Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England

Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England

by Donna T. Andrew


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Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England by Donna T. Andrew

Aristocratic Vice examines the outrage against—and attempts to end—the four vices associated with the aristocracy in eighteenth-century England: duelling, suicide, adultery, and gambling. Each of the four, it was commonly believed, owed its origin to pride. Many felt the law did not go far enough to punish those perpetrators who were members of the elite. In this exciting new book, Andrew explores each vice’s treatment by the press at the time and shows how a century of public attacks on aristocratic vices promoted a sense of “class superiority” among the soon-to-emerge British middle class.

“Donna Andrew continues to illuminate the mental landscapes of eighteenth-century Britain. . . . No historian of the period has made greater or more effective use of the newspaper press as a source for cultural history than she. This book is evidently the product of a great deal of work and is likely to stimulate further work.”—Joanna Innes, University of Oxford

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300184334
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 06/30/2013
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Donna T. Andrew is professor emerita of history at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She lives in Toronto.

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Aristocratic Vice




Copyright © 2013 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-18433-4



Contesting Cultural Authority: The Code of Honor and Its Critics

Whatever the form the principles of honor may take, they serve to relate the ideal values of a society to its social structure and to reconcile the world as its members would see it with the world as it is.

Definitions and Usages

"What is Honour?" asked George Stanhope, dean of Canterbury, early in the eighteenth century. His answer was swift and clear. It was, he explained, "but a greatness of mind which scorns to descend to an ill or base thing." This view of honor had, however, already been pondered, questioned, and redefined for a great while. Yet at the same time the desire for honor, however debated it might have been, was still held up as the guiding ideal, if not the actual principle, which governed the lives of England's upper classes.

Who possessed such honor? Since social commentators rarely were precise in their descriptions of this group, I will adopt a rather inexact and capacious definition for this sort of person. Most, when they bothered to think about what constituted this set, described their qualities as long pedigree, lineage, or "birth." However, the term "honor" also had an older and less exalted usage. Thus the much-translated French author Antoine Courtin wrote of different sorts of honor for different occupational and gender groups; the honor of the noble was his courage, the merchant his honesty, the laborer his industriousness, the cleric his purity, and women their chastity. The ubiquity of this usage can be seen in a variety of titles published from the Restoration through the early years of the eighteenth century: "The Clergies Honour" [1682], "The Honour of the Clothworking Trade" [1680], "The Honour of a London 'Prentice" [1701], and even "The Duty and Honour of Aged Women" [1711]. In this sense then, honor consisted of the proper fulfilment of one's occupation or situation. States, both relational and civic, could also have "honor": "The Honour of Bristol" [1695], "England's Path to Wealth and Honour" [1700], or "The Wedding Garment, or the Honourable State of Matrimony" [1692]. Thus in this more inclusive definition, everyone, whether individual or corporate, whatever his or her situation, could act honorably and receive honor, or esteem, for so doing. However, over time, this sort of expansive understanding of honor was increasingly narrowed and redefined so that it usually referred to the code of behavior of Britain's upper classes. Thus Bishop Berkeley ironically described this code as "the mark of a great and fine soul, and [it] is to be found among persons of rank and breeding." By the eighteenth century, this reinterpretation was well in place. And the code of honor, like the English constitution itself, was an unwritten but powerful organizing structure, repeatedly attacked by its opponents, which seemed to weather the many criticisms made of it, and continued to influence its adherents, and to a degree, all of society, to accede to its rules and mandates.

