Signatures of Conservatism: Petitioning, Popular Politics, and Campaigns Against Reform in Britain, 1780-1918

Henry Miller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Accounts of mass petitioning in Britain, and indeed other nineteenth-century polities have generally focused on the deployment of petitions within progressive, reformist or liberal campaigns and social movements. In the British case, classic examples include anti-slavery, radicalism, Chartism, free trade and women’s suffrage. Yet the new forms of mass collective petitioning that emerged in the late-eighteenth century are best regarded as neutral technologies rather than the exclusive property of liberals and radicals. Many of the largest mobilisations of petitions and signatures to Parliament and other authorities in the nineteenth century came from conservative, tory, loyalist, anti-reform or reactionary campaigns, seeking to resist major constitutional changes or oppose the demands made by progressive movements. An analysis of these campaigns reveals that conservative petitioning was generally reactive, responding to proposed changes and opponents rather than attempting to set the agenda. The practice of petitioning within such petition movements made greater use of established bodies, such as clergy and the church, and was rather slower to develop new forms of association and adopt the new modes of mass petitioning than their opponents. For example, for a long time conservatives continued to emphasise the respectability and quality of signatures and petitioners, even after numbers had become increasingly important in the public debates over petitions on key issues. The use of petitioning to resist change was also significant in maintaining conservative identity during a period (after 1830) when the Tory or Conservative party was weak. Overall, the engagement of conservatives shows how they adapted, if not to democracy, then to popular politics in the nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPopular Agency and Politicisation in Nineteenth-Century Europe
Subtitle of host publicationBeyond the Vote
EditorsOriol Lujan, Diego Palacios Cerezales
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9783031135200
ISBN (Print)9783031135194, 9783031135224
Publication statusPublished - 23 Nov 2022
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Political History
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan

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