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Lecture 5a: English Romanticism

February 24, 2014

From Revolution to Romanticism:

a. Historical background – United Kingdom during and after the Revolutions

Last week, we discussed how the American and French Revolutions were received by different parties, as embodied by our prototypical thinkers, Burke and Paine, within the England of the day. We saw that, on the whole, there were audiences for both Burke and Paine. Although in favor of maintaining old traditions and trappings of authority, Burke was also a supporter of increased protection of individuals’ natural rights (albeit through controls implemented through the monarchy), which endeared him with the nobility and landed gentry as well as a certain portion of the growing middle class, eager to improve its lot in society. At the same time, Paine’s revolutionary discourse on the need to introduce further social reforms (minimum wage, retirement pensions, increased protections for workers, etc.) through democratic institutions gave rise to a growing social consciousness among the middle and lower classes in society and brought to the fore an increasing tension between the ruling and the ruled. These tensions come out perhaps most clearly in the reactions of Burke, Paine and their associates to the aforementioned revolutions as these capture the spirit of the epoch.

Although we have examined the institutional forms that this tension took, we have not yet examined with any great detail the social, economic and historical changes fueling this tension. Before going any further today, we need look more closely at these, which will also provide the necessary background to understanding the appeal of the position that the English Romantics were to take in relation to this same tension. The need for social reforms of the kind sought by Paine has its root in the societal transformations brought on by another revolution: the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new technologies and ways of manufacturing in the period between 1750 and 1850. Beginning in the United Kingdom and later spreading to the world, the Revolution involved the transition from hand-production methods and old forms of manual labour to machine-aided labor, chemical manufacturing and methods of producing iron, the increased use and efficiency of water and steam power, and the increased popularity of machine tools. These new methods were largely powered by the change from wood and other organic fuels (peat) to coal, which proved a more efficient source of energy.

Although the Revolution marks, without a doubt, an important turning point in history, in that its influence reached even the most mundane aspects of everyday life and changed the living standards of the era, historians are divided on whether the changes to those living standards proved a net positive or negative. While some historians point out the net increases in wages, population and purchasing power, others point to the negative changes brought on by industrialization, particularly at the bottom of the social ladder.

Chronic hunger, a problem before the Revolution, was alleviated thanks to improved agricultural technologies, but these same technologies were behind a tripling of the population from 1750 to 1850, which then strained the food supply yet again. Crude shantytowns sprang up in many industrial cities, shelters in which it was common to find large groups sharing a single room, with shared sanitary facilities, if any, and open sewers. All of this had the effect of spreading diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and typhoid. Working conditions improved for the middle class of industrialists and businessmen, but little changed for ordinary working people who worked long hours (anywhere from ten to fourteen-hour days) at a pace set by the machines with which they worked. Despite this, their wages were still 20 to 40 percent below the standard required for what was then considered a living wage. Child labor was a common practice, as industrialists could spend less on wages and receive comparable production from children, as compared with adults. In the mines and mills, children worked up to 14 hour days and were often injured on the job through accidents or prolonged exposure to gases and chemicals. For this reason, children’s chances of reaching adulthood, once past the initial dangers of childbirth, did not increase with industrialization. This process also brought on changes in living arrangements and communal life in the form of urbanization as large numbers of people migrated to cities in search of work at the factories located there. From a society based on agriculture and craftsmanship, the Revolution witnessed the transition to one in which integrated factories were more and more common, where unskilled laborers were often housed on site in cramped living quarters or in the nearest city in squalid conditions. These conditions, as mentioned above, led to increases in fatal diseases. Indeed, by the late 1800’s, eight in 10 citydwellers were infected with some form of tuberculosis, which, when active, proved fatal. If advances in printing technology furthered literacy and provided the means for further rights talk of the kind from last week through increased mass political participation, we can see at what price this same literacy and self-governance came.

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