Friday, 23 June 2017

Lord Liverpool and the economy 1812-1822

Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister after Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in May 1812. He was the most underrated Prime Minister in the nineteenth century. described later in the century by Benjamin Disraeli as an ‘arch mediocrity’. Yet, he was a skilled politician and held together a government of strong personalities with differing opinions more prepared to serve under him than under each other. Between 1812 and 1822, he was faced with economic, political and radical challenges caused by the war against France and the problem of returning to peacetime conditions after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Between 1822 and 1827, the government had considerable energy largely because of the emergence of what has been called ‘liberal Toryism’. It was damaged only by divisions within the Cabinet especially over the ‘Catholic question’ though even here Liverpool was able to head off serious tensions by making it an ‘open question’.

Liverpool’s stroke in February 1827 released long restrained tensions and rivalries. Within three years, his party was in tatters, divided and without effective leadership. Three Prime Ministers followed in quick succession. Liverpool’s successor, George Canning[1] died in August within months of gaining office. His successor, Viscount Goderich[2] was a disaster resigning without ever meeting Parliament. Finally, the Duke of Wellington took the helm in January 1828.[3] His ministry saw the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation the following year. Wellington’s refusal to accept parliamentary reform led to the fall of his government in November 1830. The Whigs were in power.

Year Events
1812 11 May: Assassination of Spencer Perceval 8 June: Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister
1815 Corn Laws passed 18 June: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo
1816 Income tax repealed against government’s wishes December: Spa Fields riots
1817 February: Habeas Corpus suspended March: Seditious Meetings Act March of the Blanketeers 9 June: Pentrich rising
1818 General Election
1819 May: Bullion Committee chaired by Peel recommended the phased resumption of cash payments by the Bank of England 16 August: Peterloo Massacre followed by the Six Acts
1820 29 January: George III died, succeeded by George IV; General Election February: Cato Street conspiracy June: beginnings of Queen Caroline affair December: Canning resigned over government’s handling of Queen Caroline affair
1821 December: Sidmouth resigned as Home Secretary
1822 Peel appointed Home Secretary 12 August: Castlereagh committed suicide. Canning becomes Foreign Secretary and Leader of House of Commons
1823 January: Robinson appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer October: Huskisson appointed President of the Board of Trade
1826 General Election
1827 March: Liverpool resigned following stroke on 17 February April: Canning became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer 8 August: Canning’s death. Goderich became Prime Minister
1828 January: Goderich resigned and Wellington became Prime Minister Repeal of Test and Corporation Acts
1829 Catholic Emancipation
1830 June: Death of George IV. William IV succeeds July: Revolution in France August: General Election 2 November: Wellington ruled out parliamentary reform 16 November: Wellington resigned

How did Lord Liverpool’s economic policy develop 1812-1822?

Liverpool became Prime Minister towards the end of the protracted wars with France. By 1812, the duke of Wellington was winning the war against the French in Spain. The French defeat at Vitoria in August 1813 allowed him to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Napoleon had been weakened by his unsuccessful invasion of Russia in 1812 and in early 1813 Liverpool and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh[4] were able to set up the Fourth Coalition (Austria, Russia and Prussia). Napoleon was defeated in the three-day ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in October 1813 and faced with a two-pronged invasion of France (Wellington from the south and the coalition partners from the east), he abdicated in 1814. Exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean Napoleon plotted his return while the allies set about redrawing the boundaries of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. In March 1815, Napoleon returned to France but was defeated, in what Wellington called ‘a close-run thing’ at Waterloo in June. Exile was now permanent and Napoleon was sent to the southern Atlantic island of St. Helena where he died in 1821. Liverpool faced two major problems in the seven years after 1815: he needed to reorganise government finances depleted by the cost of the French Wars; and he had to face and deal with a revival of working-class radicalism.

How did Liverpool reorganise government finances?

