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Stop the Squeal: Oxfordshire’s Dirty Election

In the year since rioters failed to nullify the 2020 US presidential election, commentators have ...

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Early Modern PeriodOxfordPolitics & PowerResearch & Opinion

Stop the Squeal: Oxfordshire’s Dirty Election

In the year since rioters failed to nullify the 2020 US presidential election, commentators have ...

return to all posts

Early Modern PeriodOxfordPolitics & PowerResearch & Opinion

In the year since rioters failed to nullify the 2020 US presidential election, commentators have dutifully picked through American history in search of precedents. Critics have drawn parallels with the municipal coup carried out by white supremacists in Wilmington in 1898 and attempts to block the certification of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, whereas the attackers have likened themselves to the revolutionaries of 1776.[1] Throughout, the crisis of American democracy has generally been attributed to the country’s unique cocktail of problems, such as political hyper-polarisation, an obsessive gun culture, and the bitter legacy of slavery.[2] Nonetheless, it is worth looking beyond narratives of American exceptionalism, for echoes can be found even in a sleepy English shire two decades before the USA’s founding. On that occasion, there were no fur-clad ‘shamans’ posing for the cameras, but the defining image of the 1754 Oxfordshire election was, if anything, even stranger: a stampede of demon-possessed swine.

Photo montage showing on the left side a painting detail with pigs jumping off a bridge and on the right a topless man wearing a furred headdress with horns and holding a US flag.
Detail from William Hogarth, ‘Chairing the Member’ (1758), alongside so-called ‘QAnon Shaman’ Jake Angeli

At first glance, the circumstances behind the vote in Oxfordshire seem a world away from contemporary American disputes. Rather than all-consuming partisan rivalry, the defining feature of mid-eighteenth-century English politics was a habit of uneasy compromise. The ‘rage of party’ which had followed the emergence of Britain’s first modern political factions – the Tories and the Whigs – in the late seventeenth century had faded away following the latter’s landslide victory in the 1715 parliamentary election. Several generations of unbroken Whig hegemony weakened party affiliations, and in most constituencies the local gentry reverted to appointing their MPs by consensus rather than a contest; thus, by 1754 there had been no vote in Oxfordshire during the last seven general elections, with Tory-leaning grandees running unopposed in exchange for ceding control of nearby urban boroughs. However, tensions remained beneath the surface, and in 1752 the Whig-aligned duke of Marlborough decided to make a play for the constituency. Backed by his money and that of the government, the two ‘New Interest’ candidates (Parker and Turner) would spend the next two years campaigning against their Tory ‘Old Interest’ opponents (Wenman and Dashwood) in the eighteenth century’s most infamous electoral battle.

Painting of people attending a banquet with musicians playing.
William Hogarth, ‘An Election Entertainment’ (1755)

Its immortality was further assured when it inspired the nation’s leading painter and social commentator, William Hogarth, to produce a series of four satirical paintings entitled The Humours of an Election. The first of these, An Election Entertainment, showcases part of the reason why many politicians sought to avoid contested elections: the expense. Oxfordshire was a rural county constituency, meaning that its two MPs or ‘knights of the shire’ would be elected by all men who met the property qualifications to be enfranchised as ‘Forty-Shilling Freeholders’.[3] This added up to some 4,000 individuals, and given that the way to a voter’s heart was generally through his stomach, the cost of a long campaign could be heavy. The painting depicts one of the many feasts which the candidates laid on for potential supporters, which were often lavish affairs; the inventory for just one ‘election breakfast’ of the period included 34 sirloins of beef, 244 chickens, 56 pounds of cheese, and 15 barrels of alcohol.[4] Thanks to the growing fierceness of the rivalries in Oxfordshire and the paucity of contested races elsewhere, the battle over the county drew in astronomical sums to be used for incentives and bribes. By one estimate, the two campaigns poured more money into Oxfordshire than the government spent on every other constituency combined.[5]

Painting showing a street view in an small town, with groups of people conferring together.
William Hogarth, ‘Canvassing for Votes’ (1758)

