The House of Commons 1760-1800

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Prime Minister William Pitt

Churchill would have loved this book.

Even though it deals with a time more than two centuries ago, his own rhetorical flourishes in the House of Commons are so renowned that author Christopher Reid feels the imperative to quote from Churchill’s Dunkirk speech. In concluding that speech, he used two lines from a poem by Tennyson about King Arthur.

Reid employs this as an illustration of a rhetorical device that has been used in the House for centuries. He gives two examples from the 1760s, including one by the Elder Pitt where he quoted from Horace’s Epistles in a debate to show that Frederick the Great of Prussia was not “a little power” as some Members had argued.

“Pitt magnifies the virtues of Frederick by alluding through Horace to the heroic fortitude of Ulysses,” he writes. In the case of Churchill’s invocation of King Arthur, he “asks the House, and the nation, to share his emotion as he celebrates that age’s return.”

Reid shows that the use of such a tag-line employed by Churchill and Pitt has been widely misinterpreted. “Quotations of this sort are sometimes thought of as stylistic embellishments. Often placed at the end of a rhetorical sequence, it is easily overlooked or even dismissed as an extraneous verbal ornament.” Reid posits on the contrary that it was “an active agent in the process of persuasion, used by the speaker in the eighteenth-century House to move his audience to pity, fear, or indignation, and to add weight and distinction to his parliamentary character.”

This is just one of many fascinating insights offered by Reid, a senior lecturer in English at Queen Mary, University of London.

Meticulously researched and referenced with hundreds of footnotes, he shows how the reporting of parliamentary debates evolved as a free press developed in the 1700s. Going back to 1738, the House of Commons made it clear that it was “a high Indignity and a notorious Breach of the Privilege of this House” for any news writer to print what was said by Members of Parliament. How times have changed!

By the late 1700s some Members would have their speeches printed for public consumption, while carefully avoiding to actually admit they had done so. Reid also looks closely at the news writers who sat in the Gallery – their ability to report was hampered by the fact they were often reprimanded for taking notes. Thus, reporters with a great ability to memorise speeches often got hired for the job.

There is much to delight the reader in this book, which is written in a style that can be understood by a wide audience. It is a great addition to the study of British politics and how debate evolved in the late 18th century.

Imprison’d Wranglers: The Rhetorical Culture of the House of Commons 1760-1800 (270 pages) is $110 from Oxford University Press. Visit their website: www.oup.com

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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