A Brief History Of The Political Essay, From Swift To Woolf, David Bromwich Considers An Evolving Genre

By David Bromwich

The political essay has never been a clearly defined genre. David Hume may have legitimated it in 1758 when he classified under a collective rubric his own Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. “Political,” however, should have come last in order, since Hume took a speculative and detached view of politics, and seems to have been incapable of feeling passion for a political cause. We commonly associate political thought with full-scale treatises by philosophers of a different sort, whose understanding of politics was central to their account of human nature. Hobbes’s Leviathan, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Mill’s Representative Government, and, closer to our time, Rawls’s Theory of Justice, all satisfy that expectation. What, then, is a political essay? By the late 18th century, the periodical writings of Steele, Swift, Goldsmith, and Johnson had broadened the scope of the English essay for serious purposes. The field of politics, as much as culture, appeared to their successors well suited to arguments on society and government.

A public act of praise, dissent, or original description may take on permanent value when it implicates concerns beyond the present moment. Where the issue is momentous, the commitment stirred by passion, and the writing strong enough, an essay may sink deep roots in the language of politics. An essay is an attempt, as the word implies—a trial of sense and persuasion, which any citizen may hazard in a society where people are free to speak their minds. A more restrictive idea of political argument—one that would confer special legitimacy on an elite caste of managers, consultants, and symbolic analysts—presumes an environment in which state papers justify decisions arrived at from a region above politics. By contrast, the absence of formal constraints or a settled audience for the essay means that the daily experience of the writer counts as evidence. A season of crisis tempts people to think politically; in the process, they sometimes discover reasons to back their convictions.

The experience of civic freedom and its discontents may lead the essayist to think beyond politics. In 1940, Virginia Woolf recalled the sound of German bombers circling overhead the night before; the insect-like irritant, with its promise of aggression, frightened her into thought: “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” The ugly noise, for Woolf, signaled the prerogative of the fighting half of the species: Englishwomen “must lie weaponless tonight.” Yet Englishmen would be called upon to destroy the menace; and she was not sorry for their help. The mood of the writer is poised between gratitude and a bewildered frustration. Woolf ’s essay, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” declines to exhibit the patriotic sentiment by which most reporters in her position would have felt drawn. At the same time, its personal emphasis keeps the author honest through the awareness of her own dependency.

Begin with an incident—I could have been killed last night—and you may end with speculations on human nature. Start with a national policy that you deplore, and it may take you back to the question, “Who are my neighbors?” In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested for having refused to pay a poll tax; he made a lesson of his resistance two years later, when he saw the greed and dishonesty of the Mexican War: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” But to Thoreau’s surprise, the window of the prison had opened onto the life of the town he lived in, with its everyday errands and duties, its compromises and arrangements, and for him that glimpse was a revelation:

They were the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn,—a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I had never seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.

Slavery, at that time, was nicknamed “the peculiar institution,” and by calling the prison itself a peculiar institution, and maybe having in mind the adjacent inn as well, Thoreau prods his reader to think about the constraints that are a tacit condition of social life.

A subtler enemy of liberty than outright prejudice and violent oppression is the psychological push toward conformity.
The risk of political writing may lure the citizen to write—a fact Hazlitt seems to acknowledge in his essay “On the Regal Character,” where his second sentence wonders if the essay will expose him to prosecution: “In writing a criticism, we hope we shall not be accused of intending a libel.” (His friend Leigh Hunt had recently served two years in prison for “seditious libel” of the Prince Regent—having characterized him as a dandy notorious for his ostentation and obesity.) The writer’s consciousness of provocative intent may indeed be inseparable from the wish to persuade; though the tone of commitment will vary with the zeal and composition of the audience, whether that means a political party, a movement, a vanguard of the enlightened, or “the people” at large.

Edmund Burke, for example, writes to the sheriffs of Bristol (and through them to the city’s electors) in order to warn against the suspension of habeas corpus by the British war ministry in 1777. The sudden introduction of the repressive act, he tells the electors, has imperiled their liberty even if they are for the moment individually exempt. In response to the charge that the Americans fighting for independence are an unrepresentative minority, he warns: “General rebellions and revolts of an whole people never were encouraged, now or at any time. They are always provoked.” So too, Mahatma Gandhi addresses his movement of resistance against British rule, as well as others who can be attracted to the cause, when he explains why nonviolent protest requires courage of a higher degree than the warrior’s: “Non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.” In both cases, the writer treats the immediate injustice as an occasion for broader strictures on the nature of justice. There are certain duties that governors owe to the governed, and duties hardly less compulsory that the people owe to themselves.

