Organizing the Masses
The Contested Nature of Early Irish, British and American Pressure Groups, 1820-1840
In the early nineteenth century, Irish, British and American pressure groups opposing, for example, slavery or the British Corn Laws, introduced a new type of politics: mass politics. This did not go unnoticed. Some contemporaries expressed enthusiasm about the fact that people who were formally excluded from political life could now engage in politics without breaking the law or making revolution. Others despised the influence an organization could gain by efficient fund raising and the distribution of propaganda, and feared that this development would corrupt the proper functioning of the political system.
This project asks why these early pressure groups were so heavily contested. The working hypothesis is that there was much at stake: the debate on pressure groups was essentially a debate over democracy. In the post-revolutionary context, the future of politics was unclear. What was considered good politics, who should participate, and in what way? For contemporaries, this was by no means an academic debate. Their social position was at stake. Those who had little social standing and were excluded from the political process (women, members of the (lower) middle class or ethnic and religious minorities) aspired to be accepted as worthy members of civil society and political life. The members of the social elite who represented the political establishment in turn feared the loss of their privileged position.
By making use of biographical sketches and digitized nineteenth-century newspapers, I will be able to reconstruct the debate on the merits and perils of the first pressure groups. Historians have devoted much energy to the study of individual movements, but following the observations of contemporaries, the modern pressure group was a phenomenon in its own right. Exciting and promising, or threatening and unethical - it heralded the advent of mass politics.