The Language of Politics, 1760-1850

CFP: a conference in Leeds, Sep 2008
The Language of Politics, 1760-1850: Memorials, Petitions and their Associations

A conference at the University of Leeds Humanities Research Institute

5-6 September 2008

Call for Papers

Petitions, wrote Edmund Burke in 1775, were 'the only peaceable and constitutional mode of commencing any procedure for the redress of public grievances. The presenting of a Petition was like bringing an Action; the beginning only, not the whole of the suit'. Fifty-seven years later, Cobbett reminded the first reformed House of Commons that 'the petitions of the people ought to be heard with greater attention, as it was well known that a vast majority of them had no voice in sending Members to the House . . . and how were their complaints to be heard, except by petition?' By 1832 the sheer quantity of petitions presented to the Commons threatened to overwhelm its business. On average less than 200 petitions a year were presented to Parliament in the five years ending 1789; even in the quinquennium ending 1815 the annual average was only 900, but by 1841 it was 14,000. Nor were petitions directed only at Parliament. Petitioning was an established labour relations mechanism within the Royal Dockyards and more precariously deployed by naval seamen to vent their grievances.

It seems to us especially remarkable that the language of memorials and petitions has been so neglected. In 1983 Gareth Stedman Jones made one of the earliest and most-influential English interventions in the development of the 'linguistic turn'. Specifically, he did so in relation to Chartism, emphasising how the 'autonomous weight' of the language used by the Chartists constituted a powerful continuity with eighteenth-century radical traditions, while providing little if any evidence that working-class consciousness was a motor force of the movement. There has never been a concerted attempt to examine his conjecture that the political and discursive antecedents of Chartism were more powerful in constituting the movement than the experience of industrialisation and a class-based society. The study of cultural politics has displaced the study of 'high politics' (and to some extent the politics of class). Yet literary scholarship and historical studies alike remain deaf to the language of politics at the point where it centrally constituted the discourse between, on the one hand, State and authority and, on the other, 'citizens' and 'people'.

This conference therefore provides a timely opportunity to re-examine the explanatory force of the linguistic turn within eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century politics and society (and we hope it may subsequently provide a platform for publishing a collection of essays). The study of political languages and cultures needs to embrace memorials, petitions, remonstrances and other forms of direct address to Crown, parliament or local authority. We also invite exploration of similar issues with reference to colonial assemblies. Given the conference's location, we would particularly welcome proposals that re-examine the Yorkshire Association of the 1780s.

The conference is open to researchers of any discipline with an interest in the development of the language of politics in this period. Please submit abstracts (250 words maximum) and a brief vita no later than 7 December 2007 to the organisers

* Dr Malcolm Chase, School of History - email [mailto][/mailto]
* Dr Robert Jones, School of English - email [mailto][/mailto]