The Reform of Voting

Jon Rosebank argues that very few wanted to replace the unreformed electoral system [15-minute read]

It would be easy, from our modern perspective, to imagine that the eighteenth-century electoral system was increasingly dysfunctional. There was, after all, much evidence of growing discontent with it. Indeed, its critics complained about the electoral system under a succession of banners: from the Commonwealthsmen of the 1690s, to the County Associations of the 1780s, and the Whig campaigns leading to the so-called Great Reform Act eventually passed in 1832. It would be easy for us to assume that these critics had perceived how ‘unrepresentative’ (in our modern sense) elections then were, and were looking ahead to a system like our own — a one-person, one-vote democracy in which every individual’s voice is supposedly heard. Like any interpretation that imagines history looking ‘forwards’, this would be a mistake. Examining these critics again makes it clear that most, even including these critics, understood and accepted the system for what it was. It may have been in need of updating, but they did not suggest that it was the wrong system.

It helps if we distinguish the various kinds of criticism more clearly from each other. Many made allegations of electoral corruption and abuse. Some shocking cases have been established. We should, on the other hand, be careful of accepting political allegations at face value. Only by detailed examination of local records can we assess how far accusations were based on fact, how much they were exaggerated for party advantage, and how far in practice corruption actually distorted the final result. But it is anyway clear that these critics were not necessarily calling for a new electoral system. Their point was often that laws existed to stamp out corruption and that local authorities should enforce them.

Meanwhile, other critics condemned the details of the system itself. Some called for more frequent elections, or ‘equal representation’, by which they meant redistributing seats away from notoriously decayed towns – the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ – to newly flourishing ones, or replacing the confusing variety of local qualifications to vote with something uniform. Some, particularly Tories in the first half of the eighteenth century, campaigned for more people to have the vote in particular constituencies.

It would be easy for us to make the assumption that these criticisms were intended to expose the system as increasingly ‘unrepresentative’, according to the sense in which we use that word now. British society was obviously changing. Taxes were rising significantly and were falling much more heavily on the unenfranchised poor than on the well-to-do voters. By 1730 Britain had a muscular political press, and male literacy rates in towns, where most MPs were elected, were probably around 50%. In London it was nearer 90%. Literate but unenfranchised men were beginning to collect for political discussion in clubs and coffee houses. In towns a more complex commercial economy was displacing an agrarian one. The notion that a few respectable men could go on selecting MPs on behalf of everyone else, and that the resulting House of Commons reflected a united society at large, looks to us nowadays as unsustainable.

But look again and we find that those who criticised details of the system at the time were very seldom calling for fundamental change. Some – such as the early eighteenth-century Tories – mainly had an eye on gaining more votes in certain seats. Others demanded updating the existing electoral system so that it would better reflect changing, contemporary society and be less vulnerable to interference by the king’s ministers. But ‘rotten boroughs’ were simply what one reform-minded Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, called ‘the natural infirmity of the constitution’.[1] They were inconveniences caused by economic change over time. Such reformers cannot in any sense be called ‘radicals’ since what they were calling for was sensible renovation, not starting from scratch. Until the 1830s none, even of these critics, suggested that the vote should belong to every town or every part of the country, let alone every adult. They shared the traditional aim of producing a House of Commons, which could contain the power of the crown by reflecting society, not bit-by-bit, but as a whole, embodying what one 1740 reforming pamphleteer called the ‘Publick Spirit’.[2]

So although we can find many complaints about its obvious quirks and shortcomings, we are here still searching for any contemporaries who advocated changing the whole electoral system. It used to be thought that everything was transformed when, from 1765, the American colonies rebelled on a platform of ‘no taxation without representation.’ Surely, we suppose, that implies that votes should belong to every taxpayer? The American situation certainly prompted much soul searching on the nature of the British constitution. But read their original texts and you discover that neither the rebels nor their British defenders were much interested in a new electoral system. The various new States of the Union did not adopt manhood suffrage (votes for all adult men) until the 1820s and 1830s. Until then, the Americans agreed that it was society as a whole that was ‘represented’ and not the individual taxpayer. Their question was whether ‘society as a whole’ could realistically be said to stretch across the Atlantic, so that the needs of New York taxpayers were as much considered in the House of Commons in Westminster as those of, say, Newmarket. They concluded, reasonably enough, that it could not.

It is often pointed out that in 1776 the British MP John Wilkes introduced the first Bill to propose manhood suffrage – votes for all adult males. This would have been a truly radical shift, from voting as a community to voting as individuals. But from two points of view, Wilkes was a special case. He was regarded by many as a dissolute, self-seeking and buffoonish journalist, playing politics largely to pay off his debts. Whether he ever believed in the radical principle of ‘manhood suffrage’ may be open to doubt. Once his motion had been easily defeated without a division he did not try again. So Wilkes’s influence should not be overestimated.

Second, this was a special case because it was focussed on London, where society was changing faster than anywhere else. By the 1770s the old structures of local leadership that lay behind the eighteenth-century concept of voting may have been breaking down in the capital. There were apparently many non-voting Londoners who were ready to participate more directly in politics. Wilkes had campaigned for one of the London seats, and then for the county of Middlesex and finally as London mayor. His journalism had gained him supporters among these unenfranchised Londoners and, like the earlier Tories, he calculated he could gain a local advantage by publicly proposing to give more of them the vote.

