This upcoming first weekend in March, I will be found in Las Vegas, Nevada. No, not gambling, but delivering the following abbreviated, fifteen-minute presentation to numerous British scholars at the PCCBS conference (Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies). I know, Las Vegas is no where near the Pacific… hey, but I didn’t organize this event! Nonetheless, this 2,300 word presentation comes from a 23,000 word chapter. Talk about your editing. Hope it’s coherent, and – as always – this is copyrighted material.

Byng, Dearth, and Morality (about a fifteen minute read)

The last chapter of my dissertation carries the title, “Byng, Dearth, and Morality.” I have the unenviable task of reducing a 23,000 word chapter down to a 15 minute presentation, so if there are any gaps in my telling before you – forgive me. For those of you not familiar with the Byng Affair, Admiral John Byng was executed in Portsmouth on the 14th of March, 1757. After acquittals of cowardice and disaffection, Byng was found guilty of not doing one’s utmost. Voltaire wrote famously of Byng’s subsequent execution in Candide – apparently in Britain they kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.

During the admiral’s arrest, captivity, and trial; effigy burnings against Byng occurred, by my count, some 36 times. But these burnings were not the only expressions of discontent in the English nation: it just so happened that Britain came into a food shortage crisis. Thus, protests against Byng occurred side by side with riots over the lack of food. If one were to read the rhetoric over Byng and the dearth one is struck by a huge commonality – morality – or as Dr. John Brown put it, the manners and principles of the whole. A deeper look reveals that the moral charges levied against Byng and dearth involved luxury.

"A Late Epistle to Mr. C__" depicts naughty British officers dressed in a foppish French style surrounded by luxurious fine china.

“A Late Epistle to Mr. C__” depicts naughty British officers dressed in a foppish French style surrounded by luxurious fine china.

Take this depiction of a print labeled “A Late Epistle to Mr. C——d”, the admiral is seen holding a “Cabin Council” aboard his flag ship, the Ramillies. All the officers are dressed in foppish French attire. The bulkheads adorned with fine china, replete with a bust of Byng situated above his head labeled “Porcelain.”[1] For those who claimed that luxury inflicted evils upon the nation, John Byng’s arrest and awaited trial provided moralists and enthusiasts ample fodder to shore up such an assertion. Thus, Byng, as viewed through the press, personified the ill effects of luxury’s debate.[2] For example; according the Edinburgh Evening Courant, the stupefied nature of the country, caused entirely by “Luxury and Indolence,” kept “the Great” in “Party disputes” so as “not to exert themselves to the utmost…”[3] the very foundation upon which Byng’s execution was later carried out. In a ballad, “The Block and Yard Arm,” both Byng and Newcastle are charged with luxury’s crimes:

To pay thy Duns off and replenish thy Chest,
To wallow in Lux’ry, and feather thy Nest,
If thy Country is ruined thou thinkst it no matter,
So B— to Minorca and flighted the latter.[4]

It’s also telling that Robin Hood emerged in chapbook form during these days of dearth. Robin Hood had appeared in folklore through song, verse, and ballad for over five centuries. But in 1757, The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood was printed in London. Unsurprisingly, the story of Robin Hood was updated to mirror the times: for not only was the semi-mythic hero endowed “with a great deal of Love and Charity to the Poor,” but was “as great an Enemy to the Misers and Engrossers of Corn.”[5] That chapbooks targeted readers of lesser means, the messaging of the dearth of 1756-7 by way of Robin Hood, reinforced the paternal patchwork between the lower ranks and their perceived lords in the English countryside.

Further, historian James Raven states that between Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714) and John Brown’s Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757), “luxury” occupied the mentalités throughout these decades.[6] Indeed, even prior to Mandeville, the role of luxury had become a know topic among men of letters. Nicholas Barbon’s 1690 Discourse on Trade made a valiant attempt to unhitch luxury from centuries of Christian moralization. Barbon’s efforts, however, seemed to rather light a fire under Christian moralists. The adherence that luxury was a sin to the national fabric remained steadfast throughout most of the eighteenth century and was particularly strong during the Great Awakening which most assuredly overrode Mandeville’s contribution to the subject.[7] Both Adam Smith and David Hume seemed to bristle at luxury’s debate. Smith regarded “those melancholy moralists”[8] with quick suspicion. In his 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith condemned the practice of moralists from “perpetually reproaching us with our happiness.”[9] David Hume also took umbrage over luxury’s debate. As he stated in Of Refinement in the Arts, luxury may be “innocent” or “vicious” but in no way could it be “exactly fixed, more than in any other moral subjects.” Hume levied a scathing attack against “moralists” and their positions on luxury. “To imagine, that the gratifying of any sense, or the indulging of any delicacy in meat, drink, or apparel, is of itself a vice, can never enter into a head that is not disordered by the frenzies of enthusiasm.” [10] Yet, the overwhelming evidence suggests that moral indignation against luxury was a mid-eighteenth-century reality, and that religious clerics pressed upon this point. Anglican minister Dr. John Brown used the dearth of 1756-7 to address luxury – not along moral lines – but economic. Brown argued that manners and morality, akin to husbandry (or œconomics), were something worth cultivating, something to employ so as to keep the national house in order.[11]

