The Suppression of British Jacobinism

This article was originally published on Luddite Bicentenary.

Membership Card of the United Britons, c.1802

Reformers and Republicans saw the political system of the eighteenth century as a betrayal of the Revolution of 1688, depriving them of constitutional rights guaranteed by the Magna Carta and of their free birthright bequeathed from Saxon times. In fact, the bourgeois revolution of the seventeenth century had removed the feudal absolutist obstacles to the development of the capitalist mode of production, but it had not removed political power from the sections of the aristocracy who were based on landed capital. Power was in the hands of this small oligarchy composed of landed, and to a lesser extent, commercial capitalists still largely of aristocratic descent, who monopolised parliament through the nomination of M.P.s. The same class composition permeated the hierarchy of the military and judiciary. Except for a few large manufacturers such as Peel, even the majority of industrial capitalists were excluded from central government although they might exercise considerable local influence.

The American and French revolutions provided a great impulse and inspiration to the British reformers and republicans. The Declaration formulated by the French National Assembly was enshrined by Thomas Paine in a book which took the same title “Rights of Man”, outlining the course of the Revolution and proposing a reform of the British system of government. Paine’s work became the manifesto of the republican movement, stimulating the formation of Constitutional Societies throughout the country, composed mainly of artisans and small tradesmen and “Rights of Man” was read widely by artisans and workers outside these circles. The London Corresponding Society (LCS), founded in 1792, became the largest and most influential organisation, communicating with the main provincial societies such as Sheffield, Manchester and Norwich.

The LCS advocated the reform of parliament by the institution of universal suffrage and annual parliaments and the reform of the fiscal system by the adoption of Paine’s plan for progressive taxation and economies in the national expenditure – but there was little clarity as to how they were to be achieved. Paine himself did not exclude an insurrection, but only as a last resort and in defence:

“Reason and discussion, persuasion and conviction, become the weapons in the contest, and it is only when those are attempted to be suppressed that recourse is had to violence. When men unite in agreeing that a thing is good, could it be obtained, such as relief from a burden of taxes and the extinction of corruption the object is more than half accomplished.”

A Convention, with all the associations that term had with the French Revolution, was intended as the focus of agitation to express popular “Reason and discussion” but only the Scottish reform societies succeeded in organising a “British Convention” in November 1793, which made no decisive proposals other than to maintain pressure for reform and to increase co-ordination between the societies in Scotland and England. A contingency plan to convene illegally in the event of proscription or a French invasion was never put to the test.

Some reformers expressed support for an unequivocal republican position acknowledging the need for armed preparations and open approval of the French revolution by pressing for an alliance with the republican, pro-French, United Irishmen (UI) but this was rejected by an earlier Scottish convention in 1792. Government repression acted as a catalyst in the polarisation of the movement, and by 1797 groups of avowedly revolutionary United Englishmen (UE) and United Scotsmen were formed clandestinely, especially in London, Manchester and Dundee, often with the support of Irish immigrant workers, and secret emissaries passed between Britain, Ireland and France.

The basis for a social programme for revolution was also laid by Thomas Spence, although it reflected the immature state of the development of capitalism in proposing a scheme to destroy the economic and political power of the aristocracy by confiscation and redistribution of their landed estates. Whilst not a social revolutionary himself, his theories articulated popular opposition to both the political system and to industrial capitalism, which was expressed in terms of a return to an idealised past of smallholdings, yeomen farmers and manufacturers. It was a challenge to established property relations, if not to the right to property itself, and an explicit challenge to the system of government:

“When a people create Landlords, they create a numerous host of hereditary Tyrants and Oppressors, who, not content with their Lordly Revenue of Rents, seize also upon the Government and parcel it out among themselves and take as enormous salaries for the Places they occupy therein as if they were poor men.”

Their domination at home. challenged by these doctrines and the heightened working class activity accompanying industrialisation, and their imperialist supremacy challenged by revolutionary France abroad, the ruling class launched a vigorous reaction. “Rights of Man” was banned as seditious libel and its sellers persecuted, known reformers were intimidated by “Church and King” gangs incited by the authorities and leading Jacobins arrested; the Corresponding Societies had no alternative but to meet behind closed doors. Consequently all information that came to the authorities emanated from undercover agents of one type or another.

