Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution

Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution

by Anna Clark


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Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution by Anna Clark

Are sex scandals simply trivial distractions from serious issues or can they help democratize politics? In 1820, George IV's "royal gambols" with his mistresses endangered the Old Oak of the constitution. When he tried to divorce Queen Caroline for adultery, the resulting scandal enabled activists to overcome state censorship and revitalize reform. Looking at six major British scandals between 1763 and 1820, this book demonstrates that scandals brought people into politics because they evoked familiar stories of sex and betrayal. In vibrant prose woven with vivid character sketches and illustrations, Anna Clark explains that activists used these stories to illustrate constitutional issues concerning the Crown, Parliament, and public opinion.

Clark argues that sex scandals grew out of the tension between aristocratic patronage and efficiency in government. For instance, in 1809 Mary Ann Clarke testified that she took bribes to persuade her royal lover, the army's commander-in-chief, to promote officers, buy government offices, and sway votes. Could women overcome scandals to participate in politics?

This book also explains the real reason why the glamorous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, became so controversial for campaigning in a 1784 election. Sex scandal also discredited Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminists, after her death.

Why do some scandals change politics while others fizzle? Edmund Burke tried to stir up scandal about the British empire in India, but his lurid, sexual language led many to think he was insane.

A unique blend of the history of sexuality and women's history with political and constitutional history, Scandal opens a revealing new window onto some of the greatest sex scandals of the past. In doing so, it allows us to more fully appreciate the sometimes shocking ways democracy has become what it is today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691115016
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/02/2003
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Anna Clark Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, and the editor of the Journal of British Studies. She is the author of The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class, which won the British Council Book Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies. She is also the author of many other works in the field of British history, gender history, and the history of sexuality.

Read an Excerpt


The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution
By Anna Clark

Princeton University Press

Anna Clark
All right reserved.

ISBN: 069111501X

Chapter One


n 1813, George, the prince regent of England, tried to prevent his wife, Caroline, from seeing their daughter, Charlotte. George hated Caroline, a buxom, flamboyant, gregarious German princess he had been betrothed to sight unseen. They separated a year after the wedding, a few months after Charlotte was born. Not content with banishing Caroline from the court, George had his ministers investigate her for adultery in 1806. This so-called Delicate Investigation cleared Caroline of adultery but rebuked her for unsuitable behavior for a princess, such as sitting on a couch with another man. But George himself had long been notorious for lavishing taxpayers' money on mistresses, palaces, gambling, horse racing, and banquets. In 1811, he took on more serious responsibilities as regent when his father, George III, finally lapsed into permanent dementia.

The prince regent persisted in his vendetta against his wife and daughter. In 1813, when their daughter Charlotte was seventeen, she began demanding more freedom, supported by her mother. In response, George tried to reopen the investigation into Caroline to prove her an unfit mother. He confined Charlotte to a lodge on the outskirts of Windsor, visited only by her grandmother once a week. Undeterred, Charlotte escaped from Windsor to be with her mother.1 Crowds cheered the royal princess and jeered at the king. Opposition politicians supported Caroline and Charlotte in Parliament, and public meetings applauded the princesses and denounced the regent.

Today, we often lament that such minor affairs become huge scandals, contaminating the public world of politics with private lives. Sex scandals seem trivial and prurient, unworthy of the attention they excite, in contrast to financial or political scandals, which involve crucial public issues. But this book will concentrate on sex scandals in order to argue for their significance. Scandals force us to question the division between the public and the private. This distinction, of course, is one of the foundations of modern political thought, but as feminists have long demonstrated, it is a shaky one.2 Sex scandals could become symbols for larger political concerns. Finally, these scandals could have an impact on politics by triggering political mobilization around these issues.

