To Stir up the People
- BuyUnusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s by Kenneth Johnston
Oxford, 376 pp, £30.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 965780 3
In April 1792, William Pitt, the ‘heaven-born minister’ as his Tory supporters liked to call him, made what we can now recognise as one of the first of many attempts to cast off the perception that the Tories are the nasty party. The slave trade, he told the Commons, was ‘the greatest practical evil that ever has afflicted the human race’, and a ‘stigma on our national character’. ‘I know of no evil that ever has existed, nor can imagine any evil to exist, worse than the tearing of seventy or eighty thousand persons annually from their native land, by a combination of the most civilised nations, inhabiting the most enlightened part of the globe.’ And though the French and the Dutch were involved, he continued, ‘there is no nation in Europe that has … plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain.’
Vol. 36 No. 4 · 20 February 2014
John Barrell seeks to establish that the alarm of the 1790s was conjured up by Pitt and his allies to justify a war and to fix a ‘French taint’ on the reform movement (LRB, 23 January). He goes on to note the topical ‘equivalences’ between the Pitt ministry in the 1790s and governments of this century as ‘they tiptoe stealthily but steadily towards totalitarianism’.
Yes, some resonances do spring to mind. Faced with a growing sense of alarm at the writings and activities inspired by the French Revolution and Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, the Pitt ministry encouraged enhanced use of the law of seditious libel and began to introduce acts – most of them time-limited – that suspended Habeas Corpus, redefined the law of treason, restricted large meetings without the permission of a magistrate, banned unlawful oaths and suppressed seditious societies.
But the documentary evidence shows that at the outset this wasn’t so much ‘Pitt’s alarm’ as an alarm initiated by the Anglican property-owning classes closest to the centres of unrest. The correspondence that started to flood in from the provinces in the last quarter of 1792 shows how quickly fears were mounting. According to Pitt’s biographer John Ehrman, it might suddenly have seemed to his ministers that ‘nothing like this had been seen in England before.’
The ministry’s main problem was a lack of any means of verifying this alarming information, and in particular reports relating to the acquisition of arms. The Home Office at this time had a staff of less than two dozen, four of whom were under 16. Even when its work was supplemented in the following years by a poorly documented Aliens’ Office and an embryonic secret service, the ministry was still forced to rely on random reports, mail intercepts and an unreliable spy network. But there was no need for it to invent a myth to fix a French taint on those who became known as English Jacobins: they made no secret of their sympathies, some even holding fast after the September massacres and Robespierre’s Terror in spite of what E.P. Thompson called ‘that profound disenchantment, in an intellectual generation which had identified its beliefs in a too ardent and utopian way with the cause of France’.
Even if the Pitt ministry had wanted to tiptoe towards a totalitarian state, there would have been formidable obstacles in its way. It is easy to slip into the assumption that 18th-century governments had at their disposal comprehensive powers of surveillance and law enforcement comparable to those of a 21st-century state. Under the devolved and random system it inherited, law enforcement powers were firmly lodged with the local magistracy, which was a deeply entrenched feature of the 18th-century constitution, jealous of its independence from central government. The inadequacy of the system was particularly evident in the fast-growing English manufacturing towns, where the discontent was greatest, particularly in places like Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, which came under county jurisdiction. Typically, county magistrates didn’t live in the towns they were meant to serve. While some were rabid loyalists, others had a background in the reform movement; others were accused of being intimidated by the radical upsurge.
Attempts to construct a system more responsive to central control, particularly in the provinces, were ruled out by hostility to anything savouring of excessive government control or ‘French-style police’. The Proclamation against Seditious Writings of May 1792 was attacked by the opposition in Parliament as an attempt to turn magistrates into government spies and informers. In November 1792 an attempt to bypass local magistrates by sending agents into the provinces to purchase seditious writings with a view to prosecution was described by the foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, in private correspondence as ‘a thing that can be done but once, and could not be continued without an expense equal to that of the old French police. Our laws suppose magistrates and Grand Juries to do this duty, and if they do not do it, I have little faith in its being done by a Government such as the Constitution has made ours.’