The French wars saw two contradictory trends in the British economy. The need for uniforms and weapons to feed the war stimulated demand in increasingly mechanised manufacturing industry, especially textiles and iron and production increased dramatically. Mechanisation led to working-class resistance and Luddism.[5] Because of expansion in the agriculture sector, Britain was less reliant on imported food especially wheat. Large areas of England had been enclosed during the war. This made farming more efficient and allowed farmers to increase the amount of food they were producing. They borrowed money to pay for this but high profits meant that they could easily repay the banks. They could charge high rents for their land and the price of wheat remain high because the war restricted imports. By 1815, both industry and agriculture were outwardly strong but they were geared up for wartime production. The transition to peacetime proved difficult and posed a series of fundamental questions that taxed government until the 1840s. What should the place of agriculture be in an industrialised society? How could the competing claims of farmers and industrialists be resolved? What was the relationship between consumers and producers? What role should government have in determining the overall direction of the economy?

British governments in the late-eighteenth century did not attempt to control change in the economy. After 1815, unemployment rose because of the demobilisation of the armed forces and the need to cut labour costs especially in farming and textiles.[6] In returning the economy to peacetime conditions, ministers were forced to take a more active role. ‘Corn’ and ‘Cash’ dominated debates in the 1810s and ‘Commerce’ became important in the 1820s. Each posed major political problems for the Tories.


Between 1813 and 1815, corn prices fell following good harvests in 1813, 1814 and 1815 and the return to peace in 1814 brought unwelcome foreign grain imports. Farmers and tenants found themselves under pressure. Lower prices and high wartime taxation meant that they often found it difficult to repay bank loans. This had the following consequences for the farming sector. There were many bankruptcies amongst farmers who had borrowed to invest in their land during the war and who now faced with falling prices. Falling prices led to some landowners reducing the rents paid by their tenants. Falling prices and a surplus labour force caused largely by the demobilisation of the armed forces led to farmers reducing the wages they paid resulting in ‘distress’ in areas where farming was the main occupation.

These events culminated in the passage of the Corn Law of 1815 that prevented the import of grain until the price fell below 80 shillings a quarter (28 lbs.) for wheat. As grain prices rarely rose as high as 80 shillings, this measure effectively ensured that local farmers could get a high price for their grain without foreign competition. Why did Liverpool’s government decide to introduce legislation seen as unfair and favouring one sector of society? The protection of farming was not new originating in the Corn Laws passed in 1773 and 1804. Also, Liverpool could not ignore the fate of one of the country’s largest single economic interests, whose votes mattered in Parliament. A Corn Law was justified on the grounds of national security as Britain might need a reliable domestic supply of food. Finally, legislation was needed to maintain stability, as agriculture was the largest employer of labour and higher prices were justified to protect jobs.

Liverpool saw legislation as temporary to help farming return to normal after the war but the landed interest saw it as permanent or at least long-term. Parliament was dominated by landowners and farmers and they voted for legislation that the government had little option but to accept. Previous Corn Laws had tried to balance the interests of producers and consumers by maintaining prices at levels acceptable to both. The 1815 Act clearly favoured the interests of the producers. Manufacturers attacked the legislation. Parliament was, they argued interfering with the free market in their own narrow interests. Radical politicians regarded it as class legislation keeping corn prices artificially high to help farmers while penalising working people through higher food costs. Reaction was swift. There were petitions and riots in London in March. Politicians’ houses were attacked and troops had to be brought to the capital to restore order. Higher food prices fuelled working-class distress especially in rural England and riots in 1816 and again in 1818 were, in part a violent reaction to the Corn Laws.

Even so, there were demands from tenant farmers for further protection of farming after 1815 especially during the agricultural crisis of 1821-1823. However, political attitudes were changing. Liverpool was convinced, largely by the actions of radicals between 1815 and 1821 that governments that pandered to farmers at the expense of working-class consumers or tax-paying industrialists had a dangerously narrow political base. He made his own position clear in February 1822: ‘The agricultural is not the only interest in Great Britain. It is not even the most numerous.’ Farmers were being told bluntly that they no longer dictated government policies. Abolition of the Corn Laws was not practical but reform was. The government introduced minor changes in 1822 but price levels meant that they never came into operation. Liverpool regarded this as an interim measure while considered a more permanent solution.

