Harry Dickinson, the Magna Carta, and the American Revolution

On the evening of January 26, 2016, Harry (H. T.) Dickinson, Emeritus Professor of British History at the University of Edinburgh, presented a lecture on “Magna Carta in the American Revolution.” As an audience member, I live tweeted the lecture using #HTDickinson on my Twitter account, @HistoryByPaula and spoke to Dickinson at the reception that followed. This public lecture was given as part of the festschrift in Dickinson’s honour and coincided with the launch of a new book, Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Many of the contributors to the volume were also in attendance.

Harry Dickinson has an unparalleled publication record and excellent reputation in the field of British history. As Gordon Pentland noted in his introduction, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Dickinson’s first contract with the University of Edinburgh. What has always struck me about Dickinson is his wealth of knowledge, capacity to synthesize vast amounts of information, and ability to make clear connections from which to formulate opinion and further one’s understanding of a topic.

Tuesday’s lecture was no exception. Beginning with a brief discussion of the passing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and 1225, Dickinson provided a detailed analysis the 1225 version’s Chapter 29, and then returned repeatedly to this chapter as he spoke. We followed along his carefully prepared outline of the origins, events, and outcomes of the American Civil War and were amazed as he teased out connections between the rhetoric of the colonists and their British opponents.

Dickinson was able to show numerous ways in which both sides were able to use the rights guaranteed to them by the Magna Carta to support their position in opposition to the other and, after Independence, how the American side concluded that they no longer needed the Magna Carta as they were creating a republic. It was fascinating.

For his sources, he drew from political records, letters, popular pamphlets and treatises, coins, artwork, architecture, and state and national constitutions. In the Q & A that followed, he was apologetic that we were only hearing 6000 words out of the full 22,000 word paper, “Magna Carta in the Age of Revolution,” that he had written on the subject, and I was surprised and happy to receive an email from the event organisers the following day with a link to his work. What a great advantage to be able to dig deeper into the sources, the connections, and the findings following a lecture. I enjoyed the evening and will be hoping to hear him speak again soon.

The Irish (and Irish Music) in the American Civil War

For the past two Sundays, the History Show on RTE Radio 1 has explored the Irish presence in the American Civil War, particularly looking at the role of Irish music.  I highly recommend listening to the episodes, especially the first one which covers a wide swathe of Irish music from both the Union and Confederacy.  The episodes highlight music as a primary source that can be used to uncover the mood of the country during war, the transmission of ideas, the connections made between people spread out over wide geographical areas, popular culture, and views of Irishness in the United States in this era.

While there had been a long history of Irish immigration to America, Catholics overtook Protestants in overall numbers of immigrants for the first time in the 1830s.  The new immigrants faced rampant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the urban areas in which they settled, particularly in the Know-Nothing, nativist era of the 1850s.  The immigrants often took refuge in the institutions of the Catholic Church and Democratic Party.

Because of their high population presence in northeastern cities, Irish immigrants made up a large part of the audience at vaudeville performances and had close ties to the popular music of the mid-nineteenth century.  I found the segment in the first show on Irish blackface minstrelsy particularly interesting.  Irish immigrants sought opportunities to establish their legitimacy as Americans and pursued blackface minstrelsy as a way to prove their equality to all other white members of United States society.  Blackface minstrelsy was a rationalization of slavery that portrayed slaves leading happy lives on the plantation.  The song “Dixie” came out of the minstrelsy tradition, written by Dan Emmett (an American of Irish ancestry).

It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, and 20,000 for the Confederacy.  Both sides had Irish Brigades, a term which had roots in Irish history itself with the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who fought for France and Spain in continental Europe).  Both sides had popular songs written by Irishmen or Irish-Americans, promoting their cause.

The second episode of the show highlights the ways in which songs about war change from early anthems which provide meaning and motivation for the conflict and romanticize the war, to later songs which long for the return home and mourn the pain of separation and loss.  The disillusionment of the Irish over the course of the war, exposed during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, is also highlighted in song with “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

There are many other elements of Irish involvement in Civil War-era America covered in these two episodes, and it’s worth listening just to hear all of the songs.

An unrelated yet fascinating article from this past week is National Geographic’s portrait of the archaeology of London, a layman’s look at the history of archaeological exploration of the city.  It portrays the layers upon layers of history present in the city, and it goes without saying that many of those layers contain archaeological finds revealing London’s millennia-long connection with the wider world.  As the article notes, “The modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.”  The Museum of London, a personal favorite of mine, itself does a fine job of portraying those layers of prehistory and history from its perch alongside the Roman Wall.

