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Country Gentlemen in Parliament 1750-1783

Sir Lewis Namier examines the British Parliamentary groupings of the country gentlemen and their reactions to the movements of public opinion during the years 1750-1783.

The country gentlemen in the late eighteenth century had “a conception of Parliamentary duties radically different from our own: such Members did not deem it a function of Parliament to provide a Government—the Government to them was the King’s. Their duty was to support it as long as they honestly could, while judging of questions that came before them with the impartiality of a jury” ... “Independent and unconnected,” they owed suit to no particular leader or party.

In common parlance “country gentlemen” can be equated with commoners possessed of armorial bearings and landed estates.1 But the term denotes also a way of life: Colonel John Selwyn was a country gentleman, but no one would describe his son George Augustus Selwyn, the wit, as such—a rustic touch is implied in the term. And there are outer rings to the indisputable core of any social group. At what point do men in the line of succession to a peerage merge back into the country gentry? And what about Irish peers, especially those with nothing Irish to them except their titles? In the mid-eighteenth-century House of Commons, excluding sons of British and Scottish peers on the one flank (an average of about 80) and those with “no claim to arms” on the other (less than 30) we are left with about 80 per cent of the total. Yet in Parliament the term “country gentlemen” is never made to cover anything like four-fifths of the House; its character is residual: certain categories are subtracted, and not the same by everybody, and what is left is called country gentlemen.

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