Integrity and the Reform of Public Life in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic World

The global economic crisis has stirred debates about the integrity and morality of public office and public institutions. Public confidence in institutions like the police, the judiciary, the press and the banking sector has been shaken by a chain of revelations and scandals. In Britain, recent parliamentary inquiries into the culture, practices and ethics of the press form part of a wider public debate about the transparency, accountability and integrity of the institutions that are supposed to teach, inform, protect and represent the electorate. Anxieties about the health of public life in Britain – and, indeed, in America and across the English speaking-world – has led to a new ‘age of reform’: politicians talk about shaking up our parliamentary democracy; press inquiries have looked forward to a new era of press integrity; and at the time of writing a Banking Reform Bill that hopes to usher in a ‘stronger and safer’ banking sector is making its way through the British parliamentary process.

This panel considers the ways in which integrity informed debates about the reform of institutions and public life in the transatlantic world in the era of President Andrew Jackson and the Great Reform Act of 1832. The panel seeks to assess whether the age of reform period should be thought of as a crisis of integrity. A cursory glance at the British historical record suggests that questions of integrity did inform and shape reform debates. In the 1830s, Tractarian high churchmen thought the Church of England could maintain its integrity as a religious institution by separating itself from the state. Earlier in the century Utilitarian reformers thought that legal systems with integrity were the ones which prevented individual judges from using their discretion when sentencing. Meanwhile in the political world many felt the ‘independent’ Member of Parliament was imbued with virtues that were lacking in the MP who followed one of the new party formations. We might also ask whether the institutional and political reforms of the Jacksonian era – for instance the reforms implemented in the areas of banking, patronage and the legal system – can be thought of as touching on debates about the integrity of public office holders.

This panel seeks to provide a space in which historians can consider the place of conscience and integrity in nineteenth-century reform debates and public life more generally. Panel members may wish to consider the following themes:

  • The extent to which the pursuit of integrity informed the professionalization of public office
  • Whether reforms in areas such as the law, religion, and parliamentary politics were motivated by the desire to create institutions and offices of integrity
  • Ways that integrity and conscience drove both protests and defences of the establishment
  • The extent to which integrity was recognised as a virtue in political, legal and religious debate
  • How individuals reconciled their personal integrity with their membership of public and private institutions
  • Parallels between present-day debates over institutional integrity and historical precursors

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