The Thames is at the heart of archaeology in the city, and when the tide is out it’s particularly revealing.  The article’s author, Roff Smith, observes the river at early morning with a representative from the Museum of London Archaeology.

“Almost everything you see here is archaeology,” says Cohen, who points out a Roman-era roofing tile here, a piece of blue-patterned Victorian porcelain there, as we scramble over the uneven ground.  “With every tide this gets jumbled up again.  It’s never the same twice.  You never know what you’ll find.”

This reminded me of the “Tate Thames Dig” installation at the Tate Modern, a work of art filled with hundreds of random, repeating, and revealing artifacts unearthed from the Thames.

  • Smith, Roff. “London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History.”  National Geographic (February 2016).

Live Tweeting Harry Dickinson’s Lecture

This evening, January 26, H.T. Dickinson, Emeritus Professor of British History at the University of Edinburgh, will be giving a lecture entitled “Magna Carta in the American Revolution” that will coincide with a festschrift in his honour (Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815, Edinburgh University Press). Harry is a dynamic speaker, an endlessly supportive supervisor, and an accomplished author and historian. His unparalleled knowledge of British political history over the long eighteenth century will no doubt be demonstrated this evening.

I’ll be attending “Magna Carta in the American Revolution” and plan to live tweet the lecture on Twitter beginning at 5:15pm GMT (12:15pm EST). Follow me on Twitter @HistoryByPaula and search for the hashtag #HTDickinson to follow along.

Suggested Reading:

Pentland, Gordon and Michael Davis, eds. Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815. Essays in Honour of H. T. Dickinson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Selected Works of H.T. (Harry) Dickinson:


The Politics of the People in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and New York, 1994 and 1995).

Caricatures and the Constitution, 1760-1832 (Cambridge, 1986).

British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 1985).

Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London and New York, 1977 and 1979)

Edited Collections:

Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998)

Britain and the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (Harmondsworth, 1989).

Planters and PhDs: Uncovering Britain’s Pro-Slavery Past

When I first started asking about the opposition within Britain to abolition and emancipation, there was next to no information available on the subject. The American case has a long-established historiography on the topic of proslavery; where was the research into the British case?

For so long we viewed the history of British abolition as though it was one-sided and inevitable, and as such our attention was focussed on the abolitionists who won the day. While I won’t get into the historiography of British proslavery history here (that’s a topic deserving of at least a post or two of its own), what’s exciting is that there is all sorts of research coming out of British universities now on British planters, merchants, slave holders and traders, and the legacy of slavery in Britain.

Some of the newest research into the topic is coming out of British universities in the form of PhD theses. These often-ignored sources of information contain years of study and research backing their conclusions. Here are some that have been released over the past few years:

  • Baker, Sonia. “Scots in Eighteenth Century Grenada: A Study of the Life and Times of Ninian Home (1732-1795).” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2015).
  • Barrett, Ian John. “Cultures of Pro-Slavery: The Political Defence of the Slave Trade in Britain c. 1787-1807.” Unpublished PhD thesis (King’s College London, 2009).
  • Donington, Kate. “’The Benevolent Merchant? George Hibbert and the Representation of West Indian Mercantile Identity.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University College London, 2013).
  • Dumas, Paula E. “Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2013).
  • Mullen, Stephen Scott. “The Glasgow West India Interest: Integration, Collaboration and Exploitation in the British Atlantic World, 1776-1846.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Glasgow, 2015).
  • Taylor, Michael. “Conservative Political Economy and the Problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-33.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2015).

Of course, I’m very excited that Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, a book that evolved from my PhD research, is launching next month. We are creating a far more accurate, multi-faceted story of the struggle for abolition and emancipation.

If you’re a postgrad writing on the topic of British proslavery or know of someone who is, let us know in the comments!

The Burghers of Calais


The Burghers of Calais in London – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Six figures clad only in sackcloth, barefoot and with nooses ringing their necks, huddle together awaiting their fate.  They appear fearful, resigned, determined, sorrowful, and despairing depending on each individual temperament.  These are the six burghers of Calais, who gave up their lives to save the people of their city.

I’ve been fascinated by Auguste Rodin’s statue of the Burghers of Calais ever since visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris when I was in high school.  Rodin, the prolific Paris-born sculptor, had been commissioned by the town council of Calais to portray the story of the burghers.  He started the sculpture with its six separate figures in 1885, and it was installed outside the Calais town hall in 1895.  Another casting of the sculpture appears in the gardens next to the Palace of Westminster in London.  Rodin took his inspiration from a close reading of the account of events from Jean Frossiart’s Chronicles, written in the fourteenth century and covering the history of the Hundred Years’ War up to 1400.