In addition to feeding the voters’ bodily appetites, candidates also had to sate their hunger for scandal and scapegoats. Defamatory pamphlets waged a war of innuendo and accusation, including claims – later ruled libellous – that one prominent Whig had fathered a child on a local prostitute, and that another was impotent.[6] Furthermore, both sides produced signs and slogans to whip up interest in their favoured controversies. Some of these may strike a modern audience as merely quaint, whereas others were more sinister; Hogarth’s first painting features a Tory banner with the rallying cry “Give Us Our Eleven Days” (signalling opposition to the newly adopted Gregorian Calendar, which had required a week and a half of 1752 to be skipped) alongside another which reads “No Jews”. Public antisemitism was rife following the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753, which allowed Jews to become citizens for the first time, and the ‘Old Interest’ candidates Wenman and Dashwood had repeatedly spoken out against the legislation. Interestingly, Hogarth suggests that politicians’ demonisation of minorities might have been a cynical exercise; in his second painting, Canvassing for Votes, a Tory campaigner’s hostility to the Naturalisation Act doesn’t prevent him from buying a Jewish pedlar’s trinkets for use as bribes. Yet, whether or not it was sincere, making antisemitism an electoral issue had damaging real-world consequences. Fearing defeat, the Whig government hastily repealed the law, setting back Jewish emancipation by decades.[7] Meanwhile, the ‘New Interest’ campaigners redoubled their attempts to smear the Tories in turn, accusing them of being Jacobites and closet papists in order to stir up anti-Catholic paranoia.

Painting showing a crows of people on a woodden terrace with a man at the centre taking notes, with a bridge in the background.
William Hogarth, ‘The Polling’ (1758)

Ugly words could be echoed by ugly deeds, and as the vote drew nearer, the campaign became increasingly overshadowed by mob violence orchestrated by both sides. Hogarth’s third picture, The Polling, depicts the voting process, with the backdrop of a crowd assaulting a carriage. This likely represents an incident which took place on Magdalen Bridge around the time of the election, in which a Whig gentleman was ambushed by Tory rioters and shot a man whilst defending his coach.[8] Further attacks had taken place in Banbury and Chipping Norton, the former perpetrated by Tory supporters and the latter by Whigs. Even during the polling itself, there was no peace; the ballots were cast at Exeter College in Oxford (although both the city and the university had their own, separate, constituencies) and a mob tried to forcibly prevent ‘New Interest’ supporters from accessing it via Broad Street, thus requiring college officials to smuggle in voters through a back gate. After all the bribes and battles, polls closed on 23 April 1754 and the subsequent results tally indicated a narrow Tory victory; Wenman and Dashwood had garnered 2,033 and 2,014 votes respectively, compared to Parker’s 1,919 and Turner’s 1,890.[9] However, the controversy was only just beginning.

Painting showing a crowd on the streets, with a man being carried above on a chair, and pigs running away.
William Hogarth, ‘Chairing the Member’ (1758)

Hogarth’s fourth and final painting, Chairing the Member, depicts the traditional ceremony of parading a newly elected MP through the streets on a mock throne. His art was always allegorical rather than strictly literal (being notionally set in the fictional ‘Guzzletown’ rather than Oxford), and here it strayed definitively from reality; in fact, the victorious Tory candidates never got their chair on Broad Street, let alone their seat in the Commons. Instead, immediately after the count, the Whigs lodged a protest that the result was illegitimate. The presiding sheriff then issued a ‘double return’, which passed responsibility for determining the two victors to Parliament. A protracted phase of procedural wrangling ensued in which over 1,000 individual votes were subjected to scrutiny, with many being struck off as fraudulent. Meanwhile, new conspiracy theories were circulated in order to exert extra-parliamentary pressure; for instance, in the so-called ‘Rag Plot’, Oxford’s Whigs conveniently discovered Jacobite verses in a bundle of old clothing which implicated the Tories in treason.[10] The dispute escalated further, but although the facts of the matter were murky, the final outcome was probably a foregone conclusion. As one parliamentarian observed, “nor, to this hour, can either side tell which had the majority of legal votes, nor any Member of Parliament who voted in that question give any other reason for his vote but as he stood inclined for the old or new interest of Oxfordshire.”[11] The overall result of the general election had confirmed the Whig government’s massive Commons majority, and on 23 April 1755 its favoured candidates were duly proclaimed MPs for Oxfordshire.

For all that it depicts a fictive event, Hogarth’s Chairing the Member is thus an on-the-nose metaphor, with the overturning of the Tories’ lead mirrored by the toppling of the victorious candidate from his seat amidst farcical scenes involving pissing chimney sweeps, a musket-wielding monkey, and a herd of pigs plunging into a river. The last of these is a reference to the Bible’s Gadarene Swine, who destroyed themselves after being possessed by Satan, and highlights the chaotic and self-destructive passions which the election had unleashed. Mindful of this, both sides were keen to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment and expense generated by the prolonged squabble over Oxfordshire. Thus, a local compromise was hashed out whereby in future the duke of Marlborough and the ‘Old Interest’ would each control one of the county’s seats, removing the need for further contested races. Meanwhile, at a national level, the controversy’s main long-term result was to further discredit the competitive party system and entrench the politics of patronage and backroom deals. Not until the turbulent age of revolutions which began in 1776 would the Tories re-emerge as a force capable of challenging for power at the ballot box.

