18th century

How Eighteenth-Century Governments Worked | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and writer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, whose research interests include the popular literature of the period c.1750–c.1850.


I recently had the pleasure of revisiting John W. Derry’s Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt, and Liverpool (2001), a masterly survey of British political history from the fall of Lord North’s administration after the loss of the American colonies through to the Regency period. There have been many glowing reviews of the book in paywalled academic journals. There are also a few reviews and critiques of Derry’s book dotted around on shopping sites such as Amazon and reader sites like Goodreads.

King George III

I thought I would use this space to offer a précis of the earliest parts of this book which helped me much when I was an undergraduate to understand how late eighteenth-century governments worked and which, I hope, will help others interested in the fascinating political history of Britain in an era which was essentially one of transition from oligarchy to proto-democracy (Further summaries of this fascinating book will be written in due course).[i]

A Fiscal-Military State

When it comes to politics and a consideration of the function of government in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, we must consider the past on its own terms.

The Great Reform Act of 1832, when new constituencies were created and the right to vote was extended to 40 shilling freeholders, £50 renters, and £10 copyholders, has skewed historians’ interpretations of the period from c.1776–c.1815 and has led to a somewhat caricatured idea that politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was inherently corrupt:

Historians looking back from a post-1832 vantage point saw the eighteenth century as an age of deplorable corruption or imperfect or lethargic development. The best that could be said for the Hanoverian period was that it laid the foundations for later improvements; the worst that it clung to outmoded attitudes and questionable practices for too long (2).

However, the idea of government in the late eighteenth century was not an expression of the popular will. No one in government felt that they must express the wishes of an electorate, and as there was in many places near universal suffrage in local elections (including women), it is unclear whether the population at large felt the government must represent them either.

Instead those in government viewed it as their duty to maintain social and constitutional harmony and limit its interference to defence, diplomacy, and finance. The maintenance of social harmony was achieved, not by deferring to ‘the people’ through regular general elections but it might involve being cognisant of public opinion and perhaps shelving certain laws if riots broke out against them. Be that as it may, eighteenth-century England was, therefore, what is known as a ‘fiscal-military state’.

The King’s Ministers

Ultimately, governments worked differently in the eighteenth century. Robert Walpole (1676–1745) is of course cited as Britain’s first prime minister, but the prime minister, and those of his cabinet, were appointed by the king. They were ‘the King’s Ministers’. Their allegiance was to the king and not to whatever party they might align themselves with. The king would appoint as prime minister any man who could command both his confidence and the support of the commons.

When a prime minister and cabinet was chosen by the king, they were expected to all agree on matters of foreign policy, defence, and finance, but on other matters they could—and they frequently did—disagree. Ministers were often appointed, not after an election, but at different points in a parliamentary.

What a minister needed to succeed in a political career was, therefore, not the confidence of the House of Commons but the confidence of the king. The king, even during the latter part of the period under George III, could make or break an aspirant cabinet politician’s career and virtually no one—perhaps of course the Duke of Richmond and his pro-democracy supporters outside of parliament—doubted the monarch’s right to hire or fire his ministers (6).

Karl Anton Hinckel’s depiction of William Pitt addressing the House of Commons

As a result of minister’s allegiance being to the king, and his career depending upon the confidence of the king, and not to a party or electorate, there was no such thing as collective cabinet responsibility. If a prime minister resigned or was fired, there was no reason for the home secretary to resign.

While the ministers owed allegiance to the king, the monarch was expected to offer his support and assent to the legislation that was passed with the approval of MPs in the House of Commons and the peers in the House of Lords. In theory, the king had a veto over all legislation. This veto was never used by George III, however, and the last time it was used was by Queen Anne in 1708 when she objected to the passage of the Scots Militia Bill.

Elections and the Concept of the Political Nation

At this point, then, it is worthwhile to consider the place of elections in eighteenth-century political life. We noted that an MP’s appointment to the rank of prime minister or a cabinet minister was dependent on the confidence of the king. General elections were essentially appeals by the king and his ministers for a renewal of confidence in those whom the king had chosen to govern; elections were not an opportunity for the (admittedly limited) electorate to instruct the monarch on which person should be appointed as head of the government (5).

