Monday, April 11, 2011

The Spin Doctors at work: 1745.

What do Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Henry Fielding, and David Hume have in common?

On 8 December 1745, the vanguard of Prince Charles Edward Stuart's army took Stainmore Bridge and established a bridgehead on the right bank of the River Trent. The Prince was the son of James VII Stuart, the exiled claimant to the thrones of the British Isles, and more particularly, of Scotland. Charles was a young man of 25, in the prime of his life for adventures such as raising his father James' royal standard on a northern isle and seeing what came of it. As a military historian, I'm naturally interested in how this happened. I'm also interested in accounts of how it happened; the disparity between the two might tell us something more generally useful than harrumphing historians talking about march stages and flank security. Specifically, it might tell us about the flank security that my authors provided the British state in a series of crises beginning in 1776 and extending past the fall of Napoleon. By rejecting the reality through which they lived and substituting a more congenial one, Smith, Gibbon, Fielding, and Hume provided that security. They also set our understanding of the earliest periods of human history,when loose bands of hunter-gatherers came together to found states around imagined national communities (so, yes, I am talking about Philadelphia, 1782--89) back in unfortunate ways.

So what happened: first act: the men of the Scottish assemble for war. Second act: they defeat the Hanoverian army at Prestonpans. The garrison army loyal to King George II, Elector of Hanover ought to have won, but didn't. Third, they march on Edinburgh. Not exactly an impregnable fortress, it had city walls and a loyal militia raised from the predominantly "Whig" elite of that city, and the Jacobites lacked artillery. Instead of holding the city, however, the militia collapsed, the gates were opened, and Prince Charles Edward marched into the city in triumph. It was a painful humiliation for Edinburghers. Fortunately, the Edinburgh elite had hidden their cash away in the Castle. The question had to be raised, though, whether the prince ready money was a good idea. What if he won?

Third, Charles and his Tea Partiers in arms now faced a critical choice. Should they take a defensive posture and try to hold Scotland? Charles might be only 25 and an alcoholic in the making (if it was not the disappointments of his later life that drove him into the bottle), but he could see the folly in that. With an army behind him and the momentum, he had to try for London.

His success was nothing short of spectacular. A large Hanoverian army was in position in Northumbria, so he outmanouevred it by marching down the western side of the Pennines through Cumbria instead. Carlisle's defences collapsed in a way similar to Edinburgh's. The Jacobites got ahead of it, and also  another army that was positioned to cover the West and the Channel ports. Finally, on 8 December, the Jacobites reached and took Stainmore Bridge on the Derby-London road. Now on the right bank of the Trent, they were firmly between London and both Hanoverian armies. This was an extraordinary triumph of manoeuvre, explained in part by hard marching, in part by superior intelligence gathering. But how was either of these facts to be explained in turn. Militia do not, as a rule, march hard. And intelligence-gathering is normally a function of a good cavalry arm, and the Jacobites conspicuously lacked cavalry.

 Prince Charlie now wanted to go for London. His council disagreed, and onwards to Culloden. Most discussion has it that the council of war was right, but I'm not persuaded. Civil wars usually end in bandwagon effects, not Armageddon, and London was seeing serious bandwagon-abandoning on 5/6 December. Political regimes are, or can be, fragile in the face of momentum, and regimes have fallen on lesser blunders than those made by the Hanoveriam ministries during  the War of the Austrian Succession. Conversely, more unprepossessing men than handsome young Prince Charlie have turned battlefield victories into political greatness. Not to put too fine a point on it, if your main concern is still ecclesiological and you happen to be on the fence over whether the Church should be episcopal or presbyterian, and the Lord God of Battles is lining up on Prince Charlie's side, might you not have a sudden epiphany about the relative merits of the Hanoverian and Stuart claims? Indeed, a wave of quiet, self-interested epiphanies, neatly tracking the progress of the Prince, well-explains his intelligence gathering success. The speed of his Highland infantry, which consisted mostly of hillfolk and professional drovers, hardly needs explaining. British Eighteenth-century politics was shot through with fears of Tory/Jacobite/Papist/Episcopalian conspiracies and of the strong legs of Highland recruits.

But that's not the final explanation we get, even from those who naturally think this way, like Henry Fielding who was 37, and a deeply insecure and sharp practitioner. His writing career really took off with two parodic novels attacking Richardson's Pamela and reached its height with 1748's  Tom Jones, a novel in which a baby is found in the bed of that virtuous county Whig, Squire Allworthy, is raised as Allworthy's son, has a conflicted relationship with his neighbour, Tory Squire Westenra, and has many adventures set against the background of the Pretender's great campaign. Novelists love their characters, and in comedies give them what they would like for themselves. Fielding brings Tom safely home to a marriage bed in a secure and legitimate family home, in a union of Whig and Tory. The crisis of 1745 is over; we are past that now and can move towards the happy ever after, to children who will inherit the hard-won stability of this generation as a birthright.

