The Rise of ‘The People’

Mark Hailwood

One of our ongoing conversations on this blog has revolved around the most appropriate terms that practitioners of history ‘from below’ can use to describe their subjects: are we studying ‘the working class’? The ‘lower classes’? The ‘middling and poorer sort of people’? The ‘plebs’? This post doesn’t provide any answers I’m afraid, but in it I want to resume the conversation by highlighting and briefly interrogating a term that seems to me to have been enjoying a certain vogue recently: ‘the people’.

PeopleI haven’t yet had the time to subject this trend to any serious ‘culturomics’ (I’m sure it would be interesting to chart changes over time in the prominence of ‘the people’ and close variants in the titles of history books, which could be done using the Bibliography of British and Irish History). So I will have to rely on some old-fashioned impressionistic evidence: a bunch of books on history ‘from below’ that I have recently bought. The term is by no means a new one of course, but it – and some close relatives – do seem to have cropped up a lot lately:

  • David Rollison, A Commonwealth of the People: Popular Politics and England’s Long Social Revolution, 1066-1649 (2010)
  • David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (2012)
  • Andy Wood, The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of the Past in Early Modern England (2013)
  • Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013)
  • Margaret C. Jacob and Catherine Secretan (eds), In Praise of Ordinary People: Early Modern Britain and the Dutch Republic (2013)
  • Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (2014)
  • Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2014)

What might account for this recent popularity? Well, it isn’t always easy to tell. A lot of the authors listed above don’t really explain the choice of the term: for Andy Wood it is used principally as useful shorthand for his preferred ‘poor and middling sort of people’, a phrase borrowed from early modern contemporaries. Rollison and Hopkin tend to deploy it for its practical pithiness, as a convenient collective noun for peasants, fishermen, textile workers and the like. The choice often seems relatively under-theorised, but perhaps that is in itself part of the explanation: choosing ‘the people’ for a title doesn’t require the author to make a lengthy justification in the way that choosing ‘class’, and all the theoretical baggage that comes with it, does.

It has other advantages too: for instance it does not carry the same negative connotations that ‘lower class ‘ or ‘plebeian’ can. It is a term that was often used by the societies under study (an ’emic’ term), and yet simultaneously one that can be widely understood by modern readers (unlike ‘sorts’), and it’s lack of theoretical trappings makes it accessible and recognisable to readers beyond the academy. Indeed, it makes an obvious choice for popular history books such as Alison Light’s, and the likely focus of any book titled ‘a people’s history of’ will be clear enough to all. There is something suitably ordinary and demotic about the term which neatly resonates with the subject matter. Moreover, it’s a term that in England at least has a history stretching back to the Middle Ages, and therefore unlike signifiers using ‘class’ it can provide a common vocabulary for scholars working across a wide range of chronological periods. It is worth noting that my list above includes works covering every century from 1066 to the present. It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.

So, those are just a few of the reasons that might attract historians to use the term. But here comes the bit where I try and load it up with some of that pesky ‘baggage’ that so many of our other terms have. It should be pointed out that whilst a lot of authors opt to use ‘the people’ in their titles, that’s not to say they are embracing it as a useful category of historical analysis: many don’t use it as an organising concept within the covers of their books. Those that do tend to use it in a way that transforms the category of ‘the people’ from the handy neutral signifier outlined above into a much more charged term.

PtPThe works by Rollison, Jacob and Secretan, and Todd, could all to some extent be said to be interested in the processes whereby those outside of traditional upper classes come to lay claim to greater political influence in their society, and move from being a subject of fear and denigration to being valorised and valued: when the working and/or middle classes gain recognition as ‘The People’, whose interests are construed as synonymous with the interests of society as a whole. Although Rollison argues that the term ‘the commonalty’ was more likely to be used in medieval England than ‘The People’ to reflect this, the Levellers of the seventeenth century certainly used the latter, and it was likewise prevalent in the political discourse that Todd shows accompanied the ‘rise of the working class’ in Britain after 1945.

