There is no doubt that Pitt’s government was fearful of a home-grown revolutionary insurrection and that in the mid 1790s there was what Boyd Hilton has described as ‘a significant increase in the coercive powers of the state’. (A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? Oxford, 2007) But were the fears justified? The Home Office files for the last months of 1792 show that alarmist reports were being received of Frenchmen armed with daggers on the road from Harwich to London, and of a disturbance in Dundee where the liberty tree was planted. Did the government manipulate the information for its own purposes? (Hilton). Or did it show a reasonable reaction to what it thought was a genuine threat? (See Edward Royle, Revolutionary Britannia? Manchester, 2000)
The Scottish trials
The full weight of the growing loyalist reaction was first felt in Scotland where a vigorous parliamentary reform moving had grown up in the course of 1792. Scottish societies, modelled on the London Corresponding Society, spread rapidly. There were disturbances in some parts of Scotland and the reformers’ protestations that they did not want violence were taken as merely hypocritical.
Scottish political life was controlled by the Home Secretary (1791-4), Henry Dundas (‘King Henry IX’). He probably over-estimated the revolutionary threat in Scotland. However when a group of English and Scottish reformers summoned an unfortunately named (?) Convention in Edinburgh in December 1792, the government became deeply alarmed.
In January 1793 a series of trials for sedition or seditious libel took place in Edinburgh. These trials were remarkable for the freedom with which the judges expressed themselves. They were the preliminaries to the sensational trials in the late summer.
In August 1793 the lawyer, Thomas Muir (1765-1799), vice-president of a Jacobin discussion group in Glasgow, was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation after an outrageously biased trial. In September the English Unitarian, Thomas Palmer (1747-1802), then minister at Dundee was sentenced to seven years.
In October 1793 the National Convention of British reformers met at Edinburgh. The London Corresponding Society, the Society for Constitutional Information and the Sheffield Society all sent delegates. Its two London delegates were Joseph Gerrald (1760-1796) and Maurice Margarot (1745-1815). The meeting declared itself a British Convention and appointed a secret committee to act in case of emergency. The authorities broke up the meeting and placed Gerrald and Margarot and the Scottish secretary William Skirving (d. 1796) under arrest. Margarot was accompanied to his trial in early 1794 by a procession holding a ‘tree of liberty’ in the shape of a letter M above his head. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation, Gerrald received the same sentence a month later (he had tuberculosis).
The London trials
The government was greatly alarmed by the success of the London Corresponding Society’s new tactic of open air meetings and by its decision to hold an English Convention in the summer of 1794. In May and the authorities arrested seven members of the LCS, including Hardy, John Thelwall, its best orator and six members of the Society for Constitutional Information, including John Horne Tooke, but excluding Cartwright.
At the same time Pitt proposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus, provoking the fiercest Commons debate of the century. He opened the debate with a fierce attack on the ‘monstrous’ doctrine of the Rights of Man. Grey responded by calling Pitt an apostate. Fox and his diminished band divided the Commons fourteen times over the legislation, but could muster only 28 votes.
Of the thirteen arrested only three were brought to trial. The first was Hardy charged in the Old Bailey in October with high treason under the statute of 1351: ‘imagining the king’s death’. The Whig politician Charles Grey wrote to his wife: ‘
If this man is hanged, there is no safety for any man ... and I do not know how soon it may come to my turn.’In his defence of Hardy, his barrister Thomas Erskine insisted that for the London Corresponding Society, as for earlier reforming organizations, it was never a question of using force but rather
‘a design to undermine monarchy by changes wrought through public opinion, enlarging gradually into universal will’.The medium was to be the works of Thomas Paine; even the name (LCS) testified that the society was concerned with ideas rather than violent action. But though no convincing evidence was produced that Hardy had been gathering arms, some of his correspondence seemed damning and treasonable, with provincial societies urging a convention that by implication could overrule Parliament. But how far was Hardy to be responsible for letters addressed to him? After a short recess the jury found him not guilty. The verdict transformed popular sentiment from approving the prosecution of lionising the acquitted shoemaker and his defending council.
The trial of Horne Took a fortnight later attracted more attention. He was an ex-parson who had been a well-known political figure since the days of Wilkes. The defence subpoenaed Pitt to show that many people in the 1780s had been advocating parliamentary reform. Tooke was also acquitted as was Thelwall after a trial of a day. The tension generated by the possibility of a guilty verdict and the death sentence were relaxed and the trials were held in something like a carnival atmosphere.
The difference between the English and Scottish trials reflects the different legal systems. Ironically, the acquittals made the loyalist case - that England was a country where a man could have a fair trial. It contrasts with Paine’s treatment at the hands of the revolutionaries - arrested in December 1793 with his life was saved by mere chance.