David Hume sat the Rebellion out. He was 36, and had so far failed in life. Indeed, not only did his 1739/40 Treatise on Human Nature "fall stillborn from the press," it inspired enough antipathy in the clergy of Edinburgh  to deny him a position at the university of his native city in 1744. He might corrupt the youth! How did he feel when those same, protected youth opened the city gates to an Episcopalian army? Awakened with an enthusiasm for accounting for great events, Hume set to work on his History of England, an enormous best seller that made him sufficiently rich and famous that people began wading through his philosophical production as well. I rejoice that J. G. A. Pocock has made Hume's philosophical history a part of his valedictory project, because he helps me reduce Hume on the '45 to bullet points. Part of Hume's project is to explain human history in "stadial" terms. If you've ever heard about how civilisation progresses from the hunter-gatherer to nomad pastoralists to slave state to feudalism to modernity, you've heard what was once fresh and new in Hume and his contemporaries. The sting for accounts of 1745 was in the tail; Prince Charlie's armies won what they won because they were primitive pastoralists and so could not win more. They were on the wrong side of history.

Adam Smith was 22 in 1745. Born into an Edinburgh-area middling-to-well-to-do family, he was enrolled in the University of Glasgow at 14, as was the practice of the day, and received an exhibitionship to study at Oxford in 1740. This is so normal of a modern academic life that it is easy to forget that universities were still entangled with the Church in 1740, and the progress from one of the Scottish universities to the more episcopalian of the two universities that supplied the Church of England with prelates would have been fraught with significance to any of his contemporaries. That Smith said later that he found the teaching at Oxford inferior to Glasgow's would have them nodding their heads and muttering, "yes, that's what he'd say now." Because, apparently, Smith had a "breakdown" towards the end of his stay, and returned to Scotland in 1746. That is, he had a crisis in the year when everyone was having a crisis, and at its end found it better to return to Edinburgh, where the presbyterian tendency was triumphant in the wake of the repression of the Highlands.

Who knows if politics have anything to do with Smith's career trajectory? (Ecclesiastical politics is another matter; look up "bishop" in your copy of Wealth of Nations.) Late in that great tome, Smith trots out an argument that would wax triumphant in later decades, striding the imagination's terrain of Romantic Scotland like a leviathan made up of the bodies of countless poets. In it, "feudal" landlords cherish the warlike skills of their tenants as much, or more, than their rents. And when they choose to intervene in national politics, the fiery cross is sent out and the clans gather for war, claymore on their back and plaid for a cloak, ready to follow their chieftains in the inherently Celtic "Highland Charge." No romantic, Smith denounced great aristocrats who lived to domineer and command. And then he climbs back up to the thesis of his work by proposing that the great landlords are indifferent or hostile to agricultural improvement, because it would displace the warlike followers they depend upon to make their (bloody) way in national politics. Getting rid of laws that allow farm families to preserve their patrimony (perhaps even poor upcountry hillbilly farm families) can only benefit upwardly mobile land speculators like the Smiths of Kincardie enrich the state.

Edward Gibbon was only eight during the Rising, too young to form an impression, other than the one that he was ready to act upon by the time he finally conceived his lifework while witnessing barefoot monks chanting in the ruins of the Capitol. That impression was that he did not like the politics of his grandfather, notorious Jacobite conspirator Edward Gibbons. What I want to take away from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shouldn't be at all controversial: armies of northern barbarians overran the Roman Empire mainly because they outnumbered it. And they outnumbered it not because of some mysterious cause of human fecundity to be found in the north, but because the Romans had all joined monasteries. As to why they did that, the long and the short of it was that Rome was afflicted by a particular kind of Christianity. So long as the Church was protected from falling into such errors of excessive clericalism and "enthusiasm," one simply could not compare the British Empire to the Roman. But barbarian invasions are important. If they fail, as 1745, or the Teutones and Cimbri did, that's pretty much a diagnosis of strength, not weakness.

So what I think that have here is a strong, multipronged propaganda programme. The '45 never happened; that is, it happened, but only as some kind of bizarre historical accident whose failure demonstrated its sterility. Nothing could have come of it. The signs that the British state was tottering on the brink of a dynastic change? We don't see them. They never happened, so obviously they cannot happen again. Our political order is secure. I've blogged (even less adroitly than now) about "taking David Szechi" seriously. That is, suggesting that political modernity set in, at least in the Anglosphere, not earlier than the first decades of the Nineteenth Century. Before that, we lived in a pre-modern sphere.

One of the implications of that, as I've suggested elsewhere, is that the political/social entanglement of credit was a real and pressing concern, and people had to worry about being  wiped out by a political change, not because financial instruments lost value, but because their personal credit depended on their position within the political order. An identified Whig who sees a Jacobite ascend the throne has just had his credit limit reduced drastically. He can't borrow as much, with all that entails. But Gibbon is right in this sense; a "fall" of the British Empire in 1782 will not have the same consequences as a "fall" of the Roman Empire. Institutions exist to stabilise credit. It seems to me that we have to look to the church for that, and that it would also be helpful to take a long, careful look at marriage. Because it is quite possible that the very same legislation on marriage that was meant to address the weaknesses of British society in the '45 drove America to revolution.

So the answer to my question is that my authors were scarred for life by what the '45 did to the real estate market. (A fact that I just disgracefully made up on my standing as an expert historian. Does anyone do this kind of thing? Can we reconstruct mid-Eighteenth Century British real estate price trends?)

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