Elaine Hadley, “On Opinion Politics and the Ballot Act of 1872″


This article argues that opinion politics is one of the most significant developments in the nineteenth century, and does so by focusing in part on the Ballot Act of 1872. It provides a quick overview of the scene of elections prior to the reforms of 1832 and 1867 in order to highlight the emergence of the opinionated, purposive individual as the agent and medium of politics. it describes the mid-century variant of this political individual, the focus at this moment on the cognitive procedures of opinion formation, and the stresses this commitment produced in the political domain. It also briefly describes the late-century changes in opinion politics, and notes its continued salience in present-day politics.

British Coat of Arms

Figure 1: The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The consolidation of opinion politics, one of the most significant and still pertinent developments of the long nineteenth century, must be registered as its own event, despite the difficulties in pinning down dates or occurrences that mark its moment. The standard narratives of political change privilege the “events” that mark the legal alterations in the political domain, largely the reform bills (1832 and 1867-8). And, although the reform bills register changes in political practice and theory that ushered in this new era of opinion politics, and indeed remain markers of real historical importance, their emphasis upon representation and electoral eligibility has perhaps occluded the remarkable revision in politics that the reification of opinion occasioned.  The familiar narrative of the rise of democracy has not adequately explained the complex contours of political opinion, which over the course of the century became at once powerfully allied to individualized agents and a central motor of politics per se.  Opinion became the primary means by which political meaning was held, expressed and mobilized in the private and public domains.  To some extent, the emergence of opinion politics predates the nineteenth century and is by no means exclusively detectable within Britain, for it certainly relies on the cultural, political and governmental realignments that made liberalism and democracies (by no means synonymous) possible across the Western world.  Opinion politics, however, obtains a particular shape in the British context, and its contours, though much changed in detail, remain powerful organizing features in political life today.  Indeed, so ordinary has the value of opinion become, so given, that we too rarely recognize its status as concept and hence its historicity.

In this entry, I will explain why it makes sense to focus on opinion (vs. representation or electoral eligibility), what opinion in the political domain meant, and what its ramifications were. Political opinion became a privileged category over a long period of time, but the Ballot Act of 1872 might well count as an apotheosis of this phenomenon, though it is in many respects a back-formation, just as much legislation belatedly expresses already accomplished tectonic shifts in perspective.  The Ballot Act was often popularly referred to as the “secret ballot,” because the most controversial component of this multiform legislation dictated the use of secret balloting at national and local elections.  It sought to eradicate various forms of unsavory electoral behavior, from treating (the purchase of drink in exchange for a vote) to physical violence, with less than stellar results, but it nonetheless legislatively codified the individual, opinionated voter as the agent of politics.

Long before the nineteenth century, actual people in the actual world possessed what we might wish to call and what contemporaries on occasion might have wished to call opinions of a political nature. Moreover, very common political phrases, such as “public opinion” and “the opinion of the people,” long predate this period. The purpose of this essay is not to argue for the invention or discovery of opinion per se, but to argue that the nineteenth century was the first time that politics became organized around political opinion of a particular type—an opinion that at its core is neither primarily public nor of the people, but privately conceived and individuated.

In order to provide a sharper outline of this explosive category of “individual opinion,” I must engage in some generalization and shorthand, which unfortunately simplifies complex trends and the rich historical scholarship that queries these trends. Although detectable movement was already apparent by the mid-eighteenth century, it would still be defensible to characterize the political domain of Great Britain in the following terms.  Whether the titles attached be Tory/Whig or country/city interests, there was a system of representation in Parliament that still rigorously adhered to aristocratic power structures built legally and customarily in the ownership of landed property.  Aristocrats and their associates were largely in control of constituencies, and they thus designated candidates for those constituencies—either themselves, their sons or intimate proxies.  Electors, when gathered to voice their vote for these Parliamentary candidates, were typically expressing support not primarily for the particular person on the hustings but for the interests that the candidate represented—the landed interest, the city interest, or, in a different register, the Whig or the Tory interest.  The lord of the manor was perhaps implicit in this category of “interest,” but the particular person holding that title was less importantly determinative of that interest than the system the title implied (Pitkin).

