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18th-Century Britain, 18th-Century British Society

British society was stratified in the 18th century, with a tiny aristocracy and landed gentry at the top and a vast mass of poor at the bottom. For the aristocracy, the 18th century was its greatest age. British lords who controlled large estates saw their wealth increase from a boom in agricultural production, an expansion of investment opportunities, and the domination of the government by the aristocracy. They built vast palaces and developed new areas of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin. The monarchy almost exclusively appointed aristocrats to the most important political offices.

In contrast to the aristocracy, the gentry lost much of the political and financial influence it had wielded since the days of the Tudor monarchs. Many holders of small estates found that land was no longer the secure source of wealth it had once been, especially with the high taxes imposed on landowners to finance Britain’s wars. The immense estates of Britain’s aristocratic class provided their owners with a constant flow of funds, while higher taxes often consumed the profits generated by the smaller estates of the gentry. Although the gentry’s status in the local community was secure, merchants who traded luxury commodities overseas soon eclipsed the gentry in wealth and influence on the national level during the 18th century.

Society in the 18th century was becoming more fluid than in the past, in part because of the growth of the middle classes in towns and cities. Middle-class families earned their livings in trade or in professions, such as law and medicine. They valued literacy, thrift, and education, ideas that were spread by thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment. Especially influential were philosophers John Locke and David Hume and economist Adam Smith. Locke and Hume stressed the importance of the senses and the environment in shaping the individual. Locke also described the human mind as a blank slate that was to be filled by education and experience. Smith, in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), demonstrated how the efficient organization of economic activity created wealth.

Increased literacy and education spread throughout the country. In towns, the middle classes established lending libraries to distribute books, clubs to discuss ideas, and coffeehouses to debate politics. Newspapers became the most popular form of media, and more than 50 towns produced their own newspapers by the end of the century. So much written material was being produced that writer Samuel Johnson thought it necessary to attempt to codify the language by publishing his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Women shared in the upsurge in literacy. Dozens of weekly magazines and installment romance stories, which contained a strong moral message encouraging chastity and sobriety, were directed at women.

The newest form of literature was the novel. Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson was one of the first works of this genre. The writings of novelist Jane Austen were popular toward the end of the century. The rise of the middle class was also seen in the most important religious movement of the era, Methodism. Founded by theologian John Wesley, Methodism encouraged the population at large to believe personal salvation could be achieved without relying on the formal rituals of the Church of England. Wesley directed his energies to laborers and the poor, but his message was derived from the attitudes of the middle class.

Poverty dominated the lower reaches of British society, especially as the population grew and food prices rose in the middle of the century. Towns swarmed with homeless families, the sick, and individuals with disabilities. The government and charitable organizations established orphanages and hospitals, as well as workhouses where the unemployed could find temporary work. While women and children were left to live in poverty, the government forced able-bodied men into military service by the thousands. London experienced the worst of this situation. Poor migrants flooded the city seeking work or charity; most found an early death instead.

Paradoxically, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and food production allowed many poor people to live longer lives, increasing the population of poor and adding to the problems. The epidemics of plague and smallpox, which had routinely killed a third of the people in towns during earlier centuries, were now a thing of the past. The production of cheap alcoholic beverages, such as gin and rum, eased some of the pain of the poor, but increased alcohol consumption also raised the level of violence and crime.

Crime was so common in 18th-century Britain that Parliament made more than 200 offenses punishable by death. Executions were weekly spectacles. To deal with excess prison populations, the British government deported many inmates to British overseas colonies. The government sent tens of thousands of convicts to the Americas as indentured servants and established the colony of Australia as a prison colony at the end of the century.

 

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