Rising wheat prices from 1823, the financial crisis in 1825 and growing depression in manufacturing industry in 1826 brought fresh demands for the abolition of duties on foreign grain. Manufacturers lobbied Parliament and anti-Protectionists tried to make it an issue in the 1826 General Election. Liverpool made it clear in 1826 that he intended to revise the 1815 Act the following year. The 1827 and 1828 Corn Laws introduced by Canning and Huskisson respectively completed the process begun in 1822. These acts provided a sliding scale of duties that operated from 60 shillings and reduced to a nominal rate at 73 shillings a quarter. They were a compromise because of disagreement in the Cabinet on how best to handle this sensitive issue.


Britain’s financial state in 1815 was not healthy: the French wars had been expensive, taxation was high and unpopular and ‘cheap’ paper money had been circulating since 1797 when Britain had gone off the Gold Standard[7] and the Bank of England had suspended payments in gold and silver and began to issue paper currency (£1 and £2 notes). Income tax (direct taxation)[8] brought in about a fifth of government income. Working-class radicals argued that indirect taxes[9] (duties or tariffs) pushed food prices up and hit working people unfairly. In 1814-1815, government spending exceeded income from taxation by 45 per cent. The national debt had risen from £238 million in 1793 to £902 million in 1816. Roughly, eighty per cent of government expenditure was needed simply to pay the interest on loans.

Reducing public spending and paying off its debts (a process called retrenchment) was a major priority for Liverpool’s government after 1815. Liverpool recognised that the transition to lower peacetime taxation would take time. What Liverpool and his Chancellor Nicholas Vansittart needed was a period of financial stability. Income tax was central to this stability. By 1815, it accounted for a fifth of all government income and while it had never been popular, it had been tolerated. With the end of the war, demands for its abolition increased and in 1815 and 1816 the Whigs organised a national campaign against it. This was successful and in 1816, Liverpool failed, by thirty-seven votes, to continue the tax.

Abolishing income tax may have been popular but it left government finances in chaos. To make up the lost income, Liverpool had to reduce government spending, borrow money and increase indirect taxation. £340,000 was trimmed from defence spending in 1816. Government departments pruned and a ten per cent cut was made in official salaries. Liverpool could do little to reduce spending further. By 1818, he controlled only nine per cent of revenue. The rest was swallowed up servicing the interest on the National Debt, war pensions and interest on loans necessary to meet the deficit of £13 million. There was an overwhelming need for reform of the financial system.

Liverpool recognised that sustained economic growth meant a return to ‘sound money’ (low levels of interest and cash payments in gold and silver rather than paper currency). He set up a Select Committee on Currency chaired by Sir Robert Peel. In May 1819, it recommended the gradual resumption of cash payments by 1823. This transition was achieved ahead of time and from 1821, Britain was back on the Gold Standard. Financial experts favoured the end of wartime paper currency arguing that a return to a fixed Gold Standard was essential to a sound monetary policy. The landed interest supported cash payments. For them, it meant a return to ‘proper’ money and the end of a paper currency that represented financial speculation, industrialisation and uncontrolled urban development. Industrialists in the northern textile towns, by contrast, saw the decision as premature.

By 1818, government income through taxation covered the costs of government spending or a balanced budget. However, Liverpool still faced the problem of having to continue to borrow money from the London money market to pay off existing debts. Interest rates rose after 1815 and the government had to borrow money at high rates of interest to service existing debts. This led to a rising National Debt. The radical press, landowners who had to pay higher interest charges on loans but were faced with lower agricultural prices and industrialists were critical of ‘tax eaters’ and ‘fund holders’ who seemed to be holding the nation to ransom. The case of a review of the national system of finance was necessary economically and politically. A second committee looked at government finance (taxation, spending and borrowing). The recommendations of this committee led to Vansittart’s budget of 1819 that imposed £3 million of new taxes, including a new malt tax, and took £12 million out of government reserves to balance the budget. This was seen to herald a ‘new system of finance’. It established the two principles of fiscal management that dominated the remainder of the century: government should aim for a surplus of income from taxation over government spending; and that a balanced or surplus budget helped to restore public confidence in government.