Using the term ‘the people’ can imply, then, a certain politics, or at least a certain argument: it signposts an emphasis on the agency and worth of ordinary people; that the story will be one of, or about, valorisation. In the works of many social historians this will undoubtedly be the case, but for those who want to tell a different story ‘the people’ may therefore be a compromised category. Indeed, in her recent attempt to challenge our perceptions of family history, Alison Light choose deliberately to title her book Common People, and not The Common People, because she ‘did not want to heroize the working people’ she wrote about (nor, for that matter, to homogenise them as a collective noun, another possible problem with the term). Interestingly, she also opted for the term ‘common’ precisely because of the ‘derogatory overtones associated with the word’, because the effects of being sneered at for being lower class are central to ‘generating who we are’: they ‘go deep’.[1] If we reject disparaging labels for our subjects, in favour of the more affirming label of ‘the people’, we are missing the fact that for most of our subjects pejoratives rather than praise have more often been the currency of their historical experience.

LevellersMoreover, if ‘the people’ has often been used both historically and by historians to designate a group with political influence and some degree of cultural kudos, it should come as no surprise that the category has regularly been deployed in both cases with certain restrictions attached. The Levellers, for instance, claimed to speak as representatives of ‘the people’, and they commonly framed themselves as a broad alliance of ‘the poorer and middle sort of people’. But the fact that they still made a distinction between the two groups here was a crucial one: when it came to the Putney debates there were many of them who saw women, children, apprentices, servants and wage-labourers as beyond the pale of ‘the freeborn English people’, and argued that they should be excluded from the franchise.[2] There were also limits to what Jacob and Secretan argue was an upsurge in the praise of ordinary people within early modern Britain and the Dutch Republic: the argument only applies when following their limited definition of ordinary people as ‘literate and in possession of skills useful to the state and commercial life’.[3] The illiterate – perhaps as much as 70% of the adult male and 90% of adult female populations – do not count as ‘the people’ here.

The more general issue here, then, is that many of the individuals and groups that history ‘from below’ is interested in might be obscured by focusing on a category that – whilst it often includes a large swathe of non-elites – nonetheless leaves many more excluded. The question of who constituted ‘the people’ in any given historical context is an interesting one: and it needs to be interrogated in each case. That does mean, however, that using ‘the people’ as a neutral, unencumbered, shorthand term, one that allows us to sidestep the usual issues surrounding the terminology of history ‘from below’ (itself, of course, a heavily laden phrase) does not seem to me to be a viable option. It is not my intention to call for the fall of ‘the people’ as a useful category of analysis for historians. Rather more tediously, I’m afraid, I think my case here is that – like many of it’s alternatives – it’s use may, after all, require careful and explicit justification.


[1] See the Preface, xxv-xxvi

[2] See Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (2002), pp.163-71

[3] See their Introduction, p.2.

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16 thoughts on “The Rise of ‘The People’

  1. I used ‘people’ without the definite article in the title of my book just to mean ‘humans’, in contrast to horses. It was mostly not history from below and so not really part of the trend you’ve identified, but I do think that history from below can and should include non-humans. I haven’t actually done much about that but Jason Hribal has. The question of animal-human boundaries ties in with the points you make about who counts as ‘the people’. If some humans aren’t included in ‘the people’, does that mean they’re being treated as not entirely human?

    • Thanks Gavin – another interesting angle to think about. I’m not sure those who claim to represent ‘The People’, for all that they are often excluding certain types of human from that category, are really thinking in terms of human and non (or less than) human distinctions. However, its certainly the case that the early modern English elites often described ‘the people’ in animalistic terms: as the ‘many-headed monster’ for one, but they often also referred to rebels as ‘dogs’ who needed to be run down. So these categories of social description could relate to the animal-human boundaries you are interested in in some cases, yes.

      It is also the case that animal-human boundaries feature heavily in discourses on drunkenness in the 17th century: drunkards are routinely described as men who have descended to the level of beasts.

  2. I’ve wrestled with concept of ‘the people’ in coming up with a framework for my Phd research – I’ve settled on ‘the people’ as being anyone not identified as ‘the establishment’ – and both being moveable feasts!

