The Other Founding Fathers

Michael Metzger

There’s no American Revolution, Constitution, or Great Experiment without the founding fathers. Now two editors at the Economist are forecasting a revolution similar to the Victorian Age. But they overlook the Victorian Age’s founding fathers.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, respectively the editor in chief and management editor of the Economist, are authors of a new book, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State. They say there have been three revolutions in government in the history of the modern world. The first was the nation-state (Thomas Hobbes), then the “Liberal State” (John Stuart Mill), with the third being the welfare state (Beatrice Webb) that has become so bloated in Europe and the United States.

The authors note how the West has led all three revolutions and now we are in the midst of a fourth. This time, however, Western governments are in danger of being left behind. Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s prescription is doing what Britain, then the world’s superpower and pioneer of the new economy, did during the Victorian Age.

It’s an appealing argument. In Britain, gross revenue from taxation fell from just under £80 million in 1816 to well under £60 million in 1846, while the population and economy grew. The government helped build schools, hospitals, sewers and the world’s first police force. The Victorians paid for these useful new services by getting rid of what they called “Old Corruption” (what we call cronyism) and by exploiting the new technology of the day, like the railway. They kept cutting government for decades. William Gladstone, four times prime minister, believed in doing this so that money could “fructify in the pockets of the people.”

Micklethwait and Wooldridge urge Western governments to copy the Victorians. Rip out cronyism, shrink and simplify government, take the state seriously, and put the state on the side of business creation, keeping it “humble and dowdy.” But they overlook the Victorian Age’s founding fathers. Noted historian F. K. Brown has described Britain during the fifty-year period preceding the Victorian era as the “Age of Wilberforce.”1 Those associated with the reforms of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect were the founding fathers of the Victorian Age. No fathers, no revolution.

Britain ached for reform in the mid-18th century. “Venality, drunkenness, and the high crime arose from the general decadence,” writes historian John Pollock, “especially the corruption and irreligion of the nobility and landed gentry,” including Parliament. Many MPs kept mistresses in London. Elections were corrupt. “English parliamentary elections at this time were scandalous affairs,” writes Kevin Belmonte. “Nomination boroughs and seats were bought and sold like articles of commerce or leased like farms.” In 1786, Benjamin Franklin, who was in England, wrote to a friend, “Four thousand pounds is now the market price for a borough. In short, this whole venal nation is now at market.”

That same summer of 1786, William Wilberforce toured Europe with his friend the Reverend Isaac Milner. To while away the tedium of the trip, they read Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. As a result of readings and conversations, Wilberforce embraced evangelical Anglicanism. A year later, on Sunday, October 28, 1787, he took up his quill pen, and wrote in his diary: “God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,” [i.e., culture]. The Age of Wilberforce was born.

Over the next four decades, those associated with Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect played a significant role in a series of reforms including the abolition of the English Slave Trade, hospital care, fever institutions, asylums, infirmaries, and penitentiaries. They enacted reforms in banking, child labor laws, and support for the schools of the poet and playwright Hannah More, a close friend and leading reformer of education. They were responsible for founding such institutions as The Society for the Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts, the Indigent Blind Institution, the Foundling Hospital and the Society for the Bettering of the Condition of the Poor. They established a culture where Victorians could reform the government, including economic policy.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge overlook these founding fathers but it’s hardly their fault. The Age of Wilberforce went into eclipse in the second half of the 19th century. In 1867, Karl Marx published Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx reframed capitalism and government as systems with no meaningful connection to religion. Markets without morals. In 1869, Charles Darwin reframed origins, uncoupling humanity from a meaningful connection with the faith. Hence, on this date in 1871, The University Tests Act allowed students for the first time to enter the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham without religious tests. You could learn government without theology. You could study the Age of Victoria and learn nothing about its founding fathers.

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It’s designed to recognize those who invest in the flourishing of the next generation. Britain flourished during the Victorian Age. But it was largely due to the sacrifices of those associated with the Age of Wilberforce.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 F. K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians. The Age of Wilberforce (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1961).