This chapter will outline the "state of play" of expressed opinions on the nature, usefulness, and difficulties of both the principle of honor and the code in which it was embodied, beginning late in the seventeenth century and covering the first half the eighteenth, along with a brief consideration of what was responsible for subsequent expansions of contestation. Of course, as will become almost immediately obvious, it is chimerical and almost entirely arbitrary to think that such dates have an intrinsic merit. They have been chosen in part to fill a historiographical "hole" and in part to serve as an introduction to, and background for, similar though more charged discussions later in the century. And, as will become equally clear, this chapter deals largely with the concept of honor as it applied to men, who, by and large, and with one important exception, were thought to be the only possessors of such an attribute. Male aristocratic hauteur was to be exhibited in a variety of venues, evinced as an easy negligence about the loss of money, and even and especially about the loss of life itself. Traditionally the great exception, of course, to the monopoly of honor by men was the sole attribute of female honor, to be displayed by women in the proper defence of their chastity, which we shall consider only in passing here, but will look at in more detail later. Finally, it is important to be clear about the sources for the views under consideration. Many of the works cited, insofar as we can determine (for several were anonymous), were written by clerical opponents of the principles of honor, or of various parts of the honor code. Only rarely do we hear a contemporary defending honor; usually we have to infer such a defence, or find it within the attacks themselves. This perhaps is unsurprising: when a social code is strong and confident, it shrugs off and ignores, but feels no need to reply to the paltry attacks of those outside its domain. These clerical diatribes will be contrasted with more general moral and philosophical writing of the period, and with popular printed sources. But rather than consensus, even among the clerics themselves, we shall hear several views and viewpoints, sometimes forcefully articulated, and other times contested and even self-contradictory. When people ponder difficult questions, the results are likely to be messy.

True Honor and False: Virtue or Vice?

Exponents and practitioners of aristocratic honor had always linked it to the glory of their "house," to pride in their lineage and its history. Thus, when counseling his sons not to game, Lord Herbert of Cherbury warned them that by gambling, a man "loseth very often his patrimonie, wherewith hee should continue the honour of his house and name, and maintaine his own person, wife, children and familie, with that splendour and decencie which the memorie of his Auncestours, and the worth of his state deserve and require." By the early eighteenth century, this identification, this possession of honor by the nobility seemed stronger than ever. Thus John Mackqueen argued that "Honour is the Fuel of the Emulation of Nobles, the Whetstone of the Valour of Heroes." The exercise of this aristocratic quality had, it was proposed, several desirable effects. Lord Herbert was proud of the fact that he had several times challenged and fought with those who "I conceiued had Iniured Ladyes and Gentlewomen...." This obligation to defend the weak would also lead honorable men of family to rule the state with a generous, patriarchal care: "There is something in Men of high Birth, Fortune and Distinction, which makes them think it a Diminution of their own Characters to oppress and insult over those beneath them...." Not only were such men better in domestic government, it was said, but it was they who protected the nation from foreign domination. "The Principle of Honour, then, so far as it consists in doing more ... it seems inseparably connected with that Valour which is essential to the other great End of Society, the Defence of its Members from external Attacks." Finally, there were those who believed that a concern for family honor and repute, the honor of the well-born, would lead not only to lives of public service but to virtue. "birth and Nobility are a stronger Obligation and Incitement to Virtue than what are laid upon meaner Persons."

Why was it felt that aristocratic honor would have these desirable consequences? First, because of the power of the desire for recognition, esteem, and reputation which the well-born shared with mankind in general, though they alone possessed it in superabundance, and second, because of their possession of that attribute, courage, which most wins and maintains this universally desired esteem. Of the desire for esteem, John Mackqueen commented, "let a generous Ambition after a high Reputation or desire of Fame be reckon'd, and justly too, as one of the most considerable Springs of magnanimous Deeds." The Tatler concurred: "... every man living has more or less of this incentive which urges ... men to attempt what may tend to their reputations."

This acknowledgment of the power of the desire for esteem was surprising, for, from the time of Hobbes onward, all social commentators agreed that mankind's strongest passion, the first law of nature, was the desire for self-preservation, and mankind's greatest fear that of personal annihilation. Before we can consider the centrality of courage to aristocratic honor, therefore, we must briefly look into this position.

Though the notion of self-preservation was not absent in pre-modern and early modern thought, it is really only after the mid-seventeenth century that the concept became widespread, not only amongst moralists and philosophers, but also in poetry and popular writing. It was humorously employed by Robert Heath in a poem arguing against excessive tooth-pulling:

... I'm sure That self-preservation Nature Commands: what should we more preserve Than teeth....

In a post-Restoration sermon, the clergyman explained that upon "self-preserving Principles, Submission may sometimes be yielded to the lawful Commands of an unlawful ... Power." All living things, asserted John Prince, obeyed this law. "There is no animate Creature, how contemptible soever, down to the meanest Worm, but is careful of Self-preservation."

