This guest post comes from Dr Mark Truesdale, who completed his PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University in 2016. His thesis provides the first detailed, critical study of the fifteenth-century King and Commoner tradition, and traces its post-medieval influence in ballads and drama from the sixteenth-century to the eighteenth-century. Mark is currently volunteering with Special Collections, assisting with cataloguing early modern books and reporting findings to the English Short Title Catalogue.
‘An Address of Thanks to the Broad-Bottoms, for the Good Things they have done, and the Evil Things they have not done, Since their Elevation’ (1745) is a curious eighteenth-century satirical pamphlet in Cardiff University’s Rare Book Collection that is about politics rather than bottoms (alas). But it feels surprisingly modern and pertinent in its message, full of biting comments against untrustworthy and greedy politicians who immediately abandon their principles and pledges for a seat in a coalition government.
Amid the televised scenes of the 2017 general election and its result of a hung parliament was the sight of a highly despondent Nick Clegg. Clegg, the former deputy Prime Minister, had lost his Sheffield seat to a first-time Labour candidate (who was reportedly so surprised by his victory that he had to rush to a supermarket in the middle of the night to purchase a new suit). As Liberal Democrat leader in 2010, Clegg had entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives, only to be accused by many of selling his principles and abandoning his electoral promises in exchange for power. His subsequent dramatic fall from public opinion starkly shows the potential dangers of entering such political coalitions and pacts, especially as a ‘junior partner’ with little real sway.
This coalition trade-off of principles for power is also the focus of ‘An Address of Thanks to the Broad Bottoms’, an anonymous fifty-two page pamphlet which shows that public anger over untrustworthy politicians and a lack of respect for those in authority is certainly nothing new. The work opens with a wonderfully lurid engraving by William Hogarth that shows Tory politicians, with exceptionally large and flabby bottoms, defecating onto several donkeys lurking anxiously below. The donkeys are symbolically burdened with labelled loads, ranging from ‘Land Tax’, the infamous ‘Black Act’, and ‘Lottery annuities’ (an anxious topic since the South Sea Bubble caused economic collapse in the 1720s), or goods such as ‘Malt’, ‘Salt’, ‘Wine’, ‘Candles’, and of course ‘Tea’. The main thrust of the work is an angry critique of the Tory ministers who had joined Henry Pelham’s 1744 ‘broad-bottomed’ coalition government and allegedly abandoned their own opposition principles in exchange for wealth and honours.
The pamphlet is divided into three distinct parts. The first is a pointed musing on the evils of ‘ingratitude’, criticising those who ‘do not return the Benefits they have reciev’d, if it ’tis in their power to do so’ (p. 3) – alluding to the ‘Broad-Bottom’ Tory ministers who had failed to fulfil their election pledges and aid their supporters after gaining coalition positions of power. The writer uses fables by Pliny and Aulus Gellius to claim that even animals display gratitude, thereby concluding that politicians who display a lack of gratitude for their supporters are ‘worse than Brutes’, while those who go further by ‘returning Evil for Good […] out-do their Brute Fellow-Creatures in Acts the most shocking and repugnant to Nature’ (p. 5). The writer proceeds to accuse the Tory ministers of putting their ‘private Self-interest’ over ‘Public Self-interest’ by allowing themselves to be used as puppets by those they had previously opposed:
for a Place or Pension that supplies his Luxury, he shall be a Puppet, to move up and down just as he is order’d by him who directs the Show from behind the Curtain […] The Live Puppet may move sometimes to please the gaping Spectators, but he sha’n’t open his Mouth. (pp. 7-8)
The author builds on this image of a mute puppet to muse on the dire consequences of the opposition effectively silencing itself. He claims that such hypocritical ministers have betrayed ‘their Country’ and thrown ‘the People into despair, by depriving them of the Means of a legal and Seasonable Opposition’ (p. 8). In short, the Tories have undermined the democratic process, selling off their voice to allow the rule of an unchecked and unchallenged power.
The pamphlet’s second part is an eighteen page ‘John Bull’ allegory. John Bull is a national personification of England, or Britain more generally, who became a patriotic emblem during the Napoleonic Wars. But he was originally created in 1712 as a bumbling figure of ridicule by the Scottish satirist John Arbuthnot in pamphlets scornfully mocking England’s European conflicts, presenting the War of the Spanish Succession as a ludicrous ‘law suit’ between John Bull (England), Lewis Baboon (Louis XIV), and Lord Strutt (Philip of Anjou).
‘An Address to the Broad-Bottoms’ directly refers to Arbuthnot’s allegories and presents its tale as a continuation. Here, John Bull’s ‘manor’ stands in for England and its ‘tenants’ for the country’s people, while the politicians are given ludicrous pseudonyms: e.g. Robert Walpole becomes ‘Bob Bronze’ while Henry Pelham is called ‘Hall Stiff’. The Tories who joined Pelham’s coalition are unflatteringly referred to as the ‘Broad-Bottoms’ throughout. Continuing in much the same vein as the first part, the author tells of the rise of the Broad-Bottoms, who ‘set out, seemingly at least, on excellent Principles, which endeared them to most of the Tenants’ (pp. 17-18). However, after Bob Bronze’s fall:
Several […] of the Broad-Bottoms forced themselves into John Bull’s Service; where they were no sooner warm, than they forgot their Party, the Tenants, the Manor, their Professions, their Honour, every thing but pleasing their Employer, and filling their own Pockets. (p. 19)
The rest of the tale proceeds to give a condensed history of the Broad-Bottoms, with mocking allusions to the actions of various Tory ministers.
The final part of the pamphlet consists of a sardonic thank-you note addressed to those Tories. The author first sets down a lengthy list of the policies the Tories have reneged on, before demonstrating his own ‘gratitude’ by sarcastically thanking them for the many things they have not done:
And if you have done little for us, ’tis not impossible but you might have averted much Evil from us. ’Tis possible you might have prevented a Tax upon big Bellies, and Excise upon Urine […] And it is currently talk’d that you secretly oppos’d a Scheme […] for laying a Tax upon Honesty. I don’t wonder you should obstruct a Tax that would affect yourselves more than any People in the Kingdom. (pp. 41-42)
The author bitterly ends the pamphlet by emphasising that the Tory ministers’ perceived gains are woefully short-term in comparison with the long-term damage they have committed against their own cause:
Gentlemen, […] you have lost the People, without gaining the Court […] If you have as yet any Bowels for your Country, you can’t but reflect […] what an irreparable Injury you have done her by your late conduct […] All our future woes then, of Right, are to be plac’d at your Account; and therefore, such Thanks as you deserve, you have from me, who represent the Millions you have deceived. (pp. 51-52)
‘An Address of Thanks to the Broad-Bottoms’ seems remarkably pertinent as we enter a further period of uncertainty and coalitions, with a sceptical public and plummeting trust in perceivably self-interested politicians, who are besieged by unflattering media portrayals. It is often said that a day is a long time in politics. But sometimes, it seems that little really changes at all.