The Restoration and the entire eighteenth century were times of enormous change and growth in Great Britain. The population doubled to nearly ten million, trades and industries multiplied, and the balance of power in the traditionally agrarian "nation" shifted to cities. A series of wars with France, allowed Great Britain to annex colonies around the world, such as Canada and India. Exploitation of the colonies, especially the lucrative and inhumane slave trade, brought unprecedented wealth. New periodicals and novels represented the lives of ordinary women and men. Major male authors came to England from Ireland (Swift, Burke, Sheridan, Goldsmith) and Scotland (Thomson, Hume, Boswell), their interests not entirely unlike those of English white males. The gulf between the rich and the poor widened, as perceptions of individual interests and rights led to new class conflicts.

The Restoration of 1660 saw the return of Charles Stuart to England and the end to twenty years of civil war after the abdication of Richard Cromwell. The religious issue, however, was not immediately solved. Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics were largely excluded from public life. Charles II's Exclusion Bill dissolved Parliament and effectively divided the country into two political parties. The Tories drew their strength from the landed gentry and country clergy, represented conservative values, and supported the Crown; the Whigs were more progressive and diverse, and included powerful nobles, merchants and financiers, bishops and low-level clergymen, and the Dissenters. Neither party could tolerate the rule of James II, the Catholic brother of, and successor to, Charles II; secret negotiations paved the way for the Dutch William of Orange, a champion of Protestantism and husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, who arrived in the Glorious, or Bloodless, Revolution of 1688. The Toleration Act permitted freedom of worship, although not to Catholics or Jews, with the condition of allegiance to the Crown.

Although Britain profited from war profits and the weakening of France and Spain during the reign of Anne, political tensions embittered. George I became the first Hanoverian king, and the Whigs returned to political power. Robert Walpole became the first "prime minister" of Britain. The rise of the Empire under George III, particularly the consolidation of power in Canada and India, withstood the loss of the American colonies. During George III's long reign, cries for anew social order based on liberty and radical reform emerged alongside of colonial expansion.

England entered the slave trade in the early 1660s, enslaving people from the West African coast (Guinea) and trading them for sugar from Surinam, Barbados, and later Jamaica. In 1713, Great Britain was awarded the contract to export slaves to the Spanish Indies. By the 1780s, when Britain shipped a third of a million African slaves to the Americas, the national economy depended on the "trade." The violence and brutality of the voyage across the Atlantic — the Middle Passage — is described by the former slave Olaudah Equiano. Slave-owners renamed Africans, split families, and worked to erase all memory of life before enslavement. Slaves were viewed as less than human by slave-owners eager to make a profit. Although John Locke maintained that all men were equal, he invested in the slave trade and drafted The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which granted absolute power over slaves. Even more reprehensible in its disavowal of the realities of slavery, James Boswell argued that slavery uplifted Africans by introducing them to Christianity. Other Britons, however, were troubled and ashamed by the slave trade. The black writer Ignatius Sancho and the white writer Laurence Sterne, for example, exchanged letters in which both expressed their sympathy for slaves. A bill abolishing the British slave trade became law in 1807.

Skepticism and freethinking dominated the late seventeenth century and continued through the Restoration. Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan had argued that only absolute government could check the "perpetual and restless desire for power" in all human beings. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne followed the ancient Greek skeptics to argue that knowledge derives from our senses, but the inaccuracy of our senses makes reliable knowledge impossible to achieve. Samuel Butler, John Dryden, and John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, were among those British thinkers who followed this doctrine. Still, religious beliefs were not excluded by this doubt of the faculty of human reasoning. New fields of science, statistics, and economics emerged in the debates between champions of ancient and modern learning. The main thread of English philosophy tended to shun metaphysics for empirical investigations of nature. Sentimentalism and evangelicalism places a new importance on individuals. Female authors, such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney, investigated the gap between the self as it appears to us in introspection and the identity that others fasten to us.

A sudden change in taste, a desire for elegant simplicity, emerged in English literature around 1660. For Augustan poets, who aspired to the ideals of the Roman poets Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, "Nature" became a source of pleasure and an object of inquiry. Although Samuel Johnson considered Alexander Pope to have brought the heroic couplet to "perfection," blank verse became a suitable medium for poetry. Prose writers also looked to the classical past for inspiration, often experimenting with them as in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, which he described as a "comic epic-poem in prose." Although no readership was considered too small to address, the eighteenth century was the first to distinguish between "high" and "low" art. John Dryden is considered to have brought England a "modern" literature between 1660 and 1700 that combined a cosmopolitan outlook on the latest European trends with some of the richness of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The comedy was the real distinction of Restoration drama.

The novel, whether Gothic or sentimental, emerged as a major literary genre of the eighteenth century. Gothic romances, with their forbidden themes of incest, murder, necrophilia, atheism, and torments of sexual desire, became popular. Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding popularized the novel as an emerging literary genre. Richardson's Pamela combined high moral tone with sexual titillation and minute analysis of the heroine's emotional states of mind. By the end of the century, most of the leading British novelists were women, including Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth.

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