The Concept of Voting

Jon Rosebank explains why proceeding to a vote could be seen as something to avoid [15-minute read]

Poll books represent not the moments when eighteenth-century politics functioned properly, but the times when it faltered. They offer a first, invaluable step towards untangling the complexities of the most bitter of the constituency struggles.

Faced with inviting lists of voters, we are tempted to imagine that eighteenth-century elections were very much like ours today. And because few had the vote in the eighteenth century, and contested elections were uncommon, it is easy for us then to jump to the conclusion that the system was fundamentally rotten. We also imagine voters struggling to shake themselves free from the much-reported influence of government or neighbouring gentry. But the eighteenth-century electoral system was very different from our own and, if we are to use the poll books properly, we should first try to understand it on its own terms.

When we look more closely we discover that words like ‘democracy’, ‘representation’, ‘the people’, ‘accountability’ and ‘interest’ all meant something different then from now. In fact, in this introduction, I shall avoid these words. We lose a little by anachronism, but we gain from renewed clarity.

At a national level, elections were intended to produce a House of Commons that would reflect British society, not constituency by constituency, but as whole. In eighteenth-century England, it was monarchs and their ministers who initiated legislation. Parliament had long been a channel through which it was possible for the monarch to consult society on his or her proposals. The ambition of seventeenth-century Stuart kings to extend their power, however, had meant that Parliament had fought back, and its power had grown. Its most important task – and particularly that of the House of Commons – was now imagined to be to balance the power of the monarch and to keep it in check. The implication was that the Commons needed to mirror society at large, so that it could properly communicate the nation’s views to the monarch, and make its voice heard with the forcible authority of the entire community.

Elections were not therefore understood as a method primarily designed to choose MPs to form a Government, or to pursue this or that party manifesto. That idea, along with the parallel notion of electing a parliamentary Opposition, was not widely accepted until the nineteenth century. Nor were MPs expected simply to stand up for their own constituency. They were increasingly expected to back local causes, including a growing number of private Bills. But it was very much more important for a general election to produce a body of MPs which would, together, faithfully mirror — and ‘represent’ — society in general. ‘Every MP serves not one constituency but the whole realm,’ wrote the influential constitutional lawyer William Blackstone. This helps us understand why it did not much matter to eighteenth-century minds whether MPs were elected in every town and county or only a few.

What were the implications of this idea for elections at the constituency level? Here there was a problem because, in this as in every period, conflicts and divisions of every kind were endemic in towns – very often religious, sometimes economic, or over local administration. It is one of the defining characteristics of urban society. How could MPs faithfully reflect the whole of society if, in the constituencies where they were elected, their community was hopelessly divided?

The first answer to this question is that the voters we see recorded in pollbooks were not, ideally, expected to vote according to their own individual interests or sectional choice. They were meant to cast their votes as responsible members of society, on behalf of the common good. That was the reason that voting was always public. It meant, in turn, that voting needed to be done by individuals with sufficient freedom of choice – ‘liberty of will’ as Blackstone defined it – to vote in a way that faithfully reflected not their own immediate needs, but the rest of society. It was thought that giving a public vote to men who had been too busy working to inform themselves, or (as a pamphlet of 1705 put it) were too much under the bullying influence of ‘a father, a patron, a landlord, a brother, a kinsman, or benefactor’, would only create confusion.[1] As for those who cynically sold their vote for cash or ale, or made temporary voters out of the poor by splitting properties or gerrymandering the rates, or turned out simply to vote for a party — all these could be seen as betraying the community in the most shocking way. Once, however, these undesirables had been weeded out, it did not matter whether many voted or only a few, or even whether MPs were selected without anyone voting at all, so long as the result authentically reflected local society. Then, in turn, all the MPs together could legitimately be said to mirror British society as a whole.

Granville Sharp, a clerk at the Tower of London who would himself become a very active reformer, put it in this way in 1774:

Very many individuals have no VOTE in Elections, and consequently cannot be said expressly to give their Assent to the laws by which they are governed: nevertheless, the whole country which they inhabit, and in which they earn their bread, and even the very houses in which they live, (whether they are housekeepers or lodgers,) are represented by the votes of the respective proprietors … so that … Representation is general; and, though far from EQUAL, would still be a sufficient check against arbitrary power.[2]

‘A sufficient check against arbitrary power’ was by far the most important objective of the eighteenth-century House of Commons.