Apparently diverse topics connect the essays in Writing Politics; but, taken loosely to illustrate a historical continuity, they show the changing face of oppression and violence, and the invention of new paths for improving justice. Arbitrary power is the enemy throughout—power that, by the nature of its asserted scope and authority, makes itself the judge of its own cause. King George III, whose reign spanned sixty years beginning in 1760, from the first was thought to have overextended monarchical power and prerogative, and by doing so to have reversed an understanding of parliamentary sovereignty that was tacitly recognized by his predecessors. Writing against the king, “Junius” (the pen name of Philip Francis) traced the monarch’s errors to a poor education; and he gave an edge of deliberate effrontery to the attack on arbitrary power by addressing the king as you. “It is the misfortune of your life, and originally the cause of every reproach and distress, which has attended your government, that you should never have been acquainted with the language of truth, until you heard it in the complaints of your people.”

A similar frankness, without the ad hominem spur, can be felt in Burke’s attack on the monarchical distrust of liberty at home as well as abroad: “If any ask me what a free Government is, I answer, that, for any practical purpose, it is what the people think so; and that they, and not I, are the natural, lawful, and competent judges of this matter.” Writing in the same key from America, Thomas Paine, in his seventh number of The Crisis, gave a new description to the British attempt to preserve the unity of the empire by force of arms. He called it a war of conquest; and by addressing his warning directly “to the people of England,” he reminded the king’s subjects that war is always a social evil, for it sponsors a violence that does not terminate in itself. War enlarges every opportunity of vainglory—a malady familiar to monarchies.

The coming of democracy marks a turning point in modern discussions of sovereignty and the necessary protections of liberty. Confronted by the American annexation of parts of Mexico, in 1846–48, Thoreau saw to his disgust that a war of conquest could also be a popular war, the will of the people directed to the oppression of persons. It follows that the state apparatus built by democracy is at best an equivocal ally of individual rights. Yet as Emerson would recognize in his lecture “The Fugitive Slave Law,” and Frederick Douglass would confirm in “The Mission of the War,” the massed power of the state is likewise the only vehicle powerful enough to destroy a system of oppression as inveterate as American slavery had become by the 1850s.

Acceptance of political evil—a moral inertia that can corrupt the ablest of lawmakers—goes easily with the comforts of a society at peace where many are satisfied. “Here was the question,” writes Emerson: “Are you for man and for the good of man; or are you for the hurt and harm of man? It was question whether man shall be treated as leather? whether the Negroes shall be as the Indians were in Spanish America, a piece of money?” Emerson wondered at the apostasy of Daniel Webster, How came he there? The answer was that Webster had deluded himself by projecting a possible right from serial compromise with wrong.

Two ways lie open to correct the popular will without a relapse into docile assent and the rule of oligarchy. You may widen the terms of discourse and action by enlarging the community of participants. Alternatively, you may strengthen the opportunities of dissent through acts of exemplary protest—protest in speech, in action, or both. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. remain the commanding instances in this regard. Both led movements that demanded of every adherent that the protest serve as an express image of the society it means to bring about. Nonviolent resistance accordingly involves a public disclosure of the work of conscience—a demonstrated willingness to make oneself an exemplary warrior without war. Because they were practical reformers, Gandhi and King, within the societies they sought to reform, were engaged in what Michael Oakeshott calls “the pursuit of intimations.” They did not start from a model of the good society generated from outside. They built on existing practices of toleration, friendship, neighborly care, and respect for the dignity of strangers.

Nonviolent resistance, as a tactic of persuasion, aims to arouse an audience of the uncommitted by its show of discipline and civic responsibility. Well, but why not simply resist? Why show respect for the laws of a government you mean to change radically? Nonviolence, for Gandhi and King, was never merely a tactic, and there were moral as well as rhetorical reasons for their ethic of communal self-respect and self-command. Gandhi looked on the British empire as a commonwealth that had proved its ability to reform. King spoke with the authority of a native American, claiming the rights due to all Americans, and he evoked the ideals his countrymen often said they wished to live by. The stories the nation loved to tell of itself took pride in emancipation much more than pride in conquest and domination. “So,” wrote King from the Birmingham City Jail, “I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”

A subtler enemy of liberty than outright prejudice and violent oppression is the psychological push toward conformity. This internalized docility inhabits and may be said to dictate the costume of manners in a democracy. Because the rule of mass opinion serves as a practical substitute for the absolute authority that is no longer available, it exerts an enormous and hidden pressure. This dangerous “omnipotence of the majority,” as Tocqueville called it, knows no power greater than itself; it resembles an absolute monarch in possessing neither the equipment nor the motive to render a judgment against itself. Toleration thus becomes a political value that requires as vigilant a defense as liberty. Minorities are marked not only by race, religion, and habits of association, but also by opinion.

