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Michael J. Turner, Defending ‘the principle of representation’: Andrew Bisset, The English Civil War, and The History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government in England

2015 November 6

This post accompanies Michael J. Tuner’s ‘Journal of Victorian Culture’ article. Defending ‘the Principle of Representation’: Andrew Bisset, The English Civil War, and The History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government in England. This article can be read here.

Charles West Cope, 'The setting out of the train bands from London to raise the siege of Gloucester' (1865)

In my article I explore trends in Victorian historiography, and in particular the political uses made of the past, using the histories published by a relatively little-known practitioner named Andrew Bisset (1803-1891). Bisset was a Scottish-born, Cambridge-educated lawyer who turned increasingly to politics and writing. I first became interested in Bisset the historian (I was already vaguely aware of him as a minor figure in the Anti-Corn Law League) when I read an original copy of his History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government (1877), part of the Rhinehart Collection of Rare Books in the special collections at Appalachian State University. This opened up avenues of inquiry into Victorian attitudes to the past and Victorian ideas about why and how history should be written. Newer standards of expertise and objectivity co-existed with older approaches, and the conviction that history could and should be used for present purposes remained intact. Throughout the Victorian age there were circumstances in which history was a polemical device. Bisset exemplifies this tendency. His primary goal was to illustrate and advance what he called ‘the principle of representation’. He discussed people and events of the past to this end, offending reviewers along the way because of his obvious agenda, but also developing a rigorous source-based style, usefully evaluating for his readers the work of Macaulay, Carlyle, and others, while helping to shape opinion about the political and religious crises of seventeenth-century Britain. Like others, Bisset believed that the disputes of that period had relevance to the controversies of his own day. This was a time of remarkable cultural, economic, and political change. Ideological ferment brought forth numerous commentators who claimed the past as a justification for things they wanted in the present. Bisset’s History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government declared the merits of a fully functioning elected parliament—the manifestation of ‘the principle of representation’—and highlighted the problems created by other (and inferior) forms of government. It offered strident interpretations of the Civil War era: Charles I was the enemy and Cromwell the champion of ‘the principle of representation’. Bisset thereby disagreed with admirers of Charles I and denigrators of Cromwell, and tried to combat both parties. At the same time, he aligned himself with, shaped, clarified, and defended assessments of the king and Cromwell that fitted his purpose. His central theme was always ‘the principle of representation’ that he claimed to be sanctioned by history. He was adamant that Victorians should be grateful that this principle, like a seed that had taken root long ago, had been nurtured by Cromwell (probably more than by anyone else) and that its many fruits could be enjoyed in their own times.

Charles West Cope, 'Charles I raising his standard at Nottingham' (1861)

Though sure of ‘the principle of representation’ and of Cromwell and of his own ability to convince Victorian readers that he was telling them the truth, Bisset’s books brought him a mixed reputation. His political position made his works objectionable in some quarters, and critics found fault with his analytical faculties and writing style. His perspective was neither flexible nor impartial. He wrote as a convinced reformer who believed in free trade and representative institutions. A preference for political and economic liberty, social opportunity, individual rights, and constitutional improvement comes through in his writing, especially his History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government, which contained the clearest and most forthright of his statements about Britain’s past.

Bisset’s activity can be related to questions about the nature of history and to the broader collision of ideas in the Victorian age. If Victorians could value continuity, they could also focus on change. While celebrating Britain’s past accomplishments, they could also embrace novelty. The interaction of past and present was explored not only by the great Victorian writers of history (not least Macaulay and Carlyle), and by celebrated authors of historical novels (one thinks of Dickens, Eliot, and Thackeray), but by a host of lesser known figures, Bisset among them. His contributions, and what they reveal about Victorian attitudes, have not previously been investigated; and in the course of my research it became clear that Bisset’s participation in debates about Britain’s past and in the shaping of narratives of political development would repay such investigation. My article shows, I hope, that his activity, in facilitating a deeper understanding of the intellectual environment within which he operated, merits more attention than it has previously been accorded. The History of the Struggle for Parliamentary Government is a neglected but significant component in the Victorian reconstruction of the past. It heightens our sense of the richness and complexity of Victorian versions of the nation’s history.

Charles West Cope, 'The Burial of Charles I' (1857)

 

Paintings

Victorian interest in the Civil War era remained strong, and was both encouraged by and reflected in many cultural forms—one of the most striking being the artwork of Charles West Cope (1811-1890). Cope produced a number of works depicting scenes from the Civil War, including those that were placed in the new Palace of Westminster (the old parliament building was destroyed by fire in 1834—most of the new building was completed between 1840 and 1860).

 

 

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