I recently rented the Hollywood blockbuster The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. I'll admit, I wasn't looking for any philosophical or economic message in the film, but sometimes I find it hard to help myself. (Come on, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who saw Free Willy as a metaphor for the plight of free markets!)
All I wanted was a mindless, romantic escape movie to take my mind off politics, and Keira Knightly was just the ticket. In the film, she plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, who, until that point, I had never heard about. The story was fairly typical for movies about the English aristocracy: a young girl marries into power only to find herself trapped in a loveless marriage, and she falls in love with another man. I did not expect that, amid the romance, costumes, and drama, I would strike libertarian gold!
It was one pivotal scene in particular that piqued my curiosity. When Charles Fox (played by Simon McBurney), who was Georgiana's mentor and the leader of the Whig party, argues for the importance of "freedom in moderation," Georgiana responds quickly and firmly that there cannot be scales of freedom. Rather, the "concept of freedom is an absolute."
The Duchess of Devonshire lived in a time that bears striking similarities to our own. In the late 18th century, England was rife with tensions between an increasingly powerful state and a swelling grassroots opposition. The frustrated Whigs were becoming increasingly radicalized in their defense of liberty against the corrupt, ever-expanding powers of King George III.
Georgiana came from a family with a rich Whig legacy. Her father and brother were Whig MPs, and her husband's great-great-grandfather was a member of the Immortal Seven, the band of rebel Whigs who were responsible for overthrowing King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This legacy made both Georgiana and her husband leaders of the party.
But Georgiana was not a shrinking violet. She was fiercely passionate about her party's ideals. Her favorite book was Vertot's Revolutions of Sweden, which is about, as she put it, a "[h]ero fighting for liberty of his country and to revenge the memory of an injur'd friend against lawless cruelty and oppressive tyranny."
Georgiana recognized that liberal ideals could only be spread through dedicated organizing and savvy marketing.
She was a rock star of the English Enlightenment. According to her biographer, Amanda Foreman, Georgiana was dubbed "the Empress of Fashion." The press noticed that "any report on the Duchess of Devonshire increased their sales." And according to French diplomat Louis Dutens, "When she appeared, every eye was turned towards her; when absent she was the subject of universal conversation."
Lucky for the Whigs, she used her influence with the public, her flair for fashion, and her showmanship to spread the cause of liberty.
Georgiana was a marketing genius,
one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity for public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.… She was simultaneously a public figurehead for the Whigs and an effective politician within the party.
To keep morale alive, she held vibrant, theatrical parties, dinners, and rallies.
Thanks to the liberal market reforms that followed the Glorious Revolution, England was bustling with trade and commerce. Censorship had ended, resulting in the emergence of nine daily newspapers and a plethora of bi- and tri-weekly papers and magazines. It was the perfect environment for a natural star like Georgiana to rise to "It Girl" status.
Her talent for political propaganda was first recognized by Whig grandees during the American Revolutionary War. The Whigs had become unpopular in the country because of their unapologetic support for the revolution. Indeed, the Duchess was frequently adorned with the colors of buff and blue, which the Whigs adopted from the American Revolutionaries.
However, Georgiana led a women's auxiliary unit, which paraded around in feminine military uniforms, entertaining British troops. This PR stunt allowed the Whigs to regain support at home. (She also, through behind-the-scenes mediation, held together the British coalition government that eventually signed the Treaty of Paris.)
Georgiana was also the marketing force behind the 1784 elections of Charles Fox; she traipsed through alleys with "Fox" tails in her hair, touting the importance of English liberty to anyone who would listen. Despite the progovernment newspapers' mistreatment of Georgiana during this election — reporting that she traded votes for kisses — her activities made her the unofficial head of the "opposition public."
Following the election of 1784, the party was practically inactive, which was also frustrating for Edmund Burke who looked for "any plan of conduct in our leaders." Thanks mostly to Georgiana's efforts — including balloon send-offs, political and social events, outrageous fashion statements, and patronage of the arts — by 1785 the party began to fire up once again.
In 1789, the king suffered from a temporary bout of insanity (The Madness of King George) and, paradoxically, the Whigs hoped that their good friend, the Prince of Wales (who greatly admired the Duchess), would come into power. Georgiana designed "regency caps" for the ladies of the Whig party. The king's supporters responded with "God Save the King" caps.
Because of Georgiana's work in political marketing, the people thence associated "Whiggery with taste, fashion and wit."
She was intimately involved in the heated Whig debates between Charles Fox and Edmund Burke over the merits of the French Revolution. She witnessed the revolution's mob rule, firsthand, while saying goodbye to her friend, Marie Antoinette, one week before the Bastille was stormed. While Georgiana understood Fox's position that the revolution was a triumph for the people of France over the corrupt King Louis XVI, she also warned of the dangers of despotic democracy. In many ways, these debates shaped subsequent analyses of socialism and classical liberalism.
Georgiana was instrumental in putting together the "Ministry of All Talents," an all-star team of Whig liberals who took high British office in 1806. Her brother was Home Secretary, her lover was the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Charles Fox was Foreign Secretary. Although Georgiana could not hold political office herself, she was regarded by many as the "head of the administration." She died only a few months later.
Whig politics lost some of its luster after Georgiana's death. Nonetheless, her lover, Charles Grey, went onto become the Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and he succeeded in abolishing slavery once and for all. Shortly afterwards, in 1839, the Whig Party became the Liberal Party, from which the term "liberal," in its classical sense, was born.
Georgiana was a powerful asset for the Whigs, serving as campaign manager, strategist, advisor, inspiration, and symbol of the movement. She brought Whig ideals back into fashion with her costumes, balls, and events. She helped shape the strategy and direction of the party, and she charged along when her comrades lost steam.
Driven by strong convictions and a fervent belief in freedom, Georgiana was a master political propagandist, a powerful negotiator, an impassioned orator, and a keen political strategist. In many ways, she was the woman behind the men of the Enlightenment.