To Stir up the People

John Barrell

  • Unusual 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.’

Had the internet been in existence then, Campaign Headquarters would have been sure to delete this speech within a year. For in February 1793, Pitt’s active imagination discovered an evil even worse than the slave trade, that crime worse than any other previously committed in the whole history of the human race. The execution of Louis XVI, he now told the Commons, ‘is the foulest and most atrocious deed which the history of the world has yet had occasion to attest’. But did not Pitt himself share some of the blame for the death of Louis? Couldn’t he have intervened to arrest the chain of events that had led the king inexorably to the guillotine? In the summer of 1792, with the Austrian and Prussian armies massing on the borders of France, threatening to invade in order to restore Louis to all the ‘legitimate authority’ he had exercised before the Revolution, the French government appealed to Britain to mediate. Britain loftily refused, France was invaded, and from that moment no sensible punter would have staked a single sou on Louis’s chances of living another year, widely suspected as he was of colluding with the invaders.

There were other, larger questions raised by Pitt’s speeches, which his opponents asked but which he seems not to have thought worth answering. Why did a British government believe it had an obligation to deplore in such extravagant terms the death of a foreign king? Did the British not have sufficient terrible crimes of their own to atone for, without searching abroad for the crimes of others to bemoan and punish? And then again, was the killing of one man, believed by many (though very few of them British) to have been justly executed for a grave crime he had certainly committed, now to be considered an atrocity greater than the killing of hundreds of thousands of Africans, the enslavement and brutal treatment of those who survived, the permanent separation of parents from children and husbands from wives, and all so that European consumers could sweeten their tea with sugar in preference to honey? How many hundreds of thousands more Africans would have had to be heaped onto the scales to weigh more heavily with Pitt than the death of a single European? How many lives of ordinary people would weigh more than the life of one king?

Quite how much Pitt’s organ of moral outrage had been retuned by the execution of Louis would soon become apparent. In February 1794 the French National Convention, responding or reacting to the slave revolts in its Caribbean possessions, passed a decree promising the emancipation of all slaves in territories under the jurisdiction of France, to be put into effect as soon as it could determine how the emancipation should be managed. Pitt described the decree as ‘wild and improvident’, and declared that it would not be put into effect in any islands that Britain might succeed in capturing from the French. For Pitt, West Indian slavery was a necessary evil if sugar was to be produced; but the slave trade, as well as being inhumane and criminal, was unnecessary, for there were by now enough slaves in the Caribbean for the cultivation of the sugar islands. Well-stocked islands could be used as breeding pens, producing slaves for export to those where labour was in short supply. The heaven-born minister had discovered a way of trading in slaves that would apparently leave no ‘stigma on our national character’. A modern equivalent of his position might be that it is a foul, filthy crime to traffic women to Western Europe as sex workers, but hell, once they’re here, it’s just good economic sense to shunt them around from town to town, country to country, as the market might require.

I find it continually amazing that, among so many historians of high politics, Pitt has managed to hold on to his reputation for exalted virtue as well as for the other skills and characteristics, more useful to a prime minister, that he did possess, such as low cunning, a shameless willingness to bend or break the law in his pursuit of political radicals, and an unembarrassed eagerness to destroy the lives of his opponents. In an infamous song of adulation, George Canning praised Pitt’s ‘Virtue’: his humility, his blameless life, his courage, his absolute integrity (‘By pow’r uncorrupted, untainted by gold’) and so on. When Britain was threatened by ‘rapine and treason’, Pitt had stood up for ‘the heart and the hopes’ of the country, and by his dauntless spirit ‘one kingdom’, and apparently only one, was ‘preserv’d ’midst the wreck of the world’. He was, Canning declared, in a line still quoted in virtually all positive assessments of Pitt, ‘the Pilot that weather’d the storm’.

