Corruption has an interesting history



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Corruption has an interesting history.1 In the second half of the eighteenth century it was commonplace to rail against the ‘system’ of ‘old corruption’, a phenomenon that Warwick’s great social historian E P Thompson characterised as ‘a sophisticated system of brigandage’.2 ‘Old Corruption’ was shorthand for a system in which the elite fed parasitically off the state through sinecures, pensions, rewards, government contracts and so on, and in turn filled Parliament by buying corrupt boroughs or unduly influencing elections with money, bribes and lavish entertainments. ‘Old Corruption’ was both corruption per se but also a system which facilitated, encouraged and institutionalised corruption. Quite when ‘Old Corruption’ was destroyed has been a matter of historical debate, though most agree that it was achieved by 1860.3 Far less attention, however, has been paid to how and why ‘old corruption’ emerged as a system and what cultural effects its genesis had. In part this historiographical neglect may be because the dismantling of the system was far more spectacular and obvious than its rise which arguably took place over many centuries. A nest-lining elite, it could plausibly be suggested, had existed for a very long time before the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, a significant stage in the emergence of a system of ‘old corruption’ occurred in the period 1650-1750, as a result of the expansion of the spoils available through control of the state. This combined with, and was in part achievable through, partisan politics and a set of cultural phenomena which liberated the pursuit of self-interest.
The seventeenth century expansion of state resources coincided with a number of other shifts: the emergence of partisanship, the decline of religious uniformity, a more rapacious economic spirit and liberated sexuality. These issues tended to be seen in the round and as related. Corruption was thus regarded as a multi-headed beast that affected politics, economics and morality simultaneously rather than individually.4 The results of such an approach could be productive. We might challenge the association of ‘old corruption’ with the long regime of Robert Walpole and ‘whig oligarchy’ after 1715. Such an interpretation obscures larger trends that predate Walpole’s premiership and ignores ways in which Walpole reflected as well as caused cultural shifts. Plumb argued that until 1715 Britain was characterised by unstable partisan feuding which one-party government after the Hanoverian succession helped to resolve.5 Even after a barrage of criticism of this thesis - Colley, Wilson, Brewer, Halliday, Rogers all finding considerable vitality in partisanship after 1715 - the assumption that Walpole created a new system of governance has proved remarkable enduring largely because criticism of Plumb has focused on his claims about instability and partisanship rather than on his claim that Walpole was the architect of something new. Plumb argued that it was single-party government after 1715 that first captured the patronage system and then used the overlapping of legislature and executive to produce stable government. But, as Clayton Roberts pointed out in a rather neglected intervention, partisan conflict from the 1670s onwards was instrumental in capturing the patronage system and hence that the struggle for power was evident much earlier.6 Roberts’ very valuable insight was that it was partisanship not oligarchy that wrested control of the spoils system from the monarchy; and he reminds us that corruption was the result of political contest as much as oligarchical rule. The corruption associated with the 1720s, 30s and 40s was thus merely an extension of a system established earlier. A paradox at the heart of partisanship is that it can both check corruption but also, in its desire to engross control of the state, promote it. This ambiguity lies at the heart of Plumb’s own account, for he finds the origins of many of the strands of what he calls ‘political stability’ in the period of unstable partisan conflict from the 1670s onwards.7
A corrupt ‘system’ was not a new concern in the later Stuart period. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, as Linda Levy Peck has shown, an increasing anxiety about corruption pervaded the political and literary discourse.8 Indeed, perceptions of the prevalence of corruption undermined and delegitimized the early Stuart regime. My argument is not that corruption was a new phenomenon but rather that it took on new, enlarged forms. Early Stuart corruption was associated primarily with the court - it was royal patronage and favouritism that were the primary sources of worry.9 But, despite an enduring role for Crown patronage, there was a significant shift. Later Stuart and Georgian corruption was associated with the state, the City and with party. Moreover, contemporary concern focused on how this affected society, political culture and religious and moral values more widely.