Liverpool recognised that a revival in trade and manufacture was essential if his fiscal policy was to work effectively. ‘Trade’ was the third strand of his policies. It was thought that removing tariffs on imports and loosening commercial regulations would stimulate the sluggish economy but Liverpool’s approach was cautious. The government derived much of its income from customs and excise. Farmers were suspicious of moves towards freer trade, as they believed this would inevitably lead to the repeal of the Corn Laws.[10] Many merchants and manufacturers supported protection in markets in which they were weak arguing for freer trade only where they had the competitive advantage. Liverpool echoed these attitudes in a speech on trade in the House of Lords on 26 May 1820 that was guarded in its approach. He made clear the advantages of freer trade but he reassured his audience that he was not considering abandoning agricultural protection and believed that absolute free trade was out of the question. Two committees were established to lay down strategies for implementing the move to freer trade. Thomas Wallace, Vice-President of the Board of Trade played a central role arguing that freer trade would help industries out of depression, encourage the search for new markets and generate employment. With Vansittart, he drew up the blueprints for the reforms that Frederick Robinson, Vansittart’s successor as Chancellor and William Huskisson undertook after 1823.

In 1819 and 1820, Liverpool had established clear guidelines for the development of new financial and commercial policies. Sound money policy, together with these reforms, led to a dramatic increase in government revenue. By 1822, the government was in surplus and Robinson’s budget had excess revenue of £5 million. In 1823, he budgeted for a surplus of £7 million of which £5 million was used to repay debts leaving £2 million for tax cuts. Surplus budgets in 1824 and 1825 allowed reductions in excise duties on a range of consumer goods and raw materials including coal, iron and wood and on spirits, wine, rum, cider and coffee. In fact, there were budget surpluses until 1830 though they were insufficient to allow further tariff reductions. The limits of tax reduction had been reached and Liverpool recognised, as early as 1824 that the only way out of this financial stalemate was the reintroduction of income tax. John Herries, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Goderich was preparing to do so when the ministry collapsed in early 1828 and Henry Goulburn, Wellington’s Chancellor was only prevented in doing so in the 1830 budget because of the Prime Minister’s opposition.

Changes in commercial policy began in 1821 when Wallace reduced duties on timber imports. The following year he simplified the Navigation Acts allowing the colonies freer trade with foreign countries while Anglo-colonial trade was still restricted to British ships. In 1823, Wallace resigned when William Huskisson[11] became President of the Board of Trade and he has not received the credit for developing the commercial policies that Huskisson then implemented. In 1823, the Reciprocity of Duties Act reduced tariffs if other countries would follow suit and by 1827, most European countries and the United States had negotiated agreements for mutual abolition or adjustment of discriminatory tariffs. Foreign ships were allowed freer access to British ports especially London which became the centre of world trade. The policies of Wallace and Huskisson proved very successful and there was a sixty-four per cent increase in tariff revenue between 1821 and 1827.

Just how committed was Liverpool’s government to free trade? Barry Gordon regards Wallace’s decision in 1821 to reduce timber duties as ‘the first practical step towards implementation of laissez-faire in the post-war period’. Boyd Hilton disagrees seeing the free trade commercial policies of the 1820s as motivated by very practical considerations: the 1821 Agricultural Report made it clear that the United Kingdom could no longer feed itself and the Corn Laws were seen as an obstacle to getting the necessary food from the continent. A reliable and cheap food supply was essential to maintain public order. In Boyd Hilton’s view, free trade reform was based on fiscal and agricultural policies designed to stabilise rather than expand the economy. Norman Gash argues that Liverpool’s economic policies were essentially ‘social’ in character. His aim was to make the economy more prosperous and as a result reduce working-class discontent.