“It is easy to see,” writes Walter Bagehot in “The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration,” “that very many believers would persecute sceptics” if they were given the means, “and that very many sceptics would persecute believers.” Bagehot has in mind religious belief, in particular, but the same intolerance operates when it is a question of penalizing a word, a gesture, a wrongly sympathetic or unsympathetic show of feeling by which a fellow citizen might claim to be offended. The more divided the society, the more it will crave implicit assurances of unity; the more unified it is, the more it wants an even greater show of unity—an unmistakable signal of membership and belonging that can be read as proof of collective solidarity. The “guilty fear of criticism,” Mary McCarthy remarked of the domestic fear of Communism in the 1950s, “the sense of being surrounded by an unappreciative world,” brought to American life a regimen of tests, codes, and loyalty oaths that were calculated to confirm rather than subdue the anxiety.

Proscribed and persecuted groups naturally seek a fortified community of their own, which should be proof against insult; and by 1870 or so, the sure method of creating such a community was to found a new nation. George Eliot took this remedy to be prudent and inevitable, in her sympathetic early account of the Zionist quest for a Jewish state, yet her unsparing portrait of English anti-Semitism seems to recognize the nation-remedy as a carrier of the same exclusion it hopes to abolish. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a widened sense of community is the apparently intuitive—but in fact regularly inculcated—intellectual habit by which we divide people into racial, religious, and ethnic identities. The idea of an international confederation for peace was tried twice, without success, in the 20th century, with the League of Nations and the United Nations; but some such goal, first formulated in the political writings of Kant, has found memorable popular expression again and again.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “Of the Ruling of Men” affords a prospect of international liberty that seems to the author simply the next necessary advance of common sense in the cause of humanity. Du Bois noticed in 1920 how late the expansion of rights had arrived at the rights of women. Always, the last hiding places of arbitrary power are the trusted arenas of privilege a society has come to accept as customary, and to which it has accorded the spurious honor of supposing it part of the natural order: men over women; the strong nations over the weak; corporate heads over employees. The pattern had come under scrutiny already in Harriet Taylor Mill’s “Enfranchisement of Women,” and its application to the hierarchies of ownership and labor would be affirmed in William Morris’s lecture “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil.” The commercial and manufacturing class, wrote Morris, “force the genuine workers to provide for them”; no better (only more recondite in their procedures) are “the parasites” whose function is to defend the cause of property, “sometimes, as in the case of lawyers, undisguisedly so.” The socialists Morris and Du Bois regard the ultimate aim of a democratic world as the replacement of useless by useful work. With that change must also come the invention of a shared experience of leisure that is neither wasteful nor thoughtless.

A necessary bulwark of personal freedom is property, and in the commercial democracies for the past three centuries a usual means of agreement for the defense of property has been the contract. In challenging the sacredness of contract, in certain cases of conflict with a common good, T. H. Green moved the idea of “freedom of contract” from the domain of nature to that of social arrangements that are settled by convention and therefore subject to revision. The freedom of contract must be susceptible of modification when it fails to meet a standard of public well-being. The right of a factory owner, for example, to employ child labor if the child agrees, should not be protected. “No contract,” Green argues, “is valid in which human persons, willingly or unwillingly, are dealt with as commodities”; for when we speak of freedom, “we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying.” And again:

When we measure the progress of a society by its growth in freedom, we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed; in short, by the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves.

Legislation in the public interest may still be consistent with the principles of free society when it parts from a leading maxim of contractual individualism.

The very idea of a social contract has usually been taken to imply an obligation to die for the state. Though Hobbes and Locke offered reservations on this point, the classical theorists agree that the state yields the prospect of “commodious living” without which human life would be unsocial and greatly impoverished; and there are times when the state can survive only through the sacrifice of citizens. May there also be a duty of self-sacrifice against a state whose whole direction and momentum has bent it toward injustice? Hannah Arendt, in “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” asked that question regarding the conduct of state officials as well as ordinary people under the encroaching tyranny of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Citizens then, Arendt observes, had live options of political conduct besides passive obedience and open revolt. Conscientious opposition could show itself in public indications of nonsupport. This is a fact that the pervasiveness of conformism and careerism in mass societies makes harder to see than it should be.

