Quite a lot of political words have been cropping up on Haggard Hawks recently. It’s almost as if there’s something noteworthy going on in worldwide politics. Speaking of which:
Shall we have a show of hands? Anyway, that tweet cropped up on the HH feed a couple of weeks ago, and as some of you clever, clever people pointed out on Twitter at the time, at the root of it is Adullam, the name of an ancient royal city in Canaan. An Adullamite is literally an inhabitant of Adullam, but unsurprisingly there’s much more to this story than just that. A little under three millennia of history, in fact.
According to the Old Testament Book of Samuel, after slaying Goliath, David set his sights on usurping Saul as King of Israel. Saul had already fallen out of favour with God and, against His wishes, had clung on to power despite David having been anointed the rightful king. Realising the threat David posed to his reign, Saul plotted to have him killed, and in response David fled to a cave on the outskirts of the city of Adullam.
While living there in exile (the name Adullam is thought to literally mean “refuge”) David was joined by his brothers, his own loyal supporters, some renegade Philistine fighters, and many disgruntled subjects of King Saul:
David therefore departed thence, and escaped to the cave Adullam: and when his brethren and all his father's house heard it, they went down thither to him. And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about 400 men.
1 Samuel (22: 1–2)
After months in hiding, this motley band of Adullamites—David and his “mighty men of valour”—left the cave and set about achieving their goal. Eventually, Saul was defeated in battle and David was finally proclaimed the rightful king of Israel.
It’s the image of David, the anointed yet powerless king, plotting in exile with his supporters, that is at the root of the word Adullamite as it’s used today. But for centuries, it had nothing at all to do with politics—and that wouldn’t change for another 2,800 years.
In the mid nineteenth century, a movement emerged in British politics that sought to loosen the upper classes’ stranglehold on the political system, and engage more of the working class in politics. At the time, only around 1 in 7 of men in Great Britain (and none of the women) had the right to vote. But after the successes of the Great Reform Act of 1832—and in the shadow of an imminent Union victory in the American Civil War—an appetite for more progressive change began to materialize.
The prime minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, opposed any such radical reform, but his sudden death in October 1865 changed everything. His successor, Earl Russell, quickly proposed a brand new Reform Bill that sought to extend the right to vote to all “respectable” men (later defined as those with a minimum weekly income of 26 shillings). Unskilled workers and the “feckless and criminal poor”, however, were still excluded.
It was far from the one-man-one-vote system of universal suffrage that the progressives wished for, but it was a step in the right direction—though not everyone agreed.
Fearing the impact that extending the right to vote could have on parliament, the more conservative members of Russell’s own government resisted the passing of the bill. A group of disgruntled Liberals, still loyal to Lord Palmerston’s less progressive ideals, distanced themselves from Russell’s proposals and allied themselves with Benjamin Disraeli’s opposition Conservatives.
It was then that John Bright, Member of Parliament for Birmingham and a radical Quaker who campaigned for the vote to be extended to every man in Britain, scathingly labelled these dissenters as the “Adullamites”. Having seemingly exiled themselves from the rest of the party—and in scheming with one another how best to ruin the government’s plans—Bright saw a clear parallel with King David and his band of disgruntled Canaanite rebels. And unfortunately for Earl Russell, that wasn’t the only parallel with the story.
Prime Minister, the Earl Russell (L); John Bright MP (R) (Images: Public domain)
Just as David and his followers had eventually succeeded over Saul, the Liberal Adullamites went on to secure their own victory. Their show of party disunity was enough to not only scupper Russell’s Reform Bill, which failed to win the majority it required, but eventually led to the collapse of his government. He resigned on 28 June 1866.
The political dissent that had dogged Russell’s bill, combined with John Bright’s scathing wit, was enough to permanently alter the meaning of the word Adullamite forever. A new word for a politically aggrieved person was born—and another contender for our Word of the Year emerges...