There were five key factors why corruption took on new proportions and became more of system that was ripe for exploitation by the self-interested: 1) the profits to be made from capturing the state and patronage system were far larger than ever before. Whereas the total tax revenue available to Charles II in 1665 amounted to about £1.3m, William III in 1700 had £4.8m and George I some 6.1m in 1720.10 Annual expenditure on war during Anne’s reign was about £7m a year, amounting to almost three quarters of all government expenditure.11 2) The commercial, financial and political systems overlapped and blurred. Elements of this development have long been recognised, even if they have not been integrated into a comprehensive account. Financial and commercial revolution was highly politicised.12 3) ideologically driven purges and a patronage system dependent on party shaped these systems; and 4) an extension of that patronage system to the professions and a whole host of apparently non-political areas, which also made this a national phenomenon not just a Westminster one 5) a shift in religious culture that destroyed any pretence of religious uniformity, removed the clerical monopoly of the church of England and, with toleration, seemed to some to unleash unrestrained appetites and usher in immorality and irreligion. All these these factors affected both Britain and, in varying degrees, British America. Let us briefly examine each in turn.


First, there was a huge profit to be made from administering government and in particular administering the large amounts of money disbursed for war. Of course men profiting from war was not a new phenomenon; but Britain’s entry into European and global war after 1690, together with the massive expansion of resources available to fund it, enabled those who administered the war to get very rich. In what Godfrey Davies called the ‘seamy side of Marlborough’s war’ there were a group of Marlborough’s cronies who profited enormously from their administration of army resources. James Brydges, Paymaster of the Forces Abroad, and quartermaster general William Cadogan pocketed the interest on the money in their hands, bet on the outcome of sieges for which they had insider knowledge, and bought and sold shares again with insider knowledge about how peace or war would affect their value.13 The shocked Arthur Onslow (speaker of the House of Commons in the 1730s and 40s) noted that Brydges, who had ‘virtually no estate’ before the war, ‘accumulated a fortune of not less than six or seven hundred thousand pounds’.14 Cadogan had enough to buy a country estate and invest a further £6000 in the Bank of England. Another Marlborough crony, James Craggs, was also Paymaster General and, according to Onslow, ‘from very low beginnings came through various fortunes to have a greater hand and to be more considerable for some time in public affairs than any private man we have known’.15 His son, James junior, was promoted through the Marlborough-Sunderland patronage network to become secretary of state and introduced the South Sea Company’s bill into the House of Commons in 1720; James senior pocketed £30,000 of stock and left a fortune of £1.5m.
The duke of Marlborough himself was deeply implicated in profiting from the war. In 1711 Jonathan Swift’s best-selling pamphlet, The Conduct of the Allies (11,000 copies were said to have been published) argued that the whole war had been a Whig plot to enrich Marlborough and his friends. Swift asserted that ‘a greater load has been laid on us than was either just or necessary, or than we have been able to bear; that the grossest Impositions have been submitted to for the Advancement of private Wealth and Power or in order to forward the more dangerous Designs of a Faction’ [preface]. ‘whether this War were prudently begun or not, it is plain, that the true Spring or Motive of it, was the aggrandizing a particular Family’. Marlborough’s ‘predominant passion’ was his ‘unmeasurable Love of Wealth’, Swift asserted. Indeed, there was ‘a Conspiracy’ to continue the war in order to benefit the ministry, the Whigs and the monied men. He reckoned that of the national debt of £10m ‘the Publick is defrauded of almost half’ and that ‘We have been fighting for the Ruin of the Publick Interest’. The duke, he thought, had amassed more than half a million pounds. Parliament pursued the issue and found that Marlborough had been paid 2.5% of the contract on supplying bread to the troops, amounting to over £60,000 between 1702 and 1710, though that was probably only the tip of the iceberg. Marlborough was dismissed from office and early in 1712 the House of Commons condemned his conduct as ‘unwarranted and illegal’. A playing card produced in 1712 (as part of a pack commemorating ‘Anne’s Wars’) summed up Marlborough by depicting him as the knave of hearts, counting his money. It was perhaps Marlborough rather than Walpole (who ensured the latter’s appointment in 1708 as secretary for War) who did most to entrench a system of patronage.16 It is no coincidence that Manley’s principal targets in her novels were William Cowper’s friends and Whig patrons, the duchess and duke of Marlborough, who represented the unbridled but deceptive pursuit of private interest.