Canning doesn’t make it very clear what the storm was that Pitt weathered, always supposing that he did weather one. Probably, however, ‘rapine’ refers to the repeated threat of invasion from France, and ‘treason’ to the internal subversion of Britain’s ancien régime by supporters of the French Revolution in the movement for parliamentary reform. How much the failure of France to invade was due to Pitt’s policy and determination, how much to luck and how much to the other priorities of the French government is not clear, but it is clear that Pitt was an unimpressive war leader, who entered the war with France without clear aims, who spent much of the 1790s desperate to find a way of making peace with France that would not look like a surrender, and who, when he resigned for the first time in 1801, left Britain much weaker relative to France than it had been at the start of the war. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, ‘Pitt’s management of the war reached a nadir in 1800. It was not a task in which his talents shone.’ That he ‘weathered’ this storm cannot mean much more than that he managed to survive its buffetings until forced to resign. As for ‘treason’, this was largely imagined or invented by Pitt and his political allies. Though he repeatedly insisted that the constitution and government were under serious threat from the activities of the parliamentary reform movement, who he chose to believe were Jacobin revolutionaries, he had formidable sources of information about the aims and activities of the movement, and must have known that it included hardly any: at a time when militia regiments were spread out across the country and barracks erected in almost every substantial centre of population, there were almost no subversives in mainland Britain who were armed or even seem to have wished to be. ‘Pitt’s alarm’, the domestic storm he was credited with having weathered, had been conjured up by Pitt and his allies to justify the war and to fix a French taint to the movement to reform a thoroughly corrupt parliament.

Kenneth Johnston’s Unusual Suspects are men and women who fell foul of ‘Pitt’s determination to crush his domestic opponents’ and whose lives, careers, reputations were irrevocably damaged as a result. They were members of a brilliant generation of imaginative writers and public intellectuals, stimulated by the American and especially by the French Revolution into participating in the most fundamental debate about the functions of government, the limits of freedom and the rights of men and women that has ever taken place in Britain. Of those who believed themselves to be on the side of modernity – supporters of the revolution in France in its early years, advocates of a reformation of the ancien régime in Britain – a few, notably Joseph Priestley, were veterans of public discussion; others, like William Godwin, Coleridge, Helen Maria Williams and James Montgomery, were just setting out on careers that promised extraordinary achievements.

They are unusual suspects because they were not organisers and activists, orators and pamphleteers who urged direct action in support of reform, or who set out to incite riot and rebellion: though some were imprisoned for short periods, they were not the kinds of dissident whom Pitt, and the law officers in the three kingdoms, designed for Botany Bay or the gallows. The writings for which, formally or informally, they were punished, were on the side of peaceful reform in matters of religious and civil liberty. But Pitt’s determination to silence dissent dramatically reduced the career possibilities of such men and women, and condemned them to live on in what Johnston calls ‘an “after” or “second” life markedly different [from what they] had envisioned for themselves’. The success with which they were branded as ‘Jacobins’, as troublemakers, as dangerous and immoral freethinkers, meant that, where the memory of them survived into the Victorian period, even into the last century, it was with that brand burned into their reputations, with all the doubt it cast on the value of their writings. To confirm this point, Johnston repeatedly directs us to the late Victorian Dictionary of National Biography, and even sometimes to the revised version of 2004.

This book has been a long time coming: Johnston seems to have been working on it for at least a decade and a half, longer than the period it describes, and hundreds of historians of literature and politics will have heard excerpts from the work in one of the many shapes it inhabited in its slow progress to publication. At one time Johnston had collected, as I recall, about seventy suspects, and seemed to be contemplating writing essays on the histories of them all. What has finally emerged is a book of ten case studies, of nine men and one woman, whose writings are not well known to the wider than academic public that Johnston hopes to alert to what he sees as something like the British equivalent of the McCarthy era. These case studies are followed by essays on authors once widely read outside the academy – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Burns, Lamb and Southey – in which Johnston asks what effect Pitt’s alarm had on the development of English literature, particularly on ‘that great body of work we call Romantic. It was not good for it, evidently, but just how bad was it?’

