Why the Industrial Revolution Hit Britain First

February 27th, 2011 at 2:47 am David Frum | 27 Comments |

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Last month I (belatedly) read Gregory Clark’s, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

One of the key assertions in Clark’s important book is that the industrial revolution occurred in England after 1800 because the English underwent a gradual transformation of their behavior and manners in the period before 1800. Among other changes, the English became notably more peaceable in their daily interactions.

My current audiobook is James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson was born in 1709, died in 1784. On the elliptical machine this morning, I heard this passage, Boswell quoting Johnson:

‘In the last age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London, my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or those who took it. NOW it is fixed that every man keeps to the right; or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a dispute.’

“Taking the wall” refers to walking alongside the buildings on a street. That would be the desirable side because more protected from the dirt of the gutters. In the 17th century, the issue of who got that side was settled by the threat of force. By the time Boswell knew Johnson, the issue was settled by tacit agreement. Score one for the Clark thesis.


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27 Comments so far ↓

  • Moderate

    I miss Bookclub.

  • JeninCT

    That explains the emerging chaos dubbed ‘sidewalk rage’ that’s happening in cities as people talk and text while walking and don’t pay attention to their surroundings. Manners really are the glue of civilized society.

  • nikhil_gupta

    More important things, a very rigorous paper by a historian I cannot remember and will not search for (its Sunday) found that China was actually better prepared than Europe to undergo an industrial revolution by a host of economic metrics. The difference? England had coal reserves close to main cities. China’s coal reserves are hundreds of miles away from the main cities. Better to be lucky than smart.

  • ottovbvs

    One little problem. The industrial revolution didn’t hit Britain after 1800 it hit the country about 75 years earlier with the development of the cokeing process for making iron, by the last quarter of century the steam engine was being perfected by Watt and Boulton: the factory system was being developed using inventions like Arkwright’s Mule and the Spinning Jenny; canals and turnpikes linked the country; longtitude could be determined; the concept of rails was already in use; Adam Smith published his seminal text; and there other industrial developments too numerous to mention. It’s true there was a revival of Evangelicalism in the second half of the 18th century and a broader middle class started to emerge based on industrialisation and economic growth but the British remained “A mad, bad and dangerous people” until the middle of the 19th century as the Oxford History of England on the period points out:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mad-Bad-Dangerous-People-1783-1846/dp/0198228309

    On the other hand the preceding volume of the Oxford History of England describes the British as A polite and commercial people.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Polite-Commercial-People-England-1727-1783/dp/0192852531/ref=pd_sim_b_3

    So maybe increasing industrialization made them madder and badder for a while at least. They certainly weren’t notably more peaceful in their interactions in the late 18th century as the Gordon Riots, or the Wilkes affair attests. Perhaps DF needs to take a look at some of the political cartoons of the period by Gillray and Cruikshank if he thinks all was harmony.

  • Emanuelle

    Duh? What’s the connection between becoming “notably more peaceable” and the industrial revolution?

    Especially since, as ottovbvs pointed out, the industrial revolution was in full swing when this “gradual transformation of their behavior and manners” intervened.

    One could almost argue the other way around. In effect, the industrial revolution brought a sharp increase in density of population in cities, which might explain the emergence of new social codes of conduct in daily interactions such as walking on an overcrowded sidewalk.

    • ottovbvs

      Ultimately there was a connection but it didn’t really become apparent til the second half of the 19th century with rising literacy and living standards. In the short term industrialisation produced huge social dislocation with the move from the land, the changeover to the factory system, and the political upheavals associated with the French revolution. One wonders if Mr Clark has heard of Luddism, Enclosure acts, the Pitt Terror, Peterloo, Chartism.

  • pnumi2

    And I always thought that if you walked along side the buildings in the street, the charlady emptied the chamber pot out of the upstairs window onto your head.

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    Benjamin N. Friedman argued it the other way. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61208/joseph-e-stiglitz/the-ethical-economist?page=show

    He points out that many Jim Crow laws & re-creation of the Klan happened in the 1890s & 1910s, respectively (if my memory is right). He doesn’t say that 100% of public morals are determined by economic conditions, just that they generally follow.

    Obviously it works both ways. At a glance, I’m inclined to think that Friedman’s version makes more sense. It helps explain why social mores are changing. Clark’s point, as I understand it, is that people started being nicer to each other for some reason.

    nikhil_gupta has an important point, too.

  • pnumi2

    otto

    “On the other hand the preceding volume of the Oxford History of England describes the British as A polite and commercial people.”

    Being a nation of shopkeepers will do that to the citizenry. Une nation de boutiquiers.

