Think the elites are rotten? You’ve got plenty of company, and not just in America today. Indeed, plenty of other instances of rottenness can be found all across the world, and all across history.
And so as Americans sort out their collective reaction to the Jeffrey Epstein case, it’s useful to think back to other confrontations with rotten elites, the better to learn lessons about successful cleansing. As we shall see, it is possible to achieve justice while still preserving the orderly rule of law.
Criticism of a national ruling elite was never put more strongly than by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “England in 1819.” It starts out with an arresting image: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.” Shelley was referring, of course, to King George III.
Yet Shelley’s target was not merely the monarch but the entire English ruling class:
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know
Later in that same brief sonnet, Shelley lambastes the corrupt structure of contemporary government, law, and religion, while lamenting the fate of ordinary folk, “a people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.”
That was a reference to an incident at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, on August 16, 1819, when peaceful citizens gathered to hear the reformist leader Henry Hunt—and were hacked and cut down by militiamen, on foot and on horseback.
Eighteen or so were killed, and hundreds injured. That atrocity, dubbed the “Peterloo Massacre,” a bitter play on the Battle of Waterloo, is a landmark in English history. Today, two centuries later, Manchester looks back at the carnage as a grim teachable moment. To that end, Mancunians have put up a richly detailed commemorative website—and even added a pitch for tourism.
There’s also a feature movie, Peterloo, directed by the veteran leftist filmmaker Mike Leigh, released earlier this year and now streaming on Amazon. Like much of Leigh’s oeuvre, Peterloo is a lovingly detailed portrait of working-class English culture. Though it lacks Hollywood oomph, Peterloo captures the politics and working conditions in and around the “dark satanic mills” of William Blake’s poetic depiction.
Interestingly, the film’s trailer incorporates another Shelley poem inspired by Peterloo, “The Masque of Anarchy.” This is yet another savage attack on the British ruling class—sample line: “I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh”—and which closes with this thunderous appeal, aimed at rousing the English masses:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many—they are few.
Yes, in 1819, it seemed that England faced a potentially revolutionary situation: after all, the French Revolution had erupted just three decades earlier, and the American Revolution the decade before that. Other popular rebellions had erupted in Spain, Haiti, and all across South and Central America.
Yet there was to be no revolution in England during the 19th century, nor civil war. In the decades after Peterloo, England enjoyed a mostly peaceful social evolution, thereby obviating anarchism, communism, and every other frightful ism.
Indeed, it’s worth pausing over some of the reasons for the success of Britain’s reformist path, which owes much to the careful prudence of such conservatives as Burke and Disraeli.
For his part, in 1819, Shelley, British-born but living in Italy, was fully aware of the revolutionary situation brewing in the wake of Peterloo. “These are,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “the distant thunders of a terrible storm which is approaching. The tyrants here, as in the French Revolution, have shed first blood.”
In fact, the patrician Shelley saw himself as a bard for the working class. Hence, in “Men of England,” he urged the yeomen to work hard—but for their own sake, not for the sake of their lords:
Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.
Still, for all his artistry, Shelley was modest about the role he could play. As he put it, “I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science.” Less modestly, Shelley also proclaimed, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
In 1820, with political change on his mind, Shelley wrote a 200-page tome, Philosophical View of Reform—which is not, of course, the sort of work for which he is usually remembered. He argued, “The true patriot will endeavour to enlighten and to unite the nation and animate it with enthusiasm and confidence.”
Interestingly, for all of Shelley’s poetic passion, his considered political thinking veered towards a proto-Gandhian non-violent resistance. As he wrote of his idealized “true patriot”:
If circumstances had collected a considerable number as at Manchester on the memorable 16th of August, if the tyrants command the troops to fire upon them or cut them down unless they disperse, he will exhort them peaceably to defy the danger, and to expect without resistance the onset of the cavalry, and wait with folded arms the event of the fire of the artillery and receive with unshrinking bosoms the bayonets of the charging battalions.
To Shelley, patriotism was about well-directed measuredness: “The great thing to do is to hold the balance been popular impatience and tyrannical obstinacy; to inculcate with fervour both the right of resistance and the duty of forbearance.” In the words of biographer Edward Dowden, writing in 1887, “His chief desire was that the liberal movement in English politics should be kept within constitutional lines, and should be unstained by blood-shedding or violence.”
In fact, the same desire for peaceful reform animated the people of England. As recorded by University of Liverpool historian John Belchem in his 1985 book “Orator” Hunt: Henry Hunt and English Working-Class Radicalism, the petitioners were peaceful. Even post-Peterloo, the toiling classes stressed their commitment to constitutionality.
We might add that Hunt himself had an interesting story. He was imprisoned briefly—and wrongly, to be sure—in the wake of Peterloo, and yet, such being the capacity of the English to right wrongs, it was just 11 years later, in 1830, that he was elected to Parliament.
So maybe there’s hope that we, the children of that political tradition, can summon up the same skill at meaningful reform and reconciliation.
As for the Epstein case, so wounding to our collective conscience, we can start our reform effort with a thoroughgoing inquiry into what went wrong—not just at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on August 10, but also at the larger societal level. That is, we should scrutinize the too-clever-by-half lawyers who enabled Epstein; the money-laundering, tax-evading facilitators who empowered him; the we-take-care-of-our-own culture of haute Manhattanites; and the glamor-besotted media that panted after them all.
If we fail to pierce this regnant impunity of privilege, we know what will happen: more conspiracy theorizing, more angry distrust, and perhaps, down the road, some worse national breakdown.
For inspiration in fending off such dire outcomes, we might recall the reformist rhetoric of a young British Member of Parliament, Thomas Babington Macaulay. Elected in the aftermath of Peterloo, Macaulay championed reform as a way of preempting revolution. Speaking to the House of Commons in 1832, he recalled in a warning tone the insurrectionary violence just across the Channel that had cost a king his head: “The crash of the proudest throne of the Continent is still resounding in our ears.”
Thus it was in the spirit of enlightened self-interest that Macaulay persuaded his fellows to pass a bill to enlarge the voting franchise and regularize electoral representation. As he put it, “The voice of great events is proclaiming to us, ‘Reform, that you may preserve.’” Thus the Reform Act of 1832 came into being—and happily, it was only the first of many.
Yes, of course, all that was all long ago and far away. And yet in 2019, it’s essential that we find our own Shelley as a social critic, and our own Macaulay as a political reformer.
If we can’t heed justified criticism and enact needed reform—as part of a hoped-for reconciliation based on the common ground of sincere betterment for all—then, well, the movie Peterloo provides us with an antiquarian foreshadowing of the misery and havoc that lie ahead.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.