Divided We Grow

John Barrell

  • The London Corresponding Society 1792-99 edited by Michael T. Davis
    Pickering & Chatto, £495.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 85196 734 6
  • Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty by Helen Braithwaite
    Palgrave, 243 pp, £45.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 333 98394 7

The London Corresponding Society was founded early in 1792 by a group of tradesmen who met in a pub off the Strand. The Society was to educate its members – expected to be artisans, mechanics, shopkeepers – about politics and history, and would function as a pressure group to persuade the Government to adopt the ‘Duke of Richmond’s plan’, the twin reforms of universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments which the Duke had supported a decade before but had since abandoned. The LCS was never very large: at its most successful, it may never have contained more than three thousand active, paid-up members, though many more thousands must have attended a few meetings, even joined it briefly, then hurriedly left or slowly drifted away. In bad times its membership dwindled away to a few hundred. Its importance, however, is out of all proportion to its numbers. From 1793 to at least the end of 1795, the Society was the co-ordinator of the numerous popular reform societies scattered throughout the country, which together constituted the first nationwide popular political movement in Britain.

Especially in its first four years, the LCS was exceptionally busy and visible, publishing an abundance of addresses and resolutions, and holding large open-air general meetings attended by tens of thousands. When in the spring of 1794 the LCS proposed a national convention of reform societies, its leaders were arrested and charged with high treason. But by the end of the year they had been acquitted, and in 1795 the Society became stronger and more numerous than it ever had been or would be again. By the autumn, at a huge general meeting in what is now Caledonian Park, it again felt able to issue a direct challenge to the Government on the question of reform. The Government responded by passing, in particular, the Seditious Meetings Act, one of two new statutes which, without actually proscribing the Society, placed severe limits on how it could act. The history of the LCS thereafter is one of dwindling membership, clumsy reorganisation, increasing chaos and financial embarrassment, and a growing commitment among some of its members to insurrectionary politics. The Society was eventually proscribed in 1799, but its aims and some of its methods were inherited by the Chartists a few decades later.

The Government and its supporters, implacably hostile to universal manhood suffrage and unwilling to concede any measure of reform until Revolutionary France had been defeated, were extremely concerned at the rise and growth of the LCS. They certainly thought it was in their interest, however, to exaggerate the supposed threat from the Society, and it is unlikely that many ministers really believed in the reasons they gave for their alarm. It was pretended that the LCS was armed, and comprised, as William Pitt expressed it, a ‘Jacobin army’, but its members taken together seem to have owned fewer weapons than decorated the walls of an average country house. At the treason trials, the law officers claimed that the LCS was leading a plot to depose the King and usurp the powers of government, but the juries rejected this claim each time it was put before them, no doubt because it relied on arguments about what would count as usurpation and deposition which were figurative and technical to the point of absurdity. On at least two occasions the Government claimed that the LCS was involved in a plot to assassinate the King; but the evidence for the first plot was transparently fictitious, and there was no evidence at all for the second.

Ministers and their loyalist supporters were of course worried that, however small the popular reform movement might be, it would grow and spread; and they focused this concern on the organisational structure of the LCS, which they described in a language that sounds convincingly urgent, as if, in this case at least, they really did believe their own propaganda. The Society was split into divisions, ideally of thirty members each, to ensure that the numbers at meetings were small enough to enable everyone to participate in discussion. Many of these divisions – at one point the LCS claimed there were ninety – met twice a week, once to transact business and once as a study group at which political and historical texts were read and discussed. From mid-1794, each division was subdivided into ‘tithings’, groups of ten members living in contiguous streets, whose intimacy would help ensure attendance at divisional meetings and make it harder for spies to infiltrate the Society. The divisions were represented at a general committee of the Society by elected delegates, who were to carry down to their divisions the proposals of the general committee, and to carry up to the general committee the motions and resolutions of the divisions. This system worked well until the increasing persecution of the reform movement, and the increasing infiltration of the Society by government spies, made necessary a much greater secrecy in its actions, and the LCS developed a secret committee which kept even the general committee starved of knowledge.