    I’ve always found that madder and badder isn’t the best thing for business.

    • ottovbvs

      Well being mad and bad was extremely good for business between 1700 and 1815 when the British created two empires and made themselves the world hegemon.

  • larry

    otto — Just read the book. Of course, Clark knows British history. End of Alms is brilliant, possibly a classic. Can it be contested? No doubt. But first his argument must be confronted seriously.

    • ottovbvs

      I haven’t read the Clark book but have the two Oxford histories. On the evidence of these two incredibly dense works it’s way more complicated than Clark suggests. And I thought I had confronted it fairly seriously with quite a lot of facts.

    • ottovbvs

      BTW Larry although I haven’t read the book I am going to take a look at it because I’m interested in ideas. I have read a couple of reviews just to familiarise myself with his central thesis. On the face of it, it sounds like highly suspect revisionist bs to me.

  • pnumi2

    Seriously otto

    How is it that the Industrial Revolution took off in those Protestant nations, where 200 years earlier the Reformation began? Was it their common Norse ancestry? The ‘work ethic’ component of their new faith? Were those cold northern winters the necessity that was the mother of the Industrial Revolution, with toasty items like the cokeing process, steam engine, Bessemer converter, and internal combustion engine? Was it a way to make all those coal deposits worth more in the countries where the IR began.? Something else?
    A coincidence?

    • ottovbvs

      This is a whole area of historical scholarship, there has been been some pushback against the traditional ideas of Northern Protestant freedom of thought and industriousness triumphing over Southern Catholic obscurantism and fecklessness but for me they still have a lot of merit. It certainly wasn’t coincidence. The best books on this topic are still Paul Kennedy’s rise and fall of the great powers and the rise and fall of british naval mastery. He made the mistake in the first book of making some prophecies some of which have been proved right and others wrong but the book is great a tour de horizon of how the modern world emerged.

  • Smargalicious

    And if you go to Africa and the MidEast you can observe the reversal of the Industrial Revolution.

  • pnumi2

    otto

    We must not forget the role played by Sir Isaac Newton in England’s metamorphose from mad and bad to the Crystal Palace. Newton was born the year the Galileo died and Newton himself died in 1727 which is about the time you assign to the beginning of the IR.

    “Following his death in April 1727, Newton lay in state in Westminster Abbey for a week. At the funeral, his pall was borne by three earls, two dukes, and the Lord Chancellor. Voltaire observed, “He was buried like a king who had done well by his subjects.” No scientist before or since has been so revered and interred with such high honor.”

    If any man ever inspired a nation to ambition, scholarship and science, it was Newton, who gave his name to an age also known as the Age of Reason/Enlightenment.

    “There is little consensus on when to date the start of the age of Enlightenment and some scholars simply use the beginning of the 18th century or the middle of the 18th century as a default date. If taken back to the mid-17th century, the Enlightenment would trace its origins to Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, published in 1637. Others define the Enlightenment as beginning in Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 or with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica which first appeared in 1687.”

    To get back to the Protestant-Catholic thing, the turn of the 18th century was the end of the reign of the House of Stuart, whose monarchs were of both denominations. There must have been some uncertainty among the English during the reigns of the English Monarchs from Charles I to Anne, as to which religion was and would be preferred.

    When the House of Hanover was established by George I in the early 18th and the religious struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism was over, the English population could then turn their attention to the betterment of life for England and the world.

    • ottovbvs

      Newton was one of the founders of enlightenment rationalism along with his fellow Englishman and almost exact contemporary Wren and people like the mathematician Leibniz in Europe.. I’ve always believed and was taught (at the same university as Newton…different college)that the enlightenment got underway in the middle of the 17th century.

  • ottovbvs

    “There must have been some uncertainty among the English during the reigns of the English Monarchs from Charles I to Anne, as to which religion was and would be preferred.”

    Obviously religion was one of the great issues of 17th century Britain but by the end of the century it was effectively settled which was why James II was so easily overthrown and when his heirs attempted in 1715 and 1745 to overturn the Act of Settlement that put the Hanoverians on the throne, they failed dismally

  • DFL

    I miss David Frum’s book reviews as well. Ironically, Frum’s book review of How Rome Fell and Thomas Fleming’s review of the same book persuaded me to read it last fall on vacation. Frum and Fleming hate each other with a passion but both are intelligent men.

  • pnumi2

    From our perspective in the 21st century the Act of Settlement is a done deal, but I wonder how long into the Hanovers it took Joe Sixpence become relaxed in his Protestantism? I’d say April 1746.

    Remember, uneasy rests the corpse of a Lord High Protector.