A playing card depicts Marlborough as the corrupt knave of hearts, counting his ill-gotten gains
The second factor fostering the emergence and strengthening of ‘old corruption’ in this period was the blurring and mutual lubrication of the financial, commercial and political worlds. This can be seen at an individual level. Nuala Zahedieh has shown that for Sir Gilbert Heathcote commercial, political and financial success went hand in hand: he is ‘a good illustration of how access to political power and rent-seeking activities could transform a comfortable but risky trading income into massive wealth’.17 As a Whig he opposed James II’s attempts to tighten control over Jamaica (which displaced his friends and threatened his trading and slaving interests); after the Revolution he was active in City of London politics; and used his political bases ‘to good commercial effect’ by furthering the activities of his friends and business partners. Profiting from the war that he enthusiastically supported, he invested his profits in the state: subscriptions in the Bank of England (whose formation he had helped to promote) gave him a return of £60,000 between 1697 and 1700. When he died in 1733 he was worth a reputed £750,000.
Heathcote’s career was spectacular; but, as Perry Gauci’s work shows, not particularly unusual in its intertwining of the financial, commercial and political worlds.18 We can discern this at an institutional as well as a personal level. The rise of lucrative, powerful and imperialistic joint-stock companies narrowed the gap between trade, politics, patronage and power. Reasons for their fusion included both the state’s need to raise money (especially after 1689) and a constitutional doubt about the validity of royal monopolies. In the 1690s and early 1700s very large amounts of money were thus formally offered to the state and informally to private individuals to further the interests of the companies. In the case of the East India trade the competition between two rival companies led to extravagant bargaining and patronage networks. In 1698 the ‘old’ company formally offered a loan of £700,000 only to be countered by the interlopers (many with close connections with the bank of England) who offered £2m, a sum sufficiently large to procure a parliamentary bill establishing them as a company. The contest between the companies spilt over into electioneering in 1701 - the new company had nine of its directors standing as candidates (8 were successful) and the new company had six (4 of whom were elected). This ‘stock-jobbing’ electioneering involved corruption - Samuel Shepheard, on behalf of the new company, secured the return of two of his sons but only through bribery that was subsequently exposed.19 Such corruption had also infected Parliament. Investigations in 1695 showed that Sir Thomas Cook had distributed £80,000 to procure a charter, much of it lining MPs’ pockets. The subsequent parliamentary investigations produced enough to try to impeach the duke of Leeds (formerly the earl of Danby) and to tarnish the reputations of Sir Edward Seymour, Sir John Trevor (who was removed as Speaker) and Sir Basil Firebrace.20 Contests over the African Company’s monopoly saw similar allegations of corruption.21 And the Bank of England was also at the heart of politicised debates. Condemned as a republican project, its subscribers were regarded as monied men with a vested interest in prolonging the war, the cost of which was borne primarily through taxes on land which also repaid the interest on the bank loans. The conviction that the Bank was a self-interested corporation that was parasitical on the landed interest of the nation led to attempts to promote a bank based on land rather than moveable wealth; the ensuing ‘battle of the banks’ again influenced politics.22
The third factor underpinning the genesis of ‘old corruption’ was partisanship. This might seem surprising since most attention has been paid to the patronage available to the Crown or to its ministers, rather than to party. But corruption was not the result of oligarchical rule; it was inherent in the bitter dispute between ideological factions. The (correct) attack on Robert Walcott’s Namierite view of early eighteenth century British politics had the effect of sidelining the power of self-interest and connection that he identified, which, far from being incompatible with partisanship (as he argued), was often closely tied to it. Indeed, we can find the alliance of ideological contest and a system that sought to advance a single party evident as early as the 1670s. Thus lord treasurer Danby created a monopolistic anglican-royalist party in the 1670s, which provoked opposition from those worried about the Crown’s ability to introduce popery and arbitrary power, and hence accusations of corruption. It was Danby, rather than Walpole, who was the architect of old corruption. Rather than focusing on the influence of the Crown on the legislature, we might consider instead how partisans struggled for power in order to capture and monopolise the spoils and resources available to the state (broadly conceived) and the levers of patronage. Rather than being a cause of instability, then, partisanship