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Monday, February 14, 2011

Scandal: Preventing Revolution

Clark, Anna.  Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution. Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2004.

For historian Anna Clark, scandal fueled the democratic process in eighteenth-century Britain.  She saw scandal in government as bringing on charges of corruption and impropriety, men or women exchanging sex and money for political favors, a derisive behavior not sanctioned by the public.  In her book, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution, she attempted to show that scandal illuminated the debate of how British society in the eighteenth century was to be governed, even in an age of revolution.  For Clark, scandals redirected anxiety, prevented rebellion, and were necessary to Britain’s future.  Scandal functioned as a relatively peaceful catalyst for change.  She also explained the necessary existence of rumor and social impasse to fuel this catalyst.

Scandal soothed animosities between rival factions.  Clark used images from popular poems, plays, and caricatures to show how they aided John Wilkes’ efforts to reduce King George III’s overreaching power.  She demonstrated the media’s importance in developing the necessary environment for therapeutic scandal to begin.  By insinuating that Lord Bute had an affair with the queen dowager, Wilkes implied that Scottish blood infected the Hanoverian dynasty, playing on xenophobic feelings and memories of Stuart absolutism and British nationalism.  This perception of a scandal, as ridiculous as it truly seemed, damaged the monarch’s authority.  According to Clark, Wilkes used the rumor of impropriety to give the illusion of a larger, more political threat and thereby instigate reform.  She also demonstrated that, by reviving John Locke’s theories of government, Wilkes derailed George III’s efforts to appear as a father to Britain.  Instead, the popular imagery of the time showed him to be merely a child, led around by his mother’s desires.  His son, George IV would do no better for the monarchy by imprisoning his queen and lavishing upon mistresses.

In her first chapter, Clark superbly demonstrated her case; scandal moderated government, like checks and balances in constitutional theory.  They often aided in reform.  Certainly, however, her book illustrates the dangers of scandal as well.  Wilkes used the theory of “oriental despotism” to give substance to satires and caricatures in his Essay on Woman to portray the phallus as a “floating, insecure signifier of power that could be claimed by anyone” (25).  He eventually switched camps after finding himself hopelessly entangled in his own web, unable to part the libertine hero from the cause of political reform.  Still, like Charles James Fox and Andrew Robinson Bowles, Wilkes championed the cause of the “Commons against the Crown” by equating masculine libertinism with liberty (54).

Scandalous as it may be, some argued that John Wilkes’ ideas could lead to corruption.  That was the nature of scandal and the reason that he felt its bite in his later years.  Clark’s description of scandal’s nature and development strongly depends upon the reification of the extremes of radical versus conservative.  Indeed, rumors float amongst these ideas aimlessly until, pulled to the poles, they become scandals.  At that point, they become definite ideas, easily portrayed to the public and effective political weapons.  Newspapers, pamphlets, contemporary aristocratic accounts, poems, and songs round out her sources.

Clark reveals another aspect to British politics rarely alluded to by most historians.  She believed that eighteenth-century scandals did not further the interests of women personally, only the interests of dynastic aristocratic power.  The rich widow, Mary Ellen Bowes, countess of Strathmore, married a notorious Irish fortune hunter, who took his new wife’s surname upon the marriage to win her affections, but, especially, her property.  Not realizing that he would not have access to the property, he mentally and physically abused his wife, who’s repeated beatings drew no attention at first.  Appealing to the “Bucks, Bloods, and Beaux” of Newcastle, Bowes used his wife’s family and her political connections to his favor (64).  While his character flaws were well known, they did not become an issue until he began bribing voters and strongly defended dynastic politics.  The Newcastle women, however, had an effect on Bowes’ career, but they had to time their attack properly.  The strictly male voters of Newcastle saw nothing wrong with Bowes until “A Lady” began a scandalizing publicity campaign against him.  Clark judiciously portrays how the industry of Newcastle women interrupted Bowes’ run for office in 1785, by “ransacking every anecdote of his private life” (67).

