Eighteenth-century elections are largely synonymous with corruption and debauchery, epitomised by the infamous 'rotten' and 'pocket' boroughs, and memorably represented by William Hogarth's 'Humours of an Election' series (1755). Only a small proportion of the population could vote and perhaps even fewer could exercise their vote freely. Election contests, when they were held, could be noisy, bibulous, carnivalesque occasions, fraught with coercive canvassing and marked by inducements to vote that could verge upon bribery. Elections could be expensive, turbulent, rumbustious, theatrical and carnivalesque: this was no modern democracy.
Yet parliamentary elections were fundamentally important to all, not only for the selection of MPs, but also in bestowing a sense of power and belonging (even if only temporarily), as well as in helping to form the nation's self-image, and in forging a new constitutionalist tradition. Elections not only affected, but also engaged, a wide section of the population - both those enfranchised and those not. Elections were often accompanied by an explosion of print, sermons, pamphlets, squibs and songs; there were countless ceremonies, treats, speeches, and election balls; even ceramics, dress, and decoration could be politicized. Men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, franchised and unenfranchised, could participate — as consumers, but also as active makers — in this unique cultural and political experience.
This presentation will introduce you to our three-year AHRC-funded project, Eighteenth-Century Political Participation and Electoral Culture and,specifically, to the role of postdoctoral research assistants, Drs Harris and Packham, in developing a large, complicated and ambitious piece of research that not only collects and interprets new polling data from constituencies across England 1696-1831, and works with a team of computer specialists to use innovative digital tools to make this information accessible to the general public, but also gathers additional insights through newspapers and cultural artefacts and practices, that provide insights into people's lived experiences of elections. By placing polling data in its cultural contexts, we will come to understand whether the elements of campaigning — print and processions, banquets and ballads, sashes and sermons — made a difference to political outcomes, or left any significant legacy beyond election time.
Hosted by Prof Elaine Chalus, Dr James Harris and Dr Kendra Packham
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