emerges as key to explaining the embedding of a system of ‘old corruption’ that proved remarkably enduring. A paradox of partisanship was that it created a rationale and rhetoric that both enhanced the pursuit of place/power/patronage and disguised it: one’s partisan rivals abused the resources of the state in order to pursue their own partisan or selfish interests and advocated ideas that were dangerous to the safety of the state; they therefore needed to be replaced in order to promote the public good. As the High Church Tory William Bromley put it, church and state could only be protected ‘by putting power in the hands of our friends’.23 The castigation of the self-interest and dangerous ideas of rivals opened the way to remove them and their cronies from office, even though the effect of this was to replace one set of self-interested individuals with another. The result was a system of patronage linked to ideology and hence prone to ideologically charged purges by the state when it was captured by a hostile group of partisans.24
The fourth factor undergirding ‘old corruption’ follows from the last: partisan patronage extended far beyond Westminster. Thus we can discern partisan attempts to monopolise the power and resources of the state: by the Anglican-royalists under Danby in the later 1670s, during the Tory reaction of the early 1680s, at the start of Anne’s reign and 1710-14; by the Whigs 1694-8, 1708-10 and after 1714. All of these meant displacement from offices up and down the country, or the hardening of the arteries of patronage against clients of the wrong stripe. Possession of power, by contrast, conferred an ability to favour local friends. If we see the state as a dispersed state located as much in localities as in London and with relatively few paid officials, then control of the state’s resources necessarily means much more than the world of Westminster and the fiscal institutions. What is more, partisan patronage extended widely into the professions. Law in particular was politicised, so that there were rival groups of ideologically aligned barristers (many of whom sat in parliament); religion was another realm deeply divided into ideological and partisan ‘interests’. But partisan patronage also extended to physicians, writers, even to particular coffee houses or taverns. A frequent Jacobite lament after the 15 was that the lines of patronage open to Whigs were closed to High Church Tories. Clayton Roberts’ observation that ‘there are few phenomena in English history which historians have so egregiously ignored, so totally overlooked, as the capture of patronage by party’ still has considerable validity.25
The fifth factor shaping a new set of attitudes towards corruption was the weakening power of the church courts, and an undermining of notions of religious orthodoxy and uniformity, with the concomitant rise of ideas of freedom of conscience, religious plurality and toleration. When linked to partisan struggles to secure political dominance, these combined to produce an age that for many High Churchmen was characterised by immorality and irreligion on the one hand and the perversion of religious belief for self-advancement on the other. Whilst it is certainly true that this was not a society converted to secularism - indeed, much of the recent literature on the period suggests renewed interest in the importance of religious outlooks and a politics of religion- many high Churchmen felt themselves to be the victims of a powerful onslaught aimed at replacing adherence to the Church by adherence to self-interest. This was the key point made by Dr Henry Sacheverell in his sermon, The Perils of False Brethren.
Underlying all five factors sketched above was a liberation of the pursuit of self and sectional interests. Self-interest seemed to motivate those who sought to profit from the state and war. Self-interest seemed to animate those who sought to make enormous fortunes in commerce or in the City and to use these to ensure that political structures favoured their money-making ventures. Self-interest seemed implicit in the partisan scramble for office and patronage; and in the purges of rivals. Party was by definition the pursuit of a sectional interest that nevertheless claimed to be acting for the general interest. Intrinsic to a party system was the notion that the pursuit of a partisan’s self-interest was also the pursuit of his party’s interest which was also the pursuit of the national interest. Equally intrinsic to a party system was the allegation that other parties were pursuing their own interests at the expense of the national interest - as the marquis of Halifax put it, party was a ‘conspiracy against the rest of the nation’. Party politics was thus interest politics. Self and sectional interest thus seemed to have been given its head in this period and both drove and was further fostered by the developing system of ‘old corruption’. And this needed to be exposed. Fiction proved a powerful means of doing so because it could reveal publicly the inner motivations and corruptions that were disguised by religion or by politeness or by feigned pretences of loyalty to church, monarchy and the national interest.