    • Thanks Donna: that can be a useful way of thinking about it – ‘the people’ as a relational category. Although that would make ‘the people’ open to a criticism so often leveled at other definitions of the subjects of history from below: that we tend to define them by what they are not, rather than what they are. Sometimes that can be the most helpful approach – I’m sure it is in your context – but it can feel a little dissatisfying to rely on this kind of negative definition.

  3. Very good points, Mark, especially your main argument that we as historians have probably been using this term too unreflectively and uncritically. Every term carries ‘baggage’ and we shouldn’t pretend that we’ve stumbled across something ‘neutral’ simply because it is less clearly derogatory than, say, ‘the plebs’.

    More specially, I agree that ‘the people’ could be seen as a very restricted group by some early moderns, especially when it took on political connotations. Yet what has struck me most in my reading of late seventeenth-century pamphlets and manuscript correspondence is the remarkably *unrestricted* way many people used the term. For many, it seems that ‘the people’ was a sort of short-hand for ‘the common people’ or ‘the locals’. Educated observers seemed to use the term when they were talking about what we might now call ‘public opinion’ (i.e. ‘the people are angry about this new law’) and ‘social protest’ (e.g. ‘the people rose about the price of bread’). These sorts of uses suggest to me that this group could include both the relatively literate skilled minority (e.g. artisans) as well as the illiterate poor majority (e.g. labourers). Of course this doesn’t mean it was a neutral term of description – it was usually used to refer to ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ – but it doesn’t seem to have been as narrow as, say, ‘citizens’ or ‘the middling sort’.

    • Thanks Brodie. That would seem to me to suggest that educated observers tended to use the term in an inclusive way, but in part because they were often quite happy to lump those below them in the social scale together as an indiscriminate mass – even if they were politely referring to them as ‘the people’ rather than ‘the rabble’. I’d be interested to know if you have come across examples (other than the Levellers) of self-identification as ‘the people’ that are similarly inclusive of literate skilled and illiterate poor – but even there, of course, the intention is usually to claim an inclusivity; to claim to speak for all; to present what are actually sectional interests as general ones.

      Perhaps even more interesting in the 17th century context is the category of ‘the poor’ (see David Hopkin’s comments below): my sense is that this was intended as a fairly inclusive category. Obviously it excluded the rich, but my sense is that it was a label that could at times be used by middling tradesman who were literate and skilled, who grouped themselves with the illiterate and unskilled for ‘political’ purposes. It also seems to me that ‘the poor’ has less obvious margins than ‘the people’ in terms of who is left out (although we might get into the categories of the industrious and the idle poor here). Might we see ‘the poor’ as a kind of 17th century version of what later became ‘the people’? A political category as well as an economic one…

      • Yes, ‘the poor’ was a very resonant label in this period. I think the problem is that most early modernists have spent a great deal of time looking at how people are labelled by others as poor (e.g. most of the work on poor relief) and much less on those who label themselves as ‘poor’. We need more work like that of Alex Shepard (on depositions) and of Steve Hindle and Jon Healey (on pauper petitions) where people are using the label on themselves.

        I think, though, that part of the problem is that often the collective noun (‘the poor’) gives a different impression than the adjective (‘a poor tradesman’, etc.). Impressionistically, I’d say that the former is used rarely as a self-identification whereas the latter is very common indeed. In other words, if we are looking for an equivalent to ‘the people’ (or ‘the working class’ or ‘the plebs’), ‘the poor’ might not be quite right. Still, I think it’s worth investigating further, which is something I’ll be trying to do with petitions.

  4. Great post, Mark. If you want to do duke quick ‘culturomics’, you could check out JSTOR’s Data for Research function, if you haven’t already. I only just discovered it and am trying out out.

    Coincidentally, I am currently reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980, it is clearly marked by its time and place; it explicitly responds to American school textbooks, which feels a little odd if, like me, you’ve not read those textbooks yourself. Nevertheless it’s a powerful and passionately written book, and Zinn thinks about ‘the people’ in a way which is similar to many social historians (including those in your list). He points out that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence wrote about ‘the people’, they really meant people who were wealthy, white, and male. Zinn’s starting point is to invert this; his book is about the excluded, which means the majority of the population.

