new Rights of Man?
.  Battle, murder, and sudden death.
Tom.  What is it to be an enlightened people?
.  To put out the light of the gospel, confound right and wrong, and grope about in pitch darkness.
Tom.  What is Philosophy, that Tim Standish talks so much about?
Jack.  To believe that there's neither God, nor devil, nor heaven, nor hell. To dig up a wicked old fellow's [Voltaire's] rotten bones, whose books, Sir John says, have been the ruin of thousands; and to set his figure up in a church and worship him.

The bishop of London was much pleased with More's performance.  He wrote to her that the royal court vigorously approved and that the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers would be circulating her pamphlet through the kingdom.  Jonathan Swift, he agreed, couldn't have done better:  "It is a masterpiece of its kind."  Anything to keep those wretched vulgar subjects in their place.

Except they're not there any more.  Now they're proud and dignified citizens.  No thanks to conservatives, who fought bitterly against such modest measures as the Reform Bill of 1832.  (Said one Eton fellow to another on learning of the bill's passage:  "This is the worst crime since the Crucifixion.")  It was Tom Paine, after all, who wanted to strip king and aristocrats of their power.  It was Paine who celebrated democracy.  It was Paine who sketched plans for a progressive income tax, publicly funded retirement benefits ("not of the nature of a charity but of a right"), public education, public housing for the poor, publicly supplied employment for the urban poor, and more.  And all this while celebrating mutual voluntary cooperation and assailing the unjust measures of a bloated goverment!  (In More's dialogue, radical Tom complains that taxes are too high, and conservative Jack defends them.)  No, he wasn't contradicting himself.  Like other modern liberals, he thought the market terrific.  He just wanted the ground rules to be fair.  And yes, you bet, there's plenty of room to wonder how to combine the fair ground rules and the proper realm of the market.  For instance, you might wonder whether desirable ground rules turn out to be so damned expensive that they bring the market to its metaphorically absurd knees.  I wouldn't minimize the importance of those issues.  Here I want only to insist on the differences of principle between More and Paine.

The authorities had had Paine in their sights for some time.  After he published the first part of The Rights of Man, the Earl of Mornington wrote to Lord Grenville,

I wonder you did not hang that scoundrel Paine for his blackguard libel on King, Lords, and Commons.  I suppose the extreme scurrility of the pamphlet, or the villainy of those who wish to disperse it amongst the common people, has carried it through so many editions.  For it appears to me to have no merit whatever; but it may do mischief in ale-houses in England, and still more in whisky-houses in Ireland.  I think it is by far the most treasonable book that ever went unpunished within my knowledge; so, pray, hang the fellow, if you can catch him.

Charged with seditious libel, Paine hightailed it to France and was convicted in absentia at the end of 1792.  Telling the lower orders that the English constitution was absurd?  An unthinkable offense.  So More was dutifully assailing a criminal publication.  No political debates for the lower orders.  Even literacy was suspect — and this in a Protestant kingdom — because those who can read the Bible can also read nefarious political pamphlets.  Before and after Paine was rattling off his wish list, conservatives were fighting strenuously against educating the lower orders.  Here's Lord Kames in 1778:  "Knowledge is a dangerous acquisition to the labouring poor:  the more of it that is possessed by a shepherd, a ploughman, or any drudge, the less satisfaction he will have in labour."  Sneered one pamphleteer in 1826, "we are to have our pots and pans mended, our clothes made, our fields ploughed, and our streets macadamized — by philosophers!  Thrice happy nation, to enjoy blessings such as these!"

The anticlericalism of Paine and his fellows is another matter.  I can explain why they reacted to "priestcraft" as they did, but I have no sympathy with religion-bashing, nor any sympathy with the claim that atheism is any part of liberalism or democracy.  But let's be clear about the scorecard.  On the fundamentals, Paine won and More lost.  That's why, on the rare occasions I stumble out of the rare books room and glance at today's newspapers, I'm baffled by public rhetoric that reminds me of More.  Don't assure me that we can cling to More's (or Burke's) conservatism and just revise it in a suitably democratic way.  The whole point of the view was to throttle democracy.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference blast from the past (three):


Posted by: Larry

You know, reading this, you really have to feel for the latter-day liberals, don't you? Flushed with their Whig interpretations of history, dulled with heavy doses of "presentism", they've been inside their echo chambers, patting each other on the back till their arms dropped off -- because they thought they'd won! They thought history was a game, and it had good guys (themselves) and bad guys (the other team), and they'd totted up the score and look! Here's the scorcard! It's over! And our side won!