We may find this alien to what we now call ‘democracy’ but it reflected the normal way eighteenth-century towns ran their affairs. Individuals who had what was known as credit – a reputation for integrity and informed choice – were expected to take the lead. They might be referred to, for example, as the ‘principal inhabitants’. They were meant to understand and reflect local opinion, and their ‘credit’ collapsed if they behaved irresponsibly, selfishly ignoring the good of society at large. Local government, lacking any kind of paid staff, entirely depended on the ‘credit’ and responsible behaviour of the ‘principal inhabitants.’ They were expected to take decisions in vestry, manor and town council that reflected the good of the community. It mirrored relationships that functioned day after day in streets, shops, alehouses, churches, guildhalls and marketplaces.

Naturally these were the individuals who were trusted to vote on behalf of everyone. Or, more properly, not to vote. It was part of the day-by-day, year in-year out duty of leading townsmen to resolve the tensions that existed throughout urban society, above all because local government wholly depended on establishing at least some level of consensus. An election that could not be resolved without a vote —whether (as in our pollbooks) for an MP, or for a mayor, a churchwarden or a market official — betokened a community too divided to find candidates who could reflect the whole. As the historian Mark Kishlansky put it, for a local community such contests ‘violated every other social norm by which it operated.’[3] It was always therefore to be hoped — if far from always achieved — that the principal inhabitants in each constituency would be able to negotiate their differences in such a way that they could eventually identify candidates (or a combination of candidates since most constituencies had two) who could speak for everyone. It was regarded as being much healthier for the local community than being dragged through a divisive electoral campaign and being forced to take a vote.

We are now starting to see that many constituencies may have avoided contested elections, not, for example, because they were bullied by neighbouring gentry (whatever boasts those gentlemen may have made), but because their leading citizens had made compromises amongst themselves (including wrangling the demands of the local gentry) and managed to avoid the damaging bitterness of a poll. Factions that refused such local compromises and pushed matters to a contest were widely regarded, for much of this period, with suspicion and resentment. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, well over half the local parliamentary elections that had ended up in a contested vote subsequently faced long and expensive legal challenges. The assumption was that a community could only have been brought to such a bitter and disastrous situation by mismanagement, deception or corruption.

C. F. Wicksteed, The Election: The New Member Addresses the People, 1838; Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 6792.

Avoiding a contest was the ideal. But eighteenth-century towns would always be divided. For all the attempts at negotiation, bitter tensions could simmer for generations. To some extent in this period, such divisions were beginning to be accepted as normal; the early modern idea of a godly and unified society becoming displaced by a sense that local disagreement could be accommodated as legitimate — or ‘polite’ as contemporaries would have put it. It remained, however, extremely desirable for communities to resolve their differences as peaceably as possible. Simply giving the vote to more people, or letting more elections get as far as a vote, would be worse than useless. We have therefore to understand that — against the grain of our modern sensibilities — the more individuals who had the vote in a constituency, beyond those widely esteemed as principal inhabitants, and the more often there were contested polls, the less successfully the constituency was probably thought to be functioning. Such contests rendered much more difficult the essential business of daily life and administration. Far better, to the conventional eighteenth-century mind, for responsible local citizens to negotiate over their differences and agree amongst themselves in time to avoid the public spectacle of a poll.

That is why the study of poll books is the analysis of eighteenth-century politics, not as it normally functioned but at moments of unusual crisis. To study polling data is still, of course, a valuable thing to do. By tracing the allegiances of individual voters in other local sources (the technique known as prosopography) we can begin to uncover the roots — religious, social, administrative and economic — of local tensions, and start to understand why, on these occasions, no local agreement had been possible. We can put the alleged influence of interfering landowners or government officers, or the role played by political factions, into the complex context of intense urban conflict. We might also be able to contrast these urban tensions with elections in the counties, where both conflict and community leadership were more diffuse. We would be getting to the heart of eighteenth-century politics as people at the time experienced it.

[1] Anon., A Dialogue; or, New Friendly Debate (1705), quoted in Mark Knights, Representation or Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford 2004), 172.

[2] Granville Sharp, A Declaration of the People’s Natural Right (London 1774), 5.

[3] M. Kishlansky, Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England (Cambridge 1986), 61.