The pressure for reform
|John Wilkes, unflatteringly|
portrayed by Hogarth
The importance of the French RevolutionWith the coming of the French Revolution in 1789 it became more difficult to maintain the belief that Britain had a perfect constitution. The system had too many anomalies. Only about three per cent of the population had the right to vote. Settlements that were almost non-existent such as Old Sarum and Dunwich returned two members of Parliament, while Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham had none.
The debate on the RevolutionIn 1790 the Whig politician Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a ferocious attack on the Revolution. The book is seen as the foundation text of conservative ideology.
In 1791 the radical Thomas Paine published his reply to Burke, Rights of Man. The second volume, published in the following year was a thoroughgoing attack on the monarchy, the House of Lords,
and privilege in general. This sold in cheap editions, and though it was banned and Paine was forced into exile in France, its success was explosive.
|Thomas Paine (1737-1809)|
The reforming societiesThe winter of 1791/2 saw the foundation of a series of radical reform clubs organised by working men. The membership of these clubs consisted mainly of artisans, journeymen, mechanics, small shopkeepers and tradesmen. The subscription rate was low - a penny a week.
One of the first was the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791. Within a few months it was claiming more than two thousand members. For the first time many of the demands were explicitly economic. One of its first secretaries described the aim of the society as
‘to show the poor the reason, the ground of all their complaints; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family’.Into the writings of the period came a note of class antagonism:
‘While the rich enjoy almost all the benefits, the poor undergo all the labour.’The Sheffield Society’s arrangement into divisions was copied by the most famous of the working-men’s associations was founded by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832) a master shoemaker and devout Dissenter. In October 1791 he met with a few friends at the Bell Inn off the Strand. On 25 January the London Corresponding Society was founded.
The admission test was an affirmative reply to three questions of which the most important was:
‘Are you persuaded ... that every adult person, in possession of his reason and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament?’The membership fee was one shilling, followed by a penny a week. Within a fortnight 25 members were enrolled, and the sum in the Treasurer’s hand was 4/1d. By late 1792 it was claiming over 800 members, each committed to manhood suffrage and parliamentary reform ‘by all justifiable means’. Members were organised into 29 cells spread across London. These local divisions also functioned as adult education classes, with regular ‘readings, conversations and discussions’.
In January 1792 the Sheffield Constitutional Society distributed copies of part 1 of Rights of Man at 6d each. Paine gave up his profits to finance a cheap edition.
The reforming movements were overwhelmingly urban and flourished in towns with a large proportion of skilled men such as Sheffield cutlers and Norwich weavers. They were not a working class movement in the sense in which the term later came to be used. They were composed of independent artisans, journeymen, small traders - very similar to the Parisian sans-culottes. They could read, they could think for themselves and had considerable revolutionary potential.
These reforming societies were not an English phenomenon alone. For the first time Scotland was widely involved in political reform. In July 1792 the Lord Provost of Glasgow presided over a meeting in which representations in favour of equal representation, frequent elections, and universal suffrage were adopted. Edinburgh founded its own branch of the Society of Friends of the people.
Pitt's 'Reign of Terror'This is the hyperbolic name given to the government's heavy-handed response radicalism. After France declared war on Britain in February 1793, it seemed to many conservatives that the county was facing threats not merely from the French but also from 'the enemy within'.
In 1793 and 1794 a series of trials of leading radicals took place in Scotland and England. The Scottish radicals were convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to transportation, but three prominent London radicals, Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were acquitted of the charge of high treason. 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.
In 1794 the Commons debated the suspension of habeas corpus, provoking the fiercest parliamentary debate of the century, even though the opposition, led by Charles James Fox and Charles Grey, was easily defeated.
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. They passed into law on 18 December. Round the country magistrates took action against radicals. It seemed as if the radical cause was dead.
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.