The 18th century: from the Restoration to the industrial revolution -essential historical and social background

borghesia  e proletariatoAfter the Glorious Revolution, Parliament grew of importance, increased its power and became the real ruler of the country. All that happened with the consent of the King. Some laws which limited the Royal powers were passed. Among them the most important were The Bill of Right (1689) and The Act of Settlement (1701), which ensured that future monarchs should have been protestant because the Catholics were excluded from succession.

As far as politics, there were two political parties, The Whigs and The Tories which gave rise to the modern two-party parliamentary system. The division between them was not so clear and groups in Parliament acted according to their own interests and not to any political programme. The Whigs, however, wanted to maintain the power of Parliament against the King, supported the interests of trade and finance and did not condemn the Dissenters while the Tories wanted a stronger King, protected the authority of the Anglican Church and supported the rights of the landowners. In 1707 The Act of Union was passed by the parliament of England and Wales and the parliament of Scotland. The Act stated that there was to be one parliament for the three countries thus forming Great Britain.

During that period a new social class began to emerge: the middle class, also known as the Bourgeoisie. It grew rich, thanks to the exploitation of the colonial trade. As England became richer, English people became more tolerant and  less obsessed with religion. The influential   philosopher John Locke  expressed this new attitude   in  his Epistola de Tolerantia ,published in 1689, in which, after pointing out that religious controversies easily can lead to a civil war, he argued that the state should not interfere in religion, which was a matter of private conscience, and religion should not interfere in government matters. In the same year Parliament passed The Toleration Act, which recognized freedom of worship to all dissenters, excluded the Catholics. Freedom of trade increased  in the same way as religious tolerance. In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published On the Wealth of Nations.  He  thought that if people were left free to follow their own commercial interests, more goods and money would circulate and all society would get richer.  According to Smith’s Laissez-faire theory, the State should not interfere too much in economic matters and the individual should be able to decide for himself.

coffeeThe growth of the middle class also helped the appearance of newspapers. Their desire to be informed helped the boom of journalism. Being literate and more involved in politics, they wanted to read about political matters. To satisfy their need, regular daily newspapers began to appear. They circulated mainly in the big cities and were   often read in the Coffee-houses, where men used to meet to exchange ideas and opinions, discuss about local latest news and read newspapers. Even if newspapers had existed since the 17th century, it was only in the 18th century that they began to become influential. The Tatler, The Examiner, The Spectator and The Daily Universal Register, now known as The Times, were some titles. The most important  was The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The industrial revolution began in the late 18th century and made England the richest country in the world. The label may lead to a misunderstanding because the changes in the industry were not sudden, but were the result of long, gradual developments; they were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In the long distance, however, they brought a revolution in the British life. The label was used by scholars during the 1830s. Looking back into the recent past, they were struck by the many changes that had occurred between 1760 and 1790. They saw that changes had completely altered man’s way of living. Someone (J.A.Blanqui) spoke of the changes as an “industrial revolution” and the term entered the language use to indicate that period.

Before the 1760s, farming was the most important occupation of all people. The ordinary man was a farmer and lived in a village. He raised his own food, made cloths, furniture and tools at home utilising what he produced in the farm: wool, wood, leather and so on. In the towns, which were generally quite small, some manufacturing was carried on. Some goods were manufactured under the domestic system, which was then a new and revolutionary idea:an organizer distributed raw materials to workers in their homes and collected the finished products. He owned the raw materials, paid for work done and took the risk of finding a market.

Town products were exchanged for food from the country districts. They were also exported in payment for luxuries imported from abroad, traded for slaves or sent to the colonies to pay for raw materials which they sent to Europe. This trade was in the hands of a small numbers of merchants and mercantile companies; profits were enormous and some persons grew very rich.

The Revolution was started by the invention of the steam-engine and by the introduction of textile machines which made handwork unprofitable. It brought many changes in every field and turned England in an industrial country. The agriculture was abandoned and people began to move towards the new industrial towns where the new factories were built. The consequence was the overpopulation of these towns and its effects on the workers’ way of living; they were housed in unhealthy districts called slums and lived on very bad conditions; they were forced to work hard for 12 to 19 hours a day; women and children were exploited and the wages were very low. All that brought to the development of two different social classes, the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and to the first form of Trade Unions, organizations that defended the workers and helped them to better their lives.

This new Age was not all negative and on the whole it was considered an Age of progress and prosperity. Average people approached science and the development of the new middle class provided the reading public for literary works and, for the first time, prose became a new strong force to influence the readers’ thoughts.

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About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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