Sex scandals sustain the public's interest because they reflect a society fissured by disagreements over sexual morality. To incite scandal, after all, is to behave in a scandalous manner, inappropriate to one's social role. But in the eighteenth century, sexual morality was confusing and changing.3 Old ideas that viewed women as insatiably sexual coexisted with new doctrines of female passionlessness.4 Many religious people believed in the values of chastity, temperance, and self-control. Others squandered their fortunes on gambling, and took mistresses or lovers as a matter of course. While scandal stereotyped such behavior as characteristic of high society, it cut across class lines: some middle-class people, and many laboring people, formed common-law marriages and drank heavily. Scandal erupted because people could not agree on sexual morality. For some, Caroline behaved just like other aristocratic women by entertaining men alone; for others, this proved her immorality.

Scandals also focused on the question of privacy. In the eighteenth century, the very idea of privacy was fairly new. Many religious people believed that private virtues were the foundation of public life: they believed a good citizen must be a good husband and father. But George's supporters claimed that his private life was irrelevant, that he had a right to private pleasures while enjoying the respect of his public office as regent. This flagrant example of the double standard also exposes the inequity at the heart of the supposed division between public and private. The prince regent flaunted his mistresses but viciously violated the privacy of two women: Caroline and Charlotte. He wanted to seclude his wife and daughter in the home, while he enjoyed public life. Women were to remain in private but had no right to privacy: Caroline's every friendship was investigated. Caroline, however, boldly challenged the double standard.

Rumors and gossip circulate all the time behind the scenes, but they mutate into scandals only when an instigator seizes (or invents) a secret and brings it to the public's attention. The secret becomes a scandal when it triggers a widespread public controversy. This book is concerned with those sex scandals that became intertwined with the politics of the day, when rumors about a political figure's personal life contributed to wider debates. Sometimes scandalous rumors helped to fuel a larger political campaign, but sometimes the scandal itself sparked off a political firestorm. Why do some scandals take off and profoundly affect politics, while other scandalous rumors fail to persuade public opinion? The answer has to do with the instigator's ability to sustain his or her credibility, to use the scandal to symbolize wider political causes and mobilize public opinion.

Scandals raise the question of what politics is really about. Is it a matter of politicians contending for individual or party advancement out of their own ambition, stirring up public excitement with emotion? Or is it a matter of principles, ideals, and policy? Political entrepreneurs can use scandal as a political weapon in their own careers.5 Instigators of scandal reveal-or invent-sexual secrets at a particular moment, distracting attention from other issues or linking scandals with their own political agendas. In 1813, politician Henry Brougham, who opposed the Tory government, brought Caroline's case before the public in order to gain advantage for his own Whig party. Scandals often seem to exemplify the worst of trivial, sordid, opportunistic politics.

Critics often wish that politics was an idealized realm where rational people discuss important issues; some have envisioned the eighteenth century as such a time, when bewigged gentlemen sat in coffeehouses calmly expounding on political philosophy and members of Parliament spoke with erudition and dignity.6 In fact, the eighteenth-century political world was just as squalid as our own. Politicians hurled venomous insults at each other, laughed at their enemies, and collapsed in tears on the floor of Parliament; radicals spread scurrilous rumors, and mobs rioted in the streets.

Yet scandal did not necessarily corrupt eighteenth-century politics with trivial issues; in fact, scandal opened up politics by revealing corruption and by making political debate accessible to a wider audience. Scandals can serve as a bridge from one version of politics to another; for instance, opportunistic rumors can inspire interest in larger political causes. Scandal sometimes fuels the democratic process, drawing people into politics, whereas arid, abstract discussions might keep them out.

The instigators of scandal can expose a politician or public figure as motivated not by lofty ideals but by sordid private concerns. In the early nineteenth century, the ruler was supposed to use his influence for the public good, not his personal interest. Reformers portrayed the prince regent as a hypocrite for persecuting his wife for adultery while he demanded that the government grant lucrative offices to the relatives of his mistresses. In doing so, they critiqued the entire system of influence and patronage. How could the monarch's patronage be seen as legitimate if he was secretly controlled by those who manipulated his sexual desires?