Perhaps, then, E.P. Thompson was correct in claiming an eighteenth-century economy as moralistic.[12] Take this excerpt from Lloyd’s Evening Post:

Plymouth, Oct. 7. … it is hoped our corporation will follow the example of Chatham, having mills of their own, erected by the great Sir Francis Drake, once Mayor of this town, in good Queen Bess’s days, and can soon build a bakehouse and hire a good baker, which will effectually prevent the millers from grinding the face of the poor, as lately has been done.[13]

Imagine, Lloyd’s Evening Post, a merchant-driven newspaper, and it just made a serious suggestion to London’s corporation to follow Chatham’s lead. London! The city of commerce, trade, and empire: here, lectured by a merchant paper to follow the “moral” economy of old at a time of dearth.

In reality, the 1750s represented the full commodification of grains. Clearly, corn now existed as a national product well before it became a regional one. Additionally, through the use of the bounty system, corn was certainly a state commodity prioritized for international markets ahead of local or regional concerns.[14]

Further, national and international corn trade continued to chip away at ancient paternal relationships between landed gentry and rural poor. In the mind’s eye of the rural peasantry, custom still ranked above the new economic stratagems of supply and demand.[15] There existed a palpable fear that trade and wealth, commerce and banking proceeded hither and thither without due deference to moral obligations.

Here, then, Tory paternalists associated alongside plebeian demands for a return to œconomic orders rather than a perceived headlong rush into economic disorders.[16] As E. P. Thompson suggests, the 1750s represented “a more active, consenting alliance” between the provincial gentry and the crowd where both demanded a return to an older set of economic, social, and political reciprocities.[17] Further, that it was here in the 1750s where paternal obligations most assuredly clashed with the “mercantilist imperative to maximize the export of grain.”[18] Thus, paternal relations, rather than political obligations, may have dictated the Byng protests outside of London. The rural gentry, in order to promote stability, may have donated funds for the dressing of effigies, or even participated in the Byng protests out of self-interest, which harkens back to Thompson’s observation that the gentry were often the prisoners of the people.[19] In this scenario, then, with Byng’s name being spread by balladeers, sermonizers, and an unrelenting press; the admiral may have become akin to a Boxing Day celebration.[20] The dearth exposed the fragility of those paternal systems, and Byng’s arrest located within a rumor-riddled world allowed an out, a safety-valve of sorts, a means by which both landed gentry and the rural poor could find common ground regarding both the evils of a nationalized corn trade and a salve to heal the Empire’s open wound caused by Minorca’s loss. Argument and rhetoric began to anchor themselves on the twin evils of dearth and Byng. Both the internal and domestic problems of food and dearth were wedded to the external and international problems of trade, alliances, and empire: not separated as past scholarly accounts have the habit of doing.

For example: the pamphlet A Compendium of the Corn Trade questioned the morality of Britain’s leaders in regard to the use of Hessian and Hanoverian troops brought over to defend the island, especially in the face of a national dearth. In mocked tone, A Compendium chided “the Fear of Apprehension of an Invasion from France, [which] occasioned a Contract for Foreign Troops, and consequently a Necessity of providing for them…” Foreign troops on English soil in sum with captured French prisoners, added to the “calculated Account of the Consumption … to about 30,000 Men a Day…”  The war effort, in supplying victuals for the “Stores for the Military Magazines,” prompted contractors to unite with engrossers “under the Sanction of Power.” Contractors were then alleged to have “adventur’d to the utmost Extent of their Cash or Credit… constantly attentive to the Markets, the Corn Jobbers, their Agents or factors…” further driving up the price of corn and creating an artificial scarcity.[21] “Engrossing, regrating, amassing and retaining” were found to “be unreasonable…” a certain malpractice set “to destroy…”[22]

