Monday, 6 March 2017

Radicalism and the French Revolution

Thomas Muir
Radical Scottish lawyer
Public Domain

A threat of revolution?

From 1 February 1793 Britain and France were at war. The threat from France was obviously real, but Pitt’s government was equally fearful of home-grown revolutionary insurrection. 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 reforming societies

The winter of 1791/2 had witnessed a new development in extra-parliamentary politics with 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 of these societies the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791, soon had more than two thousand members. 

The Sheffield Society’s arrangement into divisions was copied by the most famous of the working-men’s associations, the London Corresponding Society, founded by Thomas Hardy a master shoemaker and devout Dissenter, on 25 January 1792. 

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 Scottish trials

The full weight of the growing loyalist reaction was first felt in Scotland where a vigorous parliamentary reform movement had grown up in the course of 1792. Scottish societies, modelled on the London Corresponding Society, spread rapidly. In the late summer of 1793 two sensational trials for seditious practices were held in Edinburgh before Lord Braxfield, the Lord Justice Clerk, who expressed his political views with remarkable freedom. 

'Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield'
by Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Public Domain

At the first trial, in August 1793, the lawyer, Thomas Muir, vice-president of a radical discussion group in Glasgow, was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation. In September the English Unitarian, Thomas Palmer, then minister at Dundee, was sentenced to seven years.

In October 1793 the National Convention of British reformers met at Edinburgh to demand universal male suffrage and annual parliaments. The authorities broke up the meeting and placed two London delegates, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot and the Convention's Scottish secretary William Skirving under arrest. In January 1794 Margarot and Skirving were sentenced to fourteen years transportation.  Gerrald received the same sentence in March - he had tuberculosis and died from it in Sydney.

Scottish Martyrs Memorial
Calton Hill, Edinburgh

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. In June 1794 conservative Whigs, under the leadership of the Duke of Portland, agreed to go into a coalition with Pitt. In the new cabinet Portland became Home Secretary.

John Powell,
'William Cavendish Bentinck,
3rd Duke of Portland'
Public Domain

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. They were no longer a credible opposition. 

The London trials

Meanwhile, the government was moving against the English radicals.  In May and the authorities arrested seven members of the London Corresponding Society. At the same time habeas corpus was suspended. In the autumn of 1794 three of its members  - Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke -  were brought to trial in the Old Bailey, charged with high treason under the statute of 1351: ‘imagining the king’s death’.  In his defence of Hardy, his barrister Thomas Erskine insisted that though the London Corresponding Society had distributed the works of Thomas Paine, it had never intended to use force. After a short recess the jury found him not guilty. 

Report of the trial of the
English radicals
Public Domain

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 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 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 on his way to the state opening of Parliament, when a stone was thrown through his coach window. 

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.
2. The Seditious Meetings Act forbade assemblies of more than fifty persons without prior notice and gave the magistrates power to disperse the onlookers if seditious observations were being made.
These measures were bitterly opposed by the Foxites. Petitions poured into parliament for and against the bills - the majority against -  but they passed into law on 18 December. Round the country magistrates took action against radicals.

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.  The cabinet believed it was faced with the threat of invasion, with the problem of maintaining food supplies, and with the problems of manpower and war finance. The war against revolutionary France had an ideological aspect new to the eighteenth 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.

Pitt's repressive acts can also be put into the context of twentieth-century war-time legislation. 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. There was a religious dimension to the atmosphere of alarm. Paine’s Age of Reason (1794) was a direct attack on Christianity.


  1. By the end of the 1790s the radical movement had been snuffed out or driven underground.
  2. The events of the French Revolution and the war with France created a considerable backlash. Loyalist pamphleteers mounted a successful counter-attack and government repression made it difficult for the radicals to organise.
  3. But radicalism did not go away and it was to revive once the threat of a French invasion was lifted. 

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