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Parkinson of the disease

An address to the Hon. Edmund Burke

Title page of Parkinson’s AddressTitle page of Parkinson’s AddressThe 1790s in Britain were marked by an upsurge in political activity among those sections of society which had customarily been excluded from political life.

One of the manifestations of this phenomenon was a noticeable increase in pamphleteering, to an extent which had been unknown since the 1640s.

The outbreak of the French Revolution had engendered much debate about its implications for British politics and society. The publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the revolution in France (1790), now regarded as one of the classics of conservative political thought, had an explosive impact.

One passage in particular, which outlined Burke’s estimate of the probable consequences of the Revolution for the established order in Europe, was typical of the vehemence which characterised the work, and provoked many hostile responses: Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.

In the words of the literary scholar Olivia Smith, because Burke had defined ‘a large part of the population as brutish and inarticulate, [he] provoked them into speech.’

Opening from Parkinson’s Address with mention of the swinish multitudeOpening from Parkinson’s Address with mention of the swinish multitudeMany of Parkinson’s fellow radicals associated with the London Corresponding Society grabbed hold of the metaphor and attempted to use it for their own ends.

However, as Parkinson’s own use of the metaphor demonstrates, it could easily be deployed to support the argument that those who were not part of the political nation were capable of rational thought and should be enfranchised.

Final page of Parkinson’s AddressFinal page of Parkinson’s AddressWhatever one’s opinion of the logic of Parkinson’s political argument, he showed literary inventiveness in his pamphleteering. 

One of several political pamphlets which he wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Old Hubert’ was The village association, or, The politics of Edley (1793). This gives us some insight into the importance of this persona for Parkinson, as ‘Old Hubert’ is a fictional character in this pamphlet. He is a respected source of wisdom, who heals potential rifts in his community.

Perhaps it is not fanciful to suggest that ‘Old Hubert’ was an extension of Parkinson’s self-image as (in the historian Roy Porter’s phrase) a ‘doctor of society’, like his contemporaries Thomas Beddoes and John Haygarth, whose role extended beyond the healing of sick bodies.

These images are shown courtesy of LSE Library.

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