Still, from the point of view of the starving poor, if the scarcity of food was manufactured as was often alleged, then it’s because of men who possessed a complete lack of morals: and herein John Byng was resolutely joined up with engrossers, regrators, millers, bakers, jobbers, and the like: the two were one in the same. That Byng was the son of a peer, a Member of Parliament, and somewhat wealthy allowed plebeian imaginations to easily associate luxury upon the admiral with apparent ease. The press, in a competitive, capitalistic environment, in search of additional readers, obliged. Take this example from the Worcester Journal of July of 1756:

A modern Philosopher says, that Avarice is big with all Sorts of Villainy, among which Cowardice must be included, for although a covetous rich Coward will strain hard, lye, swear, to get or save Sixpence, with Safety of Life, yet when that is in Danger, his ruling Passion, being the Love of that demeaning Metal Gold; Honour, Glory, the Good of Society, the Love of his Country are as Nothing to him.[23]

The greed of engrossers was readily blended to the alleged cowardice of Admiral Byng. In short, little distinction was made between those whose occupation was one of trade or whose job it was to defend or lead the nation. The attacks against those allegedly responsible for the dearth and for those against Admiral John Byng sprung from the same moral grounds.


[1] It was then alleged that Byng collected Wedgewood and other fine pieces of porcelain from throughout the empire.

[2] According to Sekora, by mid-century, the British periodical press provided ample verification of a culture steeped in anti-luxury rhetoric woven amidst patriotic appeals. See, Sekora, 155.

[3] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 11 September 1756.

[4] “The Block and Yard Arm,” (London, 1756)

[5] The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood, Earl of Huntingdon (London: Henry Woodgate, 1757), 34.

[6] James Raven, “Defending Conduct and Property: The London press and the luxury debate,” in Early Modern Conceptions of Property, eds., John Brewer and Susan Staves (London: Routledge, 1995), 301. See also the introduction to, Stilling the Grumbling Hive: The Response to Social and Economic Problems in England, 1689-1750, editors Lee Davison, Tim Hitchcock, Tim Keirn, and Robert Shoemaker (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992),  xvi-xvii.

[7] Christopher J. Berry, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 126.

[8] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: 1759), 215.

[9] Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 215-17.

[10] See Hume’s “Of Refinement in the Arts,” and “Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” for his views on luxury, morality, and the state. Quotes comes from, David Hume: Writings on Economics, edited by Eugene Rotwein, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970), 19.

[11] John Brown, Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (London, 1757), 196-202.

[12] E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, no. 50 (February 1971), 76-136.

[13] Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle, 10-12 October 1757. See also, London Evening Post, 11-13 October 1757; Read’s Weekly Journal, 10-12 October 1757.

[14] Richard Sheldon, “Practical Economics in Eighteenth-Century England: Charles Smith on the Grain Trade and Corn Laws, 1756-72,” Historical Research, vol. 81, no. 214 (November 2008), 636-662.

[15] Both prices and wages were hawkishly watched by those from below to maintain their defined standards of basic human needs. See, Robert W. Malcolmson, “Workers’ Combinations in Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, (London: Humanities Press, 1984), 170.

[16] As Richard Sheldon described it, economics in the early part of the eighteenth century remained mired in husbandry: an activity of management, something performed to keep one’s house/estate in order . See Richard Sheldon “Artificial Scarcity” (unpublished manuscript, 2012), 29.

[17] E. P. Thompson, Customs in Commons, 79.

[18] E. P. Thompson, Customs in Commons, 269.

[19] Rogers provides ample proof of this, “Some of the anti-Byng demonstrations were certainly orchestrated from above. At Southampton it was reported that the effigy-hanging had been sponsored by ‘Persons of the best rank’. At Stokesly in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the anti-Byng skimmington was organized by a club of local gentlemen; in North Shields by master mariners.” Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics, 61. Thompson stated that the presence of so many of the poor in the countryside “impinged very generally upon eighteenth-century government and thought, and did not only intrude at moments of disturbance,” See Thompson, “Moral Economy,” 79.

[20] It may have worked the other way, local gentry supplying Byng’s name and effigy during the food crisis to act as a sort of safety valve to release tensions. Helpful in this matter is Frank O’Gorman’s essay “The Paine Burnings of 1792-1793,” Past & Present, no. 193 (November 2006), 111-55.

[21] A Compendium of the Corn Trade, 7-8.

[22] A Compendium of the Corn Trade, 6.

[23] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 8 July 1756.