Dickens and Political Institutions

Political Institutions

Although we often think of Dickens as a highly political writer, he actually formally engaged with relatively few political institutions throughout his life. He spoke predominantly at literary and dramatic institutions, such as Newsvendors Associations, the Printers' Pension Society, and the General Theatrical Fund.

Dickens’s core beliefs throughout his life were rather more moral than political; he believed fundamentally in the spread of: "humanity, decency, and…the values of the New Testament."1

He sought to intervene in public life as both an educator and a philanthropist – but rarely as a political spokesman – to make better both individual lives and the general condition of society.

He did, however, develop an increasing interest in the sanitary needs of the poor, which led him to speaking several times on behalf of the Metropolitan Sanitary Association. This section will therefore focus primarily on what we know about Dickens's political background and beliefs, illuminated by his speech at the Administrative Reform Association in 1855.

Political Background

Dickens’s relationship with the political institutions of his day began early in his career, in 1830, when he acquired a job as a journalist in the Houses of Parliament. He was only eighteen years old, but was already a remarkably eloquent writer, and by 1834, he was asked to become a Parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle, a widely-published daily newspaper.

 Hayter, G. 1833. The House of Commons.

Dickens's experiences witnessing the political process as a Parliamentary journalist cultivated a distrust of British politicians. For the rest of his life, he had very little faith in the political system itself. He disliked the behaviour of politicians, feeling that elected representatives in the Houses of Parliament rarely acted in the best interests of the public; they talked a lot about making change, but rarely did anything about it.

He felt that the public's role was to hold the government to account, as expressed in this speech at the Administrative Reform Association (1855):

I believe that, in order to preserve [Parliament] in a state of real usefulness and independence, the people must be ever watchful and ever jealous of it; and it must have its memory jogged; it must be kept awake; when it happens to have taken too much Ministerial narcotic, it must be trotted about, and must be hustled and pinched in a friendly way. 

In 1832, the young Dickens reported on the passage of The Reform Act through Parliament, a defining piece of legislation which made broad changes to the electoral system in the UK. The Act widened the franchise, giving a greater number of men (and only men) the right to vote in UK elections. It also changed how constituency boundaries were created, in order to make votes fairer and more meaningful.

But Dickens, ever the voice of the people, didn’t believe the reforms went far enough – he felt they were merely a political ploy to appease the middle classes.

Administrative Reform Association

But it wasn’t until over twenty years later, in 1854, that Dickens felt compelled to join his first political institution, the aforementioned Administrative Reform Association (ARA). This was a short-lived public institution pushing for changes in the Army, Navy, and Civil Service, after government failures in the Crimean War (1853-1856). Aligning himself with this institution was a novel decision for Dickens, who had rarely articulated definite political leanings – and had never previously attended a political meeting!

The Crimean War, 1854 - 56.

Despite the elusiveness of any simple party-political allegiance, we can learn a lot about Dickens’s general disdain for British political institutions through the lengthy speech he gave to the ARA in June of 1855. In the speech, he emphatically expressed his belief that the common people must come together to hold the British government to account, and lent his unwavering support to the new Association for attempting to make this happen. After speaking about the political crisis in the Crimean War, he stated that the most "wholesome turn affairs…could take" was:

the awakening of the people, the outspeaking of the people, the uniting of the people in all patriotism and loyalty to effect a great peaceful constitutional change in the administration of their own affairs. At such a crisis this Association arose, and at such a crisis I joined it: considered its further case to be – if further case could possibly be needed – that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business, that men must be gregarious in their good citizenship as in most other things, and that it is a law in nature that there must be a centre of attraction for particles to fly to, before any serviceable body with recognised functions can come into existence.

Well! This Association has arisen, and we belong to it… I have not the least hesitation in saying that I have the smallest amount of faith in the House of Commons at present existing, and…I consider the exercise of [public] influence highly necessary to the welfare and honour of this country.

Political Beliefs

Dickens rarely spoke explicitly about any political beliefs, preferring to see his role as "one who lives by Literature, who is content to do his public service through Literature." This made his politics sometimes appear confused, and his beliefs are not easily pigeonholed.

For example, he believed in capital punishment, but wanted to abolish public hangings; he had very little faith in the British political system, but was scared by the idea of political revolution; he fought against the exploitation of children in the workplace, but was in broad support of capitalism as a progressive, economic force.

Overall, Dickens seemed to emphasise a desire for gradual political reform, and highlighted the necessity for the working class to receive a good moral education, in order for them to fulfil their public duty: to act in service of the common good. He goes on to congratulate the Association for seeking:

to promote by uniting together large numbers of the people, I hope, of all conditions, to the end that they may better comprehend, bear in mind, understand themselves, and impress upon others, the common public duty…I particularly wish that the directors might devise some means of enabling intelligent working men to join this body, on easier terms than subscribers who have larger resources. I could wish to see great numbers of them belong to it, because I sincerely believe that it would be good for the common weal.

  1. Cunningham, H. 2008. 'Dickens as a Reformer'. In: Paroissien, D. ed. A Companion to Charles Dickens. pp. 159-173.