Certainly no stranger to scandal herself, the countess of Strathmore found political influence to be a burden in the end.  Ultimately, however, debating societies began discussing female suffrage and political reform to serve the people, not for their family's personal interests.  Further “Petticoat Influence” derived from Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution, educated writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and “conservative ideologue,” Hannah More, and writer, Mary Anne Clarke, mistress to the duke of York and seller of army commissions.

For Clark, while scandal did not always involve women, per se, its rhetoric reflected differing views.  The younger William Pitt, not conspicuously enamored of women, was portrayed as currying the king’s favor through “backstairs” influence to win the 1784 Westminster election (72).  Fox’s Whig supporters compared him with Buckingham, Piers Gaveston, a “woman-hater,” and alleged sodomite.  For this particular ploy, Fox found it necessary to modify the Wilksian libertinism from one of attacking women to one that contained a chivalric code of feminine virtue.  Still, the libertinism came back to haunt him, as with Wilkes.  Scandal begets scandal.  While Clark did not specifically refer to a balance mechanism within the process of scandalization, she demonstrated this to be true.

She did, however, see balance in political scandal, an equilibrium that defused rebellion.  She viewed also a “balance between the Commons and the Crown” (182).  In her development of radicals versus conservatives and the necessary polarization for scandal to perpetuate, Clark had to view society as having opposite poles.  She saw British political society as distinct between parties, with conservatives consisting of the nobility and the gentry, who sided generally with the monarchy.  The radical Whigs occupied the other end of the spectrum and espoused change.  Political targets of scandals, whether radical or conservative can portray themselves as victims and turn the tide of public derision.  Scandals perpetuated themselves and kept the society active, even healthy.   British made more effective use of counterpropaganda than the French and avoided revolution.
Clark’s best argument for scandal preventing a rebellion can be found in her last chapter on the Queen Caroline scandal.  To begin, as the extravagant Prince of Wales, George IV surreptitiously married a Catholic British subject, a grave violation of the Royal Marriage Act.  That marriage annulled, he then married his Brunswick cousin, Caroline.  Meanwhile, he drunkenly wasted money, at £18,000 more than he made per year.  Not long after taking the throne, he disavowed his father’s Whigs, scandalized and exiled Caroline and refused to allow his daughter, Charlotte to see her mother.  When Charlotte escaped her father, the crowds cheered her on, rebuking the king’s behavior.  Rumor had infiltrated everyday society about George IV’s mistresses and how he lavished public funds upon them.  “Caroline’s persecution by the king served as a powerful metaphor for” oppression and the constitutional monarchy, increasingly broke, had never been in such dire straits (177).  Caroline, a shrewd and formidable opponent, exercised scandal against the king, who fired scandal in retort, with John Bull and the full force of conservative manipulators.  Supporters of Caroline drew upon even the middle class for support.  The king’s carriage was stoned and threats to cut his throat openly voiced.  Again, all classes of women came to Caroline and her Whig and Tory allies to oppose the king, instead of outright revolution.   The scandal lasted so long because the country was divided on sexual morality, the basis for much of the scandal incited against Caroline.  Eventually, the whole dispute between the king and queen invigorated parliamentary reform with the Whigs in charge.  Bloodshed was avoided.  The king, nearly impeached, was restored and the monarchy declared safe again.

While Clark feels that her view of scandal is anachronistic when compared to the present, it is not.  Scandal is just as important to the purveyors of mass media today as it was to newspapers and chapbooks in the eighteenth century.  When in doubt, view FOX-News.  Scandals still serve to engage people in politics who might not otherwise.  It still aids in exposing corruption and opens political debate to more than just the electorate.  In every way, it continues to fuel the democratic process.  Former president Bill Clinton is more popular now than ever.  While as president of the United States, a scandal threatened to impeach him and ruin his marriage.  Neither of those things happened.  Still, Anna Clark composed a fresh and highly enjoyable exposition on scandalous British history.