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Response to Review no. 360

Before discussing Johnson’s review, it is necessary to summarise the book’s contents.  It uses caricature to examine specific ‘controversies of the era [that] forced ordinary people to define an identity which they believed embodied the ideal of “Britishness” to which they could adhere in this period of uncertainty.'(p. 1) Chapter 1 analyses caricature production, distribution, consumption, audience, and possible influence on public attitudes. Chapter 2 studies caricatures that reflect the constitutional debate that emerged from various political crises between 1760 and 1788, including George III’s personal involvement with politics, the Wilkes controversy, the American conflict, and the bitter political contests of the 1780s. Graphic satires reflected the growing perception that ‘something was seriously amiss in the structure of government’ (p. 23) but there was no clear consensus about whether the greatest threat was oppression by royal tyranny, parliamentary factions, or demagogic politicians. Chapter 3 analyses satires resulting from the widespread public controversy in 1789-90 over efforts to pass legislation giving nonconformists full civil liberties. These frequently portrayed Dissenters as the heirs of Civil War regicides, and this became linked with the French revolution in late 1789, when leading Dissenters praised French reformers. The result was

a new iconography for reform that combined elements of older traditions with a new symbolism [from the French revolution] . [that would] reflect the religious and class prejudices of the caricature audience, suggesting that loyal Britons were synonymous with respectable Anglicans. (p. 68)

Chapter 4 examines the iconographical contest that took place during the French revolution, which attempted to ‘identify the best way to symbolise the national values for which Britons sacrificed, fought and died.'(p. 121) Britannia’s image was affected by ongoing debates about women in politics, and John Bull ultimately emerged as the best symbol of middle-class ideals, one that could symbolically oppose foreign enemies and legitimately call for domestic reforms. Chapter 5 posits that the expanding use of John Bull as a figure critical of the government mirrored the debate over the extent to which all Britons had the right to protest, vote, and exercise the other rights of Englishmen. Caricatures show that ‘this conflict reflected the larger question of political legitimacy: whose interest, desires, and values best represented the British ideals of the people’s rights.'(p. 170) Chapter 6 argues that this developing ideal of ‘Britishness’ was expressed in graphic satire that demanded ‘a regal monarch who also exemplified the private respectability and morality which was deemed characteristic of – and essential for – the British nation.'(p. 230) The conclusion, Chapter 7, suggests a theoretical approach for understanding caricature’s role in developing British national identity in the reign of George III.

As this summary suggests, Johnson’s review is inadequate and inaccurate. This is not a ‘general survey of the prints’, as he claims, but a study of specific topics that relate to the formation of national identity in periods of conflict and crisis. He declares that ‘it lacks a clear focus overall’, but the thesis was stated in the introduction, emphasised in every chapter, and expanded on and analysed in the conclusion, a chapter that Johnson never mentions. His statement that ‘there is no assessment of [caricature’s] impact upon contemporary politics or the public’ is also untrue. Such impact is implied throughout the volume, and is discussed in relation to specific incidents (e.g. on pp. 52, 85-6, 143, 149, 160 or 211), as well as in the introduction and conclusion (see pp. 17-20 and 300-303). 

Johnson’s review misrepresents specific arguments in Defining John Bull. He states, ‘the contention that caricatures directed against taxation began in the 1780s cannot be sustained.’ But the book does not make this claim. It proposes that anti-tax caricatures of the 1780s ‘differentiate between the interests of the commercial classes and the elite.’ These were unique because ‘instead of attacking the venality of the government who levied the tax – a standard complaint during the first twenty years of [George III’s] reign – [these prints] emphasise the complaints of those who will have to pay.’ (pp. 172-3). The text notes that earlier prints that specifically complain about taxes (including the attacks on Walpole in 1733) viewed taxes as political issues and did not focus on the financial burden these levies would place on ordinary citizens. Thus, these prints reflect caricature’s shift of emphasis, not the introduction of a new subject.

Johnson also implies that the book’s analysis is flawed in its discussion of the county association movement in 1779-80, stating that ‘it was an attack on the crown’s use of patronage to secure parliamentary majorities . rather than parliamentary reform that was the initial and primary focus’ of the movement. But Parliamentary reform was an issue addressed by the petitioners, and this was reflected in caricature. Chapter 2 notes that the associations intended to ‘petition for expanded suffrage and more frequent elections as the first step towards making politics more responsive to the concerns of citizens.’ (p. 41) This is supported not only by caricature evidence, but also by reference to the memorial passed in 1780 at a general meeting of representatives of association movements that called for various reforms, including annual parliaments and greater county representation. (p. 41) But Johnson’s critique is his only mention of this discussion, and he thus ignores the overall theme of this section, which was to assess the ways in which caricatures placed the movement into the broader ongoing debate about the meaning of the constitution.

Johnson also states that the book’s worth is undermined by omissions and errors. For example, he claims that the

long struggle between George III and the Whig opposition . which culminated in the stormy politics of the period 1782-4, is also largely ignored . Fox remarked that [caricatures] had done more damage to him [in this period] than parliament or the press, and was in no doubt that they were largely responsible for the [Fox-North] coalition’s downfall.  This is a serious omission.

But the book does address these topics. Chapter 2’s analysis of caricatures on various constitutional issues includes discussions of the political opposition’s role in these debates (pp. 25-6, 35, 38, 39, 40, 48). It also discusses caricatures on the Fox-North coalition, its fall, and the subsequent election of 1784 (see pp. 50-52 and 135-141). Among the numerous caricatures analysed, it examines at some length James Sayers’ satire, Carlo Khan’s Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street (1783), reproduced as Illustration 13. The text notes that Sayers’ nickname of Carlo Khan for Fox ‘was quickly adopted by other artists and authors, with damaging results; Fox later declared that this print, and its many imitations, effectively doomed the India Bill.'(p. 52) The subsequent paragraph explains that the failure of this bill directly led to the ousting of the coalition.   

Many of the other errors Johnson cites are trivial issues or not errors at all. He faults the use of the term ‘several years’ instead of ‘two years’ in a passing allusion to the year of Pitt’s death, wonders why the book discussed (but did not reproduce) Hogarth’s famous caricature of Wilkes, and somewhat paradoxically asks why two additional satires on George III’s sons were not included in a chapter that he already describes as ‘a breathless race through the royal escapades of George III’s reign.’ He also errs when he says that the caricature, Hibernia in the Character of Charity ‘is wrongly ascribed to 1785, when it clearly refers to the Fox-North coalition of 1783.’  His assumption that the presence of Fox and North must determine the date is unfounded. The caricature’s publication line dates it to 31 March 1784, and Dorothy George suggests that this is a mistake for 1785, when Fox spoke vigorously on a Parliamentary resolution on Ireland.(1. M. D. George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires: Volume 6, 1784-92, (London; British Museum, 1938), p. 227.