And so we return to the American Revolution, which may prompt reflection on what the overturning of the Oxfordshire vote means for us in the present day. One key observation is that, despite the dramatic mob violence on display, in both 1754 and 2021 control of the streets proved less decisive than control of the corridors of power. Ultimately, the Whig attempt to annul an election succeeded because democratic norms were not strong enough to override politicians’ factional preferences. In contrast, enough Republicans (ranging from state-level officials who – unlike Oxfordshire’s sheriff – refused to hand contested results over to legislatures to resolve, to the Vice President himself) broke with the fraud narrative to defeat the demands of their leader and the rioters. However, the example of eighteenth-century England suggests that the rules establishing fair competition in a multi-party system are slow to take root and can easily wither away. This should caution against complacency, given that over the last year the GOP seems to have become more, not less, enamoured of conspiracy theories and gerrymandering.

Meanwhile, we in Britain should also be wary of taking democracy for granted. Threats to electoral legitimacy are not merely an American problem, for they are also deeply embedded in the history of our constitution, which still affects its workings today. Although the era of unopposed elections is over, the British political system still rests on a form of tacit compromise; the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty grants near-unlimited power to whichever party commands a majority in the Commons, with the unwritten proviso that they should not abuse this by rewriting the rulebook in their own favour. Thus far, modern parties have not given in to the temptation to use their election wins to secure an eighteenth-century-style permanent hegemony, but there are worrying signs that this could change. The Tories have now been in government for four successive terms, and have been accused of planning to entrench their power still further with measures like ID-based voter suppression, imposing favourable voting systems, redrawing constituency boundaries, and neutering the independent Electoral Commission.[12] From the safe distance of 250 years, we can laugh at Hogarth’s bawdy vision of a corrupt polity, but if we’re not vigilant then one day the joke might be on us.

Written by Louis Morris


[1] Toby Luckhurst, ‘Wilmington 1898: When white supremacists overthrew a US government’, BBC News (17 January 2021); Ted Widmer, ‘The Capitol Takeover That Wasn’t’, New York Times (8 January 2021); Franita Tolson, ‘Why the mob thought attacking the Capitol was their ‘1776 moment’Los Angeles Times (21 January 2021).

[2] James Ganesh, ‘Endemic civil disorder could be America’s future’, Financial Times (4 January 2022).

[3] Note that there was scope for some manipulation of the electoral roll by candidates. One contemporary journal noted that a standard tactic was to “take a cottager of 30 shillings a year, tax him at 40”, before bribing and bullying the newly enfranchised man into voting in your favour. Quoted in Ralph John Robson, The Oxfordshire Election of 1754: A Study in the Interplay of City, County, and University Politics (Oxford University Press 1949), p. 62.

[4] Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World (Faber 1998), p. 354.

[5] Elaine Chalus, ‘‘My Lord Sue’: Lady Susan Keck and the Great Oxfordshire Election of 1754’, Parliamentary History 32:3 (2013), p. 448.

[6] Uglow, Hogarth, p. 354; Chalus, ‘My Lord Sue’, p. 447.

[7] Alan Singer, ‘Great Britain or Judea Nova? National Identity, Property, and the Jewish Naturalization Controversy of 1753’, in Sheila Spector, ed., British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature (Palgrave Macmillan 2002), p. 20.

[8] David Potter, ‘The English electoral hustings as depicted by William Hogarth and Anthony Trollope’, (2013), p. 62.

[9] John Brooke, ‘Oxfordshire: Double Member County’, in Lewis Napier and John Brooke, eds, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790 (Oxford University Press 1964).

[10] Elaine Chalus, ‘The Rag plot: the politics of influence in Oxford, 1754’ in Rosemary Sweet and Penelope Lane, eds, Women and Urban Life in Eighteenth-Century England: ‘On the Town’ (Ashgate 2003), pp. 43-64.

[11] Quoted in Brooke, ‘Oxfordshire’.

[12] Robert Hart, ‘Boris Johnson Accused Of Republican-Style ‘Voter Suppression’ Ahead Of Controversial Photo ID Announcement’, Forbes (10 May 2021); Jim Waterson, ‘Government to change English voting system after Labour mayoral victories’, The Guardian (9 May 2021); Henry Goodwin, ‘Boundary Revisions will Hand Conservatives Huge Victory in 2024’, The London Economic (11 November 2020); Christopher Mckeon, ‘Elections Bill is ‘a threat’ to Electoral Commission independence, says chairman’, Evening Standard (6 December 2021).