This divisional structure meant that the LCS did not offer its members only jam tomorrow, a reform deferred to an uncertain future. A large part of the Society’s appeal was that it offered a sense of immediate, present participation, to whomever would join it and engage in its activities and debates. It offered the opportunity to stand for office, to be elected to a series of positions of increasing responsibility (tithing-man, divisional secretary, sub-delegate, delegate), and for many members the prospect of participating in the Society’s democratic structures may have been as powerful in persuading them to join as the uncertain prospect of eventual Parliamentary reform. For by and large the LCS appears to have been strong where local government was oligarchic. In the City, the opportunities for artisans and shopkeepers to participate in local government were very considerable indeed, and the LCS recruited poorly; the Society’s heartland was north and east of Charing Cross, in Southwark and in the metropolitan parishes of Middlesex, where such opportunities were mainly the reserve of the rich and polite, and where the LCS may have helped fulfil the frustrated civic aspirations of literate and intelligent tradesmen.

But if the cellular organisation of the LCS may have made it more attractive to prospective members, it certainly made the Society more alarming to the Government. When divisions collected more than a certain number of members, they divided in two, and thus had the ability, as the Attorney General put it, to ‘spread themselves by degrees’ over the whole town. By virtue of this process of repeated subdivision, Pitt told the Commons, the Society ‘had within it the means of unbounded extension, and concealed in itself the seeds of rapid increase’. In the treason trials of 1794, Lord Chief Justice Eyre described the LCS as ‘so composed, as to be spreading itself every hour from division to division, and each division producing its sub-divisions, those sub-divisions becoming divisions, and so on ad infinitum . . . it is indeed a political monster.’ There was something disgustingly and monstrously biological in all this. The ability of cells to reproduce themselves by binary fission was not to be discovered until the 1830s or 1840s; the organism that lies behind this account of the LCS is no doubt the polype, or polypus, the name for the group of worm-like organisms which included the freshwater hydra described by Linnaeus, a favourite example among 18th-century naturalists of solitary reproduction: it reproduced by extruding a bud which eventually detached and individualised itself. Thus the Society came near to literalising the figure by which rebellious and revolutionary mobs were so often imagined: it was a modern manifestation of the Hydra of the Peloponnese, with the power to grow two heads where one had been. But a polype could also be a cancerous tumour; and the notion of the LCS as a cancerous, self-replicating, uncontrollable growth, whose numbers ‘exceed the powers of probable computation’, is everywhere in the descriptions of the Society by ministers and crown lawyers.

Two things about the Government’s attitude to the organisation of the LCS are especially fascinating. The first is the kind of reverse logic that seems so characteristic of the alarmist imagination of the 1790s. The Society adopted its scheme of subdivision primarily in order to keep the numbers at divisional meetings conveniently small. It divided because it grew. But to the alarmist imagination it grew because it divided. This logic attributes to the LCS the mysterious and powerful characteristics of a lower form of life, which to loyalists of course it was: not only solitary reproduction but self-regeneration. Among the highest forms of life – Charles I, say, or Louis XVI – to cut in two is to kill; but to divide the LCS in two is to stimulate a process of infinite growth, ‘unbounded extension’, apparent immortality.

Alongside this representation of the Society as unbounded, however, there is another language, contrasting yet complementary, which attributes the danger of subdivision precisely to the discipline, the control, of which the practice of subdivision appears as both evidence and origin. This political monster is alarming, is ‘portentous’, Eyre said, not simply because it is subdividing and ‘spreading itself every hour’, but because ‘it is calculated to produce’ thereby ‘the most powerful combination that I think the world ever saw’. This structure, Pitt said, was ‘the result of deep design, matured, moulded into shape, and fit for mischievous effect when opportunity should offer’. Collectively, the ignorant low-lifes who composed the LCS had somehow produced what loyalists were convinced was a contradiction in terms, a supremely intelligent and yet democratic structure, growing by a regular principle, and capable of immediate communication between its senior committees and the divisions, from the brain to the extremities of the body and back again.

