British Political Thought in Context: From the Scottish Enlightenment to the Fin-de-Siecle

Dr Emily Jones, Dr James Stafford

Cambridge is famous for its approach to the study of the history of political thought: an approach which puts the ideas and texts of major political thinkers back into the historical context in which they were produced. This course takes this ‘Cambridge’ approach one step further, and examines not just the thought of some of the major thinkers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain such as Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, but also the significant ideologies and intellectual concepts that develop in this period, such as Liberalism, Conservatism, and ideas of gender and the British Constitution.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a remarkable period in British history. This was the era in which Britain dominated the world stage. These two centuries witnessed dramatic transformations, economic, political, and cultural: industrialization, the expansion of empire, the response to the French Revolution, and the clamour for political reform at home. These were processes and events which thinkers sought to address – whether to condemn or to improve – by putting pen to paper and telling the world what they thought. It is these intellectual responses which form the basis of this course.

In our lectures, we will explore some of the big concepts and themes of British political thought in this period, from the Scottish Enlightenment through to the Fin de Siècle and the so-called ‘crisis of reason’ at the end of the nineteenth century. Our classes will then focus on close readings of the texts produced by political thinkers such as Burke, Smith, Mill, and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as political economists and historians who made significant contributions to British intellectual life. In sum, we will combine the study of foundational canonical texts with the study of broader themes and ideologies – all of which are still drawn upon and utilized around the world today.

This course is aimed at: Undergraduates wishing to develop a better understanding of the history of British political thought and of British history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; undergraduates seeking to develop a more sophisticated understanding of modern ideas and ideologies, and their historical roots.

Pre-Requisite Knowledge Required: No prior knowledge of British history or political thought will be assumed or required beyond a basic familiarity with reading texts.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: This course will allow students to: develop their understanding of British history and political thought; develop their critical thinking skills; and develop their ability to demonstrate this understanding and critical thinking by means of both spoken and written means. It will help you to analyse texts and images in close detail, but also to compare and contrast ideas across a broad time period. You will enhance your ability to write structured and focused essays which balance contextual knowledge with close analysis of texts.

Required Pre-Arrival Reading
(Must be read before the start of the course)
John Robertson, Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015)

Christopher Harvie and H. C. G. Matthew, Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000)
These are cheap paperbacks; they are also both available online via, through Cambridge iDiscover or through your home institution if it subscribes.

Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1832 (London, 2003), Chapters 1-5, 6, 8.
H. S. Jones, Victorian Political Thought (Basingstoke, 2000)
These are cheap paperbacks and can be bought on Amazon if you cannot otherwise access them.

Robert Saunders, ‘Parliament and the People: The British Constitution in the Long Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Modern European History, 6 (2008).
Available online through iDiscover or your home institution, if it has a subscription to the journal.

Final Essay (2,500 – 3,000 words): 50%
Final Exam: 50%

Student Contact Time
Lectures: 12 x 75 minutes (total 15 hours)
Seminars: 8 x 75 minutes (total 10 hours)