In this setting, “interest” encapsulates a very complex and often inextricable ensemble of cultural, political and economic values that do not pool around an individual as individual.  Such values were largely locational, organic, customary and even habitual at their foundation.  Hustings speeches, for instance, were not confessions of personal conviction so much as declarative reiterations of traditional values, whose origins were often considered ancient, or, at the very least, understood to be before or larger than any given individual’s views (Barker and Vincent).  In a related way, the elector himself, for, of course, he was always a male at this time, was operating as a representative of the constituents (many of them non-electors), not merely in terms of his own self-interest.  This constituency was not understood as a group of individuals, but as an aggregate interest group with ties of obligation, bonds of influence and economic relations of dependency with the various aristocratic circuits of landed power.  As late as the First Reform Bill of 1832, whose revisions of the electoral map were hotly resisted as the advent of a dangerous democratization by many, “interest” still remained the dominant organizing category, even as more modern economic forces were welcomed into the representational fold.  The new bill did not privilege the individual or even populations but aimed to address emergent economic interests, such as the “cotton interest” in Lancashire, itself a largely hierarchical voting bloc.

The electoral ritual within these interest groups might be more usefully described in this context as an exchange of recognition between two portions of a status hierarchy than as an election of a candidate by voters. Furthermore, what seems like a somewhat static tableau of the political scene reflects the nature of Parliamentary governance before the nineteenth century, where stewardship and maintenance were the rule. Legislative activism, such as is associated with liberalism and perhaps Gladstonian liberalism as a prime example, and the emergence later in the century of party platforms and “programmes” (e.g., the Newcastle Programme, 1891), by contrast, are constitutively related to the emergence of individual opinion as the agent of politics.

It is much easier to articulate the differences between an aristocratic regime and the era of opinion politics than it is to describe and account for the change over time. I can provide some probable causes or at least places where causes may lurk, but I offer no assuredness on this score.  Of course, the Reform Bills of 1832 and later in 1868 install in the historical record evidence of the diminishment of landed property as a factor in electoral eligibility, and, thus, by association, the slowly declining influence of aristocratic privilege.  Moreover, periodic efforts at addressing electoral corruption (legislation was passed in 1809, 1827, 1842, 1854, 1868 and 1883) also measure the glacial but measurable decline in aristocratic authority. These electoral corruption bills indicate that once common practices, such as treating, were no longer deemed legal applications of aristocratic influence but illegally coercive acts of bribery—“undue influence” as the eighteenth century wore on into the nineteenth (a shift from the benevolence of “influence” to the inequalities of contract). Bourgeois capitalism and supporting tenets of political economy, perhaps most manifest in the work of Adam Smith, had already done much work in isolating homo economicus as an individuated agent.  Protestantism, in its evangelical variant in the late and early nineteenth century, privileged a kind of soul-searching reflexivity that might also have pointed in the direction of a more individuated and more mind-situated political actor.  Utilitarian philosophy gives additional prominence to the category of the individual in its insistence on the world-making capacity of self-interest, in part defined as a salutary revision of the ancien regime’s group interests. Empirical epistemology, in part initiated by Locke’s work, posited a contingent human nature that enabled individuality even as it elicited manifold strategies to catalog and indeed govern that contingency’s variety.

Although “public opinion” was a long-held value, the turn into the nineteenth century reveals an increasing dis-ease with its meaning and role in political debate. If at one time evocative of the polis and its participatory oratorical scene, or, alternatively, a mostly prized expression of the intentions of British society beyond the Parliamentary floor and implicitly its aristocratic organization of governance, public opinion in, say, Hazlitt’s prose becomes a kind of scurrilous rumor (Hazlitt 311-315). As the channels for communication increase due in part to the reduction of, and then subsequent repeal of, the newspaper tax (the 1836 and 1855 Newspaper Acts, respectively) and the diminishment of other curbs of free expression in subsequent decades, the opinion of the public becomes quite the opposite of a salubrious check to the inebriated power of the government but among many of the political and intellectual elite its own form of drunken, self-indulgent idiocy—in fact, something to fear not hear.

