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Sinophilia, Historical Writing, and Political Propaganda in Eighteenth-century England

Thomas Gordon and his ‘Republican’ Catechism

In 1918, J.M. Bullock, who was the first person to attempt a “biographical bibliography” of Thomas Gordon (ca.1692-1750), complained that although most scholars of eighteenth-century political thought displayed a familiarity with the name of Gordon—coauthor of the Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters, translator of Tacitus and Sallust and, unfortunately, also the beneficiary of a minor sinecure conferred on him by Walpole’s government—very few seemed to be aware of the prolific output and popularity of this obscure Scottish pamphleteer, who wrote tirelessly for over thirty years and whose works circulated for a long period of time in the form of re-editions, anthologies, translations, extracts, adaptations and citations. Since then many eminent scholars (such as Shelley Burtt, Ronald Hamowy, Marie McMahon, Vickie Sullivan, and Michael P. Zuckert, amongst others) have contributed significantly, and from different viewpoints, to a careful examination of Gordon’s best-known works and their reception, and have contextualized them in a plausible fashion. Nonetheless, I believe that Bullock’s observation still has a certain validity today. A lenghty article of mine, entitled “Le Simbole d’un Laïque: il ‘catechismo repubblicano’ di Thomas Gordon” is forthcoming in Rivista Storica Italiana, CXXII, 2010. Another article of mine, entitled “Thomas Gordon (ca.1692-1750) and the Uses of History and Medieval Scholarship in the Age of Walpole,” is under review for publication in Parergon.


I am mainly interested in Gordon’s philosophical Sinophilia and his emphasis on the importance of grassroots control of political power. David E. Mungello and Jonathan I. Israel, amongst others, have convincingly shown that, starting with the emphatic Sinophilia of the Dutch Deist Vossius, a deep admiration of China and classical Chinese thought affected a number of Western scholars and culminated in the mid-eighteenth century with the loud praise for China voiced by Voltaire. China, so cultivated, so uninterested in Christianity, was in practice governed by a philosopher king with the assistance of ‘literati’, a scholar-class, appointed on the basis of intellectual merit. According to Gordon, ‘it were indeed better for mankind, that all fiery Catholicks and bigots every where, were converted into rational and sober Chinese.’ I propose to conduct an exhaustive survey of Gordon’s entire output, to produce a profile of him and to investigate his specific and controversial contribution as a political theorist and, finally, as a historian. An analysis of Gordon’s output will also make it possible to evaluate his contribution to the enduring ‘republican’ ideology found in England in the first half of the eighteenth century. An anonymous and scathing survey of political writers published in 1740 hints that Gordon was involved in orchestrating pro-government propaganda. It suggests that Robert Walpole won over Gordon by offering him a position as Commissioner for the Wine Licences. Walpole was acutely aware of the importance of the press as an instrument of propaganda: he financed eight daily papers, investing over 50,000 pounds. However, careful consideration of Walpole’s religious policy and Gordon’s writings from those years belies the image of a writer who all of a sudden sold out to power (precisely when he had least need to do so) and reveals a conscious and polemical commitment to resist the pro-government ideological campaign organized by the Bishop of London Gibson.

The main output of this project will be a monograph whose provisional table of contents is as follows: Part I: 1. Thomas Gordon (ca.1690-1750): A Biographical Bibliography 2. Classical Reception and Republican Ideology in early-18C England 3. Philosophical Sinophilia, Anticlericalism and Freethinking in the Walpolean Era 4. Medieval Scholarship and Political Propaganda: Gordon’s History of England. Part II: Thomas Gordon, History of England: Besides a general reconsideration of Gordon’s works, another major output of this project will be an annotated edition of his unpublished and unfinished History of England (BL, Add. MSS. 20780). This work significantly reflects the ideological connotations of historical research in eighteenth-century England, and reveals a commitment to investigating an exclusively human and rational causality in historic events, despite the enduring resistance to the mixing together of interpretative work and antiquarian erudition in historical narrative. A careful examination of the manuscript reveals frequent references to the work of Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, the most influential and widely read general historian of England in the first half of the eighteenth century. Rapin identified the introduction of Germanic institutions into England following the Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement as a precise starting point in English constitutional history. “The poison poured out on Christendom” in Gordon’s History seems to anticipate more mature “Enlightened narratives”.