The Historical Journal


Gentlemen Dissenters: The Social and Political Meanings of Rational Dissent in the 1770s and 1780s

John Seeda1

a1 Roehampton Institute of Higher Education

Conventional wisdom has long maintained that eighteenth-century religious dissent was a significant source of opposition to the Hanoverian status quo. For Trevelyan, for instance, dissenters were ‘vigilant champions of liberty and critics of government’. The high political visibility of rational dissenters in oppositional movements in the 1770s and 1780s – in opposition to the American war, the Test and Corporation Acts, slavery and the slave trade, the existing electoral system – has been particularly noted. However in recent years the political significance of religious dissent has been questioned. Roy Porter warns that the zeal for reform among dissenters should not be overestimated: ‘Not till the 1780s, and then only amongst a hothead minority, did Nonconformity show a potential for political radicalism.’ John Brewer has argued that the dissenting group associated with Hollis, Price, Priestley and ‘the small, snug, dissenting coterie of Newington Green’ marks one tradition of political opposition in the eighteenth century. But, largely confined to intellectual critique, remarkably uninvolved in the day-to-day cut-and-thrust of political action even evincing a patrician alarm at popular direct action, its contribution to political change was far less significant than the Wilkite movement.