Public Opinion Comes of Age: Reform of the Libel Law in the Eighteenth Century

A series of cases over a period of sixty years had raised the question of whether juries could pronounce on the substance of charges of libel and sedition or merely on the facts of publication. H.M. Lubasz writes how Fox’s Libel Act of 1791 put an end to doubt and thereby admitted the public to a larger vote in political affairs.

The eighteenth century was the golden age of the English governing class. For more or less a hundred years, this class managed to govern Britain with tolerable efficiency and without much interference from any other political element. Before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, kings had claimed a very substantial share in the ordering of society and the conduct of government.

But the Revolution Settlement established both the practical predominance of the landed aristocrats and the constitutional principle of limited monarchy. For one reason or another, William III, Queen Anne and the first two Georges were generally content to accept this new division of power.

At the other end of the political scale, the public had as yet no recognized place in the constitution. Indeed, until the middle of the eighteenth century, the public took little active interest in the affairs of the nation, and few members of the governing class would have been prepared to tolerate its participation in politics. As the principal beneficiaries of the Revolution Settlement, the landed gentlemen of England were anxious to maintain their privileged position in government, vis-a-vis both the public and the monarch.

Their complete supremacy was short-lived. After the middle of the century, it was challenged both from above and from below. With George III’s endeavours to “be King” we are reasonably familiar. We are aware of his challenge to the aristocracy because there is no doubt about his identity and because his actions are well documented. We are far less familiar with the challenge presented by the amorphous and ill-documented general public.

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