This post was written by Esther Brot, PhD student at King’s College London.
The blossoming of political participation in the United States has resonance with my own research on prisoners’ petitions in eighteenth-century London. Currently, People are taking to the streets in protest in order to create change. They are petitioning government, and sending notice to the president. People are taking laws and policies to the courts. These methods are external bludgeons that through blunt force and aggregated weight hope to force those that govern the country to take notice of what the people want. But the question is whether such actions have influenced the minds of people in positions of power that were not already sympathetic to said views. The month long government furlough happened despite the rabid and vociferous outcry of members of the American public.
My research examines how prisoners in the City of London from 1700 to 1755 participated in the regular, normal, governance of prisons; how prisoners contributed to governmental operations which managed the prison systems. My primary sources are located at the London Metropolitan Archives and specifically within the session books for the governing bodies of the Corporation of London. Through the means of petitions, complaints, and requests, the prisoners became central to the administrative processes that ran prisons. The governing bodies acted upon these prisoner petitions which contained specific requests that related directly to prisoners’ lived experience of incarceration. Prisoners were able to shape how the institutions in which they lived were run; they did not simply help instigate prison reform through different participatory acts, but also impacted the normal every-day operations that profoundly affected their lives. They frequently petitioned about needed repairs to prisons, which affected their health and the security of the institutions. The Corporation often utilized this information to order repairs to its prisons. Through participating in every-day administration, prisoners had a more instrumental role in ensuring that the institutions met prisoners’ needs and desires, not simply the institutions’, which did not always bookend with prisoners’ needs. In a discreet way, prisoners helped to fashion an environment that worked better for them. Prisoners identified an administrative path that would push government to listen to their needs and wants without governmental awareness of how prisoners influenced government action as a result. I think that the current political situation would benefit from people participating in governance as prisoners did in eighteenth-century Britain. Today’s petitions resemble early modern parliamentary petitions; they are open letters to government offering an opinion on laws and other major issues. These petitions surround but do not fully penetrate intra-governmental process. If people find pre-existing administrative pathways, they can take small steps that together create large change.
Historians need to underline how important our research is to the current day. Our work does not only expand knowledge, but we have lessons to share that do not simply reiterate the same classic trope of learning from history to avoid history repeating itself; we can show how historical research provides us with tools to deal with the world in new ways. My own research has prepared me discuss how history can inform current political action as it interrogates what participation can mean and how it impacts governance and administration in ways outside of pathways that the historiography and the current world discuss and consider.