Sex scandals can communicate political issues to people usually uninterested in politics because, unlike complicated and hard-to-follow financial scandals, they can be told through familiar stories of broken hearts, broken families, broken marriages.7 For instance, by confining his daughter to a remote lodge, Prince George resembled the tyrannical fathers of gothic novels. These stories can also provide symbols for larger political issues. When George began his quarrel with his daughter, many Britons already blamed him for political corruption and high taxes. Reformers claimed that he treated his daughter just as badly as he treated his people; they celebrated Caroline and Charlotte in order to denigrate the prince.

Radicals and conservatives tended to use sex to symbolize wider political issues in somewhat different ways. Radicals equated the ruler's excessive lust and unbridled, unconstitutional power. They feared his private interests and family quarrels would contaminate the public good of the state. Scandalous satires and caricatures also undercut the respect and awe surrounding the monarch; for instance, caricatures depicted the prince regent as a corpulent, half-drunk, blubbery creature unable to focus on affairs of state.8 For conservatives, sexual affairs threatened to disorder the hierarchy of family, society, and state. For instance, supporters of the prince regent equated Caroline's defiance of her husband with radical challenges to the throne. They caricatured her as a blowzy prostitute all too friendly with the servants.

Scandals had their greatest impact when activists were able to link personal problems with larger political issues and to mobilize public opinion in protest. For instance, people met in London, and indeed all over the country, to write addresses supporting Caroline. The radicals linked Caroline's fate to the persistent problems of corruption, which fattened the rich at a time when the poor suffered under the hardship of war.9 The freeholders of Middlesex blamed the treatment of Caroline and Charlotte on the "defective state of representation." They opposed "the detestable oligarchy of Great Britain, united in one impenetrable Phalanx, against the Cause of her Royal Mother, [and]... the abused People of England."10 By meeting together in support of a royal princess, they could also discuss the cause of parliamentary reform and criticize the war against Napoleon.

British politicians feared such mobilization. After all, British critics had argued that decadence and immorality contributed to the French Revolution. They had heard of the scandals over Marie Antoinette's lovers and knew that their own ruling elite was vulnerable. Historians have demonstrated that over the course of the eighteenth century, scandals undermined the legitimacy of the French monarchy. Enlightenment writers blamed female political influence for corruption at court and alleged that sexual whims and personal connections determined policy and patronage.11 As the French Revolution loomed, a flood of private scandals served to discredit the aristocracy in the eyes of the public.12 Obscene pamphlets stripped the monarchy of its sacred aura by portraying the king, queen, and aristocracy in an amazing variety of sexual combinations. Lynn Hunt has argued that the very violence and obscenity of these scandalous works made it possible for the revolutionaries to execute the king.13

Scandals also played a significant role in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British politics. Of course, the British avoided revolution in the late eighteenth century. Several historians assert that Britain did not fall prey to revolution at that time because it enjoyed a conservative consensus.14 This book, in contrast, will argue that British society was racked by conflict over how it was to be governed. Scandals in Britain illuminated a central debate of eighteenth-century politics: Should the personal influence of royals and aristocrats determine politics, or should public opinion and the public good shape political action?

On one hand, the idea of the public good shaped the structure of the British government in the eighteenth century. Britain became a strong state through creating efficient institutions such as a powerful navy and a bureaucracy that raised considerable revenue to fund it.15 Parliament maintained its legitimacy by claiming to represent the people. After 1688, the king was a constitutional monarch who shared his power with Parliament.

