Highland Clearances #1: Improver Discourse


Improver Discourse

The emergence of the Improver Discourse of agrarian capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is really about the formation, and consolidation, of a new way of explaining things in a changing society.

The idea behind this series of posts is to consider some contemporary documents that were influential in this development of a different way of thinking:
(i) Lord Selkirk's Observations of the Present State of the Highlands - 1806
(ii) Patrick Robertson's Report of the Trial of Patrick Sellars - 1816
(iii) John Loch's Account of the Improvements...on the Estate of Sutherland - 1820

These publications seem significant for their insight into the way observers of the period interpreted, or made sense of, the emotionally charged phenomenon now known as the Highland Clearances. (The more common, contemporary terms were "removals" or "evictions"). They are also relevant to the general theme of this historical blog on early colonial history in the Western District of Victoria. The squatters ('men with sheep') who moved into Australia Felix were singularly informed by the the discourse of economic improvement, and the many Scots among them were no doubt familiar with its outworking of evictions and emigration at 'Home'.

The purpose of this first post in the series is to provide the reader with some ideological context to the three primary documents.

Scottish Enlightenment

John Prebble (author of The Highland Clearances, 1963), describes the mid to late 1700s, the period now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, as "Scotland's golden age of intellect, invention and industry". His description accurately incorporates the significant economic inspiration of Scotland's Age of Reason.

David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) were the most prominent intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume published A Treatise of Human Nature in 1740 (later simplified as his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748), and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751. Smith produced his Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, and his famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776.

Andrew Lincoln argues that Smith and Hume "had begun to locate the dynamic of social change, not in the political ideas or will of reformers, but in what Adam Smith referred to as the 'silent and insensible' operations of commerce'." (This phrase is a variation of Smith's better known "invisible hand", an autonomous market mechanism that draws the otherwise disconnected forces of supply and demand towards an equilibrium price). In the works of David Hume, for example, Lincoln finds a concept of personal freedom, or "civil liberty", that is established by economic progress, rather than by political action. "Although commerce is driven by self-interest, Hume argues it fosters sociability, refinement, and 'humanity', and thus promotes a private virtue that can have a beneficial public influence without direct participation in politics". Lincoln suggests that both Hume and Smith were promoters of "the benevolent ideology of commerce", engaged in "an enlightenment discourse of civilization, which links commerce with politeness and virtue".
[Andrew Lincoln, 2007, Walter Scott and Modernity, Edinburgh University Press]

The idea that economic self-interest is the harbinger of social refinement and public morality was not the gift of Smith and Hume alone. Their gift was to rationalise and give theoretical respectability to an older idea of 'national' improvement; one that involved political change without popular violence or destruction of property. At the beginning of the century, when Scotland was wrestling with the imposition of a Treaty Of Union by her traditional English enemy (enacted 1707), propagandists for amalgamation proffered the benefits of free trade as a compensating public good. In 1706 the novelist Daniel Defoe wrote of "A True-Bred Merchant" as a sort of "Universal Scholar", who "sits in his Counting-House, and Converses with all Nations, and keeps up the most exquisite and extensive part of human Society in a Universal Correspondence". At about the same time, essayist Joseph Addison was writing of merchants who "knit mankind together in a mutual Intercourse of Good Offices, distribute the gifts of Nature, find Work for the Poor, add Wealth to the Rich, and Magnificence to the Great". These were fulsome tributes indeed for a generally unloved sector of society.
[Andrew Lincoln, 2002, 'Scott and Empire: The Case of Rob Roy', Studies in the Novel,34.1, 43]

A polite and commercial people

As the eighteenth century unfolded, the concept of commercial activity creating a public benefit (beyond the generation of material wealth), was treated with increasing respect by leading figures in British society. In 1788 Scottish Law Lord Kames asserted that patriotism "rises high among a people intimately connected by regular government, by commerce, and by a common interest". In 1769 in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone had already coined the phrase "a polite and commercial people", which characterised the English nation as a people who aspired to be both enterprising and cooperative. In effect, both Lord Kames and Justice Blackstone were 'recognising' the appearance of a new 'respectability' for an important, and rapidly multiplying, class of citizens. This mercantile or middle class shared a common interest in the maintenance of social order, an obedient workforce, the performance of contractual obligations, and the orderly accumulation of property.

