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Contested liberalisms and voluntary associations in the Age of Revolutions



Contested liberalisms and voluntary associations in the Age of Revolutions


5 February 2021


When in 1823 John Cam Hobhouse wrote to Lord Byron about “a Great Public Dinner” to be held in honour of the Greek and the Spanish revolutionaries, he was bearing witness to a basic fabric of London social and political life; the thriving public campaigns of voluntary associations. The paper places the Greek committee – conventionally seen as the offspring of philhellenism – within the larger associational setting of the early nineteenth-century London. Although other associations flourished in the US and in cities throughout Europe, London was the major scene where this profusion acquired a complex relationship with oppositional politics and a crucial role in re-ordering arrangements in the international competition. The paper conveys a set of reflections over some related propositions. First, it treats context as material space locating the Greek committee in its birthplace, the Crown and Anchor tavern, and in its time, the age of Revolutions. Within the practice of associational sociability played out at the tavern, British philhellenism and reformism come close together. Reformers, independent MPs, and prominent dissenters of the Greek committee created a novel cleavage in British politics with major implications around the world. From this point on, secondly, it focuses on connections and affiliations that went far beyond the Greek Revolution and defined, arguably, reform aspirations stretching from Greece and the Iberian Peninsula to both Americas and the Arabic-speaking Mediterranean. Viewing, thirdly, the Greek committee as the perfect media product, the paper suggests a retake on philhellenism. In a period when commercial humanism and imperial reformism became Britain’s state mythos, voluntary associations made society “talk” intensively about everything: the revolutionary south, political corruption, commercial and financial foreign policies, liberty and utility, constitution and the state. The Greek cause was exposed in the market of communication of these informal groups. Associations on the other hand equipped its members with great political and cultural potency both in their activities and identities. Voluntary associations in the age of revolutions talked themselves up not only with criticism but with alternative international visions as well.

(Slightly modified abstract from the Initiative 1821-2021 website)

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