The 1784 Election: Masculinity in Crisis?
The 1784 election contest for the constituency of Westminster was one of the most hotly contested in history, ‘forty days of riot, forty days of confusion’ in the words of Pitt the Younger . Aged only 24, Prime Minister Pitt tried to snatch Westminster from the hands of self-proclaimed ‘man of the people’, and fierce rival, liberal Whig Charles James Fox. What made Westminster unique was the fact that it was the largest constituency in the country, because its local franchise qualifications were based on payment of a local property tax, which meant that 12,000 Londoners of all classes were able to vote.
Not only was this a competition for the seat at the heart of Britain’s capital, it was also a battle for public approval like no other. Throw into the mix Georgiana Cavendish, the influential and ravishingly beautiful Duchess of Devonshire who canvassed on behalf of her good friend Fox, and a potent atmosphere became electric. Controversy flooded the press when it was reported that Georgiana had taken to the streets kissing local butchers, tailors and labourers to secure votes for Fox. So what did it mean for one woman to take to a political stage already dominated by two of the strongest male forces in eighteenth century politics?
Histories of gender largely concur to a sexual ‘revolution’ during the eighteenth century, in which relatively egalitarian relations were replaced by an increasingly phallocentric culture, informed by the explosion of print . The result was an aggressively heterosexual cult to masculinity that proved as significant, and restrictive, to conceptions of the politician as it did to conceptions of the mother. In a world where political office was almost always exclusive to men, contemporary conceptions of masculinity framed political discourse. By 1784, then, crisis in British politics spawned a crisis in masculinity; in a system where responsibility and authority informed the ideas of what it meant to be a man, this was perhaps inevitable. The loss of the American colonies, controversy over Indian colonisation and rumours of corruption meant that Britain was fast becoming an imperial nation with no empire. The stage was set for an election contest that placed two very different ideas of masculinity at its heart.
Enter Charles James Fox, an MP of sixteen years with a scatty career in government office and a reputation for radicalism. Nicknamed the ‘Watchdog’ of Westminster’s liberties, he was known for his charisma and scandalous personal life; his blistering oration in parliament could dazzle opponents and supporters alike, but his penchant for gambling and girls often undermined his more radical views, including opposition to slavery. In Fox it is easy to cite the hot-blooded alpha male, the victim of his own charm whose impulsivity, recklessness and sensuality made him a private character acting out a career on the public stage; yet this must be balanced against the accusations of emasculation that were hurled from Pitt’s camp. In Fox’s emotionality and irrationality they saw corruption, but this was a corruption that was inherently feminine. Between 1780 and 1784 Fox was portrayed in print as a woman at least four times . Not only was Fox capable of poor political judgements (his brief spell in cabinet had cost Britain America) but his passionate nature meant that he struggled to sacrifice his beliefs for expediency. The line between integrity and stubbornness was dangerously thin.
Pitt was only twenty-four when he became Prime Minister in 1783, yet he proved himself to be a commanding, if aloof, leader in Parliament. It is Pitt’s public image, and the way he chose to present himself, that concerns us most in this discussion of masculinity. Whereas Fox’s indiscreet antics were common knowledge among high society, Pitt kept himself distant, almost chilling. In his integrity, not stubbornness, and his devotion to public duty over private pleasure, he styled himself as a moral crusader for national virtue.
Pitt was a polarised reflection of Fox; whereas Fox himself was bankrupted twice by 1784 and was linked with various ladies (despite being married), Pitt’s only comparative vice was the possible alcoholism that developed later in his career. Pitt’s apparent asexuality has also been the subject of much debate among historians, whilst contemporary rival Sheridan used homosexual references to undermine Pitt’s election efforts; in this sense, Pitt’s reputation was not immune to accusations of effeminacy. Regardless, it is likely that his abstention was part of a wider character construction, his near-misogyny just another example of his rationalist self-control.
We have, then, two self-styled caricatures of what it meant to be a ‘real’ man in eighteenth century politics. On the one hand there’s Fox, whose ‘natural’, impulsive masculinity meant he saw the value of deploying Georgiana’s sexuality to gain electoral support. Yet on the other there was Pitt, whose cool-headed rationalism and almost unnatural self-control saved him from the corruption of female sexuality in order to restore Britain’s virtue.
How can we reconcile these two perceptions, espoused by two men of great authority? To suggest that one ideal won out over the other is misleading, largely because a disproportionately large section of the male population remained excluded from formal politics. It would be inaccurate to even begin to claim that, because these men did not hold office, they were viewed by others or themselves as emasculated. However, the 1784 election does expose the difference in what masculinity meant between social classes. Fox was returned to his seat in 1784 by a substantial margin, perhaps evidence that his hot-blooded male rhetoric resonated with the working men of the metropolis. Pitt’s government, on the other hand, triumphed overall, giving Pitt leadership until 1801; in this sense, Pitt’s rhetoric of cold hard morality evidently resonated with the wider gentry.
The 1784 election was an important one for Britain, yet the controversy that it courted exposed a vital facet to eighteenth century politics. In a political system from which women were excluded, political crises necessarily entailed a crisis of masculinity because the language of gender was simply so crucial to communicating claims to authority that it carried weight at all levels of Georgian society.
Feature image: ‘THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes’, by Thomas Rowlandson, published in Strand no. 227, 12th April 1784.