Indeed, there was a noted difference between the idea of the ‘political nation’ and ‘the people’. The political nation was comprised of the voters who were called upon to express confidence in the king’s ministers and government at a general election. Voting was a privilege and not a right. England was not a democracy and the ruling class actively despised the idea of democracy (11).

Hogarth’s depiction of an 18th century election

The ‘people’ were, as their name suggests, those who were not entitled to vote because they failed to meet the property qualification.

We find hangovers of this division between the political nation and the people lasting into the Victorian period. As the brilliant Dorothy Thompson once noted in her essay ‘Who were “the People” in 1842?’[ii] early nineteenth-century radicals and Chartists—and their opponents in parliament—knew that the (until then) disenfranchised radicals were part of the people, but radicals were campaigning to be a part of the political nation and vote for whichever party aligned with their own interests.

To further emphasise the point that voting was essentially an expression of confidence in the king’s government, it should be noted that prime ministers and cabinet offices could be appointed from either the Lords or the Commons. A peer had a right to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their noble birth or their elevation to the House of Lords. Membership of the Lords did not bar a person from serving in the government. If the king thought that he was fit to be in the cabinet then he would be appointed.

The Rage of Parties

What party, then, might an aspiring politician join? One of the main issues in historiography which Derry tackles is the habit that historians have of defining the political history of the period in terms of a battle between the Whigs and the Tories.

The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ only meant something ‘real’ in the context of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.

The Whigs, a group of MPs and their extra-parliamentary supporters, identified themselves as supporters of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the supremacy of parliament, the Protestant (Hanoverian) Succession and the Church of England, limited toleration for dissenters, and sympathy with the interests of the emerging moneyed middle classes.

The Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The early 18th century Tories’ support for the Jacobite cause was catastrophic for them.

The Tories were primarily landowners. Although they too despised the Catholic Church, they had reservations over the Hanoverian regime. Many Tories in 1715, of course, supported the Jacobites and this was catastrophic for them in political terms (2).

After the second Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 was defeated, the Tories had ceased to exist and Jacobitism likewise died out. British politics then entered an era that has been termed by Basil Williams as ‘the Whig Supremacy’. This term does not mean that the Whigs held power over their opponents the Tories. Instead it means that Whiggism became conventional political wisdom.

Whigs and So-Called Tories

The parties that existed after the ascension of George III were essentially subsets of the Whigs. Thus we have the ‘Rockingham Whigs’ who were followers of Duke of Rockingham; ‘Liverpool Whigs’, who were Lord Liverpool’s men; and ‘Foxites’, the followers of Charles James Fox. William Pitt identified himself as an ‘Independent Whig’ although very soon a faction of ‘Pittites’ emerged.

These very loose party groupings might have their individual views on certain issues but all of them subscribed to the basic tenets of the Whigs, and towards the close of the eighteenth century some Whigs began to envision a limited role for the Crown in politics.

The Duke of Rockingham

However, our understanding of eighteenth-century political parties can be improved further, so argues Derry. Rather than inaccurately refer to eighteenth-century MPs as belonging to either the Whig or Tory party (terms which implicitly suggest a specific ideology),

The House of Commons is best seen as divided into three broad categories: the court interest, which supported any ministry which had the confidence of the king; the independent country gentlemen, holding themselves aloof from office but priding themselves on their willingness to give any ministry which had the royal confidence the opportunity to prove itself in office; and the various groups of active politicians, who were eager for a place and in contention for office (8).


L.P. Hartley famously said that the past was a foreign country where things are done differently. The statement is true whether one studies the culture of past British society—which is my own usual focus—or its political history. The first part of Derry’s book is essentially a reminder to all historians and literary critics that politics worked differently in the eighteenth century and to avoid presentism in our judgments.

Of course, while the majority of MPs despised the idea of democracy, this was not the case with everyone in the Lords and Commons (see my earlier post on the Duke of Richmond). The ideas of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution soon brought the issue to the forefront. When Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister in 1812—and who was prime minister during the Peterloo Massacre in 1819democracy and universal suffrage were key issues being debated outside parliament as many wanted to become part of the political nation.


[i] John W. Derry, Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt, and Liverpool (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), ISBN 9780333946367 PB, 166 pp. £19.99 RRP

[ii] Dorothy Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism, ed. by Stephen Roberts (London: Verso, 2015).