E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act — October 29, 2017

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act

Men in knight attire with their dogs. Maybe they're law enforcement?
This is another magic trick by the author of the magisterial Making of the English Working Class. The book plays itself out to the reader as a little historical mystery: why did the English government care enough about the theft of deer to make it, in the early decades of the 1700s, a crime punishable by death?

The book opens with explorations of individual cases in minute detail, and in the hands of a lesser author this might be exhaustingly tedious. To his credit, Thompson is both too good an author to let this happen, and aware enough of what ordinary readers are like to understand that we might feel that way. The cases are dealt with briskly and dramatically; Thompson is an excellent storyteller. The stories are mined for as much ore as they’ll offer up, because the data on the Black Act are apparently sparse: early-18th-century England was heavily censored, seemingly in part as a way to enforce stability after the Hanoverian succession. So few people wanted to come out and say that the Black Act was impossibly Draconian.

The Act wanted to label those accused of ‘blacking’ (i.e., dressing up in disguise, painting their faces black, and hiding off in the woods at night) members of what we today would call ‘gangs’ or ‘terrorist cells’. If they were tarred as a group, and their actions were perceived as a criminal conspiracy, it was easier to throw the book at them. In this way the parallels to the modern ‘terrorist’ label are fairly striking. The “blacks” did, in fact, act as small groups in many cases: attacking a landlord’s house at night, firing into his windows, and stealing deer as a group. But they don’t seem to have been a widespread movement with any actual leadership, apart from a perhaps mythical figure named “King John”. Instead, they were sporadically organized deer thieves across a couple counties in England.

So why, again, were Walpole and others so concerned to suppress the blacks up to the point of sentencing them to death? In the second half of Whigs and Hunters, Thompson throws back the curtain on the era and on the story of the blacks. In his description, the first decades of the 1700s in England sound a lot like the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapacious capitalists had rushed in and were siphoning off public funds into their private bank accounts. Georgian England, in particular, was in the middle of the enclosure movement, whereby land that had been owned in common since before the memory of man was now given over to the highest bidder. In the grand arc of history, maybe this was better in the long run, but in the meantime it was depriving peasants of their livelihoods.

On that score, Thompson’s book begins with a detailed exploration of what forests are used for. Again, just as in Making of the English Working Class, he pulls off this feat of being as richly detailed as necessary, while never taking his eye off the larger story. Today a forest seems like, basically, a nice place to spend a few contemplative hours where the air is nice. To early-18th-century England, it was a source of food in the form of deer, a source of heat in the form of wood, and the scene on which community life played out. Now, under George I, all this was being torn from beneath the people who’d lived there for centuries, all so that Walpole and his cronies could get wealthy at the public trough.

It’s Thompson’s great magic trick to acknowledge the scantiness of the data on the specific case of the blacks, while embedding that case within a broader history of the 1700s by which the blacks suddenly make perfect sense.

His peroration — which Jeet Heer mentioned thusly:

— is what led me to read this book. It’s a plea to recognize that the law isn’t, as a certain strain of Marxists would say, a mere fig leaf over ruling-class interest. While Walpole and others may have profited off the common wealth, and while they may have crafted laws that punished the lower classes, it’s important to note that they felt the need to do this through the vehicle of the law. Their power was not unbounded: there’s a difference between the unlimited power of the totalitarian and the limited power of a ruler within a society of laws. Thompson’s defense of the rule of law is timeless, beautiful, and in the context of the larger work, rather surprising.