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Reflections on an Essay on Public Opinion

Dr Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, King's College London

January 2017

Essay on Public Opinion, possibly in George's hand (GEO/ADD/32/1064) Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

It may be stating the obvious to point out that what was understood as constituting ‘public opinion’ in the eighteenth century bears little resemblance to the culture of opinion polls and click rates that often accompanies the term today. It rarely offered the prospect of absolute excoriation or vindication that it does for us. Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance. Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. So too could riots and revolutions. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests. To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.

It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the Essay on Public Opinion (RA GEO/ADD/32/1064–70) is particularly informative. If George III was the author of this piece (which is subject to debate), then it provides a valuable perspective on his attitude to his subjects and his apparent faith in a reasonable alignment between public opinion and the good of the nation. This work is intriguing however, regardless of speculations over its apparent authorship. It reflects both the uncertainty of its era concerning the practical implications of public opinion, and a nagging sense that we should be able to account for what the public feels, tracing the logic behind who is revered and who is forgotten. For, in the terms of this essay, public opinion is responsive in nature. Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.

A hand-coloured print featuring twelve characters from different walks of life, all of whom express their opinions on the pay of William Henry West Betty, a popular child actor of the day. The characters comments appear above their heads (albeit faintly)

Free Opinion on the Pay of Young Roscius. ©

The essay begins by defining public opinion implicitly and loosely, in contrast to the agendas of individuals on the one hand, and ‘private Societys’ [sic] on the other. All three varieties of opinion are reassuringly guided by self-interest, but the nature of such self-interest naturally varies in each instance. The public, according to the author, occupies itself with matters of general concern – ‘Politics, War, Legislation, Arts & Sciences’ – though in doing so it is prone to celebrate mediocre and accessible talents over exceptional and remote ones.

This is a fairly convenient distinction but not necessarily a false one. It is startling how closely the language at this point in the essay anticipates current debates about the value of expertise in public life and the ease with which highly specialised knowledge can best be communicated to the public as a whole. We might assume, based on the opening of the essay, that its author is building towards a dismissal of the public’s good judgement and a condemnation of its influence on political life. The essay notes the distorting effects of public favour, the tendency to elevate ‘colossal Figure[s]’ that appear ‘monstrous’ when examined more closely. Later in the essay the author highlights particular blind spots in the way that public opinion identifies its champions: the fact that it claims to care about virtues like honesty and heroism, but locates these less in actions themselves and more in relation to ‘the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society receiv’d by it’. Yet while the essay is filled with examples of the public getting things wrong, the overarching intention of the work is not to rubbish the force of public opinion because of these lapses. On the contrary, it is to argue for the sound, self-interested basis of the public’s judgements, to insist on its fundamental rationality and to assert the proper value of public opinion when it is effectively balanced against other considerations. For the time, this seems an impressively sophisticated and enlightened view to adopt; not to claim that the public is always right, but to acknowledge that its opinions are at least derived, logically and inevitably, from its sense of its own interests rather than from thoughtless partiality.

Towards the end of the essay, the author considers why the public generally esteems architects more highly than builders and the ‘Art of Agriculture’ more highly than the ploughman who puts it into practice. The reason is not that the public is oblivious to its own needs, but that it considers some people replaceable while others are not. As modern readers, we may well be appalled by the blunt, mercenary logic of this argument, but at its heart is a surprisingly useful and progressive idea: that public opinion, however vaguely defined, might be appreciated for its discrimination and its insight without its dictating the entire structure of society.

Download the essay as a PDF