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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


October 31st, 1999.

"Mob Psychology."

And the brute crowd, whose envious zeal
Huzzas each turn of fortune's wheel,
And loudest shouts when lowest lie
Exalted worth and station high.
Scott: Rokeby.

In 1710, the hardships of the war was telling on England: seamen were going unpaid; there were increased charges on many articles, including candles, beer and coal. The English government turned to the device of lotteries to raise money. In the midst of all these hardships which were starting to be deeply felt by the people, the government decided to stage a public spectacle: the trial of Henry Sacheverell (1674-1714). A school chum of Addison's (Oxford), Sacheverell, though advocating nonresistance, had spoken out against government policy. The trial was staged before the House of Lords with much pomp and ceremony, Sir Christopher Wren was called upon to prepare Westminster hall with wooden scaffolding. All the important people of London crowded in, to the roof. Every day Queen Anne, ill as she was, was carried in her sedan chair from St. James palace so she might observe the proceedings. Long robed judicial officers filled the halls with their speeches and arguments. "Meanwhile outside the doors of Parliament, a storm of popular passion was raging in minds quite incapable of distinguishing these nice points in the theory of the constitution."1 Riots broke out: meeting houses were burnt down: the mindless mob moved through the streets. "At length a cry was raised to storm the Bank of England, ... full to the roof, as the mob believed, of golden guineas."2 The guard was called out and the mobs disbursed and the people locked themselves up in their homes. The Lords re-convened and soon put an end to their unappreciated government game; coming to a quick vote, Sacheverell was found guilty, 69 to 52, lightly sentenced and released.3

As Alexander Hamilton said: "The more numerous an assembly may be, of whatever characters composed, the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason." There is, indeed, such a thing as "mob psychology": it is recognized (Lorenz, for example) that there exists a group communal response which evolved in our pre-human ancestors whereby a human crowd can become decidedly aggressive and lose all rationality and moral inhibitions. What is needed as Emerson observed, because "masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influences"; is that they are "not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and to break them up, and draw individuals out of them."4

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NOTES:

1 Trevelyan, England Under Queen Anne, vol. 3, p. 55.

2 Ibid., p. 56.

3 Sacheverell's sentence was that he was not to preach for the next three years and his offending sermon, after being written up, was to be burnt by the hangman.

4 Conduct of Life, 1860.

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Peter Landry

1999 (2011)