Paul Langford (who used Blackstone's phrase as the title of his volume in the New Oxford History of England series), submits that "a society in which the most vigorous and growing element was a commercial middle class" was an inherently fluid society; one "in which power was widely diffused, constantly contested, and ever adjusting to new incursions of wealth". The promised "politics of politeness" provided comforting visions of "the pursuit of harmony within a propertied society". It essentially masked the competitive tensions and anxieties that motivated the "middling class of people". This class, who occupied the tenuous ground between "the Court and the spade" were essentially people who by their industry, skill, and luck, had "succeeded in raising themselves above the ruck of the labouring poor", but who "dreaded nothing more than descent [back] into the ranks of the truly poor".
[Paul Langford, 1989, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, Clarendon Press, London]

The attraction of Smith's political economy for prominent members of society like Lord Kames and Justice Blackstone lay in the argument that politeness, social restraint, and national harmony, were the natural consequences of commerce. The Scottish philosophers appeared to be "advocates of realism" and "common-sense morality", the simple describers of a rational system. In their model "a diversified economy [was] kept healthy by the self-interested motives of  all its contributors to co-operate freely in exchange", automatically forming into an "inclusive network of interdependence and mutual necessity" under the provenance of an unseen, benevolent, guiding hand. These thoughts were held close by those for whom they were intended. In fact they formed (and continue to form), the bedrock of middle-class self belief. But for those outside this network of "mutual dependence", the doctrine presented cold comfort.
[Ian Ward, 1998, 'Scott and the Waverley Constitution', English Studies, 3, 205
 Kathryn Sutherland, 1987, 'Fictional Economies', ELH, 54.1, 99]

Doctrine of Improvement

The most profoundly influential text of the Scottish Enlightenment, and one which underpins the Doctrine of Improvement, is Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776). This book was, and is, persuasive because it purports to be a mere description of 'what is', rather than a treatise on 'what ought to be'. It seems to be an account of how things work 'in practice' now, rather than an ideological proposal  for the future. And it proves compelling to its adherents because of its implications of positive psychological change, of moral as well as material improvement, for citizens in the 'private enterprise' type of society it so artfully promotes.

The Doctrine of Improvement can be most usefully understood in the context of its particularly agrarian, historical application. It was associated with the Agricultural Revolution, which preceded and enabled the Industrial Revolution. In simplified and general terms, improved methods of food and fibre production in eighteenth century Britain generated an economic surplus, providing the essential conditions for the industrialisation and urbanisation of the nineteenth century. Breeding of better plantseed and livestock, improving fertility with fertiliser, drainage and crop rotation, and the transport and trade of surplus production from areas of natural advantage to areas of food deficit, in exchange for 'manufactured' goods -- these developments 'freed' labour from the feudal bondage of traditional subsistence agriculture (and its attendant grinding poverty and vulnerability to cyclical famine), allowing them to pursue more productive activities and increase their standard of living.

The keys to economic growth and development (i.e. Improvement) in the country were, first, flexibility or 'freedom' to exploit the available natural resources (i.e control of Land and Labour), and second, more efficient exploitation of those resources, both in extraction and marketing (i.e. the role of managers and capitalist-investors). The principles of Adam Smith's political economy that most applied in rural societies were the contractualisation, or monetisation, of human relationships, and the division, or specialisation of labour inputs. Land and labour had to be measured in terms of their monetary value, split from feudal obligation and loyalty, and managers and investors required undisputed rights of authority to direct those 'economic units' to their best productive advantage (that is, towards the most profitable and cost-efficient methods of production).

Directly opposed to this new impetus of 'commercial flexibility' stood the customary, centuries old, ties of the population to region and community. The inhabitants had to be 'detached' from their inherited affection for land and lord. The Highland Clearances, (like the previous English Enclosures, but more concentrated and abrupt), are an example of this process of 'detachment', of convincing a resident population to change or leave. The uprooting of Gaelic-speaking Scots, and their subsequent exile, internally to industrial cities or externally to distant colonies, provides a detailed case-study of the practical outworking of Improver Discourse. It reveals the iron fist that lies disguised within the velvet glove.


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