Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Still not finished with the Levellers

Work in Progress (Introduction, rewritten) 26 Feb 2009

The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

G.W. Hegel, Preface to The Philosophy of Right, 1820

Meanwhile, we too admit that the present is an important time; as all present time necessarily is. The poorest Day that passes over us is the conflux. of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand.

Thomas Carlyle wrote these words at Craigenputtock in Upper Nithsdale in 1829. Having looked calmly around him, Carlyle decided to characterise his age as the Mechanical Age. As an age when “ the shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster.”; an age when “the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead”; an age when “for all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances.”. Yet the actual scene upon which Carlyle looked so calmly around was one of open moorland and rough grazing, rising up in the west towards the Rhinns of Kells and the 2650 feet summit of Corserine. A scene little changed since 26 July 1649 when William Maxwell and his accomplices stole a bull and eleven cows out of Craigenputtock.2 The livestock belonged to Lancelot Wellsh, an ancestor of Carlyle's wife Jane Welsh whose family still owned Craigenputtock.

On more careful examination, the Mechanical Age had already left its traces on this landscape. The irregular earth, turf and rough stone dykes which had sufficed to separate Lancelot Wellsh's cattle and sheep from his crops of oats and bere had been replaced by mile upon mile of neat but strongly built Galloway dykes. In the uplands, these drystane dykes marched in straight lines across the moors to the summits of the hills, enclosing sheep walks measured in square miles rather than acres. Lower down in Nithsdale and in the valleys of the Urr and Dee in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, dykes and hedges were more concentrated, imposing a rectangular network of enclosures upon the farmed landscape. Most regular of all was the rectangular grid pattern of streets in the new towns of Castle Douglas and Gatehouse of Fleet, both of which were familiar to Carlyle.

The 'mechanism' which left its enduring trace upon this landscape combined mathematical knowledge with instrument makers' skills in the science of surveying.3 The first sign of these new times to mark the landscape of Galloway was a 2 km long canal, cut in a straight line across Carlingwark Moss in Kelton parish in 1765. Barges used the canal to carry marl, a lime rich clay used as a fertiliser, along the rivers Dee and Ken as far as New Galloway 25 km upstream. To supply the canal with water, a cutting was made into Carlingwark Loch, lowering it by 3 m. The marl was extracted from the loch “by means of boats and ballast bags, wrought with a wheel”4 - the 'bag and spoon' form of dredging.

Such rude mechanisms were scarcely more sophisticated than the oxen drawn Old Scots Plough which was in use at Keltonhill (overlooking Carlingwark Loch) in 1663 when the farm was set in tack for five years. The farm was owned by Thomas Hutoune of neighbouring Arkland who agreed to work the 'equal half' of Keltonhill with John Garmorie. This form of joint or 'half-manner' working between owner and tenant was unique to Galloway.5 As well as providing Garmorie with nine loads of seed corn and the food for five oxen for the first year, Hutoune also provided Garmorie with a set of “ploughe irones...and ane ploughe” which were to be returned in “good estate” on the expiry of the tack.6 As late as 1793 such ploughs were still used in Wigtownshire, but were progressively displaced by the development of James Small's plough after 1767. A critical stage in the development of Small's plough occurred in 1780 when the Carron Iron Company produced a cast iron mouldboard for Small. Ploughs entirely made of iron soon followed. Now one or two horses could do the work of a team of eight or ten oxen; or the four horses abreast which were used with a lighter version of the Old Scots Plough.7

As the oxen powered Old Sots Plough passed into history, so too did the long, broad 'rigs' it created. This shift facilitated the rationalisation of the lowland landscape of Dumfries and Galloway, permitting the rectangular sub-division of farms into blocks of small enclosed fields. Only with the smaller, more mobile and more efficient horse drawn iron plough could such fields be cultivated. Such field still had to be ploughed up into narrow rigs to provide drainage, until, around the time Carlyle was writing in 1829, the use of tile drains allowed the levelling of even these rigs. Once the rigs had been levelled, the Mechanical Age replaced the 'bandwin of shearers' 8 with reaping machines. The first successful design for such a machine was patented by Cyrus McCormick in America in 1834.9

In 1805, John Gladstone of Castle Douglas had unsuccessfully attempted to produce a reaping machine. Gladstone had more success with a threshing machine which he invented, selling 200 between 1794 and 1810. The first successful threshing machine had been built in 1786 by Andrew Meikle of Know Mill in East Lothian and by 1811 threshing machines had spread as far north as Sutherland.10 Powered by wind, water, horses and later steam, such machines replaced the flail and the threshing floor on larger farms, especially in grain growing districts like East Lothian as described by William Cobbett in 1832 :