But every so often one or another steps out, blinking, into the light, and -- wha? Something's still happening? Labels are coming unstuck? A president who's supposed to be the arch-conservative devoting the entirety of an Inaugural address to the spread of global democracy? Hey, that's our word! Of course, he's a lying liar and all that (and he looks like a chimp -- not to disparage Darwin or anything), but this just isn't fair. Best to go back to the rosy glow of 18th century pamphlets contemplated in 21st century hindsight. If only we could lop off the heads of some of those obnoxious aristos again....

Posted by: Larry | May 27, 2005 8:34:21 AM

Posted by: john t

Did I see Voltaire's name in the post? "In our unhappy world it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes,the one the rich who command,the other the poor who serve;and these two classes are subdivided into a thousand,and these thousand still have different gradations". "All men the right in the bottom of their hearts to think themselves entirely equal to other men. It does not follow from this that the cardinal's cook should order his master to prepare him his dinner,-------but while waiting for the Great Turk to take Rome,the cook must do his duty,or else all human society is disordered". Voltaire I wanted to get a Frenchman in on this.

Posted by: john t | May 27, 2005 9:25:20 AM

Posted by: Mtnmarty


Sure, in the West, democracy won on the Democratic fundamentals but there are fundamentals other than democratic fundamentals. I think democracy is the least worst form of government we have but don't we need to take the bad with the good?. And don't we also need to see where things might go over the next several hundred years of democracy?

Here is a sampling of alternative fundamentals: aesthetic, biological, environmental, militaristic, philosophical and religious.

Let's take environmentalism. Aren't democracy and the rising living standard of the lower classes responsible for the global warming and environmental degradation we often hear about? Which is more representative of the ower classes, the Sierra club or the Sahara Club?

How about militaristic. Isn't the democratization of education a contributing cause of the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that may yet cause civilization and the human race some serious problems? Would Paley and More have invented nuclear weapons to keep the poor down?

How about philosophical? What has democracy given us? Rawls? Rorty? Even Richard Rorty, who believes in a democratic public discourse believes in a private aristocratic sensibility. Why not go back to Plato and Aristotle who were no great supporters of democracy? Are we going to say that we have produced their equals as philosophers?

As to aesthetics, I'm too much of a product of democracy to even begin to understand what has happened to art. But there's a reason its called "high" culture, right? Isn't it high because its above the democratic masses?

As to religious, one word: "Europe".

And of course I saved biological for last, because any mention of humans as subject to biological competition is completely out of place in polite, democratic society but what the heck as a lower class upstart, I'm free to be ill mannered.

Nobody likes to hear it, so I'll leave it as a homework assignment. In nearly every country in the world there is a clear pattern of declining fertility to female education. For each year of schooling, women desire to have and do have less children. It's not too hard to figure out that long term fertility rates less than 2.0 are unsustainable. So the key question is what level of female education in what cultures produce fertility rates of 2.0? Look it up.

There may be a rich, democratic culture that has sustainable fertility rates but its not our 21st century version.

Posted by: Mtnmarty | May 27, 2005 9:41:46 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Larry, 1/thanks for underlining my ironic giggles, but 2/no thanks for hanging any Bush-bashing on me.

Posted by: Don Herzog | May 27, 2005 10:07:44 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I think my first apartment after college was in a development named Cheap Repository Tracts, come to think of it.

By the way, and completely irrelevant to the current topic (or is it?), does anyone have any thoughts on this latest cutting edge wisdom from the nanny state left?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 27, 2005 10:28:29 AM

Posted by: john t

Don H's remark about Paine having won and More having lost,apart from asking who's the scorekeeper,reminds me of Howard Fast's introduction to a collection of Paine's writings wherein he declared that History had judged Paine the winner over Burke. History being a tangible being sitting in a faculty office somewhere I suppose. The problem in referring to Mr.,or professor History is that you have to do a hop,skip,and jump to get around the bear traps,land mines and other obstacles that are placed in the path of the leftist virtuosi as they march or crawl towards sanctimony. To make the point quickly and not waste more time on this by now totally tiresome crap; given what we know who would you choose as man and leader,Napolean or Wellington? A Hobson's choice,not really. Come to think of it had he lived another 40 or 50 years I wonder who Paine would have chosen. The discerning will realize that I am not just talking about who won at Waterloo. But if some must cloth themselves in the glories of the past as well as the carefully edited glories of the present and mark themselves as the avatars and platonic guardians of virtue and collective nobility marching inevitably toward a eschatological glory, who are we to deprive them of a few minutes of rest in their otherwise tormented nights.

