“The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection.
It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative. If George III was the author of this piece, then it provides a valuable perspective on his attitude to his subjects, his apparent faith in a reasonable alignment between public opinion and the good of the nation. However, the work is intriguing regardless of our speculations on its authorship. It reflects both the uncertainty of its era concerning the practical implications of public opinion and a nagging sense that we should be able to account for what the public feels, tracing the logic behind who is revered and who is forgotten. For in the terms of this essay, public opinion is responsive in nature. Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.
Towards the end of the essay, the author considers why the public generally esteems architects more highly than builders and the ‘Art of Agriculture’ more highly than the ploughman who puts it in practice. The reason is not that the public is oblivious to its own needs, but that it considers some people replaceable whereas others are not. As modern readers, we may well be appalled by the blunt, mercenary logic of this argument, but at its heart is a surprisingly useful and progressive idea: that public opinion, however vaguely defined, might be appreciated for its discrimination and its insight without its dictating the entire structure of society.