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Reflections on ‘Essay on Public Opinion’

Dr. Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London

It may be stating the obvious to point out that what was understood as constituting ‘public opinion’ in the eighteenth century bears little resemblance to the culture of opinion polls and click rates that often accompanies the term in today’s usage. It rarely offered the prospect of absolute excoriation or vindication that it does for us. Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance. Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. So could riots and revolutions. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests. To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.

It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative.

Read further Reflections on ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ on the King’s College London blog, where this post first appeared.

Source: King’s College

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