I apologize for my extended absence. It’s been quite a busy time, what with Thanksgiving, teaching, fires, floods, and what seems to be the beginning of the apocalypse. Still, I thought with my first post back, I might be able to contribute something useful.
I have recently completed seven of the chapters in Peter Lake and Steven Pincus’s The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (2007). Although the extent to which the individual articles actually engage in discussing the public sphere varies, as they always do in such collections, the overall effect is to provide a far more nuanced and thoughtful picture of what England’s burgeoning public sphere looked like. I’m not entirely up on my public sphere historiography, so I don’t always know how new some of these concepts are, but I thought I would try my hand anyway.
The book begins with a joint work by Lake and Pincus, called “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England.” It originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of the JBS. It is an interesting piece on its own, but I have to say that it makes a lot more sense now that I’ve read Pincus’s own article in the collection, and especially now that I’ve read Lake’s. In it, they renew and reorganize Habermas’s original theory. While they appreciate the periodization that Habermas used in general to separate the four major stages of the public sphere, they alter the names and periods of the stages. The two most important for my interest, and presumably anyone who would be reading this blog, are the Post-Reformation and the Post-Revolutionary public spheres.
I suppose “fits and starts” is the best way to describe this post-revisionist view of the transformation of the public sphere. Peter Lake’s later chapter does a better job of explaining the Post-Reformation sphere, but the basic argument is that under Elizabeth, the frequent popish scares and concerns over the succession led to a more regular, more (relatively) open discussion of matters of state. However, this discussion was still largely dominated by traditional elites. This sphere sputters from crisis to crisis, only achieving longevity because of the regularity of the crises faced by the Elizabethan regime.
The post-revolutionary public sphere also began in “fits and starts,” starting with the well-known explosion of printing in the 1640s, which, by the 1650s, made the constant supply of news and debate seem almost normal. However, it was the conflict between the agricultural and manufacturing interests that finally made the new sphere permanent. This is better described in Pincus’s chapter, but briefly, this is the closest part to the “bourgeois public sphere.” While there was no “crisis of capitalism,” as Habermas put it, there was a struggle concerning the future of England’s economy. Ultimately, the needs of the state (and war) persuaded the English government to side with the manufacturing and merchant interests, which promised a more elastic and expandable source of income. The matter was finally settled at the accession of William. This policy, which relied on businessmen, demanded that these men be able to exchange information, and thus the sphere became permanent. These have been oversimplifications of Lake and Pincus’s work, but this is only a blog.
A number of the chapters deal with what exactly “public” meant. Richard Cust’s article, “The ‘public man’ in late Tudor and early Stuart England,” discusses the early evolution of the court/country divide. As the reputation of the court blackened in the 1590s and particularly under James after the Overbury Affair, being an outsider became and more and more powerful trope. The court was full of projectors and ambitious men. The country had “real” Englishmen.
Several of the chapters, including Cust’s, insist on the classical basis of the public. Stuart gentlemen were educated by men like Cicero, who found public service to be their duty. For Cust, the “public man” was formed by his classical education as well as a healthy dose of contemporary Calvinism, which emphasized the divine nature of magisterial posts (and does call to mind the “inferior magistrate” resistance theory) and the virtues of reason, wisdom, faith, and conscience.
Anne Hughes also discusses the public, but she discusses its relation to the private, and the gendering of both spheres. She starts by discussing the masculinity of the public and the feminity of the private, especially in the parliamentarian view. Thus, Charles was repeatedly feminized as was monarchy in general, which was private as opposed to the commonwealth’s public. Charles’s uxoriousness was none too well received either.
Hughes also illustrates the ways in which private life contributed to public life. In contrast to Habermas’s model, which separated the public and the private, she discusses a few anecdotes that illustrate the ways in which the public depended on the private. For instance, Bulstrode Whitelocke’s wife was critical, in his own estimation, to his political success. Sir Henry Vane demonstrated his public capability through his control of his private life. Hughes then goes on to discuss some further models for mixing public and private, and others that reinforced the masculinity of the public.
Anthony Milton’s discussion of the Amboyna Massacre, and the East India Company’s difficult position as a semi-official institution, is a well-nuance examination of what might be considered part of the accidental emergence of the public sphere. In this sense, it emphasizes the “fits and starts” aspect to Lake and Pincus’s argument.
In response to the Amboyna Massacre, the EIC was keen to seek revenge on the Dutch. In this pursuit, it formed a semi-public campaign against the Dutch. Since the EIC recognized its dependence on the crown, it shyed away from courting popularity, but rather tried to sway the political elite into supporting more aggressive action against the Dutch. Since Charles was keen to form an alliance with the Dutch against the Spanish, the EIC proved unable to do so. Whatever public debate it generated was not intended for the wider public, but for political elites. There was no dichotomy between public sphere and government here; the EIC was trying to work within the royal administration. However, one might see how this contributed to the eventual formation of a Post-Revolutionary Public Sphere. There was a trade dispute involved, and Milton does suggest at the end of the article that commercial stock companies are excellent institutions to examine as they relied on investor confidence.
Overall, this volume adds much greater depth to our understanding of the public sphere. This public sphere was a largely accidental creation, contingent upon particular episodes in English history rather than a long march toward capitalism or liberal democracy. As a whole, this volume supplies a variety of possible causes to the formation of the public sphere, some of which were utterly distasteful to contemporaries (for instance, libelling). It also recognizes the classical education of these Englishmen; they looked backward, not forward. The public sphere was not just waiting to be born, and contemporaries were more often than not trying to work within the governmental framework.
I was a little surprised that there was not an article specifically on newsbooks, Interregnum publishing, or the Restoration coffeehouses. As the opening chapter indicated, the 1640s and 1650s were an initial salvo, though perhaps not the crucial factor, in the creation of the Post-Revolutionary public sphere. As well, the coffeehouses played an integral part in Habermas’s formulation. Perhaps this is just my own biases coming to the surface.
Nonetheless, though I did not read the complete book, I found it very enjoyable and thought-provoking. The public sphere has been put in firm historical context by a number of eminent historians. It is certainly not a definitive work, and sociologists will complain about the lack of theory, but it is definitely worth reading.