Liverpool supported the abolition of legal restrictions on the export of machinery, emigration of artisans and trade unions. He was prepared to legislate to deal with particular problems. The Poor Employment Act of 1817 offered government loans for public work schemes to help the unemployed. In 1819, a Factory Act regulated the employment of children in textile mills and the legal position of Friendly Societies[12] was clarified. Restrictions were imposed on trade unions in 1825 a year after the repeal of the Combination Acts. These were limited in scope and largely ineffective in practice. Neither Liverpool nor Huskisson were doctrinaire free traders. Their policies were based on a hard-nosed assessment of the economic advantage Britain could gain, the prosperity and political stability this would bring.

[1] George Canning (1770-1827) entered Parliament in 1784 and held various government offices including Foreign Secretary (1807-1808, 1822-1827). He became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer a short time before his death in August 1827.
[2] Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782-1859) was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1823 and 1827. He was asked to serve as Prime Minister after the death of his friend Canning but was unable to control his ministers. He resigned in January 1828. In 1833, he was created Earl of Ripon and served as Whig Lord Privy Seal (April 1833-May 1834) but later joined the Conservative Party serving as a minister between 1841 and 1843 in Peel’s government
[3] Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) rose to fame as a military leader in the French wars culminating in his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. He was Prime Minister between 1828 and November 1830. A sound military leader, he lacked the political flexibility to be a good Prime Minister and party leader.
[4] Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822) was Foreign Secretary between 1812 and 1822. He was very influential at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the French wars especially his ideas about a European balance of power. Highly-strung and almost incapable of taking criticism, he committed suicide
[5] The Luddites were machine breakers who operated in Nottinghamshire, south Lancashire and Yorkshire between 1811 and 1813. The term ‘Luddism’ is often applied more generally to any movement in which machines were smashed to protect existing technologies and employment.
[6] Up to a quarter of a million soldiers and sailors were demobilised in 1815 and 1816. Unemployment went up dramatically because it did not prove possible to absorb so many people into work
[7] Gold Standard. System under which a country’s currency is exchangeable for a fixed weight of gold on demand at the central bank.
[8] Direct taxation was taxes levied on individuals directly. The most widespread was income tax introduced in 1797 by William Pitt. It was abolished in 1816 but revived by Sir Robert Peel in 1842.
[9] Indirect taxes were taxes imposed on good or services usually collected when the good move from one country to another (customs and excise duties) or at the point of sale. Tariffs are duties paid on goods.
[10] Free Trade--shorthand for the doctrine of laissez-faire—is the doctrine of non-interference by the state in economic matters. It derived from the teachings of classical economists like Adam Smith, Malthus and David Ricardo.
[11] William Huskisson (1770-1830) was President of the Board of Trade 1823-1827 where he continued the work of William Pitt on fiscal reform. He died after being knocked down by a locomotive at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway in September 1830.
[12] Friendly Societies were set up often by working people to provide insurance for workers to cover things like sickness, unemployment and burial costs.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

How did Pitt face the French Revolution between 1789 and 1801?

In 1789, the fall of the Bastille[1] foreshadowed revolution in France. Reactions were mixed in Britain but many people were initially well disposed towards the revolution. Pitt saw political advantages for Britain because it weakened France’s colonial ambitions. Some thought France should become a ‘constitutional’ monarchy. Others saw it leading to reform in England. The British believed themselves to be the freest people in Europe, thanks to the 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution,[2] and many foreigners flatteringly took the same view. It is not surprising that the opening stages of the revolution looked like a French attempt to copy Britain.

Reacting to revolution: the intellectual debate

The debate began with a ‘political sermon’ given by the dissenting minister Richard Price on 4 November 1789. He pointed to the 1688-1689 Revolution Settlement as part of the dissenting agitation for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Many opponents of Dissent feared that much more was involved than mere religion. In November 1790, Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was an Anglican defence of the state and denied Price’s assertion that ‘the people’ had acquired important rights in 1688-1689, especially the right to choose their own rulers, remove them for misconduct and frame a government for themselves. Religion, not some vague contractual notion, was for Burke at the heart of the civil society. He celebrated aristocratic concepts of paternalism, loyalty and the hereditary principle in which the great social institutions--the Church, the law, even the family--confirmed the aristocracy as the ruling class and the protectors of traditional values. The response was immediate.