We know a great deal about the LCS, or at any rate a large number of source materials about the Society have survived. For a year or so before the 1794 treason trials, the Society was full of spies who sent regular reports to the Government on the meetings of the general committee and of many of the divisions. The juiciest of these, and other manuscripts to do with the Society, were edited by Mary Thale and published twenty years ago. Now Michael Davis has collected and edited all the many publications of the LCS. They fill four large volumes, to which Davis has added a volume of contemporary pamphlets, mainly by its supporters, and a further volume of Parliamentary debates and Government reports about the Society. Annotation is light, as the economics of this immensely useful Pickering and Chatto series of editions and facsimiles seems to require, but Davis has contributed a helpful headnote to each individual text or group of texts, as well as a briefly informative introduction. My only cavil concerns the arrangement of the edition. All the major public addresses of the LCS were precisely dated, but in the case of some of its minor publications we know only the year of their appearance. For this reason Davis has arranged them by year of publication, but, within each year, in alphabetical order; this makes it harder to reconstruct the narrative and the developing drama of the Society’s relationship with Pitt’s Government. Thus in 1794 we find the LCS responding to the outcome of the treason trials before we come across the proceedings which led the Government to embark on the trials in the first place; in the following year the Society appears to respond to the publication of the ‘Two Bills’ before it holds the general meeting which in part, according to the Government, justified their introduction.

The LCS’s addresses are strikingly well written and well argued: with a few of them, we know help was given by university-educated members of the Society for Constitutional Information, but many are the work of self-educated tradesmen with an impressive grasp of the history and constitution of Britain. Remarkable, too, is the tone the Society chose to adopt in its writings. Members of the popular reform movement were scornful of the obsequious style which ‘humble’ petitions to Parliament and the King were expected to adopt. They regarded the King and Members of Parliament as public servants answerable to the people, and chose to advise and instruct the Government rather than ‘pray’ to it. The societies had, after all, nothing to lose: no degree of humility would have persuaded the Government to grant the reform they sought, and the ‘firm’ and ‘manly’ tone of their writings was chiefly designed to establish that they regarded themselves as citizens, not as subjects.

For those with no great curiosity about the LCS, the most interesting thing in these volumes will be The Moral and Political Magazine, the Society’s monthly periodical which ran for 12 months in 1796 and 1797. Unlike the Society’s first disastrous periodical, the weekly Politician, which died of its readers’ boredom inside a month, the Moral and Political was, to begin with, exceptionally successful: according to Davis, the first four issues sold between three and four thousand copies, on a par with the sales of the most popular monthly reviews of the 1790s. It was a magazine in the old sense, a miscellany which included news, letters from readers, book reviews, poetry, essays on a wide range of subjects and a serialised history of the LCS itself, all in conveniently bite-sized pieces to attract the busy ‘peasant’, ‘artificer’ and ‘labourer’. It amounts to an intriguing attempt to move beyond the single-issue programme of the LCS and to foster a popular radical literary culture of an ambitiously general kind. After a few months, however, the magazine began making a loss, and this, together with the declining membership subscriptions and the cost of defending its members put on trial by the Government, and of supporting their families, led to a financial collapse which had doomed the Society even before the Government proscribed it.

One of the heroes of 1790s radicalism, though of a variant more polished than that of the LCS, was Joseph Johnson, who was born in Everton in 1738, the son of a Baptist yeoman farmer and small landowner. At 14 he was bound apprentice to a London bookseller; in 1760, aged 22, he opened his own shop in Fenchurch Street; five years later he moved to Paternoster Row, the centre of the London book trade; and when, in 1770, the Paternoster Row shop burned down, he moved round the corner to St Paul’s Churchyard, where he traded for the rest of his professional life. Johnson was a bookseller in the 18th-century sense of being a publisher as well as a retailer, and by the end of the 1770s he had become one of an elite group of liberal, dissenting London booksellers who, sometimes in collaboration, were publishing most of the best writers in English, from poets to physicians. By the 1790s, he was one of six London booksellers each of whom was publishing, either at his sole risk or as a member of an ad hoc syndicate or ‘conger’, an average of more than a hundred titles a year, whether new works or new editions of works already published.