    This is an important counter-narrative to conventional histories of the elite, and I would define it as a ‘classic’ people’s history. The problem is, as with many other examples of this approach, what we learn about ‘the people’ is mostly about their part in class struggle; this chimes with your point about ‘valorisation’. Zinn has much to say on exploitation by the elite, often with the help of other groups in society to whom they offered incentives, and on resistance by ‘the people’. While this is great at highlighting the profound inequalities of the past, and at placing the excluded back into historical study, it also means that ‘the people’ you meet in the book are mostly those involved in strikes, labour movements, or socialism. These are all important – but what about those amongst ‘the people’ who were not radical utopians?

    We might contrast this with an alternative approach, which still looks at struggle, but instead of class struggles, this is the struggle of individuals – to get by economically and materially, to express their identity, to maintain their place within a specific community. Social historians have been doing this for quite some time, and I think it is summed up in the widespread concern with ‘agency’. I’m not sure how often historians interested in individual agency actually use the term ‘the people’ or ‘people’s history’ – I suspect less than those writing in the ‘classic’, class-struggle mode – but it might be appropriate because it can remind us, in a way that ‘social history’ perhaps sometimes doesn’t, that we are actually dealing with real people (whether as a mass or as individuals).

    Although perhaps contrasting two approaches is oversimplifying things. It usually is…

    • Thanks Richard. You are right, of course, that ‘The People’ often serves as a political term that leads historians to focus on those individuals in the past who had the ‘right’ politics, or at least were explicitly engaged in ‘the struggle’, and that the focus on the individual agency of ‘ordinary people’ in more recent social history adds something very valuable to the picture.

      I think the contrast you draw between these two approaches is useful to think with, even though they often overlap in practice (think, for instance, of Andy Wood’s P&P article on Nidderdale and his ‘Hidden Injuries of Class’ article – whilst he is interested in the collective class struggle in both, he also thinks at length about the real people at the centre of this and especially how this struggle had a deep emotional impact on individuals). I suppose the challenge is to bring these questions together: how do the struggles of the individual inform or undermine their experience of social/class relations: and how does the latter inform the former. Fighting for rights to common land can, for instance, not just be about resisting the evil ‘rich men’, but also about defending your ability to provide for your family – to be a good wife/husband/parent. In practice the issues of individual and collective agency/struggle are inseparable.

