Mitchell, Leslie G. The Whig World 1760-1837 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2005) XI, 211 pages, soft cover. The Whig World intends not to be a history of the Whigs as a political party in triumph or tragedy, but rather extends to assess the last years of this political faction from many different "worlds," including those of social caste, marriage patterns, patronage, artistic style, historiography, and even language. For Leslie Mitchell, noted for his biographies of Charles James Fox, Bulwer Lytton, and Lord Melbourne, any less than a holistic approach to the Whigs lacks the perspective for a proper appreciation of their role in eighteenth century England. Should they be judged merely by their exclusive and elitist tendencies, as those who "did not so much despise public opinion as ignore it," the Whigs could only be regarded as the paragon of an interested, aristocratic snobbery. Indeed many of their political enemies from both sides of the spectrum viewed the Whigs in this light. For Mitchell, unappreciative jeers for the Whig contribution to society are not only indicative of modern historians, but contemporary chroniclers as well. He points out that, in the political sphere, the Whigs by the end of the eighteenth century appeared to be in decline, suffering from a "siege mentality." During the years between 1760 and 1830, the Whigs could not form a ministry on their own nor were they able to emerge from the opposition benches for very long. All their governments occurred through motley alliances with Tories and Radicals. The Whig World presents an interesting paradox, assessing a faction both perpetually in the minority and lacking in direct authority, but at the same time, as an opposition, exerting considerable unofficial influence. To understand the Whigs requires a further look at what they accomplished for the majority of the time they spent outside of Westminster, the "world " of the Edinburgh Review, of the drawing room, and of London's West End. Through Mitchell's skillful, topical analysis of different aspects of Whig society, the reader immediately encounters the fact that the "Whig world" is at its core one of dichotomy. Indeed, the Whigs were considered some of the smartest and wittiest men of their age, but at the same time relied on "talented men" like Richard Sheridan and Edmund Burke, largely outside of their propertied circle, to maintain this preeminence. The most visible aspect of Whig culture for the contemporary reader are the great country estates left behind by the great Whig magnates, including Chatham House and Woburn Abbey. Mitchell rather amusingly describes the Whig distaste for most things country and their preference to remain with the social scene in London rather than venturing into the backwardness of rural life, a life plagued with gritty agriculturalists and rustic Tories. Further, Whigs eschewed religious sentiment at most levels with a distaste not necessarily for theological discourse (which was an alien concept in Whig salons), but rather a hatred for dogmatism or worse, enthusiasm. It then comes as no surprise that they numbered among their greatest enemies not only Roman Catholicism, but also Methodism. Mitchell saves some of his more provocative statements for his chapter on education. The young "Whigling" in his education was thoroughly steeped in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially Adam Smith and David Hume. From this formation, the Whig by nature was skeptical and relativist by philosophy, but in his relations with others was thoroughly dogmatic in his relativism. The irony of the Whig position was not lost on their observers and detractors. Mitchell points out that many persons, both contemporary and modern, found these seemingly conflicted ideologies as the death pangs of an increasingly minority faction. Mitchell attempts to rehabilitate the Whig mentality while admitting their inability to survive in the era of mass communication and industry following 1837. The Whigs were not inconsistent, but rather doctrinaire in their principles to the point of remaining in opposition and incurring popular wrath. Indeed, the Whigs found it "better to be in a distinguished minority than to be a part of a gross and ignorant majority." In seeking out "talented men," the Whigs were capable of pursuing their raison d'être of the later eighteenth century: forming a cohesive party and reforming the House of Commons. Was Reform championed by Whigs out of a principle for democracy? Democratic ideals, save for ones of political expediency, were not part of the Whig lexicon. Rather, the protection of their privileged position through propertied rule was the philosophy of Whig politics. Any means to curb the perceived autocratic tendencies of George III, including alliances with radicals, were not above the Whigs. Indeed, politics made strange bedfellows and the Whigs jokingly promoted this image. The Whigs, especially in their own historiography, served to prevent tyranny of the monarchical type, much as their praised ancestors had done at the time of Magna Charta and the Glorious Revolution. Mitchell dedicates considerable attention to this ancestor