    “in 1659, after which monarchy was re-established and King Charles II, who was living in exile, was recalled. Charles’ new parliament ordered the disinterment of Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey and the disinterment of other regicides John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, for a posthumous execution at Tyburn. After hanging “from morning till four in the afternoon”, the bodies were cut down and the heads placed on a 20-foot (6.1 m) spike above Westminster Hall. In 1685 a storm broke the pole upon which it stood, throwing the head to the ground, after which it belonged to private collectors and museum owners until 25 March 1960, when it was buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.”

    You make the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the Stuarts to be a little more dismal than it actually was. Certainly it was dismal in its failure, as all failures are.

    But until the decisive defeat of Prince Charlie’s forces at Culloden Moor, England could not be sure that more Protestant bodies weren’t to be disinterred.

    • ottovbvs

      “but I wonder how long into the Hanovers it took Joe Sixpence become relaxed in his Protestantism? I’d say April 1746….You make the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the Stuarts to be a little more dismal than it actually was. ”

      Well except that the ’15 was even more of a damp squib than the ’45. James II fled the throne after a minor show of force. You have to remember that in terms of Joe Sixpence he took his orders from the gentry and aristocracy and outside a minority of diehard recusant families the upper classes were by and large firmly behind the protestant succession even most Tories. And Bonnie Prince Charlie hadn’t the remotest chance of removing the Hanoverians from the throne.

  • pnumi2

    Sure ’15 was more of a dud. I don’t think the forces even engaged. And James the Pretender (not James II) was never ‘Bonnie’, while his son, Prince Charles, has had songs sung to his bonnieness.

    In ’45 BPC had a some victories under his belt, namely his victory at the Battle of Prestopans, which led him to make his unfortunate march South, there to receive faulty intelligence and decide on a fatal, hasty return to Scotland. (the moving finger at work)

    The common Englishman, to his renown, takes his orders from the gentry, aristocracy and other more educated countrymen. But it cannot be conducive to Reason, Enlightenment or Industrial Revolution to watch in disbelief as your betters fight it out over which religion shall prevail. And whose bonnie boys shall be the cannon fodder for the victories of these conflicts.

    • ottovbvs

      “Sure ‘15 was more of a dud. I don’t think the forces even engaged.”

      Well doesn’t that rather demolish your theory the country was ready to rise up for the Stuarts coming as it did only 27 years after the Glorious Revolution? And I think they did engage in some minor battles south of Edinburgh. And Bonnieness doesn’t butter many parsnips although it may be the source of seductive myths.

  • pnumi2

    That’s not my theory at all.

    My theory was that battles of Succession, either from the time of the exile of James II to the death of Anne, even to the arrival of His Bonnieness in Scotland in 1745, was an hinderance to the English people in bringing about the Industrial Revolution. That the battle between the forces of Protestantism, the dominant religion of the English, and those of the Catholic minority, was a distraction and an unnecessary worry, which, if anything, delayed the onset of Capitalism and the industrialization of its machinery. I was a Whig there and a librul here.

    Bonnieness will always remain in the eye of the beholder.

  • ottovbvs

    That’s not my theory at all.

    “My theory was that battles of Succession, either from the time of the exile of James II to the death of Anne, even to the arrival of His Bonnieness in Scotland in 1745, was an hinderance to the English people in bringing about the Industrial Revolution.”

    Er…what was this then?

    “From our perspective in the 21st century the Act of Settlement is a done deal, but I wonder how long into the Hanovers it took Joe Sixpence become relaxed in his Protestantism? I’d say April 1746.”

    Jacobitism had zero to do with the industrial revolution. To the extent it existed it was a brief phenomenon of the Celtic fringe which was primitive in the extreme. It would be like suggesting Scientology is a brake on US scientific development. I suggest you read some solid books on the subject.

  • pnumi2

    Pooh. Scientology in America is a flawed analogy. Comparing it to Catholicism in England in 17th and 18th centuries.

    You can, and usually, do better. If L. Ron Hubbard is James the Second who is the Bonnie Prince, Hubbard’s grandson? Tom Cruise?

    “how long into the Hanovers it took Joe Sixpence become relaxed in his Protestantism? I’d say April 1746.”

    My meaning here is clear. Joe Sixpence was anxious about the resolution of the conflict between the Stuarts and the Hanovers until the Battle of Culloden in 1746. After which he became relaxed because the crown was firmly on the head of Protestant monarchs.

    The way Joe Sixpack is anxious about the economic conflict between the Republicans and the Democrats.

    May the eventual resolution of the latter be as good for the American people as the former was for the English.

    Or maybe you don’t think there’s any anxiety here now?