Prior to the Hundred Years’ War, the kings of England were also French feudal lords.  Friction between England and France developed over French encroachment on the English kings’ lands and French military aid to the Scots.  In the late 1320s, Edward III claimed a right to the French throne through his mother’s line, leading to cycles of intense warfare between France and England starting in 1337 and lasting for 116 years.

In 1346, the English defeated the French at the Battle of Crécy and subsequently captured Calais, a prospering seaport just twenty-one miles from the coast of Dover.  Edward’s troops laid siege to Calais, which held out as long as possible awaiting action by French King Philip VI.  After eleven months, with food supplies depleted, Calais was surrendered to the English.  Frossiart reports that Edward demanded the city give over six of its leaders to be executed, as well as the keys to the city and castle, in exchange for sparing the rest of the people of Calais.

These six burghers, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, agreed to sacrifice themselves for the people of their city and expected to be put to death.  Rodin’s sculpture portrays the humanity and heroism in their sacrifice.  However, as Frossiart tells it, the burghers were saved when Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, persuaded the king to show them mercy.

As the Hundred Years’ War wore on, the English lost all territories in France except for a single city, Calais.  The port city was an important bulwark for the English, who otherwise were on the defensive on the continent, as well as a hugely profitable center for trade.  Much of the city had been resettled by the English, with the French mostly driven out.  England lost Calais to France in 1558, when the city was captured by the Duke of Guise.

The city of Calais is featured in another prominent work of art relevant to British history, this time by London-born painter/engraver William Hogarth.  His The Gate of Calais, or, The Roast Beef of Old England, was painted in 1748.  The painting, now in the Tate Britain, contrasts Hogarth’s low view of the French with Britain’s wealth and power, symbolized by roast beef.

Glasgow’s West India Committee

When we think of planters, absentee slave owners, and West Indian merchants living in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I think we’re most likely to think of those living on vast country estates and in the major ports of London and Liverpool. While absentee planters and London’s West India Committee have received a great deal of attention from historians, Glasgow’s West India Association remains under-discussed. Historian Iain Whyte, however, has argued that contemporaries viewed Glasgow’s Association as the most powerful West Indian society outside London. With fairly detailed minutes and records of the Association available on microfilm from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, one can catch a glimpse of the activities and interests of West Indian planters and merchants in Britain yet outside of London.

Glasgow West Indian merchants were wealthy, politically active, and influential, particularly prior to the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 which significantly widened the franchise. The first meeting of the Glasgow West India Association took place on 22 October 1807 at the Tontine Tavern in Glasgow. In attendance were approximately 20 planters and merchants with interests in the West Indies. At this first meeting they unanimously resolved: “That much inconvenience having been felt, and much injury sustained by the want of mutual co-operation in matters affecting the general interests of the Trade, it was an object of great importance that the different Planters and Merchants connected therewith in this Place should form themselves into a Public Association for the protection of their various rights, privileges and interests”. By 1808 the association had 28 company members and 43 individual members who all paid an annual subscription (25 guineas for company members and five for individuals).

Family and business ties connected many of the Association’s members over the years. The association also received support from the Glasgow Courier under the editorship of James MacQueen. West Indian planters and merchants in Glasgow were united in their opposition to emancipation and worked together to fight for compensation for absentees in Britain and slaveholding colonists.

Between 1807 and 1833 the Association addressed a number of issues of concern to its members. These included infrastructure, agricultural produce, slavery, legal issues, trade and taxation, committee work, and other general concerns of the West Indian interest. Their discussions specifically relating to colonial slavery revolved around the foreign slave trade, educating slaves, the African Institution, emancipation, potential problems following emancipation, private property, free labour (including ensuring the continuance of production and using other potential labourers), the slave population, the origins of colonial slavery, and compensation. When it came to organising and campaigning against emancipation and for support and compensation, the Association sent representatives and petitions to Parliament (records indicate that petitions were sent in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1833), pleaded on behalf of the colonists, and paid £50 to have an agent in London’s West Indian Society.

Suggested Reading:

Cooke, Anthony. ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783-1877’. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 32 (2012): 127-65.

Lambert, David. ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network’. Slavery & Abolition, 29 (2008): 389-414.

Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.