Thomas Paine wrote the first part of Rights of Man as a reply to Burke’s Reflections and it was published in February 1791. Part Two was published in April 1792. It was only one of the thirty-eight responses to Burke but was the most influential. It merged the debate about the revolution with a programme of practical and radical reform. Paine put forward a simple message. He denounced Burke’s idea of society as an association between past and present generations and his view of the role of monarchy and aristocracy. Power lay with the people and their rights. The impact of Rights of Man was immediate. It was distributed in cheap editions (50,000 copies of Part One were sold in 1791), read aloud and discussed. To his sup­porters, Paine was a heroic figure. To his opponents, he became a symbol of the excesses of revolution. He was frequently burned in effigy especially at the end of 1792 and the first few months of 1793. In Nottingham, for instance, Paine was ritualistically killed, stoned by ladies at a dinner and dance. Between 1792 and 1795, the circulation of Paine’s work was one of the main reasons given for the passage of repressive legislation.

The debate was not confined to a dialogue between Burke and Paine. Many of the authors knew each other and their work may be seen as a collective project. Paine, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft produced a number of innovative and utopian proposals between 1791 and early 1793--the establishment of a welfare state, the withering away of the centralised state, equality in relationships to remove the automatic obedience of employees to employers and women to men. Thomas Spence’s Meridian Sun of Liberty cost only one penny and was aimed at a different audience that Burke’s Reflections at three shillings and Godwin’s Political Justice priced at a pound. The extent to which the debate reached different sections of the public was largely determined by the cost of the written material.

Government was concerned that ‘informed opinion’ was in the hands of a closely-knit radical circle. While those individuals were addressing each other, they represented no threat to established order. However, the combination of growing political organisation with a supply of radical writings to politicise the masses was another matter. A loyalist backlash began in late-1792 with John Reeves and the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. It com­missioned and circulated popularly written anti-radical pamphlets to ensure the loyalty of the labouring population. It main­tained pressure on the radical writers while the govern­ment controlled radical publishing, processes helped by the patriotic reac­tion to the outbreak of war with France in 1793. With the publication of Godwin’s Political Justice in February 1793, innovative radical thinking stopped. Fewer pamphlets were published, repeated old ideas and tried to reassure a moderate audience rather than developing new theor­ies. The objective of many radical thinkers was to attract the widest possible support for an anti-government platform. The radical vision of communicating with a wide audience had been established yet in practical terms, the reforming movement achieved little. By 1800, European societies were destabilised and Burke’s fears had apparently been realised.

Reacting to revolution: radical demands for reform

British reformers were roused into action by the events in France. The dissenters’ campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was stimu­lated by events across the Channel. The Society for Consti­tutional Information (SCI), founded in 1780, began to circulate radical propaganda and in April 1792, some Whig reformers formed the Society of the Friends of the People to campaign for parliamentary reform. However, the Corresponding Societies marked a new departure for radicalism.
The French Revolution stirred people to political action and provided them with an ideology through which to redress their grievances but the economic conditions in the first half of the 1790s also played an important role. The disturbed state of Europe in 1792-1793 led to economic depression in Britain with widespread unemployment and lower wages. War interrupted trade. It also placed increasing tax burdens on the middle- and lower classes. Economic distress reached critical levels in 1795-1796 following harvest failure in 1794, pushing up food prices at a time when the labouring population was already faced with higher taxation and lower wages. It is, however, important not to see the reforming movement simply in terms of a response to economic conditions. What was different about the Corresponding movement was that it crossed the threshold from traditional economic grievances to fundamental political demands.

Corresponding Societies

During the winter of 1791-2, popular radical societies emerged. The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was the most important. Founded in January 1792 by a small group led by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, membership was open to all who paid a penny at each weekly meeting. Though formed to discuss the poverty faced by many of the labouring population and the high prices of the day, the LCS quickly adopted a political programme for remedying their grievances: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and redistribution of rotten boroughs to the large towns. The LCS spread rapidly across London and developed a sophisticated organisational struc­ture of divisions district committees and general committee.