The Whigs split
Although Fox asked shrewd questions about the purpose of the war and though his attacks on government repression were arguably ‘right’ he did not gain politically. His refusal to support the war eventually split his party. The duke of Portland, the leader of the party, supported the war and at the turn of 1793/4, following a series of allied disasters in the Low Countries, he decided to break with Fox and the radical Whigs who had formed the Friends of the People. In May Pitt invited Portland to discuss the possibility of a ‘ministerial arrangement’ which ‘might make us act together as one Great Family’ against the 'Jacobin threat’. The negotiations took place over several weeks during which mixed news arrived from the war: Lord Howe’s naval victory of the Glorious First of June, and the French victory at Fleurus, which forced the duke of York’s retreat. At a meeting at Burlington House on 13 June conservative Whigs unanimously supported a coalition.
By early July a new cabinet was formed. Five posts went to the Whigs, with Portland becoming Home Secretary, Fox’s friend, the earl of Fitzwilliam becoming Lord President of the Council (with the understanding that he would soon become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland), the earl of Loughborough Lord Chancellor and Spencer Lord Privy Seal and (from Dec 1794) First Lord of the Admiralty. An aggrieved Dundas had to give up his post as Home Secretary, but he retained responsibility for War and the Colonies, previously a Home Office responsibility (thus creating a third office of Secretary of State). Burke’s friend William Windham became Secretary at War under Dundas.
Pitt intended the coalition to outlast the war and add to his security in any future regency crisis. The Foxites were reduced to a parliamentary rump of perhaps only fifty members of the Commons and a dozen peers. As Fox's biographer Leslie Mitchell notes,
‘They were no longer a credible opposition, bur rather a band who could only engage in guerrilla tactics on the edge of politics.’A few days after the formation of the new cabinet Robespierre fell in the Thermidor coup (27 July). His execution marked the end of the Terror, but not the war. By the end of 1794 the French had not only retaken Belgium, but had driven the Austrians completely from the west bank of the Rhine and secured the way into northern Italy. In December Wilberforce moved an unsuccessful amendment to the King’s speech advising negotiations with the French. War weariness had already crept in and intensified when Amsterdam fell to the French in January and Holland was knocked out of the war. Pitt himself wished to negotiate peace with France, though by 1796 he came to believe that France was unwilling to enter realistic negotiations.
The Gagging Acts
The hardships of 1795 gave a final lease of life to the embattled LCS. A meeting near Copenhagen House, Islington on 26 October 1795 was followed three days later by an ugly demonstration against the king. The radical Francis Place reported that many in the crowd hissed the king, and called our
‘No Pitt, No War, Peace, Peace, Bread, Bread.’When passing through a narrow street near St Margaret’s Church, a pane of glass in the king’s coach window broke - either by accident or a stone. When the coach returned empty, it was destroyed by protesters.
At the end of the year the government brought in the acts known colloquially as the Gagging Acts.
1. The Treasonable Practices Act forbade the expression of views calculated to bring king or government into contempt.These measures were bitterly opposed by the Foxites. Petitions poured into parliament for and against the bills - the majority against. Wilberforce travelled to York to persuade a public meeting held there to back the bills. They passed into law on 18 December. Round the country magistrates took action against radicals.
2. The Seditious Meetings Act forbade assemblies of more than 50 persons without prior notice and gave the magistrates power to disperse the onlookers if seditious observations were being made.
A 'Reign of Terror'?
The consensus among historians has been that Pitt’s actions were excessive and there is no doubt that many innocent people suffered. This case has been recently reinforced by John Barrell’s The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (Oxford, 2006), which argues that eighteenth-century notions of privacy were constantly ‘invaded’ by the public and political concerns raised by war and the fear of revolution. But perhaps it is unfair to blame the government, as Europe seemed to be descending into war and anarchy. Pitt's repressive acts can be put into the context of other war-time legislation (1914, 1939). The cabinet believed it was faced with the threat of invasion, with the problem of maintaining food supplies, with the problems of manpower and war finance. The war against revolutionary France had an ideological aspect new to the 18th century, the opposition failed to support the government and within Britain radicals were openly subscribing to the enemy’s ideology. The majority of the country seems to have accepted the Acts without question.
There is also the fact that British wartime governments in the twentieth century adopted draconian powers. In the Second World War Oswald and Diana Mosley together with other Fascist sympathisers, lost their habeas corpus rights and were imprisoned under this emergency legislation. In retrospect, it does not seem very democratic.
Though the mass of the country seem to have remained loyal to the government, there were insurrectionary pockets. Very inflammatory literature was produced at Hardy’s trial. Wilberforce noted the presence of such literature in 1795. There was a religious dimension to the atmosphere of alarm. Paine’s Age of Reason (1794) was a direct attack on Christianity.
The End of the LCS
In the wake of the Gagging Acts the LCS began to experience serious internal divisions over the most appropriate tactics for combating government repression, with some urging violence - both to defend civil liberties and to complete a prepared revolution. In 1798 a clandestine organization called the United Englishmen was set up in London. But while debating whether to support this movement, its members were arrested.