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The law and minority groups in nineteenth-century Britain


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Grube, Dennis C 2005 , 'The law and minority groups in nineteenth-century Britain', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This thesis interrogates the substance behind the rhetorical 'rule of law' in Great
Britain between 1829 and 1895. It is the argument of this thesis that in order for the law to
be a strong force for national unity it had to be made by those who professed a 'British'
Protestant faith and upheld a 'British' morality. For the first half of the nineteenth-century,
Jews, atheists and Roman Catholics were all prevented on religious grounds from entering
Parliament to make British law. As the century progressed, these bans were progressively
lifted, leaving lawmakers to create a replacement class of scapegoats; 'moral criminals'.
Prostitutes, homosexuals and the Irish came to dominate the imagination of the late
Victorians as threats to the moral integrity of Britain. These people were not truly 'British'
and could thus safely be made the targets of 'British law'.
The thesis seeks to build on Linda Colley's work on British nationalism in the
eighteenth century, and her stress upon the need to have an 'other'. It is argued here that
Colley's concept of the need for 'otherness', can be applied within British society as well as
with regard to those who lived elsewhere. The British needed 'outsiders' within their own
society against which to define themselves as religiously, racially or morally legitimate.
This extended beyond Roman Catholic 'others', already identified by Colley, to a whole
series of religious and moral minority groups that could be seen as `un-British'.
The rhetoric of the 'rule of law' underpinned a society that was encouraged to
believe that it was the law which stood between it and the tyrannies and turbulence that the
Continent experienced throughout the nineteenth century. The values of government as
they were espoused through the law became the values of Britain. Hence, those who believed themselves to be 'British' were encouraged to support the moral and religious
standards that were set for them. This meant being hostile to the 'others' who were not
seen to support those standards.
Over the course of the period 1829-1895, from Roman Catholic emancipation to the
Oscar Wilde trials, governments moved from seeing religious groups as 'others' to seeing
moral 'deviants' as the outsiders against whom the truly British should unify in shared
disdain. As Jews, Roman Catholics and atheists were brought into a genuine sense of
partnership in the British constitution, homosexuals, prostitutes and the allegedly innately
criminal Irish found themselves further and more vehemently displaced. Legal 'otherness'
slowly stopped being a religious question and became rather a moral one.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Grube, Dennis C
Keywords: Minorities, Status (Law), Law
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2005 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Tasmania, 2005. Includes bibliographical references

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