Yet personal and familial relationships still structured politics, both literally and metaphorically, which is why scandal was so important. The king retained much patronage power and could choose his own ministers. An aristocratic oligarchy controlled Parliament through family connections and personal influence. The monarchy and aristocracy claimed that when they bestowed patronage, they rewarded merit and knit society together. Indeed, many historians argue that deference upheld the hierarchy of eighteenth-century society.16

Eighteenth-century reformers asserted that family dynasties should have nothing to do with politics. Government, they argued, should operate not through personal influence and patronage but on the basis of transparency, reason, merit, purity, and virtue.17 The very strength of Britain's parliamentary ideal and state bureaucracy made the continuation of patronage and influence more outrageous because it undermined the efficiency of the government. They wanted to open up Parliament so that members would not be chosen because they married into a great family, obtained the favor of a noble lord's mistress, or bribed the voters. If reformers could claim that lust, rather than benevolence, motivated a monarch's patronage, they could undercut his credibility-or perhaps even the whole system.

More specifically, the scandals with which this book is concerned raised several important constitutional issues. According to traditional ideas, the constitution was balanced between king, lords, and commons. But the constitution was partially unwritten, and it could be debated. Three issues persisted in the eighteenth century: the role of the monarch, the role of Parliament, and the role of the people and public opinion.

The monarchy was always particularly vulnerable to sex scandals because it required the legitimate procreation of heirs through royal marriages. Monarchs also stressed their personal character by using images of the king as father to justify their power. In the seventeenth century, the Stuart dynasty used patriarchal thought to legitimate its claims to absolute rule, buttressed by the theories of Robert Filmer.18 But personal scandals could undermine the image of the king as a stern patriarch-and the philosophy of absolutism that lay behind it. For instance, rumors circulated that James I bestowed patronage on his male favorite, Buckingham, because he desired him, not because he was meritorious.19 Sexual scandal played a role in destroying the reign of James II in 1688, when rumors circulated that his Catholic heir was an imposter smuggled into the queen's bed in a warming pan. This scandal contributed to the larger issues of religious conflict, royal sovereignty, and parliamentary power.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Abbreviations xiii

CHAPTER ONE Introduction 1

CHAPTER TWO Wilkes, Sexuality, and Liberty: How Scandal Transforms Politics 19

CHAPTER THREE Influence or Independence: Women and Elections, 1777-1788 53

CHAPTER FOUR Edmund Burke and the Begums of Oudh: Gender, Empire, and Public Opinion 84

CHAPTER FIVE Scandal in an Age of Revolution 113

CHAPTER SIX From Petticoat Influence to Women's Rights? 126

CHAPTER SEVEN The Mary Anne Clarke Affair and the System of Corruption 148

CHAPTER EIGHT Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of the British Constitution 177

CHAPTER NINE Sexual Scandals and Politics, Past and Present 208

Notes 225

Index 301

What People are Saying About This

Leonore Davidoff

In this original and engaging work, we are shown a series of detailed, gripping scandals and how they were instrumental in shaping the world of Georgian politics and in laying the ground for Britain's move toward a modern democracy. The stories are vividly told-the actors move across the stage in all their flawed humanity. Clark's insights into the reforming of acceptable masculine and feminine behavior and the role of sexual innuendo in struggles for power are particularly original. With the publication of Scandal, all types of political scandal, including those based on or attributed to what current opinion defines as sexual misdemeanors, will have to be taken with the seriousness they deserve, no longer written off as the quaint by-ways of history.
Leonore Davidoff, coauthor of "Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850"

James Epstein

In her fresh and exciting study, Anna Clark reframes a set of well-known episodes in British political history during the reign of George III and the Regency period. Combining political, cultural, and gender history, she demonstrates in superb fashion the importance of scandal, particularly sexual scandal, to understanding the politics of the age. Clark has written a work of originality that deserves a wide readership.
James Epstein, author of "In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain"

Beatrix Campbell

Anna Clark has pioneered research on sex, scandal, and democracy. Here she shows why scandal is not just engaging, nay fascinating, but how sexual politics is important to power, to political discourse, and the constitution, how it disturbs the fiction of public and private, and how it connects with the contradictions of everyday life-the life that we all live.
Beatrix Campbell, writer and broadcaster, author of "Diana, Princess of Wales: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy"

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