worship as indicative of the "siege mentality" of the later Whigs. Even in a seemingly hopeless minority, the Whigs supported what was generally unpopular, including American independence, the French Revolution, and parliamentary reform. Their indifference to religion served to promote religious toleration. For Mitchell, the Whigs "could literally afford to be themselves." A chapter length excursion, Mitchell's interpretation of the French relationship with the Whigs could have gone deeper into the influences of Whig thought on French political theory. Indeed, Mitchell takes considerable pains to describe the Whig disappointment in their failure to cultivate a "French Whig." He asserts that the Whigs generally supported the French Revolution and the July Monarchy, while effectively distancing themselves from the intervening regimes. Mitchell, through the mouthpiece of 19th century Whigs, reserves the most significant disappointment for the Bourbon Restoration. Even the greatest of Whig historians, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his unfinished manuscript history of the Restoration reserved some positive comments for the Charter of 1814 and the reign of Louis XVIII. Many persons during the Restoration, especially the doctrinaires, looked to the example of British history and institutions in their writings. The Whig world in part extended to the world of Restoration France as a desire by French statesmen to emulate British successes, rather than any missionary activities on the part of the Whigs. As Mitchell points out, the Whigs would not consider France as anything but "in need of vital instruction" from their "betters" across the Channel. For the Whigs of the early nineteenth century, the French lacked common purpose and an aristocracy willing to embrace new ideas while vigorously defending their stake in the country. In this sense, the Whigs understood the reasons for the failure of the Restoration regime, though brooding over their failure to find French Whigs was rather misplaced. Mitchell could have gone further into the inability of these French Whigs to command the same respect socially and politically as their English brothers. However, in the writer's defense the Whig world was decidedly Anglophile in the end, for the Whigs had much to learn from France, but always found themselves the superior partner. Leslie Mitchell's The Whig World: 1760-1837 will prove to be one of those singular contributions to the history of political thought in the eighteenth century. Written in a scholarly but engaging style, Mitchell is comfortable with topics ranging from discourses by members of parliament to a wager whether the Marquess of Cholmondeley could have sex with a courtesan in a balloon suspended several hundred feet in the air. The Whig World is a convincing apology for the Whigs of the eighteenth century and equally steeped in the love of self criticism that was a hallmark of Whiggery. Mitchell adeptly enters the mindset of the Whigs with a keen thoroughness of a historian and the spirit one might find in a social column. A work of great importance for scholars of British political and social history, The Whig World can also serve as an engaging introduction for undergraduates and those desiring an introduction to a distinctive caste that, as Mitchell points out, now exists as a forgotten and misunderstood distinction. In an era of democracy, it is difficult to appreciate the contribution of the Whig aristocracy; however Mitchell's latest foray into their history explains how Whigs viewed themselves and how significant they were in the Era of Reform. The study of eighteenth century Britain stands to be strengthened by this scholarship that redefines and refashions centuries old political stereotypes. Though the Whigs are gone and Woburn Abbey is now the location of a safari park, even the modern reader has much to learn from Mitchell's concluding words that, "If France or Germany had known Whiggery, European history might have been very different. To be a Whig was to have a temperament that placed a premium on keeping up and being sensible."
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The Whigs were one of the two great English political parties in the 150 years after 1700, vastly influential whether in office or in opposition. Yet the Whigs were much more than simply a group of politicians. An exclusive set, composed of the greatest and wealthiest families, the Whig world was a self-contained and small one, impervious to outside criticism. With members such as Charles James Fox, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lord Byron, its gambling, loose-living, drinking and wit was notorious. The Whig World is a portrait, of which politics forms only a small part, of an extraordinary group of men and women whose power, taste and intellect dominated the centre of what had become the greatest power in the world. Cosmopolitan, sceptical, urban, sophisticated, and promiscuous, the Whigs numbered many more brilliant conversationalists and controversialists amongst their number than the Bloomsbury Group.The Whig World 1760-1837 (Paperback)
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