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Author Barnes, Joel Gareth

Title The tragedy of the common law: the ancient constitution in the Age of Reform, 1830-1909

Published 2017


Location Call No. Status
Physical description 1 online resource
Thesis notes Thesis (PhD thesis)-- School of Historical and Philosophical Studies 2017
Summary The method of legitimating political claims by appeal to constitutional precedent'”first developed by English common lawyers in the early seventeenth century'”was in nineteenth-century Britain an important political language among democratic reformers and popular radicals. Legalistic in its method and historical in its referents, '˜ancient constitutionalist' discourse supported narratives of constitutional history as a tragedy of decline from a lost golden age. In these dramas of dispossession and lost virtue, the prospect of structural political change was articulated as the redemptive '˜restitution' or '˜restoration' of that supposedly lost. Following the reform crisis of 1830'“32, such narratives were given up in Westminster politics, becoming almost exclusively the preserve of popular politics. Commencing with the reform crisis, and focusing on debates over reform of the franchise, the central '˜constitutional' question of the nineteenth century, I trace the termination of ancient constitutionalism among the governing classes, and its continued employment by popular radicals, by the Chartist movement, and later by women's suffrage campaigners. Primarily the ideology of the voteless, ancient constitutionalism was used by these movements as a means of justifying their claims for inclusion within constitutional structures. It was both a device of political rhetoric, and an impetus for serious historical investigation that generated novel accounts of constitutional history. The thesis offers a new narrative of the relationships between historical knowledge, political discourse and the common law in nineteenth-century Britain. I argue that ancient constitutionalist reasoning, far from becoming extinct in the early nineteenth century or merging seamlessly into the nascent professional historiography, as has sometimes been described, remained a crucial source of political legitimacy up to the '˜socialist revival' of the 1880s, and in some forms persisted into the early twentieth century.
Subject ancient constitutionalism, British history, political history, political discourse, common law, parliamentary reform, popular radicalism, Chartism, women's suffrage movement