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Nobody’s Perfect

Nobody’s Perfect: A New Whig Interpretation of History

Annabel Patterson
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Nobody’s Perfect
    Book Description:

    Is history driven more by principle or interest? Are ideas of historical progress obsolete? Is it unforgivable to change one's mind or political allegiance? Did the eighteenth century really exchange the civilizing force of commercial advantage for political conflict? In this new account of liberal thought from its roots in seventeenth-century English thinking to the end of the eighteenth century, Annabel Patterson tackles these important historiographical questions. She rescues the term "whig" from the low regard attached to it; denies the primacy of self-interest in the political struggles of Georgian England; and argues that while Whigs may have strayed from liberal principles on occasion (nobody's perfect), nevertheless many were true progressives.In a series of case studies, mainly from the reign of George III, Patterson examines or re-examines the careers of such prominent individuals as John Almon, Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Erskine, and, at the end of the century, William Wordsworth. She also addresses a host of secondary characters, reshaping our thinking about both well-known and lesser figures of the time. Tracking a coherent, sustained, and adaptable liberalism throughout the eighteenth century, Patterson overturns common assumptions of political, cultural, and art historians. The author delivers fresh insights into the careers of those who called themselves Whigs, their place in British political thought, and the crucial ramifications of this thinking in the American political arena.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14357-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-xii)
    (pp. 1-36)

    This book will probably be seen as the sequel to myEarly Modern Liberalism;¹ that is to say, it carries the story of liberal thought (and its eventual transmission to America) from seventeenth-century England through to the end of the English eighteenth century. Most of the men introduced or reintroduced here—John Almon, Edmund Burke, James Barry, Edward Thompson, Thomas Erskine, and (for a while at least) William Wordsworth—thought of themselves as continuing the work of Milton or Locke or Marvell or Algernon Sidney in the field of political thought. In conviction they were akin to Thomas Hollis, the...

    (pp. 37-75)

    InEarly Modern Liberalism, I made this claim: when considering the origins of the liberal political and social thought that today we take for granted, our respect should be equally distributed between those who first formulated these principles and those who subsequently transmitted them to the future—men like Thomas Hollis, whose editorial efforts may have helped to educate a generation of late eighteenth-century Americans in seventeenth-century liberal thought. John Almon, Whig bookseller of the later eighteenth century, is another example of a neglected transmitter, someone to whom we owe more than is known or remembered and whose reputation among...

  6. 2 Reading the Letter: A (SHORT) CHAPTER OF ITS OWN
    (pp. 76-98)

    TheLetter Concerning Libelswas, I have suggested, the successor to Milton’sAreopagiticain an era that was learning how to live without licensing. Here I hope to demonstrate that John Almon was not only the publisher of theLetterbut its author, reviser, defender, and advertiser—a project that engaged him for over a decade. We need here an essentially literary practice, the practice of “close reading,” the patience to attend to textual details, especially the detailed strategy of revision, as also the arts of allusion, innuendo, and quotation. But the discipline involved should not obscure an important and...

  7. 3 Inventing Postcolonialism: BURKE’S AND BARRY’S PARADISE LOST AND REGAINED
    (pp. 99-138)

    Edmund Burke is perhaps the most demanding subject for consideration under the motto “Nobody’s perfect” that the eighteenth century provides. I refer to what is often called the Burke problem—the vexed relation between Burke’s defence of the American Revolution in the mid-1770s and his attack on the French one in the early 1790s. This trajectory from undeniably liberal principles to an eloquent but extreme conservativism has naturally been celebrated by as many or more as have regretted it. It has been “explained” in psychological terms,¹ as the not-inconsistent behaviour of someone who was always “a believer in political and...

  8. 4 The Meaning of Names: THOMPSON’S MARVELL AND THE WHIGS
    (pp. 139-162)

    Sometime around July 1, 1776, Edmund Burke wrote a letter to Captain Edward Thompson, thanking him for a special gift. Regrettably, Burke does not seem to have fully appreciated it: “Mr. Burke presents his best compliments and thanks to Captain Thompson for the obliging communication of Marvells Letters with which he has honourd Mr. Burke and which he has read. Every thing which concerns so eminent a person and so interesting a period of History must certainly be entertaining; but as these Letters were originally of a publick Nature, and wrote with extraordinary Caution, they are rather less agreeable than...

    (pp. 163-200)

    This chapter returns to art history and the portrait, by way of the career and reputation of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Like Edmund Burke, who was one of his friends and subjects, Reynolds made a major contribution to art theory and aesthetics. Unlike Burke, however, whosePhilosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautifulrecorded early enthusiasms, Reynolds’sDiscourses on Artwere written at the height of his success, in relation to his presidency of the Royal Academy, and not published as a full set until Edmond Malone edited it as such in 1797. By...

  10. 6 Thomas Erskine: THE GREAT DEFENDER
    (pp. 201-237)

    This witty testimonial to a dog in the opening pagesArmata, a utopian romance which is also a tract on eighteenth-century English politics, is a prophylactic against too much high-mindedness. By playing on the eighteenth-century habit of “concealing” famous names in typographically marked ellipses, and ironizing the narrator who cannot remember the name of the animal who saved him from drowning, Thomas Erskine, animal-rights activist, recommends himself to us from the start. I hope, therefore, not to be thought sentimental in reintroducing one of the greatest liberal barristers in English history, most famous, perhaps, for his successful defence of Thomas...

  11. 7 Two Steps Forward, One Step Backwards: WILLIAM WORDSWORTH’S REVISIONISM
    (pp. 238-256)

    In this final brief chapter, I return to the subject of human imperfection as instanced not momentarily by Thomas Erskine but on the grand scale by William Wordsworth, who made that topic the nerve center of his great autobiographical poem,The Prelude, in which he explained to posterity (although he never published the explanation in his lifetime) how he lost his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution and for democratic principles in general. From Erskine’s Utopian prose romance, in fact, we can make an effective and legitimate transition to Wordsworth’s dystopic epic poem, most of whose contents and motives were...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 257-276)
  13. Index
    (pp. 277-288)