The longer the book has been delayed by Johnston’s endlessly ramifying programme of research, the more topical it has become. Equivalencies closer to our own time strike us in every chapter, moments when Pitt seems to anticipate the governments of this century as they tiptoe stealthily but steadily towards totalitarianism, threatening freedom of assembly and the right to protest, vastly increasing domestic surveillance, tampering with trial by jury, diminishing the rights of suspects, suppressing evidence of their own wrongdoing, attempting to conceal their former policies and statements of now abandoned principles, trying to disarm opposition by introducing the absurdly named Transparency of Lobbying Bill, whose nickname, the ‘gagging bill’, appropriately recalls the first gagging bills, passed by Pitt’s government in 1795.

Of these, the Treasonable Practices Act was, Johnston argues, the most effective instrument by which Pitt was able to silence dissent. The bill redefined ‘seditious libel’, the usual charge brought against writers on politics whom the government wished to silence. The definition of sedition in cases of seditious libel or uttering seditious words had always been hazy, but the point of this redefinition was to make it even more uncertain and flexible:

if any person or persons … shall maliciously and advisedly, by writing, printing, preaching, or other speaking, express, publish, utter, or declare any words or sentences to excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt of the person of his Majesty, his heirs or successors, or the government and constitution of this realm as by law established …

The words in this clause from ‘to excite, or stir up’ through to ‘government’ were taken almost verbatim from an act passed during the reign of Charles II, but the addition of the word ‘constitution’ had the advantage of introducing a term that could mean almost anything the crown lawyers might choose. It was clearly impossible to utter a syllable of discontent which they could not impute to a contempt for the constitution, when even William Windham, a cabinet minister and strong supporter of the government, declared that ‘it was no easy matter to find two men of learning and sense, who would agree upon any definition of the constitution of this country.’ ‘If this bill pass,’ Coleridge wrote, ‘the word constitution ought to be omitted for the bill itself is a repeal of the constitution.’ And what about the ‘government’: who or what is that, another critic of the bill asked. ‘The Privy Council? the Lords of the Bedchamber? the Beefeaters? the Bow Street Runners?’ Could ‘opposition to a turnpike or paving bill’, the Morning Post asked, ‘or a petition against a canal’, be charged as incitements to ‘contempt’ of the government or constitution? What freedom of speech would be left by this clause to those who wished to exercise their right to criticise the measures of the government, to petition for a reform of Parliament, or to suggest improvements in the constitution? The case for reform could hardly be made except by arguing that the present composition of the House of Commons was corrupt or unrepresentative. Under the law as it stood immediately before the passing of the Treasonable Practices Bill, juries would have been allowed to consider the intention with which a work had been published when considering their verdicts. In cases brought under the new act, however, they would have no choice but to regard those advocating reform as bringing the government and constitution, however justifiably, into contempt.

The act did not increase the penalty – a year or two in prison – for a first offence of seditious libel; repeat offenders, however, were liable to a discretionary sentence of transportation for seven years, with a fair chance of dying of disease on the outward voyage and a slim chance of ever returning to Britain. It was no great comfort to dissidents that this terrible punishment was reserved for a second offence: there was no shortage of spies to overhear, provoke or invent seditious conversations and thus to procure both a first offence and a second. It was this penalty that made the act so persuasive an argument in favour of keeping silent; caricatures published before it was passed showed Englishmen prudently muzzled or with their lips padlocked together. There were far more prosecutions in the 1790s for seditious libel and seditious words before the bill was passed than afterwards, which shows just how persuasive the act was. There was no need for the police if dissidents learned to police themselves.


Unusual Suspects begins with a comparison of the careers of William Godwin, the philosopher and novelist, and John Thelwall, the leading orator of the popular reform movement and author of The Peripatetic, one of the very best, most unread and most unclassifiable works of the 18th century: part novel, part travel journal, part satire, part commentary on the state of the nation and part lots of other things. These two men are brought forward as paradigm cases of usual and unusual suspects. The usual suspect is Thelwall, whose well-attended political lectures were regularly monitored by government spies, and who in 1794 had been tried for high treason for helping to plan a convention of delegates from political societies from across the country which would put pressure on the government to agree to a reform of Parliament. Pitt and his ministers managed to persuade themselves that this amounted, more or less, to a conspiracy to kill the king, but failed to persuade Thelwall’s jury to accompany them on this wild flight of imagination.

