Defending Britain from sedition and the “swinish multitudes”
On May 21, 1792, King George III issued a proclamation in which he warned his subjects against the influence of “divers wicked and seditious writings”. It’s clear the principal writing he and his government had in mind was Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man. Part II of this work was even more radical in its ideas than Part I. It was also deliberately published in a cheap edition, thus making it widely available to artisans as well as people of the middling sort. It’s quite likely that William Pitt’s government had used its spies to learn the nature of this fresh content even before copies were printed.
If the radicals had hoped for an upwelling of support in response to Paine’s writing, they were to be disappointed. Paine fled to France to avoid prosecution, but was still tried for sedition and sentenced to death in absentia. The royal proclamation, however, produced a spontaneous outpouring of support for the current English Constitution. Scores of loyalist associations were formed and hundreds of loyal addresses sent to the king. Effigies of Tom Paine were publicly burned in towns and villages throughout the country. The British public, it was clear, had no taste for French-style revolution.
Pitt’s use of spies and informers
Throughout the summer of 1792, Pitt’s government worked hard at suppression. They infiltrated radical groups and societies with secret agents and collected intelligence from informers and local officials. The king’s proclamation had included an order that local magistrates should send information on seditious activities to the central government. All this intelligence-gathering was now supplemented by an intense propaganda campaign to counter the effects of “seditious and wicked works” (such as The Rights of Man) on what was held to be an impressionable populace. Large amounts of financial support was provided for the loyalist associations.
These associations busily wrote and published pamphlets denouncing the radicals, while loyalist newspapers reported rumours of plots and claimed domestic radicals were all colluding with foreign revolutionaries. The “Project Fear” this created will be sadly familiar to many of us today. Indeed, it’s arguable that the most effective counter to the ideas of radicals and reformers was not legislative action or legal prosecution, but the atmosphere of fear produced by government propaganda.
The fear reached something of a climax in December, 1792, when several newspapers contained news of a supposed (but entirely false) insurrection. This was followed by a rumour that there was an army of traitors on their way to London. The authorities responded with a series of swift, harsh actions. They called out the militia and convened a sitting of Parliament. Coaches and carriages were stopped and searched for “traitors,” who were taken to the Tower of London by the thousands (though most soon escaped). Though it all ended in anticlimax, since no “army of traitors” arrived and there was no real evidence to allow any prosecutions, these rumours and alarms further whipped up fears in the populace at large.
Was this Intense Loyalism Real?
Given the constant government involvement in encouraging “popular” expressions of loyalty, it’s hard to be certain how much anti-radical sentiment was genuine and how much was deliberately generated. There’s plenty of evidence of official interference. For example, in November 1792, Lord Grenville was writing to Pitt to ask for advice on the best way to form counter-associations against the radicals. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that even Pitt’s government, willing though it was to resort to measures of dubious legality and questionable ethics, could have manufactured such a strong anti-radical response on its own.
Nevertheless, these events let the government seize the opportunity to crush fledgling movements towards reform. Surviving documents show that most so-called radical or revolutionary groupings at the time did not advocate anything like a wholesale revolution. What they wanted were reforms on the lines of a universal adult (male) franchise, an end to “placemen” (government “jobs for the boys”) and government sinecures. They also demanded more regular parliamentary elections, preferably annually. By now, however, even such modest measures could be portrayed as the slippery slope towards extremism and bloody revolution. The ruling elite were determined to retain the status quo. It seemed the bulk of the populace was happy to support them.
Fear of Immigrants
This is another topic from that time which will seem all too familiar to modern ears. Pitt’s government spies reported that large numbers of immigrants were fleeing France and entering England with little or no control or documentation. They also claimed significant purchases of arms were being made by known French sympathisers in preparation for some kind of uprising. At the same time, many English people believed a French invasion was imminent, preceded by a French-inspired and supported insurrection.
Was this true? It’s certain that large numbers of French refugees were fleeing to England to escape ‘The Terror’. It was also correct no one knew precisely how many there were or where they had gone after they arrived. At first, when the revolution in France turned violent, English people had welcomed refugees and done their best to help them. But as numbers grew and the atmosphere of fear intensified, all that changed. Parliament passed the Aliens Act, requiring all ports to keep a full account of immigrants entering the country. Those who arrived were not allowed to travel without passports or bring arms or ammunition with them. The Act also gave the Secretary of State powers to deport suspicious aliens and restrict the movement of foreigners within the country to certain districts. There they had to submit to registration and were required to give up their weapons. It wasn’t quite internment, but it came very close. At around the same time, the Alien Office, outwardly established to monitor and enforce the act, became the ‘cover’ for a surprisingly sophisticated system of internal espionage — a Georgian version of MI5.
“The English Robespierre”
There can be no doubt of William Pitt’s determination to see off any attempts to change the constitution or produce a popular uprising. From 1792 onwards, his government used a range of increasingly draconian measures to suppress opposition of any kind — so much so that John Gale Jones, at a meeting of a liberal debating society in 1795, described Pitt as the “English Robespierre”. If this was going too far, there’s no doubt Pitt and his ministers, supported by the king, conducted a sustained assault on traditional freedoms of association and speech, as well as introducing powers of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, at least for a period.
The history of the domestic crisis that followed France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1793 and the series of French military victories in continental Europe will be the subject of later posts in this series.