Beyond the Public Sphere: The Politics of the Poorer Sort in Early Eighteenth-Century England
  • Andy Wood
Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)


The Whig order that dominated early Georgian England defined itself as the embodiment of the rights of the ‘Freeborn Englishman’. According to the Whig version of history, in 1688 a corrupt, popish, arbitrary regime had been toppled. In its place, the Glorious Revolution had restored the ‘rights of the people’ to liberty, property, protestantism and parliamentary representation. And yet, in contrast to such libertarian rhetoric, the majority of the English people remained excluded from formal participation within that broadened polity. Given the significance of parliamentary representation to Whig ideology, it is revealing that the distribution of the franchise remained deliberately restricted. It was certainly the case, as we have seen, that within some boroughs the right to vote was widely distributed. But in many other urban seats, and all the more so within the countryside, the parliamentary franchise remained firmly lodged within the hands of the propertied classes. Rather like early seventeenth-century puritans, when Whig theorists used the term ‘the people’, or ‘free men’, they therefore referred to a restricted group, defined by age, religion, gender and class. In this definition, adult, protestant men who held sufficient property to be economically independent constituted ‘the people’. One Whig writer spelt this out in 1701:

It is owned, that all governments are made by man, and ought to be made by those men who are owners of the territory over which the government extends. It must likewise be confessed, that the FREEHOLDERS of England are owners of the English territory, and therefore have a natural right to erect what government they please.1


Public Sphere Social Power Early Eighteenth Century English People Formal Participation 
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© Andy Wood 2002

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  • Andy Wood

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