The idea of a good or tolerable society now encompasses relations between people at the widest imaginable distance apart.
Jonathan Swift, a writer as temperamentally diverse from Arendt as possible, shows in “A Modest Proposal” how the human creature goes about rationalizing any act or any policy, however atrocious. Our propensity to make-normal, to approve whatever renders life more orderly, can lead by the lightest of expedient steps to a plan for marketing the babies of the Irish poor as flesh suitable for eating. It is, after all—so Swift’s fictional narrator argues—a plausible design to alleviate poverty and distress among a large sector of the population, and to eliminate the filth and crowding that disgusts persons of a more elevated sort. The justification is purely utilitarian, and the proposer cites the most disinterested of motives: he has no financial or personal stake in the design. Civility has often been praised as a necessity of political argument, but Swift’s proposal is at once civil and, in itself, atrocious.

An absorbing concern of Arendt’s, as of several of the other essay writers gathered here, was the difficulty of thinking. We measure, we compute, we calculate, we weigh advantages and disadvantages—that much is only sensible, only logical—but we give reasons that are often blind to our motives, we rationalize and we normalize in order to justify ourselves. It is supremely difficult to use the equipment we learn from parents and teachers, which instructs us how to deal fairly with persons, and apply it to the relationship between persons and society, and between the manners of society and the laws of a nation. The 21st century has saddled persons of all nations with a catastrophic possibility, the destruction of a planetary environment for organized human life; and in facing the predicament directly, and formulating answers to the question it poses, the political thinkers of the past may help us chiefly by intimations. The idea of a good or tolerable society now encompasses relations between people at the widest imaginable distance apart. It must also cover a new relation of stewardship between humankind and nature.

Having made the present selection with the abovementioned topics in view—the republican defense against arbitrary power; the progress of liberty; the coming of mass-suffrage democracy and its peculiar dangers; justifications for political dissent and disobedience; war, as chosen for the purpose of domination or as necessary to destroy a greater evil; the responsibilities of the citizen; the political meaning of work and the conditions of work—an anthology of writings all in English seemed warranted by the subject matter. For in the past three centuries, these issues have been discussed most searchingly by political critics and theorists in Britain and the United States.

The span covers the Glorious Revolution and its achievement of parliamentary sovereignty; the American Revolution, and the civil war that has rightly been called the second American revolution; the expansion of the franchise under the two great reform bills in England and the 15th amendment to the US constitution; the two world wars and the Holocaust; and the mass movements of nonviolent resistance that brought national independence to India and broadened the terms of citizenship of black Americans. The sequence gives adequate evidence of thinkers engaged in a single conversation. Many of these authors were reading the essayists who came before them; and in many cases (Burke and Paine, Lincoln and Douglass, Churchill and Orwell), they were reading each other.

Writing Politics contains no example of the half-political, half-commercial genre of “leadership” writing. Certain other principles that guided the editor will be obvious at a glance, but may as well be stated. Only complete essays are included, no extracts. This has meant excluding great writers—Hobbes, Locke, Wollstonecraft, and John Stuart Mill, among others—whose definitive political writing came in the shape of full-length books. There are likewise no chapters of books; no party manifestos or statements of creed; nothing that was first published posthumously. All of these essays were written at the time noted, were meant for an audience of the time, and were published with an eye to their immediate effect. This is so even in cases (as with Morris and Du Bois) where the author had in view the reformation of a whole way of thinking. Some lectures have been included—the printed lecture was an indispensable medium for political ideas in the 19th century—but there are no party speeches delivered by an official to advance a cause of the moment.

Two exceptions to the principles may prove the rule. Abraham Lincoln’s letter to James C. Conkling was a public letter, written to defend the Emancipation Proclamation, in which, a few months earlier, President Lincoln had declared the freedom of all slaves in the rebelling states; he now extended the order to cover black soldiers who fought for the Union: “If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” Lincoln was risking his presidency when he published this extraordinary appeal and admonition, and his view was shared by Frederick Douglass in “The Mission of the War”: “No war but an Abolition war, no peace but an Abolition peace.” The other exception is “The Roots of Honour,” John Ruskin’s attack on the mercenary morality of 19th-century capitalism. He called the chapter “Essay I” in Unto This Last, and his nomenclature seemed a fair excuse for reprinting an ineradicable prophecy.


writing politics

From Writing Politics, edited by David Bromwich. Copyright © 2020 by David Bromwich; courtesy of NYRB Classics.

David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. His books include Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic, Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry of the 1790s, The Intellectual Career of Edmund Burke, and, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us. His collection of essays on modern poetry, Skeptical Music, won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay in 2002. His articles on contemporary politics, the war on terror, and the fate of civil liberties in the United States have appeared in Dissent, The Nation, HuffPost, The New York Review of Books, antiwar.com, TomDispatch, Mondoweiss, Guernica, and the London Review of Books.


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