Posted by: john t | May 27, 2005 10:50:30 AM

Posted by: David Velleman

Mr Ridgely's link is indeed irrelevant -- doubly so, since I can find no grounds for thinking that the British Medical Journal is a left-wing publication. For his comments on such matters, Mr. Ridgely might consider starting his own blog?

Posted by: David Velleman | May 27, 2005 10:59:21 AM

Posted by: miab

D.A.R. writes (regarding a proposal in a U.K. medical jounal to require kitchen knives to be blunt-tipped rather than pointy): "does anyone have any thoughts on this latest cutting edge wisdom from the nanny state left?"

This article quotes exactly one American Nanny State Leftist: "Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports gun control, joked, "Can sharp stick control be far behind?" "

So I gather D.A.R. posted this link (other than in a (successful) attempt to be funny) to illustrate that nanny-state leftists are quite reasonable and know where to draw the line on over-regulating safety matters.

Posted by: miab | May 27, 2005 11:34:23 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Ah, well, perhaps Mr. Ridgely is too dull, as it were, to make his point. Of course, if Mr. Velleman wishes, he can always editorially excise Mr. Ridgely’s less than rapier like wit. Mr. Ridgely, meanwhile, can find no grounds for thinking that the particular publication in which nanny state nonsense is promoted is remotely relevant to whether it is, in fact, nanny state nonsense. Mr. Ridgely suggests that contemporary leftist foolishness might be relevant (remotely or not) to the relative merits of Paine versus Burke as well as to whether the too triumphal visions of former reformist victories imbue the contemporary progressive spirit with an undeserved sense of its own righteousness. However, Mr. Ridgely didn’t really comment on such matters, he merely linked to them, letting the reader decide for himself. Apparently, Mr. Velleman has done so. (Does that make his comment here triply irrelevant?) Mr. Ridgely shall nonetheless abide by Mr. Velleman’s implicit wishes and, since he can’t possibly be expected to read Mr. Velleman’s mind, check with him first in the future before posting any possibly irrelevant commentary.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 27, 2005 11:41:17 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

john t, I am so sorry to be disturbing your amiable repose. So let me point out that no one is forcing you to read "this by now totally tiresome crap." And let me connect some dots for you. If I want to parade my "sanctimony," you can be assured I will not describe myself as stumbling and baffled on the rare occasions I emerge from the rare books room. If I want to suggest that left triumphalism is plain absurd, and that there are some serious puzzles trying to fit together the ongoing circulation of More's sentiments and today's democracy and public law, though, I will use descriptions just like that.

Posted by: Don Herzog | May 27, 2005 11:42:35 AM

Posted by: Bret

David Velleman wrote: "Mr. Ridgely might consider starting his own blog?"

Due to incredible popular demand, I've taken the liberty to create a blog for D.A. Ridgely (DARidgely.blogspot.com). All he has to do is respond to one automated email, then he can begin posting. I will manage his blog and associated comments for him. This blog will continue to exist and wait patiently until he starts, however long that takes (these free blogs are wonderful things, aren't they?).

Posted by: Bret | May 27, 2005 12:23:01 PM

Posted by: Stagnolioolio

Would Mr. Herzog care to name any of these anachronistic More-ons? Other than perhaps William F. Buckley and a few good ol' boys at The New Criterion, it isn't clear to me which of our contemporaries clings to this kind of rhetoric. Expanding on Larry's point, they don't seem to be in the current right-wing dominated government, aside from a few cartoonish examples.

Posted by: Stagnolioolio | May 27, 2005 12:26:51 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty


Are you suggesting that you are suggesting that left triumphalism is absurd?

If so, is it because goals of the left are absurd or that triumph is difficult to accomplish?

As to More's sentiments, is the serious puzzle that it is difficult to tell how these sentiments will change, if at all, current democracy and law or is the puzzle that it is hard to tell whether the people that have or profess some of those More-ian sentiments are really as anti-democratic as their conservative forbearers?

I am trying to suggest that some of the puzzle goes away when we admit to the fact that we are ambivalent about democracy.

Posted by: mtnmarty | May 27, 2005 1:01:46 PM

Posted by: Untenured Republican

Don saith:

"On the fundamentals, Paine won and More lost."

In a world in which the federal government spends about two trillion of our and our children's dollars a year and maintains the largest standing army in the history of the world, I'd say everybody lost.