After the arrests, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the mob terror of 1794, the LCS formed a secret executive committee to try and hold the organisation together. One of its number, a certain Citizen Groves, was in fact transmitting detailed reports of all its transactions to the authorities. He was almost exposed, but at a trial before the committee refuted accusations against himself by supplying evidence of his enthusiasm. Such enthusiasm by its agents could be counter-productive for the government. In the same year a government spy, Robert Watt, who claimed he had become a genuine convert to reform, was beheaded for high treason after his conviction for a plot to seize Edinburgh by insurrection. No clear delineation can be made between spy, provocateur and adventurer in such cases. The reformers were certainly aware of the dangers and Thelwall included in his lectures an exposure of the spy system. The use of spies and the arrest of key leaders such as Thomas Hardy, on dubious evidence which almost cost him his neck and which led to the transportation of others like the Scottish Jacobin, Thomas Muir, led to defections from the Constitutional societies. A group of “Working Mecanicks” wrote from Leeds to the LCS in late 1797:

“There was a very good Society here about 3 years since but the arbitrary proceedings of our Justices operated in so terrifying a manner on our Friends in general that their spirits have been sunk under the Standard of moderation & the Sacred flame which had been kindled in their Breasts was almost extinguished.”

The response of other reformers was to establish a more tightly knit secret revolutionary organisation, bound by oaths and other conspiratorial practices and devoted to republican insurrection and support for revolutionary France.

Fear that the leadership of the widespread popular unrest expressed in labour disturbances, food riots and anti-militia conscription riots would fall into the hands of such republican elements was overshadowed by events of 1797-98 when both the obvious and the suspected influence of the republicans assumed a much more alarming aspect. A Parliamentary Secret Committee, convened to investigate the role of the Jacobins on the evidence of informants and captured documents, concluded that members of the LCS had been active amongst the sailors who mutinied at Spithead and Nore where some of the mutineers hoisted a red flag. It had been reported that the Society of United Irishmen was also involved and one member had attempted to fire the magazine of “Repulse” rather than allow her to surrender.

The United Irishmen were also held responsible for the formation of the republican wing of the LCS into the Society of United Englishmen (UE) from a group initially meeting to read the UI paper “The Press” in the cellar of a London Inn. Societies throughout the country, formerly in correspondence with the LCS, were said to have joined the UE and the Manchester county committee was particularly energetic in dispatching delegates to the neighbouring industrial areas. The Parliamentary Secret Committee attributed wide success to this movement especially amongst the working class:

“Many ignorant or inconsiderate persons throughout the country were gradually involved in these transactions and the influence of the destructive principles from which they proceeded was still further extended by the establishment of clubs among the lowest classes of the community which were open to all persons having one penny and in which songs were sung, toasts given and language held of the most seditious nature.”

The UI delegate O’Coigly, later hanged for treason, was said to have pressed for a general rising and plans were proposed to land parties of Irishmen on the coast to make their way to London as immigrant workers and to assist the English in seizing the capital.

Although the UE did not rise, the UI, despite the existence of spies near to the central leadership, did. A certain McNally provided detailed reports of the republicans’ preparations, including negotiations with Bonaparte; and the Leinster Directory, a dozen key leaders, were seized on the information of another spy, Reynolds. This, plus savage repression in the counties around Dublin, failed to halt the uprising. Its defeat and “the success of the measures which have been employed for detecting and defeating the designs of the conspirators” in England, particularly the arrest of the principle leaders, had, according to the Secret Committee “averted impending danger” but they were unable “to justify the hope that the mischief is eradicated or the danger passed.” The fears of the ruling class were expressed in the committee’s summary of the aims of the republicans in both Britain and Ireland as:

“the entire overthrow of the British Constitution, the general confiscation of property and the erection of a Democratic Republic founded on the ruins of all religion and of all political and civil society, and framed after the model of France.”

Fears which were to resurface at every assertion of strength by the working class, and at every alarming display of organisation such as the Institution. The cautious optimism of the Secret Committee received a blow that autumn with news of a disastrous harvest, rocketing food prices and near famine surpassing even 1794-95. Meetings were held throughout the industrial districts, particularly the West-Riding and South Lancashire, in the subsequent period of distress which remained critical until 1802 .The attitude of the authorities is reflected in a warning to the “disaffected” published at Halifax:

“…several illegal and most dangerous meetings have been held in the nightime for treasonable and Rebellious purposes for the subversion of the established government and a cooperation with a French invasion , which meetings it is the Determination of the Civil and Military Power: to oppose with the utmost rigour of Military Execution.”