The consolidation of opinion politics gradually emerges during these years, when, in effect, the “public” in public opinion loses its consequential role in the political system as an external but palpable pressure, and the “opinion” that remains is folded into eligibility requirements for the vote, redistricting efforts and anti-corruption legislation.  As the Reform bills suggest, as more if not many more people are deemed capable of joining the electoral fold, the residual population on the outside increasingly loses its political capital. Indeed, a seemingly counter-intuitive but compelling reading argues that, despite the increase in sheer numbers of electors, the nineteenth century shows a diminution of the places and practices considered properly political (Vernon 106-107). The political scene by the middle decades of the nineteenth century takes on a measurably different character.

With uneven pace, candidates for Parliament increasingly come from demographic groups disconnected from aristocratic chains of obligation. Hustings speeches and other circulated political content (through newspapers, for instance) more regularly articulate what we might call “policy” positions on particular questions of governance, promising legislative action of one kind or another.  More tellingly, perhaps, candidates frequently formulate their commitments as individual convictions, personally crafted, instead of as declarations of allegiance to already existing values. Electors, on their end, also steadily shed their burden as representatives of interests and/or non-elector blocks of the constituency. Suffrage reform gradually loosens the land from electoral eligibility, such that citizens in possession of more fungible but stable commercial wealth, an emanation of homo economicus—that self-interested individual—become formally incorporated into the political domain. Indeed, once more, concerns around electoral corruption nicely capture this evolution. Whereas treating had long been a customary artifact of the polling period in elections—a liquid conduit for aristocratic influence—it was increasingly understood to be an unlawful dilution of the independent calculations of an elector. The vote itself was now the choice of an individual with political views, a choice between two candidates with their own political views.

One can see in the new electoral scene the way in which opinion coheres around and within an individual. Moreover, because they are codified within the legal parameters of electoral politics, these opinions of individuals are themselves presumed to have political agency only. In other words, the form and content of these opinions are delimited by their political saliency, sensitive to changing conceptions of what politics are but, even so, always defined by the individual subject as political actor rather than representative for interests in excess of the political. What I might call the condensing of the political into Politics clarifies to some extent the nature of opinion’s purpose: it now epitomizes the political subject as one who has opinions as well as constitutes the circulatory substance of Politics proper. Before this period, of course, individuals within the political system had access to purposive forms of agency, but part of the story I am trying to tell asserts that purposive agency was now lodged in the individual as individual, that political individuality was understood to be at its core opinionated, and that individual opinions were now the medium of politics.

To be sure, there were paradoxes and tensions aplenty in these new nodes of political significance. For example, if opinion was private rather than public (insofar as it was now the possession of an individual), it must nevertheless circulate in the public sphere. Just how opinion ought to circulate and matter publicly was continually under discussion, even as concerns about its contamination by that circulation remained. If types of electoral corruption might be seen in part as sites where an “old” normal is now deemed abnormal, then one might suggest that increasing regulatory energy in response to personation (fraudulent voting of one person for another) during the Victorian period registers another paradox at the heart of privately held, individually demarcated opinion. On the one hand, opinion is a more general and thus demographically capacious criteria for political citizenship; on the other hand, “individual opinion” takes its force from the particular, the specific, even the unique. In other words, everyone may have an opinion, but everyone must have his own opinion: the difference between the two is clear enough to describe but not so easy to determine in actual practice.  How and why does it matter that one person votes for another?

The most compelling tension palpable in these political developments, and one that announces a further refinement in opinion politics, settles around that much-revised but still regnant notion of interest. As the suffrage extended, many Britons predictably worried about new voters—in particular, the danger that their opinions, as channeled through the vote, were too self-interested. The vote might now express the imprint of mere personal taste or temperament or, even worse, venal personal gain (another way of explaining why electoral treating was no longer approved). In the older regime, something more than the hedonic or market calculus seemed in play, but the contraction into individual opinion augured as well a contraction of interest such that “the nation” or “the country” or, even, one’s betters were no longer effectively a part of one’s political calculation. In an Empire of supreme authority, whose governing functions were wide-reaching and complex, how could “individual opinion” encompass the brave new world that legislation must address?