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8 thoughts on “The Other Founding Fathers”

  1. Mike, I wonder if the cultural and political transformations you describe would have/could have happened without the Wesleyan revival which allowed people to be elected to the English Parliament who would support these new policies.

  2. “Yesterday was Father’s Day. It’s designed to recognize those who invest in the flourishing of the next generation.”

    I had the privilege of interviewing Ralph LaRossa several years ago for a piece I produced for PRX. Ralph is the Sociology Professor at GSU and author of “The Modernization of Fatherhood – A Social and Political History.” It’s an interesting read. Here is what I learned in our interview:

    On December 6, 1907, a tragic coal mining accident in West Virginia killed 360 men, leaving 1000 children fatherless. Though often contested, it is believed that the first official celebration of Father’s Day took place on July of 1910 in Fairmont West Virginia to commemorate the fallen men. Father’s Day was recognized throughout the rest of the century, but it never received the same Federal Imprimatur that Mother’s Day had in 1914. In fact, Congress didn’t seem fit to pass a bill to commemorate Father’s Day until 1971. In the 1930’s, seeing the economic value of the celebration, retailers in New York City put together a Father’s Day Committee as a vehicle to martial the sales of ties, slippers, pipes, etc.. Interestingly enough, in order to minimize the notion commercialization, retailers were encouraged to promote the value of fatherhood apart from making the sale. As Ralph mentions in the book, it really was a combination of culture and economics that resulted in the development of Father’s Day.

    One could argue that Father’s Day has become to commercialized. However, most rituals – when positive in nature, have a beneficial effect on society. If you think about it, Holidays (Holy Days) in general provide an opportunity for people of a society to stop, take a breath and participate in some collective enterprise which can ultimately promote group solidarity. The idea of Father’s Day should (if nothing else) further solidify the idea that men and fathers are important. The societal shift that has taken place over the past 40 years is telling when you look at how Father’s Day is recognized by the masses today.

  3. Mike Metzger

    Bob: Good question. Short answer: I don’t know. It’s likely the Wesleyan revivals contributed to more people taking a moral system more seriously. The problem with revivals in general, however, is that they are short-lived. Whether this contributed to whomever got elected down the line is anyone’s guess, although it seems likely.

  4. An interesting narrative Mike. With an anglocentric thread IMO. Ironic with your ministry based in a US context rooted by The Pilgrim Fathers in the soil of native america and the UK generally being ignorant of Wilberforce and the Clapham sect and enslaved by a ‘fatherland’ ‘neozionist’ mentality. You also appear to have overlooked the impact of the two world wars, politically and socially. The welfare state(UK) was formed in light of the Beveridge report, identifying the five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness and the opportune context of traumatic impact of two wars.Sadly, the three key finding principles have failed to be passed from generation to generation.

  5. I agree fully Mike that we are in the midst of change. I have wondered if it is revolutionary in full (meaning a significant break with the past times, a la Renaissance) or in part (much like the change we experienced during each of our previous 4 Great Crisis…definitely changes to how government was experienced, yet not so different as to be ‘clean slate’). I think it is possible that the revolution that comes could be one that takes our understanding of “the civic order” down to much smaller….down to the city-state. I believe my study of history (I think you remember I am a History Professor) indicates there is a continual pull historically between the very large (empire, massive state) and the very small (city-state).

    For the past 300 years or so (depending on where to look), we’ve been in the very large. The previous centuries (again, depending on where to look…shouldn’t press the hypothesis too far) were in the very small. It was moving from small to large, so from fall of Rome circa 500s through the return of the large circa 1500-1600.

    Anyway, the point is that the coming of a Wilberforce may only happen in the small. Not suggesting that the small would necessarily be better, but just wondering about it aloud. The growing philosophical differences in our country cannot be bridged. The last 4 Great Crisis solved this problem by crushing the other side, the losing side…and that may be what happens here now. And then we continue on the road of the very large domineering empire.

    But, we could instead shift into the very small as a solution. I wonder….

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