Crossroads of Power
CROSSROADS OF POWER, by Sir Lewis Namier. New York, Macmillan. 234 pages. $5.
In the England of Crossroads of Power--the England of Burke, Pitt, and George III--"there were no party organizations ... and there was no proper discipline." The alignment of votes shifted with each new issue; "followers of the government, and even members of it, would on particular occasions speak and vote against it, and a government which normally could count on a very considerable majority would at times find itself in danger of defeat." Among those who have attempted to unravel the political tangles of the period, none matches the stature of Sir Lewis Namier. Crossroads of Power, the second volume of his miscellaneous essays on eighteenth century England, demonstrates both the labyrinthine nature of the age, and Namier's ability to cope with it.
In this book he frequently employs a rather unusual approach--that of using the correspondence of a comparatively obscure parliamentarian to illuminate the characteristic political maneuverings of his period. One of these nonentities was Daniel Pulteney, who joined parliament, Namier tells us, primarily to avoid his debts. Except for achieving this aim, Pulteney seems to have accomplished nothing. However, during the 1780's when Pulteney held office, the relation of the ministry to the House was undergoing a notable evolution. As Namier brings out, Pulteney, "though a parasite throughout, sensed and recorded during his short parliamentary career the change that was coming over British politics."
Whether dealing with men like Pulteney, or discussing such better known figures as Charles Townsend or George III, Namier builds his historical writing on a welter of details and quotations. Yet Namier's prose does more than merely link together the treasures unearthed by his scholarship. It often takes on a sparkle completely its own--"Still George III clung... like a molusc (a molusc who never found his rock)." But Namier is an historical technician as well as a prose artist. The special merit of Namier's work is that the reader is placed as close to the evidence as is the historian.