Since this prime directive was thought to be innate and equal in all ranks of men, the ability to face death with equanimity was even more exalted than it had been earlier, when courage was presented as part of the nature of the aristocratic military male. Thus an "Officer," celebrating this ability, noted:

A Brave Contempt of what is so dreadful, and cannot therefore be natural; but must be produced in us by some Motive stronger than the Fear of what we so abhor: And this is a Vast Desire of Honour, and Love of doing Good, which only some noble and diffusive Minds are inspired with.

Mandeville concurred: "The Passion [that Courage] has to struggle with, is the most violent and stubborn, and consequently the hardest to be conquer'd, the Fear of Death: The least Conflict with it is harsh Work, and a difficult Task." Thus many late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators would have agreed with Defoe that "Contempt of Death is in itself justly esteem'd the most exalted of all Virtues."

By the early eighteenth century, then, the aristocratic male quality par excellence was courage. "Courage and Intrepidity," Mandeville remarked, "always were, and ever will be the grand Characteristick of a Man of Honour." And this quality was considered essential to a martial nation and to military leaders. "A Soldier is of no Esteem, if he does not sacrifice all Considerations to his Honour." This view was a restatement of Courtin's earlier notion that courage was the particular excellence of noblemen: "... all Noblemen and Gentlemen ... are naturally, as it were, a Body of Reserve for the Defence of the Prince and State, [and the nobleman] ought principally to be a Man of Courage, this being his Point of Honour." Though not a "natural" attribute, this sort of ability was essential for national power, though only resident in the nation's elite.

Since there had never been any Thing ... invented before, that was half so effectual to create artificial Courage among Military Men [as the principle of Honour] ... it was the Interest of all Politicians ... to cultivate these Notions of Honour with the utmost Care, and ... to make Every body believe the Existence and Reality of such a Principle, not among Mechanicks, or any of the Vulgar, but in Persons of high Rank, Knights and others of Heroick Spirit and exalted Nature.

But courage was not only a quality reserved for the battlefield, and honor was not only a principle active among military men. A man without courage would not stand up for what he knew to be true or just because of his fear of rebuke or chastisement:

... to be Knavish and Cowardly are Properties that never part; Knaves are generally Cowards, but Cowards are always Knaves, for a Coward cannot be an Honest Man—How should he be Honest? He has not Courage, and he that dares not look Danger in the Face, dares not to be Honest.

By the early eighteenth century, however, those applauding the values embodied in the aristocratic code of honor were facing attack, for a tide of criticism, aimed not only against its inevitable abuses, but at some of the central tenets of the code, was becoming common, and its proponents scarcer. Of course, the force of these objections may be more seeming than actual. For as we have seen, when a system of social practices is widely accepted, there is little need to applaud or defend it. Criticism therefore may be an inverse measure of the entrenchedness of a system. But on the discursive level, at least, between the second and the sixth decades of the eighteenth century, a vigorous debate raged about the nature and value of aristocratic mores, about the relation of honor and honesty, and about the role of honor in a well-ordered civil polity.

The single quality that most defined aristocratic practice and behavior was pride: pride of birth, of breeding, of position. At its best, pride, it was said, could lead noblemen to lives of "noblesse oblige," of service without recompense, except of recognition and esteem. At its worst, pride was condemned as the source of sin, of pollution and lawlessness. Pride was that aristocratic quality earliest attacked by opponents. Not surprisingly, pride had many critics; more surprisingly perhaps, pride also had its champions. Thus Archibald Campbell saw pride as a laudable emotion, and asked whether it was "a piece of Weakness, or any Thing blameable in a finite Creature, to pursue after Happiness, or to desire the good Opinion and Applauses of God, and of all the rational Creation, through all the several Stages of our Eternal Existence?" Similarly, in the notes to his poem "The Universe," Henry Baker argued that

As Self-Love is the inborn Principle of Mankind, so is Pride, its first-begotten, their general Passion ... Nor is this Passion useless, or to be blamed ...: for the Mind is hereby excited to emulate and rise above its Fellows, to gain and to deserve Esteem. The Love and the Respect of Others are the just as well as the wished Reward of every good Action: but, without this Passion, they both would be disregarded, and we should want the strongest Motive to encourage Us onward in the Pursuit of Vertue.

Insofar as it was a spur to right action, then, pride could be tolerated and even encouraged. However, most commentators presented pride as the primal sin, in which Adam's fall was only a repetition of Lucifer's.