1 One that I intend to work on further.

2 "The Peculiarities of the English", in his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978), quote at 323. esp. pp. 258-60

3 Philip Harling, The waning of 'Old Corruption : the politics of economical reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (1996); Harling, ‘Parliament, the state, and "old corruption : conceptualising reform, c.1790-1832’ in Burns and Innes (eds) Rethinking the Age of Reform (2003); Harling, ‘Rethinking Old Corruption’, Past and Present, 147 (1995), 127-58; William D. Rubinstein, ‘The end of "Old Corruption" in Britain, 1780-1860’, Past & Present 101 (1983), 55-86.

4 We should take on board Rubinstein’s broad definition of ‘old corruption’ as applying not just to those paid by the state but also to the merchants, traders, lawyers, soldiers who profited handsomely from their relationship with it; and, going further, examine the cultural effects and impact of the strengthening of ‘old corruption’.

5 J.H.Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability 1675-1725 (1967)

6 Clayton Roberts, ‘Party and Patronage in Later Stuart England’, in Stephen Baxter (ed) England’s Rise to Greatness 1660-1763 (1983)

7 ‘Although by 1714 the materials everywhere abounded by which a well-organised party, backed by the Crown, and its men of business, might bring about political stability, the prospect of such an achievement still seemed remote’ [Plumb, Growth, p.159]

8 Peck, Court Patronage and Corruption in early Stuart England (1990)

9 As Peck puts it ‘Early Stuart England was governed by a personal monarchy which ruled through a patrimonial bureaucracy organised within a hierarchical society structured by patron-client relationships’ [p.4]

10 Holmes, Making of a Great power, p.433, using evidence from Patrick O’Brien, ‘The Political Economy of British Taxation’ EcHR 1988.

11 Holmes 439, using O’Brien and Brewer.

12 Jones, War and Economy in the Age of William III and Marlborough (1988); John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: war, money and the English state, 1688-1783 (1989); Peter Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England: A Study in the Development of Public Credit 1688-1756 (1967); Henry Roseveare, The Financial Revolution 1660-1760 (1991); Perry Gauci, The Politics of Trade: The overseas merchant in state and society 1660-1720 (2001); Nuala Zahedieh, The Capital and the Colonies: London and the Atlantic Economy 1660-1700 (2010); Alison Olson, Making the Empire Work : London and American Interest Groups 1690-1790 (1992); Henry Horwitz, ‘The East India trade, the politicians and the constitution 1689-1702’, JBS 17:2 (1978), 1-18; and Will Pettigrew, ‘Free to Enslave : Politics and the Escalation of Britain's Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714’, William and Mary Quarterly 64 (2007), 3-38. John Pocock has charted a political discourse of corruption, associating it with Machiavellianism and civic humanism: see John Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975); Pocock, ‘Virtue and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 3 (1972), 119-34; ‘Early Modern Capitalism: The Augustan Perception’ in Eugene Kamenka and .R.S. Neale (eds)Feudalism, Capitalism and Beyond (1975); The Machiavellian Moment chapters 14 and 15; Virtue Commerce and History (1985). The rise of a ‘country’ or ‘patriot’ language criticising the growth of the executive and ‘monied men’ as well as placing restraints on the number of state-paid officers in parliament or scrutinising public expenditure have also been the subject of a good deal of interest. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967); J A Downie, ‘The Commission of Public Accounts and the formation of the Country Party’, EHR (1976); Colin Brooks, ‘The country persuasion and political responsibility in England in the 1690s’, Parliament, Estates and Representation (1984); David Hayton, ‘The country interest and the party system 1689-c.1720’ In C. Jones (ed) Party and Management in Parliament 1660-1784 (1984); Hayton, ‘Moral reform and country politics in the late seventeenth-century House of Commons’, Past & Present 128 (1990), 48-91.

13 Godfrey Davies, ‘The Seamy Side of Malborough’s war’, HLQ, 15 no. 1 (1951), 21-44

14 Quoted by Davies, p33

15 History of Parliament,entry for Craggs.

16 Marlborough pledged his loyalty to the Whigs: ‘I am resolved’, he wrote in 1710 shortly after his wife’s and his own fall from favour, ‘never to depart from the interest of the Whigs’ [Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and administration of Sir Robert Walpole, i.258, 2 June 1710, Marlborough to Wapole]

17 Zahedieh, Captial and the Colonies, p.131

18 Gauci, The Politics of Trade: The Overseas Merchant in State and Society ( 2001)

19 The Freeholders Plea against Stock-jobbing Elections (1701); Considerations upon Corrupt Elections of Members (1701)

20 The Examinations and informations under oath of Sir Thomas Cooke and several other persons lately taken before a committee of both Houses of Parliament, touching divers indirect practices to procure by corrupt and unlawful means a new charter and act of Parliament for the East-India Company : as also, the articles of impeachment by the Honourable House of Commons against the Duke of Leeds (1695)

21 Sir Thomas Dalby, a Tory merchant and champion of the compnay, was questioned in Parliament on 25 Feb 1699 about bribes allegedly paid to MPs about another bill and there were further allegations about embezzlement of public funds.

22 Dennis Rubini, ‘Politics and the Battle for the Banks, 1688-97’, EHR 85 (1970), 693-714

23 Roberts, p.201

24 Lionel Glassey, Politics and the Appointment of Justices of the Peace, 1675-1720 (1979)

25 Roberts: p194


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