Protest meetings and food riots had been a common feature of class conflicts in the eighteenth century but now, on the dawn of the nineteenth, they represented a different phenomenon – there existed amongst the working class a national movement, formulating its propaganda with a clear political ideology and agitating for resistance against ruling class and state. But how far this was a cohesive coordinated organisation was (and consequently still is) hard to ascertain. Members were sworn in and given a membership card bearing the motto ‘Liberty, Justice and Humanity’ and a small eight page pamphlet outlining the aims of the organization and its constitution. Each group was to be organized on a cell system where members were known only to the ‘conductor’ of the organization.

The existence of Societies of United Englishmen was suspected in the industrial districts signified by the proliferation of republican handbills and posters; one, in Doncaster in October 1800, calling for a moorland meeting for the establishment of a Convention. Most of this was dismissed by the Lord Lieutenant of the West-Riding as “Loose Conversation, taking its rise from the pressure of the times … “, but as a Whig he had a political interest in playing down anything which would strengthen government reaction. Conversely, Ralph Fletcher J.P. commander of the Bolton Volunteers and a Tory loyalist who managed an extensive spy network claimed evidence of the growing strength of the UE both in his own area and the WR . His agent ‘AB’ reported in 1801 “I am perfectly satisfied for 20 miles around this place 9/10s of the people are sworn to overthrow the present constitution.” Provocation was used even against reformers who were not implicated with the UE. In 1801 a smith, John Howarth was arrested for telling his workmates that the Jacobins ‘were going to demand the excise and be without Kings’ and whilst in custody he was threatened with a harsh sentence if he did not turn informer. He was instructed to join the Political Union for reform in parliament and accordingly approached the local leader, William Moor who swore him in and who was arrested a few hours later for administering an unlawful oath, in accordance with the act passed after the mutinies of 1797.

Poster warning the populace of Saddleworth against seditious activity 1801.

Poster warning the populace of Saddleworth against seditious activity 1801.

The incident as recalled by Moor also supports the evidence of Fletcher’ spies that widespread disaffection, if not planned insurrection, existed, as thousands had assembled in Bolton and attacked the military escorting him to Lancaster Castle, ‘so much alive were the people at, that, time to parliamentary reform.’ Howarth still appears to have been under Fletcher’s control by 1812 when he was executed at the Special Assize for leading an attack on a shop.

Whether or not the UE were planning an insurrection, the republican movement received a demoralising blow in 1802 which, combined with economic improvement and growing disillusionment with the French revolution, proved a severe setback to British republicanism. Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, one of those who had been imprisoned in 1798 and of Irish origin, was arrested in a London Inn at a meeting of soldiers and workers, including many of his compatriots, and accused of a plot to seize the Tower and the Bank of England. The revolutionaries had, or believed they had, wide support amongst soldiers and attempts to seduce soldiers from their duty had been one of the main complaints of the authorities against the UE. Callant, one of Fletcher’s victims, was executed for this offence. The plan revealed at Despard’s trial was for a putsch rather than a national revolution and the complicity of the United Englishmen arrested in Sheffield could not be proved. Despard’s claim to fame lies more in his being a popular martyr, a victim of a reactionary government and its agents, than in being a great revolutionary leader, and the UE (or the United Britons as they sometimes were referred to at this time) shares more characteristics with later Blanquist secret military societies than with a mass revolutionary movement. But this does not diminish their role in this period.

The modus operandi of both Irish and British revolutionary groups was similar and some degree of collusion existed between them – the fundamental difference stemmed from the fact the former could rely on a base of a discontented and nationalistic peasantry with a long tradition of rural guerrilla warfare. No such socially and politically homogeneous force existed in Britain. The development of the factory system was creating such a force, but in a contradictory way. It was workers in the domestic system of production, in their opposition to the effects of industrial capitalism and united by their common conditions of exploitation, who made the first political assertion of the class interest of the working class which transcended trade and regional barriers. This growth in the organisations and consciousness of the working class had its class opposite in the growth of the capitalist state – a fact noted by Marx where he says, in one of his few references to 1812 ” … the Luddite movement gave the anti-Jacobin governments of a Sidmouth, Castlereagh and the like a pretext for the most reactionary and forceful measures.”

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