It is possible to say that there is a shift in what is the primary motivational motor in political agency over the course of the century from interest to self-interest to disinterest.[1] The schematic I am offering here is just that, a schematic, but I do not therefore think it useless. By the mid-nineteenth century, the many limitations of a self-interested vote had been richly catalogued even as a new rubric for individual opinion was becoming manifest, especially among moderates of both main parties. If, in fact, political effectivity must take the form of individual opinion but political decisions were more often of a national or imperial scale, then individual opinion must operate beyond both the individual and his interests in the ether of disinterestedness. If opinion is now private not public, it must be a kind of cognitive rather than domestic privacy so that the merely personal and intimate (as opposed to the reasonable and reasoned) would not contaminate the political opinion’s work in the world. Conceived not before a clamoring crowd of non-electors, the beseeching cottage complaints of the wife or the hungry cries of one’s children, but in the quiet solitude of mental deliberation—the site of ideas not ideological imbrication—political opinion could attain the proper register of abstracted disinterest that Indian, Jamaican and South African affairs required.

The Ballot Act of 1872, though in many ways a tardy legislation of trends long underway, helpfully sketches in many of the salient features of this revised political scene. In its introduction of secret balloting, this legislation depoliticizes public spaces. Polling no longer takes place in the market square, in the presence of anyone who gathers there, including non-electors, women and children, but in polling stations which themselves are supposed to contain balloting booths or compartments of some kind and the voting paper’s own analogue for a booth—the ballot box.[2] The intensification of discreetness and discretion in this new form of voting not only underscores the privatizing drive of politics at this time (booths and boxes in place of platforms and public declarations), but equally the efforts to bracket off the individual elector from others, both physically and behaviorally—no fisticuffs, drinking or electoral parades. What’s more, the neutralized physical design of the polling station, booths and boxes both reflects and is understood by many to trigger appropriately abstract opinions. One cannot, to be sure, see the nation or socialize with the Empire while one stands in the booth, but one can think them if one is himself sufficiently abstracted from his everyday situatedness, in effect, thinking in a box.  Abstracted rather than distracted, the elector votes abstractions—“the nation,” the “Empire,” even “fiscal policy.” The paradox implicit in a disinterested individual opinion truly marks the dynamics of a mid-nineteenth-century liberalism that aggressively prizes individuality even as it regulates its excesses through the abstraction of those impulses.

In actual practice, the balloting booth and boxes may not have forced electors to think politically only when inhabiting the now newly enclosed spaces of the polling station, but the regulative ambitions of these reforms aimed for just this type of intensification of privacy, beyond the hustle and bustle of hustings, deep within the silent workings of the solitary mind. This shift to a cognitive conception of opinion’s germination and possession is manifest in the Ballot Act, but it radiated outward, affecting other features of electoral politics and, indeed, the practical effects of being a citizen. Emphasis upon the procedures and etiquette of ideation can be seen throughout the period, with liberals especially privileging rationality, internal devil’s advocacy, deliberation and deliberateness, reticence and reserve.[3] One can rather easily detect the shifting contours of citizenship.  If a citizen and, in turn, his candidates are constituted by the having of an opinion, but that opinion is now privately conceived, one of the key burdens born by voters concerns their necessary assessment of the candidate as individual bearer of opinion. When proxies represented views long existent, publicly circulated and recognized, it hardly mattered who or what the elector was. In the era of opinion politics, the candidate of opinion comes to the electoral scene as an individual, with privately held opinions, whose provenance is mostly unseen and unknown. Moreover, those opinions are understood to be agents of political action, purposive in their aims. Since individual intention is now the motivational engine that moves opinion toward governance, one detects in the historical record fastidiously nervous attention paid to affective and ethical valences of intention, in particular, sincerity and consistency. Does the candidate mean what he says? Will the candidate do what he says?[4] These remain pressing questions in the present political era, questions which are an inheritance of this period.