But, unsurprisingly, it is in London that we do at last find the first signs of a considered, sustained, radical demand for a completely new electoral system. It clusters not around Wilkes but around a small clique of minor political activists. In his 1776 book Take Your Choice a former naval commander, John Cartwright, boldly stated that ‘all the commons’, meaning all British inhabitants, ‘have an equal right to vote in the elections of those who are to be the guardians of their lives and liberties.’ This was voting as individuals, not as a community – what would much later, in 1880, be called one-man, one-vote.

What we should notice, however, is that Cartwright’s proposal crystallised not out of the rush of older criticisms of corruption or rotten boroughs, but from a quite different origin. Historian Bernard Owers has shown that Cartwright discussed his ideas with other London professionals, particularly Capel Lofft and Granville Sharp and that what they shared was a particular interest in English Common Law.[3] This makes sense. The bible for anyone who studied the Common Law in the 1770s was William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws on England, which had appeared in four volumes from 1765. In the first volume Blackstone reprinted an extraordinary passage he had first published in another, less well-known book in 1758 (long before the American crisis or Wilkes):

UPON the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however mean his situation, is entitled to a vote in electing those delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life.[4]

This idea, manhood suffrage, had very occasionally been proposed in isolated and largely forgotten pamphlets since at least 1689. But Blackstone had lifted much of his text from the French writer Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws had appeared in English translation in 1750. The English lawyer had then bolted on a significant addition. Every man’s right to vote, he claimed, arose from his right to ‘his property, his liberty, and his life.’ This was the standard definition of what political philosophers had come to term man’s natural rights, individual rights that nobody could take away. Many lawyers, like Blackstone, believed that natural rights were the foundation of English Common Law and the constitution. Now he stated, with the considerable authority of an Oxford professor, that they included the natural right for every individual to vote.

It was a game-changing idea, and in 1765 appeared in Blackstone’s extremely widely-read Commentaries. But Blackstone did not draw the obvious conclusion. A conservative professor and an MP himself, he, rather illogically, went on to recite the standard defence of the existing electoral system: that the poor man’s natural right to vote could be ignored because he had insufficient ‘liberty of will’ to use it. In London in the mid-1770s, however, surrounded with rapid social change, with the American rebellion on the point of war and Wilkes stirring up the crowd, Cartwright and his friends followed Blackstone’s natural rights theory to its logical conclusion. Their radical rethink of the electoral system – ‘one-man, one-vote’ – was largely therefore the product of a particular place and special circumstances, not the inevitable culmination of widespread and growing dissatisfaction.

From then on, the concept of manhood suffrage never went away, yet it won few friends until long after Cartwright’s time. In the early 1790s short-term economic hardship and perhaps the influence of the French Revolution persuaded hundreds of working men, this time not only in London but also in large and newly industrialising provincial towns, to join correspondence societies linked to Cartwright and his London radical connections, and petition for manhood suffrage. (Their previous lack of interest in obtaining the vote is perhaps also worth noting.) The spectre of the French Revolution from 1789, and the long wars that ensued, drove the government to seek to stamp out such dangerous ideas. More significant, old-fashioned reform ideas – adjusting the existing system – continued to be far more popular, even among apparently advanced metropolitan thinkers such as Richard Price or Joseph Priestley.

George Cruikshank, ‘Radical Quacks giving a New Constitution to John Bull!’ (1821), a satire on the radical reformers who were gaining renewed prominence in the late 1810s. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1862,1217.321. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Understandably, reformers and radicals found it difficult to work together. Indeed, as social and economic change very significantly quickened in the early nineteenth century, and the old electoral system looked increasingly antiquated, many urged reform in order to prevent radical change. It was this kind of ‘reform to preserve’ that would be the basis of the so-called Great Reform Act of 1832, which at last gave MPs more or less equally to every part of the country and made franchises everywhere the same. This was the ‘equal representation’ that the old reformers had asked for, and a long way from radical manhood suffrage. It was still communities and society as a whole that would be represented, not individuals. It was left to the Chartists and their defenders to argue the case that every man should have an individual vote, and to the continuing transformation of society, and local party politics, eventually to make that case unanswerable. Older understandings of ‘representation’ and ‘democracy’ continued to be dominant long into the nineteenth century.

We should not imagine, therefore, that eighteenth-century pollbooks show us a few lucky individuals enjoying a rare chance to exercise their vote, to the frustrated exclusion of everyone else. In this period they reveal the few voting on behalf of – and apparently with the general consent of – the wider community. The evidence of reform and radicalism is that, while a growing number wished the system worked rather better, significantly few thought it was the wrong system. Detailed local work on poll books and, more broadly on the constituencies, may reveal that, beneath the sound and fury of contemporary allegations, and the scepticism of later historians, the electoral system in this period was in practice working well enough to convince most people, most of the time.

[1] John Philip Reid, The Concept of Representation in the Age of the American Revolution (Chicago 1989), 126.

[2] Anon, The Livery Man: or Plain Thoughts on publick Affairs (London 1740), 1 and passim.

[3] George Bernard Owers, ‘Common Law jurisprudence and ancient constitutionalism in the radical thought of John Cartwright, Granville Sharp, and Capel Lofft’, Historical Journal 58 (2015), 51-73.

[4] William Blackstone, Considerations on the Question, whether Tenants by Copy of Court Roll according to the Custom of the Manor, Though not at the Will of the Lord, Are Freeholders qualified to vote in Elections for Knights of the Shire (London, 1758), 4.