But Johnson’s list was the most impressive: in the course of his career he published, either in his sole name or in partnership, Anna Barbauld, Joel Barlow, Thomas Beddoes, William Beckford, William Blake (as an illustrator), S.T. Coleridge, William Cowper, Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, Maria Edgeworth, Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Fuseli, William Godwin, Mary Hays, William Hazlitt, Thomas Malthus, Thomas Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Charlotte Smith, John Horne Tooke, Sarah Trimmer, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth, as well as a number of theologians and religious controversialists, of writers on science and medicine and so on, whose names were then far more familiar than many of those I’ve mentioned. He took an active and informed interest in all the different fields of intellectual endeavour in which he published. He gave practical support to the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. He ran a small-circulation monthly, the Analytical, which for the quality of its reviews has not often been excelled. He was willing to take risks on young radical authors such as Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth. His table was arguably the most important meeting place of liberal intellectuals in London: it was at one of his weekly dinners that, in 1791, Godwin and Wollstonecraft first met, in the company of Thomas Paine. He managed to escape prosecution for publishing Paine’s Rights of Man, unlike his friendly rivals George and James Robinson and a good number of less established booksellers; but in 1798, at the age of sixty, he found himself sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for selling a pamphlet by Gilbert Wakefield attacking the war with France and the corruptions of Pitt’s Government.

An excellent life of Johnson, by Gerald Tyson, was published in 1979; since then, research in the cultural and political history of the late 18th century, and more specifically in the book trade, has developed so much that a new account of his life and work would be extremely useful. If Helen Braithwaite’s book, excellent in its way, isn’t quite it, that’s mainly because Johnson’s interests were so extensive, in a range of areas about which so much more is known than before, that it would take a publisher as generous as Johnson himself to commission a volume large enough to do him justice. As Braithwaite acknowledges, it is his interests in science, medicine and education that suffer most from her necessarily selective approach. She concentrates mainly on his religious and political publications, and her account is addressed to the question ‘How radical a publisher was Joseph Johnson?’ She comes up with two answers. As a publisher on religious matters, Johnson was very radical but not in a narrowly doctrinal way; on politics, he was less radical that you might think. The first answer is rather more persuasive than the second.

The best chapters of the book add up to a very full discussion of Johnson’s part in promoting the campaign for religious toleration and the debate about ‘rational religion’ in the last decades of the 18th century. Braithwaite believes that by the mid-1770s, Johnson had moved away from his Baptist upbringing and was adhering to what she describes as ‘a genteel form of Unitarianism’. (Was there any other form?) She shows how crucial his role was in the establishment and support of the Essex Street Chapel, the centre of Unitarianism in London, in fostering the connections between metropolitan and provincial adherents to ‘rational dissent’ in its various forms, and thus in developing the late 18th-century liberal dissenting intelligentsia which, when we look back on our national history, is one of the things we should be most proud of. The bulk of Johnson’s religious publications are Arian, Socinian, anti-Trinitarian in one way or another, anti-Catholic, critical of the doctrines of the Church of England and hostile to its establishment. But like Priestley, his mentor in religious matters, he believed that toleration was as much a right of irrational Catholics as it was of rational dissenters, that believers should be able to profit by rational inquiry from whatever quarter; and that if the interrogation of Christianity by reason should prove Christianity to be irrational, they should trust their reason, not cling to their belief – as Priestley put it, ‘we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true.’ Johnson was willing, therefore, to publish essays and pamphlets on religion by enlightened Catholics, by traditional Calvinists, by members of the Church of England, even by atheists; and for Braithwaite his radicalism is to be found not just in his promotion of ideas that were a fundamental challenge to orthodoxy, to the temporal authority of the Church and State in matters of religion, and to established interpretations of scripture. It is as much a matter of his determination to be ‘unblinded by system’, and to trust that free and unlimited inquiry would deliver reform in religion, however gradually, and in politics.

