The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s

I’ve just finished reading the first three chapters of a new book by John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (OUP 2006). It’s a book that is particularly interesting in light of my own work but also in light of the conversations here a few weeks back about Habermas and the coffeehouse, so I thought a brief summary of his argument with a quotation from his section critiquing Habermas might be in order. However, I admit openly that I have read only the first three chapters of the book (which is not terribly long, not McKeonesque at all–it’s around 300 pages), and I will therefore not claim to give a complete account of his book or his argument, which is much more complex than I can indicate here.

Barrell’s purpose is to investigate the ways in which the political conflict and consequent atmosphere of suspicion in Britain during the revolutionary decade pervaded all aspects of life and thus blurred the lines between what had been conceived of as “public” and “private.” Increasingly, as the political furor in Britain grew over the decade, the private realm became politicized, private conversation became public, and even off-the-cuff remarks in spaces (such as the coffee house) that had been conceived of as “private” in some measure were potentially politically dangerous.

In the interest of space I’ll skip over his first chapter and go directly to the second, which relates more directly to our earlier conversation about coffeehouses and Habermas. The chapter is titled “Coffee-House Politicians”; in it, Barrell suggests that the coffeehouse–or rather, two fascinating trials that develop out of “seditious utterances” made inside two of London’s coffeehouses–is one example where the politicization of private speech during the 1790s is clear. In the first case, an attorney named John Frost was reported for using seditious language in Percy Coffee House. After a delay of several months, one of the witnesses reported Frost to the authorities and Frost was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “six months imprisonment and an hour in the pillory” (79). The second case is similar, though it involves two men who were arrested for making seditious remarks in the New London Coffee House; one man was a penniless gentleman and the other an impoverished doctor. The gentleman, Charles Pigott, was released without being charged; the doctor, William Hodgson, was indicted, tried, and convicted. The defense made by Frost’s attorney, Thomas Erskine, and Pigott (Pigott published a pamphlet on the eve of Hodgson’s trial that offered a defense of himself and to a lesser extent Hodgson) was based on the same assumption: that a coffeehouse was understood by all “polite” people to be a place in which the conversation is “private.” Whatever was overheard in the coffeehouse could not actually be “heard.” Both Erskine and Pigott therefore protested that a “gentleman” should not be subject to eavesdropping much less prosecution on the basis of conversation that should ostensibly be “private,” despite its having taken place in a “public” place. Erskine argued that “words spoken in a public coffee house were words spoken in a private space; that they were, so to speak, privileged; that they should not have been heard by those to whom they were not addressed; that, if inadvertently overheard, they should not have been reported” (83).

The point that Barrell is making in highlighting the defense offered by Erskine and Pigott is that it is class-based. Two men who claimed liberal, reformist sympathies in the event fell back upon essentially aristocratic defenses, motivated at least in part by a distaste for the circumstances of their arrests. Both express disgust at the lack of “politeness” of the men responsible for reporting them, Erskine by frequent emphasis upon the “spirit of a gentleman” and Pigott by highlighting the informers’ (lower-class) professions. Barrell concludes, “It is an intriguing index, however, of the difficulty with which the discourse of rights became established, that [Charles James] Fox, Erskine, and others, especially Pigott, who seem to have regarded this [freedom of speech] as a civil right essential to the survival of civilized society, found it so hard to express, except in terms of class difference, the right of an elite not to be overheard by their social inferiors and dependants. The spirit of despotism was not the exclusive property of loyalists” (102). The fact that the defense of these two men was class-based tends to undermine Habermasian descriptions of the coffeehouse as an essentially egalitarian place wherein two men could meet as private men, leaving their public identities (as a hairdresser and a lord, for example) behind, and this is the basis for Barrell’s critique of Habermas (which I will quote and then be quiet!):

“‘Provided a man has a clean shirt and three-pence in his pocket, he may talk as loud in the coffee-house as the “squire of ten thousands pounds a-year”‘, wrote the celebrated late eighteenth-century antiquary Francis Grose. Well, perhaps; but this kind of patriotic egalitarian ideology seldom meant quite what it said, and anyone who has been brought up within the English class-system, even as it is 250 or 300 years after the heyday of the coffee house, is likely to have doubts about how far distinctions of rank could possibly have been suspended in public coffee rooms…I am doubtful, too, about the supposed demise of the coffee house in the second half of the century. There were, famously, thousands of coffee houses in London around 1700, but the vast majority of these must have been little local caffs, often in basement rooms, open only for a few hours a day, and patronized by tradesmen on their way to work, who no more expected to be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities than to be offered a latte when they ordered a milky coffee. No more than a handful of early eighteenth-century coffee houses can have come close to Habermas’s or Sennett’s ideal” (81).



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