The government never forgave Thelwall for beating this unlikely rap, or for the insouciance with which, in 1795 and early 1796, he regularly published his political lectures attacking Pitt’s government and especially Pitt’s alarm. The second of the two gagging bills, the Seditious Meetings Act, was primarily aimed at cutting off his chief source of income by limiting the size of political meetings and lecture audiences. Thelwall gave up London and went on the road, lecturing on Roman politics to evade the gagging acts but making it clear that his audiences might discover parallels between ancient Rome and modern Britain. Wherever he went, he was pursued by loyalist zealots who persisted in believing that he had been guilty as charged in 1794 and so was probably guilty of something or other now. He went from being, Johnston suggests, a usual to an unusual subject, to be punished not by the law but by public opinion orchestrated often by local agents of government. If he was guilty of any offence, he insisted, he should be prosecuted again, but he soon discovered he had become someone ‘the government no longer had to pay much attention to, since the hegemonic, extra-legal operations of its repressive machinery were working so well’. He tried to give up politics, but politics would not give him up: he was invited by Coleridge to live near him and the Wordsworths down in Somerset, where the three men would write poetry together, but it soon became clear that he would not escape the hue and cry in the Quantocks. He took a farm just over the Welsh border, and attempted to support himself as a travel writer and teacher, but he was soon unmasked and once again had to beat a retreat. Slowly, over the next thirty years, he rehabilitated himself, becoming a much respected speech therapist, but for those who know his writings it is not hard to believe that, under a less ruthless regime, he might have become one of the great Romantic poets.

Godwin is Johnston’s first unusual subject, the author of Political Justice, a work of anarchist philosophy which, the legend has it, was regarded by the government as not worth the trouble of prosecuting – the book was much too expensive to fall into the hands of the discontented poor – and of a novel that may be the first ‘thriller’, and a genuinely thrilling one, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. In the atmosphere of the great show trials of 1794, Thelwall’s among them, Godwin worried that Caleb Williams, with its unflattering picture of ‘things as they are’ (the injustice with which justice was administered, the tyranny of rich over poor), would be the focus of a charge of seditious libel, the more so as he had also published, at the start of those trials, a much read and rhetorically powerful attack on the interpretation being put on the law of treason by the government and the lord chief justice. In 1795, in a pamphlet on the gagging bills, he took a careful step back, criticising the bills but attacking also his former friend Thelwall as an orator too liable to be carried away by his own eloquence and so to excite and stir up his audience to acts of violence. Godwin himself certainly never incited anyone: he joined no political societies, and though a reformer believed that reform would come in its own good time, as the inevitable result of a gradual, general enlightenment. By 1796 he seemed to be a suspect no longer, not a likely victim of government oppression, and was able to resume his literary career, writing plays and novels, but not, positively not, political pamphlets.

Then he married Mary Wollstonecraft, who was carrying their child. The story from here on is well known. The fact that she was free to marry at all was a shock to public opinion, for she already had a child by an American in Paris, Gilbert Imlay, whose wife she had been presumed to be. A second shock came after Wollstonecraft died in childbed, and Godwin published a lovingly candid memoir of her in which he made no secret of the details of her sexual history. Her alleged ‘whoredoms’, and his tolerant acceptance of them, seemed to prove to whoever wished it so that those who imbibed the spirit of the French Revolution would lose all sense of decency and all respect for Christianity and its teachings. Godwin became the perfect ‘unusual suspect’: he was guilty as sin but of nothing that he could be prosecuted for, and his punishment could safely be left in the hands of the loyalist press and public. He kept on writing, but found that his name on a title page drove buyers away. Again, under a different regime, he would have had the chance to write more novels of the quality of Caleb Williams. Instead, he lived as an anonymous hack, writing a few novels that were good but not great and whatever else he thought he could sell to support his new wife and their five children. Something similar happened to his good friend the novelist and dramatist Thomas Holcroft. Holcroft had been acquitted in 1794 on a charge of high treason so absurd that the prosecution offered no evidence against him, but found that his innocence was no defence against ministerial propaganda. Before his arrest he was the most popular comic dramatist in Britain; after his acquittal, he could get his plays produced only by suppressing his authorship of them.