Two features described the LCS: its size and its social composition. By late-1792, about 650 people regularly attended its meetings. By late-1794, its total active membership was 3,000. By the spring of 1796, this had fallen to about 2,000, by the end of the year to 1,000, to about 600 in 1797 and to 400 active members before it was banned in 1798. LCS membership was confined to a very small proportion of London’s working population. To call the LCS a ‘working-class’ organisation neglects the extent to which its membership was made up of individuals from the ‘middling’ and professional classes as well as artisans and tradesmen. An analysis of 347 activists shows that only half were artisans and the rest were medical men, lawyers, book­sellers, clerks, shopkeepers and printers. There is no evidence that it ever had much appeal to unskilled labourers or the very poor.

Provincial radical societies had begun to spring up before the LCS was founded. The Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information was formed in late 1791. Within a few months, it had grown from a few members to 2,500 members. In the autumn of 1792, the Sheffield SCI could bring 5-6,000 people on to the streets to celebrate the French victory at Valmy and a similar number in February 1794 to press for peace abroad and liberty at home. During 1792, the number of societies mushroomed and regional differences became more obvious. Manchester, with its factory workers, merchants and expanding population, stood at the other end of the scale to Sheffield. It had been Tory since the 1750s and this may account for the slow initial development of the Manchester Constitutional Society founded by Thomas Walker as early as October 1790. In Norwich, the radical cause developed along similar lines. A Revo­lution Society established in 1788, was dominated by middle-class Dissenters, merchants and tradesmen. It rivalled Sheffield as the pacemaker of radicalism. The textile industry supported artisans of a particularly independent temper and Norwich’s Dissent was rooted in a craggy, though surprisingly liberal, tradition. By 1792, forty tavern clubs of shoemakers, weavers and shop­keepers had developed, comprising some 2,000 members.


How did the radical societies attempt to achieve their aims? Weekly meetings and the spread of printed propaganda provided focus for their activities. They corresponded regularly with each other and with groups in France. However, their attempt to reach a mass audience was limited. There was, however, no nationwide petitioning campaign. There were only 36 petitions in support of Charles Grey’s motion on parliamentary reform in 1793. The reformers seriously overestimated the amount of mass support and dangerously underestimated the fears it would arouse in the authorities. Radical tactics were very restrained. The bulk of the labouring population did not rally behind parliamentary reform and few radical leaders appreciated the power of organised labour. Some radicals did try to whip up food rioters in Sheffield in 1795 to protest against the war and demand parliamentary reform and similar tactics were used in the north-west in 1800. However, these were isolated examples and the radicals made no attempt to co-ordinate popular riots. Most radical leaders, with their middle-class background, were committed to non-violent action. When the governing class refused to concede reform, resorting to repression and persecution, most radicals lost heart or moderated their demands.

Reacting to revolution: the conservative response

The attack on popular radicalism came from three directions. There was an attack on its ideology, a populist and loyalist reaction and a legislative attack by Pitt’s government. The reform movement collapsed not simply because of repressive actions but because the opponents of reform developed a defence of the existing political system that was convincing not just to those with property but also to large sections of British society.

Conservative ideology in the 1790s had considerable appeal. A tradition of resistance to constitutional change in Britain existed in the decades leading up to the revolution and events in France, especially after 1791, reinforced this tradition. Radicals at home were seen in the same light as revolutionaries abroad. It was not difficult to persuade people that the radical reform would destroy the established order as the revolution had in France. French anarchy was contrasted unfavourable with British stability and prosperity. Conservative apologists and propagandists appealed to British hatred of France and fear of radical change. There was also an intellec­tual response contrasting the stability of constitutional monarchy with the anarchy of ‘mob’ rule and democracy. Anti-radical propa­ganda, subsidised by the loyalist associations, by government and by private individuals, took many forms. Pamphlets and tracts like the Cheap Repository Tracts, many written by Hannah More, between 1795 and 1798; pro-government newspapers like the Sun, the True Briton and the Oracle; journals like the Anti-Jacobin (1797-8) and its successor the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, a monthly that lasted until 1821; political caricatures and cartoons by artists like Isaac Cruickshanks. James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson; and local newspapers like the Man­chester Mercury and the Newcastle Courant. This concerted campaign was outstandingly successful and convinced the majority of Eng­lish people that the French Revolution was a disaster.

