Improving the Nation

Slack_imageIn his new book, The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack sets out to do two things: first, to trace the ‘notion of improvement’ in seventeenth-century ‘public discourse’ (vii) in England; and secondly to show how ‘the quest for improvement distinguished England from other countries.’ (1)

Slack has not set himself an easy task as he analyses the concept of improvement in its ‘intellectual and political as well as social and economic’ (14) context across an entire century. But he does so most elegantly and eloquently, and the wealth of primary sources – both printed and archival – he employs shows that this book has been many years in the making and draws on decades of research. In fact, the work stands out more for its author’s extensive knowledge of the period, the great synthesis of a large amount of scholarship and the lucidity of its analysis than for the novelty of its argument as such.

For the book is unashamedly ‘Whiggish’ as a ‘story of progress’ (263), as its author acknowledges, telling the story of England’s rise as a great nation based on the steady and ambitious improvement of agriculture, manufacture and trade, which would lay the foundations for its Empire.

The motor of this ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’ (1) were a number of creative minds dedicated to the task of making England more efficient through the application of their learning in the form of new social schemes and institutions. The foundations for improvement had already been laid under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts with men like William Cecil and Francis Bacon, but things really began to take off with the English Revolution and the various projects of the Hartlib Circle, which combined utopian speculation and social reform.

In fact, it was Samuel Hartlib, who introduced the very word ‘improvement’ in its current meaning into English public discourse when he translated Jan Comenius’ Pansophiae Prodromus (1639), ‘and in doing so referred for the first time in print to improvement.’ (99)

The concern with improvement survived the breakdown of the republic and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and developed in the writings of political arithmeticians such as William Petty and Charles Davenant, who were concerned with the relationship between population growth and wealth which could be manipulated through social engineering. In the process, they helped to develop the new science of political economy.

Warfare after 1688 heightened anxieties about England’s economic capacity, while it also necessitated a financial revolution and the establishment of new institutions such as the Bank of England and the National Debt; and the return of peace after 1713 brought back confidence. Thus, at the dawn of the Georgian period, improvement was still in full swing and ‘still had a long future ahead of it.’ (215) So far so good.

I am a little less convinced by Slack’s second point about England’s distinctiveness, which strikes me as somewhat exaggerated, not least because the majority of the evidence for this claim is confined to a sub-chapter of barely fourteen pages on ‘The European Context’ towards the end of the book; but even more so because Slack himself offers plenty of evidence to the contrary. In particular, there are frequent comparisons between the English and the Dutch who were both relatively wealthy seafaring trading nations and therefore had much in common, as Jonathan Scott has recently shown in When the Waves Ruled Britannia (CUP, 2011).

Slack too hints that the regicide of 1649 and the constitutional changes that followed ‘transformed [England’s] relations with the Dutch, making that neighbour republic more than ever a model to be emulated and a rival to be feared’ (94-5), while ‘England was to all appearances becoming ever more like Holland’ (169) ahead of the Glorious Revolution, and that for a variety of reasons ‘England and Holland were … in a much stronger economic position than most other countries at the end of the seventeenth century.’ (11)

Similarly, the two very people responsible for introducing the word ‘improvement’ in its modern sense to English public discourse, Hartlib and Comenius, hailed from Poland and Bohemia respectively and were at the heart of a European network of scholars doubtless sharing many of the same ideas about improvement. It might therefore be worthwhile – and doubtless and exciting task – to explore the concept of improvement further on a European scale and in a variety of languages, even though the words used to describe it might have varied.

This minor quibble, meanwhile, does not diminish Slack’s achievement in putting together an important, comprehensive and immensely readable book that will surely become a key reference work for anyone interested in the seventeenth century. But, as he points out himself at the end of his book: improvement never ends.



Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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