Project 1: Pressure groups

In her Post-doc research, Dr. Maartje Janse investigates the realization in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1820s and 1830s that mass organizations could challenge political power; the first British and American experiments with pressure groups; and the impact their example had in continental Europe. As such, the topic is the rediscovery in the early 19th century of organization as a political tool, amidst a strong post-revolutionary fear of political organizing.


Antislavery is the foremost case in point. Even though the British and American antislavery movements had origins in the late 18th century, from the late 1820s these movements radically transformed into modern pressure groups. The older groups, such as the Philadelphia Abolition Society, were usually local, small, and elitist and aimed at a quiet and harmonious resolution of the issue, while the new national or statewide groups took a radical stance, widely publicized their protests, and gained a mass membership within a few years, most notably consisting of middle-class men and women. Within a short time large parts of the United States and the United Kingdom were covered in a network of local branches of national or state organizations. Even though historians have noticed this transformation, the new conception and practice of organizing have not been studied as such, but rather been viewed as the natural effect of the intensified antislavery sentiments produced by this period’s surging Protestant Evangelicalism. While Evangelicalism and the craze for organizing undeniably reinforced each other, this project will argue that the popularity of organizing is a phenomenon in its own right, which can be found outside evangelical circles as well.

The pressure group

Where did the new generation of antislavery activists get their inspiration to organize in large-scale pressure groups? The hypothesis (which has been tested and confirmed for the American case) is that the efficiency and success in the 1810s and 1820s of apolitical organizations such as Bible, Tract and Missionary Societies was so striking that contemporaries started contemplating other causes in which this ‘powerful machine’ of organization could be employed. The consequent success of the British antislavery movement – many credited the 1833 law abolishing slavery to their pressure – internationally established the pressure group as a promising new tool in battling social and political vices. The 1830s and 1840s saw temperance movements applying the techniques of mass organization which in many countries led to the introduction of prohibition legislation around mid-century; and in 1838 the British Anti-Corn Law League had far reaching implications not just for the issue at hand, but for ways in which people in different parts of the world regarded pressure groups. These organizations and their founders pioneered a new type of politics, which would lead to mass politics. The argument of quantity (of members, of signatures, of publications sold) grew stronger, but an organization’s respectability was still its most cherished asset. It was a balancing act between mass politics and respectability.

Case studies

The main case studies are the first British and American pressure groups. However, due attention will be paid to the influence their example exercised in other countries, such as the Netherlands, France and Germany. In most of these countries, the fear of organization was much stronger than in the Anglo-American world, and for a long time pressure groups were either thought too radical to be established, or operated extremely carefully.

In the case of antislavery and temperance, the single-issue pressure groups under investigation are part of a transnational movement. In other cases, they are specific to their national political context. In the period ranging from 1820 to 1840 the story of the invention and experimenting with the pressure group as a political tool will be told through the case studies of Anti-Masonry (US), Anti-Catholicism (UK), both being forerunners to the modern Antislavery and Temperance movements (US, UK and other countries) and the Anti-Corn Law League (UK).

Last Modified: 13-01-2011