Sturdy Beggars and Political Crisis in 1730s England

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Author: Farid Azfar
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This essay offers a close reading of a highly influential ballad, one that played a significant role in the excise crisis of 1733 when it helped turn public sentiment against Robert Walpole's government. The ballad, which plays upon Walpole's use of the term "sturdy beggars" to insult a group of petitioning merchants, manipulates both positive and negative visions of beggary. At the same time, the ballad aligns the merchants who opposed the excise bill with several cultural iterations of the strong and suffering type, including social bandits and martyred heroes. In the decades that followed, the sturdy beggars affair came to represent the extreme malleability of political rhetoric. It explains the emergence in the 1730s of a powerful strain of postpolitical exhaustion with demotic culture.

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