Here we entered into what is called East Lothian...and such corn-fields, such fields of turnips, such turnips in those fields, such stack-yards, and such a total absence of dwelling-houses, as never, surely, were before seen in any country upon earth. You very frequently see more than a hundred stacks in one yard, each containing, on an average, from fifteen to twenty English quarters of wheat or of oats... In some of these yards the thrashing-machine is worked by horses, but in the greater part by steam ; and where the coals are at a distance, by wind or by water; so that in this country of the finest land that ever was seen, all the elements seem to have been pressed into the amiable service of sweeping the people from the face of the earth...11

Cobbett had a particular interest in threshing machine. Cobbett “ had left the southern English counties in that year [1832] smouldering on the edge of social war, with ricks being burnt, new machinery destroyed, men transported and in a few cases executed for their part in the destruction of property…Cobbett came north to find out why the Scots were quiet while the English burnt the ricks.”.12 These 'Captain Swing' riots of 1830/31 saw a wave of rick burning and destruction of threshing machines extending across southern England from Norfolk to Dorset, whilst isolated outbreaks occurred from Cornwall to Cumberland. Cobbett himself “was later actually tried and acquitted for instigating the movement”.13 As Cobbett recognised, threshing machines had an impoverishing effect on farm labourers who had previously been able to earn money by hand threshing during the winter months. Such activity “could amount to a quarter of the entire annual labour requirements of the farm.”.14 Cobbett was also infuriated by those Scots, like Dr John Black, editor of the Morning Chronicle who held up the 'quiet submission' of Scots labourers as an example for their English compatriots to follow.

Dr. Black (who is spoken of with great respect here)...holds out the labourers of Scotland as an example to be followed by the chopsticks [farm labourers] of the South.... he talks of the ignorance of my countrymen, the chopsticks ; he imputes the fires [rick burning] to their ignorance and not to a sense of their wrongs; he contrasts their turbulent behaviour with the quiet submission of the labourers of Scotland, whom he represents as being WELL OFF in consequence of their fewness in number; he ascribes the suffering of the labourers of England to the excess of their numbers, and not to the weight of the taxes and the low wages which those taxes compel the farmer to wish to pay.15

As well as Dr. Black of the Morning Chronicle, Cobbett also railed against the 'Scotch feelosophers' (as he called them) of the Edinburgh Review including 'McCulloch'.16 This was John Ramsay McCulloch (1789-1864). After editing the Scotsman between 1817 and 1820, McCulloch promoted David Ricardo's theories of political economy through articles in the Edinburgh Review and his own book Principles of Political Economy (1825), a “lucid and popular restatement of the classical economic theory of Smith and, more especially, Ricardo...”.17 Carlyle, who had met McCulloch in Edinburgh in 1822 through Thomas Murray, a mutual friend, seems to have shared Cobbett's mistrust of McCulloch; Carlyle described McCulloch as “sitting like a great polar Bear, chewing and vainly trying to digest the doctrines of Aadam [sic] Smith and Ricardo which he means to vomit forth again next spring in the shape of lectures to the “thinking public” of this city.” 18

What both Carlyle at Craigenputtock in 1829 and Cobbett on his tour of Scotland in 1832 realised was that the outward signs of the Mechanical Age reflected profound changes which were taking place within society. Changes which were transforming even the age -old customary relationships of rural farming communities. Cobbett could see these changes happening in rural England. Cobbett convinced himself that the pernicious doctrines of Malthus and Ricardo were a major part of the problem and resented the promotion of these doctrines by 'Scotch feelosophers' like J.R. McCulloch and Dr. Black. From his nationalistic perspective, Cobbett was outraged when the quiescence of Scots farm labourers was favourably compared to the 'ignorance' of English farm labourers who smashed threshing machines and burnt ricks rather than meekly accept the iron laws of political economy.

Cobbett completed the Scottish part of his tour by travelling down Nithsdale (admiring its woods and orchards) to Dumfries where he gave lecture. He hoped to meet “Mrs. Burns” in Dumfries, since Cobbett believed that a single page of Burns writings was worth more than a cart-load of Water Scott's, but with Dumfries suffering from an outbreak of cholera he hurried on to Annan and the Border. His last observation on Scotland was a comment that the Marquis of Queensberry had 'cleared' one of his estates near Annan. Cobbett wished that he knew more about this instance of a 'Lowland Clearance' . This sets the tone for the final section of his Tour where Cobbett, the campaigning journalist, concludes a discussion of the Highlands with a request for information on the Sutherland Clearances.