Loyalist associations emerged initially as a response to the Dissenter campaign for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts but the number of Church and King clubs was given a major boost by the revo­lution especially the Royal Proclamation against seditious writings on 21 May 1792. By September 1792, some 386 loyal addresses had been received by the king and in November John Reeves formed the first loyalist Associ­ation for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (APLP). By the end of 1793, the total number of APLPs may have reached 2,000 making them the largest political organisation in the country. They spread from London first into the neighbouring counties, then to the west, Midlands and finally the north. Active membership was largely confined to men of property, though they were able to enlist support from across society. They can be seen as far more successful and popular ‘working-class’ organisations than the radical societies. Loyalist associations adopted the organisation and some of the methods of the reformers. They produced a great deal of printed propaganda but were not content to rely upon persuasion, resorting to intimidation and persecution to defeat their opponents. Calls for loyalty and patriotism proved far more popular with the bulk of the population than demands for radical change.

Government repression.

Pitt acted quickly against the threat pose by the radicals, inaugurating what has been called Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. The government was convinced it faced a revolutionary conspiracy, a view reinforced by the intelligence received from local magistrates and spies and believed it was justified in taking firm action. In May and December 1792, two Royal Proclamations were issued against seditious writings. The Home Office, especially after 1794 under the strongly anti-radical Duke of Portland, monitored the activities of the radical societies using spies as well as more conventional methods like opening letters, receiving reports from local sources, watching the activities of radicals abroad and infiltrating radical groups. Its resources were very limited with a staff of less than twenty-five. After success in the Scottish treason trials in 1793-1794, Pitt moved against English radicals. Forty-one men, including Hardy, were arrested in late 1794 and charged with high treason but after he was acquitted, further trials were aban­doned. The administration had little further success with treason trials during the remainder of the decade but had more success with those for publishing seditious libels. There were less than 200 convictions during the 1790s and whether this constitutes a government-inspired reign of terror is open to debate.

Parliament was prepared to pass legislation in support of the govern­ment though, in practice, this often turned out to be far less effective than anticipated. Habeas Corpus was suspended from May 1794 to July 1795 and April 1798 to March 1801 but only a few people were imprisoned without charge. The Two Acts of 1795--the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act--proved less than effective weapons despite the wide powers given to central and local government. The Treasonable Practices Act was designed to intimidate and no radical was pros­ecuted under it. The Seditious Meetings Act failed to prevent the increas­ing number of meetings organised by the LCS. There was only one pros­ecution under a 1797 Act rushed through Parliament following the naval mutiny at Spithead and the Nore. It strengthened penalties for attempting to undermine allegiance to the authorities and administering unlawful oaths. The banning of the leading radical societies by law in 1799 was unnecess­ary, largely because they were already in a state of collapse. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned combinations of workers completing the legislative armoury of repression. Radicalism was increasingly driven underground. It did not emerge as a mass movement until the last years of the French wars. Between 1794 and 1800, Pitt had successfully driven radical politics to the margins of political life.

Government legislation was infrequently used but it remained as a threat hanging over radicals, limiting their freedom of action. Its effect was to intimidate and harass. It destroyed the leadership of the radical societies, silenced the ablest propagandists and frightened many into abandoning the reform movement. However, the collapse of the radical movement was not simply a matter of repression by government or magistrates. War revived latent deep-seated patriotism among the most people for whom radicalism was only of peripheral importance.

[1] The Bastille was the royal palace and prison in the centre of Paris. Its capture on 14 July 1789 by a Parisian mob marked the beginnings of the French Revolution.
[2] The 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution occurred when the Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William III and Mary so preserving constitutional monarchy and the powers of Parliament.