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British Politics, 1793-1815

Britain in the early 19th century was a Protestant state and a constitutional monarchy. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was looked on by most British politicians as the pinnacle of political achievement; as a result of this settlement, the King (George III; reigned 1760–1820) was restricted in what he could and could not do. He could not rule without Parliament, which was re-elected at most every seven years and controlled the nation’s funds.


Tradition nevertheless figured large in the British political system, and the unwritten constitution (which consisted mostly of written statutes, parliamentary proceedings, and precedents in law) was almost entirely based on it. Change was slow to take root: full civil rights were not extended to non-Anglicans until 1828–29, and political reform did not take place until 1832.


James Fittler, The King On His Throne in the House of Lords (1804), Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here)

Political participation at the time of the wars with France remained very restricted. Some boroughs were more accessible than others, and a few allowed all householders or ratepayers to vote; but many ‘pocket’ or ‘rotten’ boroughs either belonged to local grandees or were controlled by them. Of a population of 11 million in 1801, only 282,000 could vote in national elections.


By 1793, there was an active movement to expand the franchise: during the 1770s and 1780s, a nationwide County Association Movement had been highly influential, and this was mirrored in 1790s organisations such as the aristocratic Friends of the People and the middle- and working-class Corresponding Societies. Most people experienced political activity at the level of the county, town, or parish, where elections were more open (sometimes even to women and non-Anglicans).

Following the Act of Union of 1707, Great Britain consisted of England, Wales, and Scotland, but not Ireland, which had its own Parliament and passed its own laws independently of Westminster. A large-scale rebellion in 1798, however, led to the Act of Union in 1801, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, "The British Isles, comprehending Great Britain and Ireland; with the adjacent islands", The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1786, from here)

Background image: James Fittler, The House of Commons, 1804, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here)

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