Britain’s eighteenth-century meritocrats on the march

Meritocracy is a major theme in my new book, The Georgians: the deeds and misdeeds of eighteenth-century Britain (Yale UP, January 2022). In this era, individuals from relatively modest backgrounds were winning national fame and influence in greater numbers than ever before.

Some became as well known as the monarchs who ruled over them. Just a few examples of people who became ‘names’ include: the pundit Dr Samuel Johnson (son of a Lichfield bookseller); the actor David Garrick (son of an army captain of French Huguenot descent); the physicist Isaac Newton (a posthumous son, reared in the household of a clerical step-father); the Irish actor Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington (daughter of a Dublin bricklayer); Captain James Cook (son of a farm labourer); and Emma, Lady Hamilton (daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith who died shortly after her birth).

Self-portrait of Swiss painter and writer on art, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), a meritocratic artist’s son, who made a successful career in Britain. His pose is intense and meditative, as though asking: ‘What does it all mean?’ (Henry Fuseli, Self-portrait (c.1780), in Victoria & Albert Museum, Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collection, accession number: E.1028-1918).

All these ‘names’ became renowned not for their lands, titles, and money but for their own deeds – those resulting, in the case of Emma Hamilton, from her mix of sexual and personal charisma, social notoriety, and successful social climbing. And there were plenty more Georgian meritocrats, in a great many walks of life. I’ve listed fully 300 leading names in my new website Georgian Witnesses (section 16), which has been devised as web-companion to my book.

To be sure, social ‘arrivistes’ like these were not an entirely new phenomenon. There were individual examples of successful meritocrats in earlier times. In particular, the church and the army had always recruited a certain number of ‘outsider’ men of talent. In a pitched battle, for example, it was a definite advantage to have commanders who knew how to fight (and, better still, to win).

Yet, in the commercialising and urbanising world of Georgian Britain, many more ‘outsider’ men – and a smaller number of women – were coming to the fore in a much expanded range of roles. They did not displace the power of the great landowners and plutocrats. Indeed, a number of able but impecunious meritocrats were protégés of the rich.

But individuals within the new ‘Aristocracy of Talent’, as they were termed in 1809 by the poet-turned-sage Samuel Taylor Coleridge (son of a clergyman), were not averse from singing their own praises. And, by extension, they were de facto challenging the socio-political claims of all talentless aristocrats.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a new literature was publicly lauding individuals from modest backgrounds who had made their own way in the world. These newcomers should be the real recipients of social honour, it was argued. Thus A Treatise on merit (London, 1748) observed pointedly that: ‘If it is advantageous to be born Noble, ’tis far more so to ennoble one’s self’.

This trenchant observation came in an anonymous text, allegedly translated from the French. Its full title was A Treatise on merit: calculated to correct the vain, improve the modest, and encourage the deserving. In that spirit, the anonymous author was less than polite about the British peerage. It was sufficiently unusual for such sharp criticisms to appear in respectable texts that the translator added (in brackets) an emollient apology: ‘(the reader will remember that the author was a foreigner)’.

Meanwhile, home-grown writers were also growing bold. ‘TITLES and that eye-catching pomp of state / May draw the mob, but can’t esteem create’, suggested a poet in 1746. He further added that ‘All men in merit are, or may be, great’ (Merit. A satire, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, Dublin, 1746).

Remarks such as these tended to come from educated members of the metropolitan intelligentsia. They wrote as much to boost their own morale as to challenge the social structure directly. They praised individuals with exceptional abilities who used them for social good. And while these ‘merit-boosting’ tracts were not calling for revolution, they were notably cool about external rank and inherited titles.

A particularly explicit statement of this credo was published in 1735 by an anonymous common lawyer. He declared firmly that: ‘Personal Merit is the only true Nobility; and the Lord who inherits the Dignities without the Virtues of his Ancestors, is but a despicable Creature.’ Interestingly, but not surprisingly, many of these early pronouncements in favour of personal merit were penned anonymously. Their message did not call for social revolution, but was liable to be feared as dangerously radical by traditionalists.

A range of laudatory terms were pressed into service. ‘Worth’ was initially popular. ‘Talent’ was another, being safer than pure ‘genius’ (which was generally acknowledged to be rare). And ‘merit’ too was becoming increasingly common in these eighteenth-century discussions. Notably, these terms were all gender-neutral. Those who expressed liberal views about the location of social value tended also to have liberal views about female abilities. In 1711, for example, The Spectator – the very new progressive-liberal magazine – referred to a ‘woman of merit’, without intending any controversy. It was true that, in context, the reference was to social as well as personal status.