  5. At the risk of lowering the tone, ‘Voices of THE People in Nineteenth-Century France’ is more likely to find an audience than ‘Voices of SOME People in Nineteenth-Century France’, though the latter might be more accurate.
    I’d like to add another title to the list – Martyn Lyons’ The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860-1920. In this case, as in my own, the ‘popular’ quality largely derives from the types of sources, and types of archives, consulted. Of course that only puts off the intellectual problem rather than resolving it – what kinds of source material belong to ‘the people’ as opposed to other social groups (or none)? However, in practice, the types of sources that one emphasises do create an impression of a particular aesthetic — that’s as true of the letter-writers in Lyons as it is of the storytellers and singers that provide the material for my book. Aesthetics, I’d argue, are as revealing social delineators than either Soc Sci objective definitions of social position or the self-labelling used in political mobilization.
    ‘The People’ as a political category had enormous resonance in nineteenth-century French political culture. Its most articulate promoters, such as the historian Michelet or the songwriter Béranger, had particular political agendas to advance. (Which brings me to another book, Philippe Darriulat, La Muse du peuple: Chansons politiques et sociales en France, 1815-1871.) But the term, whether derived from their use or some other source, had currency; it became a common badge and a refrain. ‘Le peuple’ was particularly useful as a social designation in France: the largest section of the working population was the land-holding peasantry, so more specific class terminology just wouldn’t have made any sense. And ‘le peuple’ was at least distinct from the nobility. I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasise the continuing importance of that division in the social imaginary in rural France and, I’d hazard, among European agrarian populations more generally. Emancipation was a recent experience; legal equality as citizens was still a novelty, and of course undermined at every turn by other forms of continuing domination. In that sense everyone knew who ‘the people’ were, and who their enemies were (even though other social groups, such as the factory-owners, could be subsumed into the category ‘aristocrate’).
    I did include one chapter specifically on the social imaginary from below, though it focused less on the concept of ‘le peuple’ than on terms used to distinguish an agrarian population from an urban one, while at the same time seeking to minimize intra-village social distinctions. However, in that book I was much more interested in the mechanisms available to people to voice their desires or settle their squabbles within the popular classes than with the articulation of social distinction against employers, landowners, etc. It was about discussions inside families, inside the communal workroom, inside the forecastle. Figures of power might appear in these discussions, but their point was often more immediate and mundane.
    I would be interested, though, to investigate further the social categories in use in popular discourse. Perhaps not ‘Le peuple’: you can find it in use but often in songs whose inheritance from Béranger is too obvious. Other distinctions might be more salient. One I’ve indicated above – the continuing significance, and indeed threat, of the noble as an imagined category. Another picks up on a comment made by Alison Light in response to Pat Thane’s review of Common People in the TLS (and I’m afraid I’m quoting from memory here) to the effect that ‘poverty is a situation, not an identity’. That may be true for the British in the nineteenth century, it’s decidedly not the case in France or many other countries where ‘the poor’ is not just a classification applied to others but a frequently encountered self-designation too. In nineteenth-century France many people saw themselves not just as poor but as ‘the poor’, and that had real effects on their social relationships and their ability to influence their destinies. ‘The Voices of the Poor’ would have been a harder-edged book.

    • Thanks for your illuminating comments David. Of course, you are right that ‘Some things said by some people’ doesn’t make for the catchiest of book titles. Your point about the aesthetic of certain sources is a really interesting one, and adds an extra dimension to this discussion – but I’m especially struck by what you say about the category ‘the poor’.

      It operates in a similar way in 17thC England, in so much that is _is_ a category of identity: moreover (as I’ve just said in my reply to Brodie’s comments above) it was one that could be claimed by artisans and middling tradesmen at times – those times being when they saw themselves in conflict with ‘the rich’, or making an appeal for government action. So ‘the poor’ often did function as a political category of self-identification, and a relational one at that. And, arguably, as a more inclusive category than ‘the people’, which – I think – was a much less prevalent term in the social imaginary of the 17th century than ‘the poor’. So I’d certainly agree that ‘the poor’ – and the groups they define themselves against, your ‘aristocrate’, and for England… sometimes simply ‘the rich’ – could be just as fruitful to explore as ‘the people’.

  6. Pingback: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part I: Some evidence from 44,313 printed texts | the many-headed monster

  7. A comment looking back at this from the end of November 2016.

    What emerges in this post and in the comments is that ‘the people’ is a highly contested label, and most people who have used or invoked it throughout history have really meant that only certain people really count as ‘the people’. That’s also happening now, where claims that ‘Brexit’ in particular is ‘the will of the people’. Are the 48% of people who voted for Remain, or the more than 50% who voted for Clinton, not ‘the people’? Is their will being done by Trump, Brexit etc. No – but the victors are claiming, with the help of the right wing media, to speak for ‘THE people’, which is not to say all people, but the white working & middle class people who voted with them. So it is entirely a political power grab and claiming to act for ‘the people’ has always been about acting for certain groups and not for all.

    I like ‘the peoples’ as an alternative way of thinking about who politics should serve (something suggested by my friend Andy Crook). I think it is profoundly undemocratic to claim to have the ‘will of the people’ on your side when in the case of both Brexit and Trump what the voting process really showed was profoundly divided nations. What would seem to me to be a best and more democratic way forward would not be for one ‘side’ to claim to speak for everyone, act in a partisan way, and increase division, but to try and find a way forward that aims to find areas of consensus and compromise that can be agreeable to as wide a range of people as possible – which I guess you could call governing for ‘the peoples’ rather than for ‘the people’.

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