Nelson and the People: Manliness, Patriotism and Body Politics

  • Kathleen Wilson


The fittest man in the world for the command’ of the Mediterranean, Lord Minto declared of Horatio Nelson on 24 April 1798, following Nelson’s inventive assault on Spanish ships off Cape St Vincent. ‘Admiral Nelson’s victory [at Aboukir, the mouth of the Nile] … [is] one of the most glorious and comprehensive victories ever achieved even by British valour’, the London Chronicle exulted later that year. Nelson’s breath-taking exploits on the high seas, his courage and aggression in combat, and his quixotic generosity to his men, had quickly catapulted him to fame, enmeshing his reputation with the best of the English national character. ‘[W]ith the brilliant qualities of a hero, Lord Nelson unites a feeling and generous heart, a quick discernment of occasion, and popularity of manners’ affirmed the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1801, surveying the acclaim of the people on Nelson’s tour to Fonthill.1


Body Politic British Nation British Troop Generous Heart Popular Politics 
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  1. 1.
    Gilbert Eliot to Lord St Vincent, quoted in Edgar Vincent, Nelson: Love and Fame (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 219; London Chronicle, 2–4 October, 1798; Gentleman’s Magazine, 71 (1801), 207–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England 1715–1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chap. 3.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The following three paragraphs are based on Wilson, Sense of the People, and Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2003).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For a recent assessment of Wolfe as hero, see Nicholas Rogers, ‘Brave Wolfe: The Making of the Hero’, in Kathleen Wilson (ed.), A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 239–59.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Dorinda Outram, The Body and the French Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 72.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    J.S. Clark and J. McArthur, The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB from His Lordships’s manuscripts, 2 vols (London, 1802), vol. I, p. 9.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    See Gerald Jordan and Nicholas Rogers, ‘Admirals as Heroes’, Journal of British Studies, 28 (1989), 215–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 11.
    Gerald Jordan, ‘Admiral Nelson as Popular Hero: The Nation and the Navy, 1795–1805’, in New Aspects of Naval History (Baltimore: United States Naval Academy, 1985), pp. 109–10.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson (8 vols, London: 1845–46), vol. I, pp. 377–8.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    George P.B. Naish, Nelson’s Letters to his Wife, and other documents 1785–1831 (London: Navy Record Society, 1958), pp. 203–4.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Terry Coleman, Nelson (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 124–8. The Times, 13 March 1797; The Sun, 15 March 1797.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    E.g. Frank McLynn, 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004).Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Mary Thale (ed.), Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792–99 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 429–32, 434.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
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  16. 32.
    Linda Colley, Britons (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 284.Google Scholar
  17. 34.
    Vincent, Nelson, p. 341; Thomas Kosegarten, Meine Freuden in Sachsen (Leipzig, 1801), quoted in Coleman, Nelson, p. 393.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Macready’s Reminiscences and Selections from his Diaries (London, 1875), vol. II, p. 78. For a more detailed treatment of the all-important tour of 1802,Google Scholar
  19. see David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Nelson: The Immortal Memory (London: Conway Maritime Museum, 1988).Google Scholar
  20. 36.
    Evelyn Berckman, Nelson’s Dear Lord (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 180, 240, quoted in Jordan, ‘Admiral Nelson’, p. 116.Google Scholar
  21. 40.
    Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1968), p. 84.Google Scholar

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© Kathleen Wilson 2005

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  • Kathleen Wilson

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