You are here: Home / Resources / Frontpage Articles / Horse races, amateur bureaucrats and the public interest

Horse races, amateur bureaucrats and the public interest

In this blog post ACRN contributing editor Matt Jenkins tackles the topic of mentalities in early modern England. He focus on the work of Dr Aaron Graham and his research on how corruption was conceptualised at this time.

Horse races, amateur bureaucrats and the public interest

Berger Collection: Website

By Matt Jenkins, University of Warwick

I came across Dr Aaron Graham’s work a few months ago when he came to speak to us at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Network at Warwick University (which isn’t quite as nefarious as it sounds). Dr Graham is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University. He works largely on the interaction between politics, finance and state formation in Britain in the period 1660-1832. 

As part of this wider project he has begun to examine “mentalities of corruption” in early modern England, in order to uncover how corruption was conceptualised at this time, what role it served and how it related to the process of state formation. Graham hopes that examining attitudes to corruption during this period will enhance historians’ understanding of how the early modern English state functioned, but may also provide enlightening parallels for social scientists studying corruption in the modern world. 

Indeed, Graham provides three key insights for anti-corruption scholars: an historical example of how endemic corruption develops out of inadequate state structures, a differentiation of “mentalities” of corruption which can flourish without a well-defined anti-corruption consensus, and an account of why adherence to laws and customs alone can’t be viewed as incorrupt.

Insight from a British paymaster-general

Graham examines the career of James Brydges, British paymaster-general during the Spanish War of Succession, to illustrate his argument. Brydges had inherited a system largely unfit for purpose. His predecessor had insisted on complying with the letter of law in terms of receiving the appropriate signatures to release funds to British regiments. The problem was the system was utterly unprofessional; the First Lord of the Treasury Godolphin was often at horse races, creating in a bureaucratic backlog which resulted in the troops often being paid several months late. 

 To achieve one’s aims promptly in this bureaucratic quagmire it was often necessary to take administrative shortcuts; indeed these were widely accepted despite the fact that this breach of official guidelines was indistinguishable from methods used by corrupt officials seeking personal enrichment.

 The generally lax attitude towards following protocol enabled men like Brydges to exploit the system for personal gain; in return for between one and five percent of their wages Brydges offered the regiments in the field immediate payment – something the Treasury couldn’t always provide. Brydges claimed this to be mutually beneficial to all involved; it meant the troops were paid on time, the public had its army and those involved profited handsomely from “public contracts”. We can understand this more usefully in light of a “fee-for-service” arrangement, but in the absence of a powerful public consensus that bribe-taking constituted a conflict of interest, many contemporary elites were able to frame private gain as synonymous with the public interest. 

Alongside conventional methods used to investigate financial corruption and embezzlement, Graham’s use of text analysis is novel and constructive; illuminating the various “mentalities” of corruption in this period. He is therefore able to provide an account of how corrupt figures in early modern England genuinely conceived of their activities as legitimate and cannot simply be written off as hypocrites. Brydges, for example, wrote that he took pride in receiving “gifts” from the regiments, viewing this as a marker of a professional service: on occasion he even publicly advocated his methods. As Brydges was not really committing any crime – it was rather a grey area of law – Graham shows that in early modern Britain it is untenable to claim that adherence to the rules alone signified a lack of corruption, or that non-adherence to established laws was necessarily corrupt.

This is powerful evidence that legislation alone is insufficient in defining acceptable practice in public office. As well as drafting laws, anti-corruption activists therefore need to be prepared to locate and confront such “mentalities” of corruption in the modern world. By doing so, they would be better placed to provide powerful counter-arguments to the claims of the corrupt that their behaviour is acceptable.

Dr. Graham’s contribution should therefore be welcomed as providing an interdisciplinary insight which could prove useful for corruption scholars, especially those seeking to develop a more sophisticated analysis on the linkage between corruption and the “mentalities” which support and justify it. A more nuanced understanding of the “mentalities” of corruption can potentially render the anti-corruption toolkit more flexible and give it a greater resonance in a variety of contexts. Publication is expected in 2014.

Read More:


Graham, Aaron (publication is expected in 2014) Auditing Leviathan: corruption and state formation in early eighteenth-century Britain. English Historical Review.

Podcast interview Dr Graham at the University of Warwick Wed 13 Feb 2013



Author :

22 Apr 2013

Bookmark and Share

Document Actions

Our partner