This paper examines an important and rather neglected forum for popular discussion – the debating society – in London in 1780. This was the first full year that debating societies left their semi-private, club-like sites and took to new rooms, all across the metropolitan area. These new venues were large (seating between 400 and 1200) commercial settings, where men and women could come to speak and to listen, to enjoy an evening of rational entertainment at a small price. Using the many daily London newspapers as its main source, this essay examines the audiences present at these debates, the types of questions asked and the nature of the responses, when known, and surveys the wide range of reactions to such activity. Finally, it suggests some explanations for and evaluations of the growth and decline of this important cultural form.
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