In the year since rioters failed to nullify the 2020 US presidential election, commentators have dutifully picked through American history in search of precedents. Critics have drawn parallels with the municipal coup carried out by white supremacists in Wilmington in 1898 and attempts to block the certification of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, whereas the attackers have likened themselves to the revolutionaries of 1776. Throughout, the crisis of American democracy has generally been attributed to the country’s unique cocktail of problems, such as political hyper-polarisation, an obsessive gun culture, and the bitter legacy of slavery. Nonetheless, it is worth looking beyond narratives of American exceptionalism, for echoes can be found even in a sleepy English shire two decades before the USA’s founding. On that occasion, there were no fur-clad ‘shamans’ posing for the cameras, but the defining image of the 1754 Oxfordshire election was, if anything, even stranger: a stampede of demon-possessed swine.
At first glance, the circumstances behind the vote in Oxfordshire seem a world away from contemporary American disputes. Rather than all-consuming partisan rivalry, the defining feature of mid-eighteenth-century English politics was a habit of uneasy compromise. The ‘rage of party’ which had followed the emergence of Britain’s first modern political factions – the Tories and the Whigs – in the late seventeenth century had faded away following the latter’s landslide victory in the 1715 parliamentary election. Several generations of unbroken Whig hegemony weakened party affiliations, and in most constituencies the local gentry reverted to appointing their MPs by consensus rather than a contest; thus, by 1754 there had been no vote in Oxfordshire during the last seven general elections, with Tory-leaning grandees running unopposed in exchange for ceding control of nearby urban boroughs. However, tensions remained beneath the surface, and in 1752 the Whig-aligned duke of Marlborough decided to make a play for the constituency. Backed by his money and that of the government, the two ‘New Interest’ candidates (Parker and Turner) would spend the next two years campaigning against their Tory ‘Old Interest’ opponents (Wenman and Dashwood) in the eighteenth century’s most infamous electoral battle.
Its immortality was f