The prosecutions for seditious libel that followed in the next two years were unevenly spread across the country, and were noticeably sparse in the most disaffected towns, like Norwich or Sheffield, which lacked an effective local loyalist organisation to compensate for lack of action by local magistrates. For nearly two and a half years from late 1791 until June 1794 the Sheffield Register and its editor, Joseph Gales, continued, unmolested by the law, to act as the mouthpiece of radical societies throughout the country and to publish the first cheap edition of Rights of Man. Later on, when emergency laws were enacted, they were rarely used. As the historian Frank McLynn put it, ‘Pitt’s England lacked the technology, bureaucracy and enforcement procedure to make truly repressive legislation bite.’
Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014
Ian Smith takes exception to my treatment of Pitt’s alarm in my review of Kenneth Johnston’s Unusual Suspects (Letters, 20 February). I suggested that Pitt had attempted to fix a French taint on the reform societies in Britain in the 1790s. But the members of those societies, Smith points out, ‘made no secret of their sympathies’ with the Revolution in France. Quite so: a good number of liberals, and even a few Members of Parliament, persisted in believing that the Revolution was a good thing, or supported the Revolution because they supported the right of the French to choose their own form of government. But there is very little evidence that members of the reform societies wanted a violent revolution in Britain, or were committed to more than universal manhood suffrage and frequent elections; often their main reason for demanding both was to put an end to the corruption that had infected Parliament and kept men like Pitt in power. A few may have been republicans, even on the Jacobin model, but they were not dumb enough to attempt to win support for reform by arguing for the king to be deposed. And they were scarcely ‘Jacobin revolutionaries’, as Pitt chose to represent them.
To this Smith replies that if there was indeed very little evidence, this was because Pitt’s sources of information, far from being formidable as I had claimed, were too few and too feeble to uncover it. Like some of the alarmists in Pitt’s cabinet, he must believe that the lack of evidence of a violent revolutionary movement proves only that the movement was well concealed. Much of his letter is concerned with the inefficiency of the provincial magistracy in uncovering local instances of what he calls the ‘radical upsurge’, with the implication that a more efficient law-enforcement system would have revealed something truly sinister and dangerous. If there was no smoke, Smith implies, there was probably a fire.
It came as a shock to learn, after twenty years and more researching the reform movement in the 1790s and the government of William Pitt, that I seriously believed that Pitt’s government had at its disposal ‘comprehensive powers of surveillance and law enforcement comparable to those of a 21st-century state’. I thought I believed something rather different, simply that Pitt’s sources of information were quite formidable enough to uncover any serious radical threat to the state. However impoverished the government’s intelligence may have been, Pitt must have known certain things. He must have known that the reform societies had succeeded in attracting very few members. Even at the height of Smith’s ‘radical upsurge’, the London Corresponding Society could muster only three thousand members, and it was many times larger than any other such organisation. To persuade themselves that there was a danger of revolution in Britain, the government would have had to believe that the societies had huge numbers of secret, armed supporters, strategically kept in the shadows, with the potential to overwhelm the military who were stationed all over the country.
The main problem for the government, Smith says, was that it had no means of verifying reports relating, in particular, to the acquisition of arms by the reform societies. Frustratingly for the government, evidence that the societies were arming for a revolution, wherever it was discovered, turned out to amount to almost nothing. There was the coup planned in Edinburgh by a government spy or former spy, who may have been an agent provocateur, and who had caused to be manufactured forty or so pikeheads. There was evidence of a few pikes being made in Sheffield, and of a handful in London made by attaching knives to broom-handles. Pikes were defensive weapons; the interest radicals had in acquiring them, such as it was, was as a means of resisting the attempts of loyalists to disrupt their meetings, and to claim what they regarded as their civic right to bear defensive arms. A credible revolutionary alarm would have to depend on the discovery of firearms in large numbers.
Quite how the reformers could be supposed to have acquired them in secret was a puzzle to some of Pitt’s opponents in Parliament, but the government seemed to strike gold when spies reported the formation in London of an armed revolutionary society, the Loyal Lambeth Association, which at its height had 18 muskets – rather more than it ever had members. It was heavily infiltrated by spies, whose reports suggest that the maximum attendance at any meeting of the association was eight. Once it was as few as three, two of whom, unknown to each other, were spies. Undaunted, the government announced that the association was one of several similar groups in London of whose existence it apparently had no evidence. The complete inventory of arms discovered in the possession of members of the LCS is listed in a helpful government paper, ‘General State of the Evidence as to Arming’, which suggested that the leaders of the society were planning the violent overthrow of the government with fewer arms than could have been found in a small country house.