As long as the political scene she has to describe is peopled with men who can pass for gentlemen, Braithwaite’s treatment of Johnson’s political beliefs and affiliations is immensely informative and, if only for those with a scholarly interest in the period, fascinating. She is especially good on the war with America, and the importance of Johnson and other liberal and often dissenting booksellers in ensuring that the case for Independence was clearly heard in Britain. But as soon as vulgar tradesmen begin trying to contribute to political debate, Braithwaite’s book becomes oddly strident and defensive. She badly wants to believe that Johnson, though prosecuted, unfairly, for seditious libel, was not really very radical – that his radicalism, like his Unitarianism, was of the ‘genteel’ kind, and had no truck with the beliefs or the political manners of scruffy popular politicians. Especially difficult for her are Johnson’s publication, withdrawn within hours of going on sale, of part one of the Rights of Man, and his membership of the Society for Constitutional Information. The SCI was a polite association of gentlemen and near-gentlemen committed to circulating cheap political pamphlets in support of universal manhood suffrage. More than anyone else they were responsible for the rapid circulation in Britain of cheap editions of Paine. In terms of ideology the SCI differed hardly at all from the more vulgar LCS, and members of both societies were charged with high treason in 1794. Both were broad, not to say divided churches, embracing followers of Paine and supporters of one version or another of the ancient constitution, believers in elective monarchy and republicans, at least to the extent of supporting the Republic of France and hoping for – rather than working for – the end of hereditary monarchy in Britain. The LCS was rather more energetic than the SCI, whose members were more into dining, but in the early 1790s whether a London reformer became a member of one or the other was far more a matter of class than of ideology.

Apparently embarrassed by Johnson’s membership of the SCI, Braithwaite boldly redraws the political map of radical London in the 1790s, to make it a place fit for gentlemen. The SCI itself she represents as almost entirely a philanthropic educational institution, the political wing of the Society for Promoting Knowledge of the Scriptures. She populates it largely with ‘honest’ Whigs, ‘whose political agenda was rooted in a native English stream of republican thought’. These uncomfortably wet-shod ‘veteran radicals’ were apparently tame enough, ‘concerned more to protect individual liberty than establish universal equality’. Supporters of Paine, on the other hand, are corralled into the LCS, where Thomas Spence, a critic of Paine and probably the only believer in ‘universal equality’ the LCS could show, is described as ‘vehemently Paineite’. Mercifully, the political writings published by Johnson, Braithwaite assures us, were ‘free’ of the ‘lower-class, artisanal sympathies’ that disfigured the propaganda circulated by the LCS. In a passage typical of the tone of her writing about popular radicalism, she compares Johnson with Spence and other ‘determinedly populist booksellers’ who were also members of the LCS:

Johnson did not parade himself as ‘Citizen’ in his titles or style his shop the ‘British tree of liberty’ as the Soho printseller and publisher Richard Lee did, nor did he hawk his ‘radical’ wares from a Holborn bookstall like Thomas Spence, or descend to issuing such vulgar titles as Hog’s Wash or Pig’s Meat in the manner of Daniel Isaac Eaton.

What is this about? Why the fastidious inverted commas around ‘radical’? Why the suggestion that in styling himself ‘Citizen’, Lee was engaged in self-advertisement rather than making a courageous statement of allegiance? Why was it reprehensible for Spence to trade from a bookstall as opposed to a shop, and why ‘hawk’, not ‘sell’? If nasty Daniel Eaton ‘descended’ to calling one of his vulgar periodicals Hog’s Wash, wasn’t it simply as a riposte to that nice Edmund Burke’s rather more vulgar description of the poor as the ‘swinish multitude’? Pig’s Meat was so named for the same reason, though it was published by Spence, not Eaton, as Braithwaite should know, and was anyway for the most part an anthology of excerpts from the ‘native stream’ of polite radical thought. Even the place-names – Soho, Holborn – obscurely add to the seriousness of the offence these men have committed. I imagine that Lee, Spence and Eaton would be proud to think that more than two hundred years after their heyday they could still inspire such distaste and apprehension. Braithwaite even quotes Lord Chief Justice Eyre’s description of the Society as a ‘monster’ without appearing to regard it as anything but the simple truth. This account of the politics of the 1790s is striking proof that one ‘native stream’ of ideology has not yet quite dried up.