Nevertheless, growing numbers were willing to make the case explicitly in favour of female brainpower. An anonymous feminist asserted confidently in 1780: ‘Good sense is of no gender.’ And the long title of her tract said it all: Female restoration, by a moral and physical vindication of female talents; in opposition to all dogmatical assertions relative to disparity in the sexes … by a Lady. Clearly, she recognised that not all agreed with her sentiments. But the expansion of female literacy and learning was giving educated women access to the eighteenth-century print media, where they could stake their claims. (But note that the author of this trumpet-blast also found it prudent to remain anonymous.)

In a related vein, a novel in 1784 provided a radical exhortation to social advancement across class barriers. It took the form of love letters between ‘a lady of quality’ and her suitor from an ‘inferior station’. The ‘lowly’ lover hesitates to press his suit. But in Letter 33 the lady encourages him, with a paean of praise for social mobility: ‘My ancestors may have quitted the plough-share and the pruning hook a century before yours – and there is all the mighty difference between us. In China, where superior learning and virtue procure nobility, you would have been a noble of the first class. There is no rank to which superior merit and great talents may not aspire.’

With neat historical irony, the author of this bold novel, William Combe, was himself downwardly socially mobile. He had become burdened by debts, after living beyond his means. Combe’s general message, however, was clear. And his reference to China was highly significant. Fuelled by travellers’ reports, scholars were fascinated by the meritocratic reputation of the Chinese mandarinate. This body provided the nation’s civil service, as founded by the tenth-century Song Emperor Taizu. The Mandarins were scholar-bureaucrats, chosen by competitive examination to provide rational rule, replacing the old militarised aristocracy. In fact, the Western interpretation of China’s system was highly idealised. Wily Chinese landowners found various ingenious ways of getting their sons through the examinations and into office. Yet the concept of rational authority and the rule of brainpower struck a strongly sympathetic chord with Western liberals.

Furthermore, the Chinese case gave British advocates of advancement by merit the great support of being able to cite a real-life example. In that way, they could escape accusations of unrealism. An appeal to ‘China’ invoked the status of a distant but historic power in support of change. And, while they took a considerable time to succeed, these liberal voices were harbingers of later campaigns for universal education (including for women), for extending the franchise, and for career advancement by merit, rather than by blue-blood, title, lands, or money.

One visible pledge of changing social attitudes in eighteenth-century Britain was the gradual spread of the handshake. Initially adopted between men in commercial circles – and by the socially radical Quakers – this egalitarian greeting was becoming more commonplace. By 1800 women might also shake hands in certain specific circumstances. (Reread Jane Austen.) This behavioural change was, moreover, spreading outwards and upwards from ‘middling’ commercial circles, rather than starting from the ‘top’ and trickling downwards. Changes were in hand (literally).

Britons in the eighteenth century were living in an era of invention, exploration, creativity and learning (including learning about things which went wrong). All very exciting. However, before painting too rosy a picture, it is worth reflecting that open and competitive societies, which encourage advancement by merit, also generate disappointment on the part of those who have high hopes but fail to ‘make it’.

Meritocratic pathways were not open to all. Those who were chronically impoverished and illiterate had little serious chance of competing. Indeed, that point was stressed in 1751 in the famous Elegy by the poet Thomas Gray (the son of a scrivener, or professional letter-writer for the illiterate). Unnumbered masses were unable to develop their full potential. Talents were unfairly muzzled. Some who might have become great poets were thus consigned to live, in Gray’s memorably vivid phrase, as ‘mute inglorious Miltons’.

Numerous educated women also faced obstacles. A powerful and traditional conservatism persisted alongside liberal hopes. Hence, within the optimism of advancing meritocracy, there was some bitterness from individuals with thwarted hopes – many of them being women. The rising tide did not lift all equally. To take one example, in 1759 the poet and novelist Clara Reeve (daughter of a clergyman) lamented that her ambitions had been crushed. Like too many clever women, then and later, she found it socially advisable to pretend to be silly. ‘These talents, that were once my pride, / I find it requisite to hide; / For what in man is most respected, / In woman’s form shall be rejected.’ And the title of her bitter poem explained that she was writing to warn a female friend who had argued ‘In Favour of the natural equality of both the sexes …’.

Voices such as these – happy, sad, optimistic, pessimistic – survive in abundance from this period of spreading literacy. They contributed to the open and argumentative society that impressed the young Voltaire, during his stay in 1726-28. Substantive change, with its paradoxical achievements of signal deeds and unpalatable misdeeds, is the motif of the era. Hence both the sub-title and the core theme of my study of The Georgians – as the eighteenth-century meritocrats set out on the march.

Penelope J. Corfield

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