Posted by: Untenured Republican | May 27, 2005 3:59:34 PM

Posted by: Perseus

I find it interesting that Don Herzog employs that radical demagogue, Tom Paine, to vindicate democracy. I, on the other hand, rather like that crusty old curmudgeon, His Rotundity, John Adams, who called Paine a "satyr" and his Common Sense "a poor, ignorant, malicious, short sighted, crapulous mass." Fisher Ames was more temperate: "Most of the democratic articles of faith are blended with truth, and seem to be true; and they so comfortably soothe the pride and envy of the heart that it swells with resentment when they are contested, and suffers some spasms of apprehension even when they are examined. Mr. Thomas Paine's writings abound with this sort of specious falsehoods and perverted truths."

I'd also like to know which newspapers Don Herzog is reading where one can find sentiments like More's or Burke's. Perhaps he stumbled into the rare newspapers rack and found this little gem in the New England Palladium by Fisher Ames, who (like the Federalists in general) I believe fits the bill for having found a way to revise conservatism, or at least a third way: "However it may be intended or however explained, [equality] is understood by the mere rabble as the levelling principle. It [the levelling principle] is inconsistent no less with the sense of a just subordination, than with security for property or indeed any social right whatsoever. It stirs up those who are unfit to exercise power to claim it, and to enlist under ambitious demagogues, who pretend to assert their claim...To prevent the group of little snarlers from their usual success in perverting the meaning of words [in 2005, that means you modern liberals]--it is here explicitly declared, that the householders, tradesmen, and yeomanry of the nation are not considered as mere rabble and incendiaries. The men who live by labor, and who get a regular livelihood, though they may lay up nothing, are nevertheless for the most part orderly, quiet, and useful citizens..."

Posted by: Perseus | May 28, 2005 6:02:27 AM

Posted by: noah

Perseus....very nice RIP post.

Posted by: noah | May 28, 2005 7:29:34 AM

Posted by: john t

Don H ,sorry I was away so long but I had an attack of nausea yesterday morning and am just now recovered. Your apologies are accepted.everybody makes mistakes,the question is do they learn from them. You mention the 1832 reform bill,how historicaly astute of you. You are therefore aware that the fight was led by aristocrats,whig aristocrats,same party as Burke,who as you know was a Rockingham Whig. This as your razor sharp mind has already grasped,doesn't mean that they were adherents of Burke. However whilst singing about Paine and tossing a few bricks at the aristocracy it might have been worth a word or two,that is,if it didn't interfere with your paean to the wonders of leftist parentage. You also know,as well as you know your own income tax returns, the ferocious battle it took to get this very modest reform[extemely modest] passed. Not least in opposition was the muddled mind of King William IV,all you have to deal with is Bush. Now if we are to do history would it be unfair to speculate on the cultural,demographic,and political differences between say 1792 and 1832? Oh that hound Burke,why didn't he singlehandedly do in 1792 what was almost impossible to do 40 yrs later. You would have done it ,wouldn't you Don? Questions; how am I to know what crap is unless I read it first? Why do you mention Paine's troubles in England and not mention his close escape from death in France,whose revolution he supported. Would it detract from your inherited reformist zeal to mention exactly what in France caused British nobles to react as they did? And last,do you have something against slow reform as against the rush and excitement,to say the least,of France. Given your willful deletion of some of the more violent occurances one wonders.

Posted by: john t | May 28, 2005 9:03:20 AM

Posted by: john t

Samuel Johnson on Burke, "no man could stand under a shed with him for five minutes during a rainstorm and not think him the greatest man they had ever known". True,Johnson was a Tory!

Posted by: john t | May 28, 2005 9:07:12 AM

Posted by: Achillea

It seems to me that, living in a glass domicile with architecture by the firm of Buchanan, Wallace, Sharpton, & Galloway, liberals would be ill-advised to lob stones off the balcony. Especially when those stones have been excavated from an edifice that crumbled long, long ago in a country far, far away. Unkind souls might intimate that arguments that the hoi polloi cannot be trusted with sharp objects (or even the legal right to defend themselves in public) indicate that the stones were so close to hand because they were part of the foundation for said glass house, but I am sunny and kind and would never say such a thing.

Having brought up inconvenient persons and details not mentioned in the original post, I go now to stitch the Scarlet W to my bodice, where I shall wear it with pride.

Posted by: Achillea | May 30, 2005 3:54:27 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

« previous post | Main | next post »