Rigorous standards attached to the thinking of opinion and its possession, qualities borne by both elector and candidate, were often unpractical and thus susceptible to their own forms of crisis. An individual opinion that is distinctive but also thoroughly disinterested could and did raise worries about motive force. Often enough, disinterest could look like no interest at all, a kind of indifference.[5] The historical record also reveals that a political ritual that codifies mental reflexivity can be portrayed as a kind of distraction (rather than abstraction), the mind lost to itself, unalert to the world it otherwise aspires to reform.[6]

As the century lurched forward, the later decades did indeed see continuing alterations in opinion politics: efforts to accommodate, for instance, revisionist views of the human mind, rendered complex by physiology, instinct and drives. Opinion still mattered, but its brain matter could at times count for less. The Conservative Party, for instance, valued a retro-organicism that privileged patriotism as natural urge (e.g., the Primrose League).  There was renewed energy expended as well on the relation between the political individual and the social domain—now more broadly conceived than in mid-century liberalism, when, despite its reformist reputation, liberalism was far less legislatively activist in the social and cultural domain than in the economic. There were in the last decades of the century varieties of “late liberalism” that sought to address the problematic of motive force in the self through the bonds of social obligation (T.H. Green), and other ideologies of socialism (Fabianism), nationalism (the later career of Joseph Chamberlain), and imperialism (J. A. Hobson).  In spite of this broadening sense of the social, these theories largely preserved the individual at the center of the stage. The historically parallel rise in party political machines, built from above and below, might seem at first to counteract the individuating premise at the heart of the opinion politics I describe. And surely this is true, especially as unions take the shape of the Labor party at the century’s end. This is when political agendas address “labor” as undifferentiated social force.  Even so, the group dynamic at the heart of party politics can mistakenly be seen as the opposite of individuation when, especially in the Liberal party, it was really an aggregation of those individuals.  The premise for a long time remained the individuated agent of opinion, and many forms of socialism, and, indeed, the social welfare agendas of many late-century Liberals did not stray far from that premise in the operations of Politics proper. Individuated opinion remains, of course, a central assumption in modern-day democracies, where polls continually register the individual opinion in the aggregate, and citizens routinely assess the consistency and sincerity of the candidates on offer.

Elaine Hadley teaches at the University of Chicago.  She is the author of Melodramatic Tactics (1995) and Living Liberalism (2010).  She is currently working on a third project concerning liberalism and war, whose working title is Partial War.


Hadley, Elaine. “On Opinion Politics and the Ballot Act of 1872.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Barker, Hannah, and David Vincent. Language, Print, and Electoral Politics, 1790-1832. Newcastle-under-Lyme Broadsides Parliamentary History Record Series 2. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001. Print.

Green, T. H. “Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract (1880).”  The Collected Works of T. H. Green. Vol. 3. Ed. Peter Nicholson. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1997. Print.

Hadley, Elaine. Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.

Hazlitt, William. “On Public Opinion.” Fugitive Writings. Ed. A. R. Walter and Arnold Glover. Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of William Hazlitt. 12 Vols. 1902-04. London: J. M. Dent, 1904. Print.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1938. Print.

Kinzer, Bruce L. The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics. Modern British History 9. Ed. Peter Stansky and Leslie Hume. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser. Oxford: Clarendon, 1894. Print.

Loughlin, James. “Joseph Chamberlain, English Nationalism and the Ulster Question.” History 77. 250 (1992): 202-219. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2007.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Ed. David Spitz. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Print.

Morley, John. On Compromise; with Swinburne’s New Poems. Ed. John Powell. Edinburgh: Keele UP, 1997. Print.

Nossiter, T. J. Influence, Opinion and Political Idioms in Reformed England: Case Studies from the North‑East, 1832‑1874. Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1975. Print.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967. Print.

Stephen, James Fitzjames. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Three Brief Essays. Ed. Richard A. Posner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. Print.

Vernon, James. Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, 1815-1867. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.


[1] Nossiter charts a related schematic, from “agitation” to “conscience” to “ballot” (65).

[2] For a thorough, conventional account of the ballot agitation and its passage into law, see Kinzer.

[3] J. S. Mill and John Morley are most explicit on the tenor and tactics of political ideation and opinion.

[4] Discussions in newspapers concerning William Ewart Gladstone consistently debate the extent to which the great Liberal was sincere and consistent. For further references, see Hadley (311-12).

[5] James Fitzjames Stephen most famously targets the problem of motivation in a disinterested stance (133).

[6] Anthony Trollope is cogent on this mental flaw; see The Warden, where Septimus Harding falls asleep in a cigar divan, or Phineas Finn, whose eponymous hero’s volatile love life captures too much of his attention, or Ralph the Heir, where the protagonist secludes himself with his writing project. George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways, is also alert to forms of distraction within a liberal worldview.