Spies, defense from sedition, and the "swinish multitudes"

Radical Activities

Because the loyalist movement was literally a reactionary movement, it is important to understand something about those to whom they were reacting. While radical and reform movements had an extensive native geneology as well, including the Wilkite movement and Dissenters, an immediate impetus for their growth was the example of the French Revolution. In its beginning stages, Englishmen largely welcomed the French Revolution: after all, England enjoyed the benefits of the rather less violent Glorious Revolution a hundred years before, and many viewed the French Revolution as a means through which the French might come to enjoy the same constitutional privileges as did the English.

As time went on and France committed acts of both imperial ambition and domestic violence, it steadily lost support until, by the time France and Britain declared war on each other, pro-Revolutionary sentiments were profoundly unpopular as well as potentially treasonous. (At this time as well, the debate was couched in constitutional terms. French lawlessness was attributed to flaws in the French constitution, which were contrasted with the corresponding elements of the English constitution.) In fact, radicals' and reformers' staunch continuing support for the French Revolution contributed significantly to their opponents' ability to depict them as unpatriotic, which in turn led to their downfall. The "Jacobins," as they were portrayed by their opponents, allowed themselves to be too closely tied to France's fate, according to Gary Kelly, thus discrediting the reform movement.

The other immediate inspiration for the growth of the radical movement was the publication of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, which became a radical Bible of sorts. For far more extensive information on Paine and similar radical writers, visit Conversations in Politics.

In 1790s Britain, as Robert R. Dozier (bibliography entry) writes, the formation of popular societies was one of the most widely used and effective ways to express oneself politically outside of official political processes. Historical precedent for the political efficacy of societies had been established in Britain by the County Association and other movements.

London Corresponding Society

Perhaps best known among the radical and reforming societies was the London Corresponding Society (LCS), founded by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy and drawing its members mainly from the artisan class. Its major goals were parliamentary reform and the extension of the franchise to all males, and it also stressed the importance of education of the lower classes, publishing cheap tracts of The Rights of Man and other radical literature in the interest of furthering this objective. It also aimed to increase cooperation with similar groups throughout the country, leading to the formation of other Corresponding Societies.

The Corresponding Societies grew quickly. In late April, 1793, the Corresponding Societies held a convention in Edinburgh, and by May the LCS had the support of 6,000 people on a petition for their reforms. In early 1794, several of the Edinburgh delegates are tried for sedition and receive harsh sentences, and later, many prominent radicals, including Hardy, Adams, Thelwall, Holcroft and Horne Took are tried and acquitted for treason.

In 1795, famine and popular dissatisfaction with the war against France led to popular unrest at a level not seen in the recent past. At the Copenhagen Fields in Islington, tens of thousands of people assembled to protest, and a few days later, the King George III's carriage was mobbed on his way to Parliament by a crowd estimated by some as high as 200,000. Rioters yelled slogans such as "No King, no war, no famine, and no Pitt."

While the protests of October 1795 demonstrated popular support for governmental change, they ironically provided an excuse for squelching movements for such change. The attack on the king provided a pretext for introducing the Two "Gagging" Bills, pushed through Parliament quickly after the demonstrations despite petitions signed by 130,000 people. Whatever the level of causality between the bills' passage and the Corresponding Societies' decline, within a year their membership had fallen significantly, no doubt harmed as well by internal squabblings. By the turn of the century, the radical movement had largely been driven underground.

One of the major debates concerning the nature of groups such as the LCS is the extent to which their real goals were reforms, largely of the parliamentary system, and to what degree their goals were truly revolutionary. To be sure, the LCS never officially advocated a revolutionary stance; however, they did correspond with France and celebrate French military victories, and most of their contemporaries believed that their eventual goals were more in line with the radical literature they disseminated than the reforms they publicly supported. Historians' positions on this debate tend to largely parallel the extent to which they see government actions against these organizations as justified: those who view radical societies' goals as Tom Paine's "general revolution" interpret the government's actions against them as necessary for maintaining stability and avoiding a French-style bloodbath, while those who believe in the LCS's reform orientation see government actions as stifling and delaying these healthy and natural reforms.

Other Reform and Radical Societies

The LCS differed from most of its predecessors in its class composition: most earlier associations focused on reform and drew their membership largely from the already-enfranchised middle class. In celebration of the centennial of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Revolution Societies formed, many of which also advocated continuing reform. More contemporary to the Corresponding Societies was the Society for Constitutional Information, or the Constitutional Society, which was headed by John Cartwright and espoused many of the same views as the LCS in a manner more palatable to a genteel audience. The Friends of the Liberty of the Press formed in order to defend publishers, authors and newspapers from Pittite attacks, but by the end of the decade most radicals and Whigs viewed press freedom in Britain with a note of nostalgia.

The Society of the Friends of the People, Associated for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform, commonly known as the Friends of the People, was founded in April 1792 by the initiative of Lord Lauderdale, Charles Grey, and Philip Francis. Made up mostly of members of Parliament, the Friends of the People were alarmed by the extremism of political discourse. They excluded Fox in order to separate themselves from the Whig party, and their only goal was the elimination of corrupt election practices. However, when Charles Fox made a speech in Parliament connecting the Friends of the People with proposed Constitutional changes, the original goal of the organization was delegitimized and radical groups calling themselves the Friends of the People sprang up around the country (Werkmeister 72-79).

The Foxite Whigs

While popular organizations took up the fight for the "rights of man" out of doors, Charles James Fox and his Whig followers fought Pittite Tories and more conservative members of their own party within Parliament. While far from radical, Fox had a reputation as a "man of the people," and his strong antagonism of Pitt and support for the French Revolution made him a natural ally with the radicals and reformers. His 1792 Libel Act, in fact, protected many radicals accused of sedition, for it required these cases to be determined by a jury instead of a judge.

In 1794, a large portion of Whigs, led by the Duke of Portland accepting the position of Home Secretary, defaulted to Pitt, leaving Fox to lead one of the weakest Oppositions in Parliamentary history. By the end of the decade, many of his approximately 50 or 60 supporters even ceased to attend Parliament. Nevertheless, prominent Whigs such as Richard Sheridan and Thomas Erskine continued to defend reformers and radicals. -->

Relevant web sources

<-- Previous Page | Next Page -->