Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Westminister Election of 1784


Every liberal mind revolts at the wretched abuse now leveled at the most amiable of our country women! The base and blurring hand of calumny, however, is raised in vain against the lovely DEVON and her SISTER PATRIOTS, who at this juncture, so much resemble the fair celestials of the Grecian bard, whose attributes of divinity never appeared so brilliant as when forming a shield for the HEROIC LEADER of the OPRESSED PEOPLE!
The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 24 April 1784

As the world watches in anticipation of the US election (I know that sounds pompous but unfortunately is true), I thought today would be an appropriate day to talk of an election that was very important to Georgiana. This election went down in infamy because, for the first time, it appeared as if women could make an impact in politics.

The 1783 election of Pitt as Prime Minister sent the Whigs scrambling to secure a dominance over the the Tory MPs. Charles Fox, perhaps the biggest Whig of all, decided a good way to do this would be to run for a seat in the borough of Westminster. Westminster was perhaps the most coveted borough due to its voter size and the fact that it could boast that every male homeowner could vote, unlike other boroughs. Two seats were up for grabs, and there were only three candidates: Fox; the naval hero, Lord Hood; and the rich landowner, Sir Cecil Wray. It was one Whig verses two Pittites and Fox needed all the help he could get.

Of course, this is the 18th century, so things were done a little differently...and maybe, were a little more fun. If you went to the theatre at this time you may have gone just for the circus of the elections. On one side the Duchess of Rutland would be screaming from her opera box, "Damn Fox!" while Lady Maria Waldengrave would retort with, "Damn Pitt!" Ladies, ladies, please; I am trying to enjoy La Reine de Golconde! Obviously, aristocratic women were getting more passionate about politics, despite not being able to vote.

Georgiana loved this circus and decided to put herself right in the middle of it. One can only wonder if she knew what she was getting involved in. She became the ringleader of aristocratic ladies canvassing night and day for Fox. Walking through the cobbled streets with foxtails in her hat, Georgiana would hand out medals to those who professed their support to Fox. Sometimes she would even go door to door into the middle and working class homes to talk to the voters who were on the fence. Her Grace was even known to thrown down a beer with Joe the Plumber Butcher and talk politics. The people of Westminster found that the tall, fashionable, celebrity wasn't all just feathers and faro; she actually presented some really good points. In the process the new mother worked herself to absolute exhaustion.

Georgiana wasn't the only one working her butt off. The person who was by her side almost every day was her devoted sister (to both her and the Whigs), Harriet. Other canvassing team leaders were Mrs. Crewe and Mrs. Damer. The women/tarts who made up these teams consisted of, The Duchess of Portland, the three Ladies Waldengrave, Lady Jersey, Lady Carlisle, Mrs. Bouverie, Lady Worsley, Mrs. Robinson, and Lady Archer.

Of course, being a woman in a man's world and a man's race made Georgiana the target for scathing lies about her methods of securing votes. When rumours came about that Georgiana had exchanged a kiss with a butcher for a vote for Fox, the press ran away with it. Although, Harriet (and maybe the other canvassers) did this, Georgiana always fervently denied doing it. In fact, a bunch of Hood supporters cornered her when she was in their shop canvassing, and demanded kisses of the frightened duchess. The male-driven press and opposing party just couldn't accept that Georgiana's wit and charisma were winning votes, and not her sexual abilities. In satirical prints, and all-out war erupted, with one side criticizing her for kissing butchers, and the other hailing her as an allegory for politics and justice. Hundreds of these prints were published (and are on my broken laptop) but what was and is noticeable is the absence of criticism of the few Tory women-canvassers. Apparently, the campaign was also a celebrity-competition.

After all the criticism and exhaustion Georgiana retired from canvassing. But the votes were so close she was begged to come back. Against her mother's wishes, she returned to canvassing and not a minute too soon too, Fox won the second seat over Wray by 200 votes. Georgiana and the other ladies' efforts did not go to waste.

I will make the argument that without these patriotic women's help, Fox would not have won the election. He was criticized for being quite lazy in the process while his canvassers blistered their feet campaigning for him. He also was behind in the polls many times, and would sulk and become a recluse at Brooks as a reaction, all while his supporters tireless converted voters. The 1784 Westminster Election upset many because it proved that women (shock!) could change the results of an election.

4 comments:

Lauren said...

"I thought she only did that political stint to get closer to her childhood love, Grey!"


Good post, and well timed! Those women took themselves seriously to go out and do that, when they so easily could be seen as ridiculous(and were.) Her political moves are a testament to the confidence she had as a young duchess! And I know someone who would love foxtail hats!

Heather Carroll said...

Hahaha, thank you Lauren!

Mythosidhe said...

Vicious as the 1784 Westminster campaign was, I always enjoy reading about it! Anyone who thinks political mudslinging is a modern phenomenon need look no further to be convinced otherwise...

Heather Carroll said...

Haha you are absolutely right! I didn't even think of that.