WHIGS AND HUNTERS: The Origin of the Black Act by Edward P. Thompson
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WHIGS AND HUNTERS: The Origin of the Black Act

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Since almost before its publication, Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class has been a historical classic. Thompson owes something to the French Annalistes, to the 1960's excursions into folklore and oral history, to regional and local studies, even to the new ecological awareness. In his new book he moves backward in time to the early 18th century, to the forests and woodlands and the proliferation of statutes by which the yeomen, laborers and small freeholders who slew the royal deer, lashed in the private ponds of the gentry, hunted small game and otherwise supplemented their livelihood from the forest, could be fined, transported and hanged. Thompson's starting point is the 1723 Black Act, a spectacular piece of legislation which created, in one fell swoop, fifty new capital crimes. With some astonishment Thompson reports on the disinterest historians have evinced in the law which inaugurated what he calls ""the floodgate of 18th century retributive justice."" Painstakingly working from the scant surviving evidence, Thompson reconstructs the network of spies and agents provocateurs used by Walpole's government to extirpate the ""Blacks"" (poachers and farmers who used blackface disguises to hunt, forage, and intimidate keepers) of Windsor and Hampshire Forest. The quest leads him to the intricate ""forest bureaucracy,"" perquisites and bribes, and a ruthless Whig offense against the forest population, gradually criminalized in 18th century law. When Thompson peers at Walpole (""England's first and least lovely prime minister"") he sees a smarmy Metternich or Kissinger. The forest population, while neither Rohin Hoods nor Vietcong guerrillas, somehow breach the two traditions. Certainly they were an unreconstructed element in the smoothly functioning Whig machine. Thompson, despite the characteristic modesty of all his writings, can't resist thumbing his nose at Professor J. H. Plumb and other admirers and apologists of Whiggery. His account of ""this statute in blood"" is history written ""from below""--small wonder that the perspective is ""treasonable.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1975
Publisher: Pantheon