Pitt and the Pendulum of Reform
William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) took office in 1783 (with George III’s backing) following the death of the Whigs’ leader, Lord Rockingham. He became prime minister during an era when Britain’s elite faced great dangers abroad and at home.
During his early days as a politician, Pitt was in favour of reforming Britain’s rotten, corrupt electoral system. Various measures for reform had been mooted for many years, but it proved impossible to make headway against the upper classes’ vested interests. When Major John Cartwright founded the Society of Constitutional Information in 1780 to campaign for parliamentary reform, Pitt became a member.
However, the outbreak of the French Revolution, and war with Britain’s traditional enemy (France), meant that many formerly liberal-minded gentlemen no longer backed reform: any change to status quo might usher in a bloody revolution at home.
The Whig party split in two - the Duke of Portland and other prominent Whigs joined Pitt’s Tory government. Charles James Fox, a supporter of republican ideals, became Pitt’s main opponent in the House of Commons, but his extreme views meant that he only had a small band of followers.
Pitt became an implacable opponent of parliamentary reform, and he virtually had a free hand when his government cracked down on the democratic reformers, or Radicals as they became known. They were nick-named ‘Jacobins’ (French revolutionaries) and considered to be enemies to law and order.
In fact, most reformers only wanted parliamentary reform by peaceful means. The London Corresponding Society (LCS), formed in early 1792, advocated universal male suffrage and annual parliaments. (‘Votes for Women’ was a concept as yet undreamed-of in most reformers’ philosophy, except for a few free-thinkers).
The LCS wrote to similar societies in Manchester and Sheffield to discuss parliamentary reform. Its membership of a penny per week (with a shilling entrance fee) was affordable even for working-class men. The shoemaker Thomas Hardy and John ‘Citizen’ Thelwall, a writer and speaker, were influential members.
When the LCS wrote to societies like ‘the Friends of the Constitution at Paris, known by the name of Jacobins’, this grabbed the government’s attention. Spies such as ‘Citizen Groves’ attended the society’s regular meetings at Thelwall’s lecture-room in the Strand.
Meanwhile, the government received secret information that many disaffected Irishmen supported a French invasion. It knew that there were links between the Irish and British democrats, and that the LCS had written to France.
Pitt’s government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act - the people’s legal protection against illegal or arbitrary imprisonment without trial – despite Whig protests. On 12 September 1794 Thelwall, Hardy and others were arrested and their papers confiscated. Another Radical, John Horne Tooke, was later arrested after one of his letters was intercepted by the Home Office.
After being examined by the privy council, Horne Tooke, Hardy and Thelwall were charged with high treason: plotting to kill the King. While Hardy was in prison his pregnant wife, terrified that her husband would be hanged, lost her baby and died soon afterwards.
When the radicals’ trials took place at the Old Bailey, much evidence against them was spy testimony; there was little hard evidence of treason. Hardy’s defence counsel, Thomas Erskine, made mincemeat of the government witnesses.
Embarrassingly for Pitt, when Tooke was on trial, he called the prime minister as a character witness to prove that he had formerly been in favour of parliamentary reform! Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall were found not guilty by the jury.
In October 1795, when the king went to open parliament, a bullet or stone passed through one of his carriage windows. This so-called assassination attempt gave the government the excuse it needed to crack down on all political agitation for reform. The Treasonable Practices Act 1795 extended the scope of the law on treason so that ‘compassing or imagining the death of the King’ by means of any writing or printed matter was now a treasonable offence.
The second Act effectively outlawed all political meetings except under very strict conditions. A meeting could be broken up by magistrates if any language disrespectful of the government was used. The freedom of the press was curtailed; vocal opponents of the government were silenced, jailed or transported. As the Tories’ grip on the nation grew ever tighter, Charles James Fox could do little but make fine speeches as Pitt’s government snuffed out the lamps of liberty one by one. Many people in the upper and middle classes believed that Pitt’s ‘terror’ was necessary, however, to protect Britain from revolution.
Pitt masterminded the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 following its great rebellion two years earlier, but resigned office in 1801 when George III refused to let him ease restrictions on Roman Catholics.
William Pitt served a second term from 1804 until his death in 1806. Pitt had lived through tumultuous times, and his many supporters believed that he had safely steered Britain through dangerous waters. Parliamentary reform, however, had to wait until over two decades after his death.About the Author
Sue is the author of numerous books: http://amzn.to/1elkCup and her latest release, Regency Spies, is available now. She is a member of the Society of Authors. She writes for adults and children and is a creative writing tutor for the Writers Bureau. Sue like toast, crisp clear autumn mornings, and haunting secondhand bookshops.
Written content of this post © Sue Wilkes, 2016.