The Original and Primitive Source and Rise of the Luciferian Faction, against their Supream Monarch, and Omnipotent Creator, was Pride: the Punishment of which Rebellion, was everlasting Banishment from the Regions of Bliss, and unexhausted Felicity, and Confinement to the black and dreadful Kingdoms of Endless Darkness and Obscurity.

Led to violence, unruliness, and rebellion by pride, mankind, like Lucifer, would be embroiled in endless acts of injustice and anarchy unless they overcame its allure. The effects of such pride "would if possible, remove the very Foundations of the Universe, confound the Order of Nature, and convert all to the Subjection of Ambition." Even that urbane teacher of civility, Courtin, criticized pride, which, he remarked, "exercises a kind of tyranny in the world." And who more than aristocrats were likely to be so tyrannous or so liable to that sort of vain-glory that Hobbes described as a result of the misguided opinion that "difference of worth were an effect of their wit, or riches, or blood, or some other natural quality...." This line of reasoning was made obvious in a tale reprinted in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1736. As a result of his attack on a lowly-born neighbor, a gentleman "of Rank and Distinction" is marooned, along with the man whom he has mistreated, on a barbarous island. Like "the admirable Crichton," the injured laborer saves the life of his tormentor, and the gentleman finally learns that "the Superiority of his Blood was imaginary." The tale concludes with the proper moral: "It continues a Custom in that Island, to DEGRADE ALL GENTLEMEN, who can not give a better Reason for their Pride, than they were born, to do no thing...."

Pride was seen not only as the usual vice of the well-born and thoughtless, but also as the central attribute of that code or system which governed their lives. "The Honour, with which these Persons greatly bluster, with whom my Argument is concerned," remarked the Anglican divine Anthony Holbrook, "seems to me, to be Pride and Vanity, Fury and Revenge; mad Passion for their own Humour, regardless of social Decency and Reason." Attempting to save the principle of honor, Holbrook distinguished what others would call true or ancient honor, from the false or modern sort. For, by the early eighteenth century, the phrase "a man of honour" or "a modern man of honour" often denoted a libertine miscreant. Thus the protagonist of Ned Ward's tale "The Dignified Adulterer or the Libertine of Title," married by his parents to a woman he dislikes, takes up with other women, "till at last, he becomes famous, for a Man of Honour, among all the intriguing fair Ladies of Quality...." Ward could not resist ending the tale with its moral; his hero "notwithstanding he is so sinful a Drudge to his own Vices ... yet Honour and Estate to a Libertine of Quality ... are so effectual a Skreen from the Reproaches of the Publick, and the Punishments of the law, that [he] may whore on, without Danger or Reflection...."

For some, what distinguished true and false honor was that the latter implied that the honor-code was just a screen to hide what was really at stake—the desire for power and domination. Francis Hutcheson called the benign desire for honor, ambition, but noted that "custom [had] joined some evil ideas to that word, making it denote a violent desire of Honour, and of Power also, as will make us stop at no base means to obtain them." While Hobbes had simply stated that "the acknowledgement of power is called honour," others saw in the swaggering courage of the man of honor only the desire to domineer and intimidate his fellows.

Excerpted from Aristocratic Vice by DONNA T. ANDREW. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

Introduction: The Middle Way: Cultural Skirmishes....................     1     

1 Contesting Cultural Authority: The Code of Honor and Its Critics.........     15     

2 "That Wild Decision of the Private Sword"....................     43     

3 Against "Nature, Religion and Good Manners": Debating Suicide............     83     

4 "The Chief Topics of Conversation": Adultery and Divorce in the Bon Ton..     127     

5 Deserving "Most the Cognizance of the Magistrate and the Censor":
Combating Gaming....................     175     

6 Vice in an Age of Respectability....................     219     

Conclusion: An End to Aristocratic Vice?....................     243     

Notes....................     247     

Selected Bibliography....................     303     

Index....................     315     

What People are Saying About This

Joanna Innes

Donna Andrew continues to illuminate the mental landscapes of eighteenth-century Britain. . . . No historian of the period has made greater or more effective use of the newspaper press as a source for cultural history than she. This book is evidently the product of a great deal of work and is likely to stimulate further work.—Joanna Innes, University of Oxford

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