I do not like to conclude without saying something relative to the treatment of the people of the county of Sutherland which is the most northern county of the Highlands... My readers will recollect what was said at the time about the " Clearing" of this county by the Countess of that name, and by her husband, the Marquis of Stafford. I wish to possess authentic information relative to that Clearing-affair ; for, though it took place twenty years ago, it may be just as necessary minutely to inquire into it now. It may be quite proper to inquire into the means that were used to effect the Clearing ; and if any one will have the goodness to point out to me the authentic sources of information on the subject, I shall be extremely obliged to him.19

Cobbett died in 1835, by which time Carlyle had left the rural isolation of Craigenputtock for London, the 'great wen' 20 as Cobbett described it. In London, Carlyle extended and developed the Mechanical Age theme of Signs of the Times into his critique of political economy as the 'dismal science'. 21 But, as Friederich Engels noted in 1850, Carlyle's critique of the (Mechanical) present was “strangely unhistorical”.

To Thomas Carlyle belongs the credit of having taken the literary field against the bourgeoisie at a time when its views, tastes and ideas held the whole of official English literature totally in thrall, and in a manner which is at times even revolutionary. For example, in his history of the French Revolution, in his apology for Cromwell, in the pamphlet on Chartism and in Past and Present. But in all these writings the critique of the present is closely bound up with a strangely unhistorical apotheosis of the Middle Ages, which is a frequent characteristic of other English revolutionaries too, for instance Cobbett and a section of the Chartists. Whilst he at least admires in the past the classical periods of a specific stage of society, the present drives him to despair and he shudders at the thought of the future. 22

He blamed these changes upon . Adopting a nationalistic perspective, Cobbett was outraged by these 'feelosophers', who, having imposed the pernicious doctrines of Malthus and Ricardo upon the quiescent Scots farm workers, accused the English 'chopsticks' of ignorance when they rose up against the impoverishing threshing machines. Carlyle was later to coin the phrase 'cash nexus' to signify this change, a coinage given circulation by Marx.

Our favourite Philosophers have no love and no hatred; they stand among us not to do, nor to create anything, but as a sort of Logic mills, to grind out the true causes and effects of all that is done and created. To the eye of a Smith a Hume or a Constant, all is well that works quietly.
Scotch feelosophers cobbett's weekly journal p.137/8 vol lviii 1826 London

Mr. It. continued—He had long been a constant reader of Mr. Cobbett'a writings, he knew him intimately, and well. He had visited him in his house in E«g- land, and so great was his hospitality, that in travelling together into the country, he would not permit him, Mr. Ronayne, to pay one farthing of i. travelling or tavern expenses, saying that as long as he was in Eagtand, he considered him to be his goest (Cheers). He had suffered for them line, imprisonment, and banishment. (Cheers, long-continued). He was the firm, constant, and unswerving friend of the poor, and his exertion to save the life of the unfortunate ('ashman will long be remembered. The great instructor of the people. He was their unanswerable writer, and their practical teacher. He instructed them how to cultivate their minds, and he equally taught them the culture of their gardens and their fields. He simplified -the rudiments of knowledge, and divested education of its labour and its pedantry, and he was equally successful in >hi» cottage and his political economy. (Cheers). He, it was, who first combated and crushed the Scotch " Ceelo- sofers"ofthe Edinburgh Review, exposed and refuted these mystifier*, anil all the other knaves, or blockheads, or sophists of the Malthusiao, the M'Cu'- loch, the Ricardo, and the Huskianu schools, upon the all-important subject! P233 cob pol reg
lxxvi oct 4 dec 7 1834 london

Cobbett W : Weekly Journal (London 1834) Vol. lxxxvi p.233
The 'new machinery' The physical labour they saved s
Quote Cobbett barrackse etc - but also 'scotch feelosophers' – McCulloch Ricardo.- Kennedy Adam Smith. Impact – Swing riots > Smout > Levellers

Levellers > 'colonisation' land ->”improve” rents > Irish 1760 Atlantic trade/ India cotton

In Scotland introduction accepted, in England quote p 74 Captain Swing and >Cobbett