Among Johnston’s other unusual suspects are the Unitarian philosopher, theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, driven to emigrate to America when rioters, with the apparent protection of local magistrates and the retrospective approval of George III, burned down his Birmingham house and laboratory; Thomas Beddoes, the brilliant chemist, driven from Oxford, missing out on the new chair of chemistry he had been all but promised, for writing in defence of the French Revolution; the mathematician William Frend and the classical and biblical scholar Gilbert Wakefield, both prosecuted for their writings on politics and subsequently persecuted by the loyalist press; the Irish physician William Drennan, one of the founders of the United Irishmen, who, though acquitted on a charge of seditious libel, gave up writing on politics when he realised that the ‘great aim’ of the government was ‘to get rid of us [radicals] by prosecution, persecution, or the terror of it’. Like Drennan, like Thelwall, the Sheffield hymn-writer James Montgomery (‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’), twice imprisoned for sedition in the 1790s, concentrated on writing poetry when he finally opted for a quieter life.

The only woman among the suspects whose career and writings Johnston discusses at a chapter’s length is Helen Maria Williams, a poet and author of several superb volumes of letters written from Paris and chronicling for a British audience the progress of the Revolution. Williams was imprisoned by the Jacobins and most of her Girondin friends were guillotined, but the loyalist British press had no interest in distinguishing between the regicidal Girondins and the regicidal Jacobins. Marking her down as an abandoned and shameless woman, it killed the market for her writings in Britain. A short chapter offers brief accounts of other women writers whose loyalty to church and state was questioned in the course of the war with France: the poet and educator Anna Barbauld; Mary Robinson, the novelist, poet and essayist who had been the mistress of the future George IV; the novelist Mary Hays; and the novelist and poet Charlotte Smith, the best of whose writings, like Thelwall’s Peripatetic, should be recognised as among the greatest works of the period. None of these women was persecuted by the forces of loyalism with quite the venom directed at Johnston’s men, though Hays was persecuted instead by radicals. She had a reputation for treating conversations as opportunities to make speeches, but her oppressors would probably have forgiven her this foible had she been as pretty as other liberal and radical women, like Wollstonecraft, Robinson, Williams, the novelist Amelia Opie and the novelist and dramatist Elizabeth Inchbald. Hays was self-conscious about her looks, never allowed her portrait to be taken, and was punished for the crime of being plain in the macho chit-chat of men she had imagined were her friends.

The last section of the book will be the most familiar to those who still read the literature of this period, or the modern biographies of its great writers, though no one before Johnston has understood the poetry of the Romantic period so centrally in the context of Pitt’s alarm. As he puts it, ‘our perspective on the literature of the Romantic era is skewed by what we have not seen until recently: that the lives, careers and works of these artists were inflected (to put it mildly), or badly distorted, by their varying reactions to whichever of the random side-effects of William Pitt’s regime of alarm brushed up against them.’ The questions he asks are unanswerable, but no less urgent for being so. For example: what difference would it have made to English poetry if the greatest of all Romantic poems, Wordsworth’s Prelude, had been published at the start of the 19th century, when it was written, and not held back until after his death in 1850? It could not of course have been published when it was first completed, or not without attracting a serious criminal charge, for it told the truth about Pitt and his ministers: how they ‘thirsted to make the guardian Crook of Law/A tool of Murder’. They were, Wordsworth suggests, like Robespierre and the Jacobins, except that they acted to ‘undermine/Justice, and make an end of Liberty’, not openly but in secret, ‘as vermin working out of reach’, under the floorboards. How would Scottish literature be different if Burns, in the last five radical years of his life, had been able to publish the poems which, had they appeared under his name, would have led to the destruction of his livelihood? If Thelwall had been able to stay with Coleridge and Wordsworth in Nether Stowey, how would the politics and poetry of all three men have developed differently? And so on: Johnston has similar questions to ask about Lamb, Southey and Blake. Of course all these questions are in a sense pointless, but asking them, this fascinating book argues, is one way of thinking afresh about the huge damage a tyranny such as Pitt’s can do, not just to a generation of writers, but to the development of a whole culture.