When Elie Halevy wrote about a “liberal awakening,” he did not mean liberalism as it is currently understood. During the period of 1815 to 1830, liberalism was a political trend that favored middle class advancement. It was based upon the principles of capitalist economy and representative republic. Its goals were to remove obstacles to capitalism, expand the voting populace to include more prosperous untitled males, and make governments represent the interests of middle class men in parliament. Only later, when most of these goals were accomplished, did liberalism evolve to include notions of economic and social justice for all.
Though liberal goals were meant to serve middle class members of society, this book’s narration is from the point-of-view of the politicians in British government: members of parliament and ministers of the cabinet. It is useful to have a history of the ideas and actions of British government concerning reform. But one must bear in mind that this is a part, and not even the greater part, of the forces that resulted in reform. Certainly the pressure for reform came from commoners in the United Kingdom, not from government aristocrats and privileged gentlemen who were already enfranchised. The latter group would have preferred no reform.
But the perspectives and actions of middle class reformers are almost entirely excluded from Halevy’s account. It appears as if the government is pondering, worrying and acting, with minimal outside influence upon them. Though Halevy would find it impossible to ignore all public action by the middle class, their activities are either examined regarding how they affect parliament, or ignored.
This is also true for agricultural and industrial workers. While they were excluded from the liberal agenda, they were influenced by it. Workers certainly felt that, if the middle class deserved representation and consideration by government, they did as well. Again, while Halevy cannot ignore their activities, he reports them in the context of their influence upon parliamentary opinion and legislation. There are sporadic observations of protests repressed, publications censored and public gatherings attacked by troops. But there is little illustration of the organizers of protests, writers silenced or people involved in the gatherings. When Halevy addresses the Peterloo Massacre or the Manchester riots, we still never hear from the commoners massacred or rioting. The view we obtain is how government officials felt afraid when unrest happened, and the repression or concessions with which they responded. Never do we hear from a wife whose husband was shot by the troops at Peterloo, or a loom operator who saw his children go hungry on the wage he was making. As readers, we are not presented with the motives for unrest or reform. This creates an artificial half-history, wherein the state is surrendering concessions and power to a people who barely exist in the narrative. It’s like watching a boxing match where we see one boxer clearly getting hit or landing blows, while the opponent flickers in and out of existence. This view presents reform as if it is handed-down from beneficent powers above, rather than demanded from an active populace below.
Halevy’s puzzling illustration of reform, is explained by his sarcasm when approaching events outside of legislation and motions. He is particularly annoyed when individuals inspire protest which intrudes upon an otherwise orderly parliament: William Cobbett “published with noisy advertisement” a book criticizing the Protestant Reformation while the issue of Catholic Emancipation was being debated (Halevy, p. 219). Henry Hunt, a reformer in the countryside, is called “the fanatical demagogue.” (Halevy, p. 16). Those in Ireland agitating for emancipation are labeled “Irish demagogues.” (Halevy, p. 272). This petulance towards activists reveals a law and order perspective. It explains why he wrote an account of reform primarily from the view parliament and cabinet. Halevy’s version of change is an organized, quiet, top-down order. This interpretation represents neither history nor human nature.
Though Halevy reveals an annoyed, subjective attitude towards agitators from below, his descriptions of parliament and cabinet are positively robotic. Halevy was an academic historian dedicated to truthfully representing leadership with dispassion. His descriptions are dry. To be fair, the English version is a translation from the French, which may have beaten even more caffeine out of the project. Also, British parliamentary motions do not provide the most gripping read. But Halevy does bear responsibility for how he presents a topic. For example, the ascendency of Canning caused upheaval in the British cabinet, involving intense partisan acrimony and a parade of resignations. But Halevy’s description drones like a biblical set of begats as Canning cronies take over positions: “Another of Canning’s friends, Sturges Bourne, received the Home Office at the Ordnance, and the Duke of Portland succeeded Lore Westmoreland as Lord Privy Seal. W Lamb, a supporter of Catholic emancipation, replaced Goulburn as Chief Secretary for Ireland” and so on. (Halevy, p. 252). Happily, The Liberal Awakening will not interrupt a restful night if read before bedtime.
Halevy, Elie. The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. Watkin, E.I. (trans.) New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961.