The Clapham Sect and Scotland

Charles_Grant

Charles Grant (1746-1823). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Grant.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charles_Grant.jpg

As the Scottish referendum draws near it’s worth looking at the Clapham Sect within a British, and particularly Scottish, context.

The Union of Parliaments of 1707 had created the United Kingdom. Scottish MPs now sat in the British parliament. Following this, as Linda Colley has shown, there was a conscious attempt to create a British identity, seen, for example in the creation of the British Museum and in the words of Rule Britannia’, written by the Scotsman, James Thomson. Some Scots took the opportunities opened up by the Union make their fortunes in the Empire, others to practise at the English bar. The most celebrated of these lawyers was the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who in 1772 gave the important anti-slavery ruling in the famous Somerset case.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Union, the eighteenth century saw a flowering of Scottish cultural life.  The Scottish Enlightenment was a movement of European importance and had a huge influence on abolitionist thought. Teston, in Kent, described by Hannah More as ‘the Runneymede of the negroes’ was the home of the Scots Member of Parliament and naval administrator, Sir Charles Middleton. He appointed as rector another Scotsman, James Ramsay, whose ground-breaking accounts of the treatment of slaves in the West Indies drew attention for the first time to the human cost of cheap sugar.  In his books Ramsay took issue with his fellow Scotsman, David Hume, on the intellectual capacity and the cultural achievements of Africans, exposing in a devastating fashion the racism that lay behind so much Enlightenment thought. In his great abolitionist speech of 1789 Wilberforce built on Ramsay’s arguments and introduced Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator, imagining him observing the treatment of the slaves on the terrible Middle Passage and judging it accordingly. Continue reading

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The Clapham Sect and class

The Summer Newsletter of the Kent Branch of the Jane Austen Society contains a summary of a talk given on by Professor Alan Downie on 20 March 2014 on the subject of ‘Jane Austen’s Property Plots’. In the talk Professor Downie rightly notes the error of describing Elizabeth Bennet as ‘middle class’ and in doing so highlights the common confusion on the subject of class in the late-Georgian period. The landed gentry and the upper middle classes often mixed socially and they frequently intermarried: Mr Bennet, a landowner, marries the daughter of an attorney. However, they did not belong to the same social grouping and their sources of income were different. Elizabeth Bennet’s modest fortune is derived from the rent from her father’s tenant farmers. Her uncle Gardiner (her mother’s brother) derives his from trade.

With this distinction in mind, most members of  the Clapham Sect have to be seen as firmly middle class, the exceptions being the Midlands landowners, Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Babington. On his father’s side,  William Wilberforce was the heir to a mercantile dynasty, while his mother Elizabeth (née Bird) was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. His birthplace in Hull testifies to his status. The Dutch-style house was large and comfortable and following young William’s birth, his father, Robert, put in a marble floor and a Venetian window. However, the counting house was next to the grand entrance and the back garden, which led to the waterfront, housed bulky hoists and wooden-framed cranes. Wilberforce was born above the shop, and he professed to be proud of his mercantile background. The income from trade enabled him to study at Cambridge and to stand for Parliament, first for Hull, where every vote was reputed to cost two guineas, and then for Yorkshire, where he took on the aristocratic landed interests and became the first merchant’s son to represent the county, the largest constituency in the country. Continue reading