Introduction: 'Shooting Niagara - and After?'
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There probably never was since the Heptarchy ended, or almost since it began, so hugely critical an epoch in the history of England as this we have now entered upon, with universal self-congratulation and flinging up of caps; nor one in which … the question of utter death or of nobler new life for the poor Country was so uncertain.1 For Thomas Carlyle, the celebrated Scottish philosopher, melancholic and prophet of doom, the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867 marked an apocalypse in British history. A constitution that was the inheritance of centuries had been ‘propelled, with ever-increasing velocity’, into ‘the Niagara Rapids’ – not by its enemies, but by those who had claimed to be its friends. Ahead lay only the icy drop, the crash of the waters and the long, terrifying plunge into the chaos of democracy. For Carlyle, what had happened was more than a political revolution. It was as if the moral, spiritual, and intellectual foundations of British society had, in an instant, been dissolved, to be replaced by the ‘Devil-appointed’ principles of ‘swarmery’, ‘anarchy’ and natural equality: ‘any man equal to any other; Quashee Nigger to Socrates or Shakspere [sic]; Judas Iscariot to Jesus Christ’. Mocking those who saw in the bill the coming of the democratic millennium, Carlyle invoked a darker prophetic vision: the unchaining of the Anti-Christ in the latter days, driving a frenzied humanity ‘towards suicide and annihilation’.2