The Age of George III

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The Petitioning Movement, 1769

Following the Middlesex election fiasco of 1768-9, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights decided to send circulars around England requesting petitions demanding the dismissal of Grafton's ministry. In May 1769, seventy-two MPs signed a document condemning the actions of the House of Commons in dismissing Wilkes as an MP. Most of those who signed it were Rockinghamite Whigs, since that was the official line which had been decided on.

The parliamentary session ended on 9 May 1769 after which the petitioning movement began in earnest. The initial moves were slow and many of the early petitions were produced in the counties as a result of the activities of Rockinghamites such as Edmund Burke. Rockingham and his followers were involved in the movement from its inception, co-operating with but moderating the views of the city radicals with whom they had little sympathy since they had no truck with the concept of democracy or 'liberty' such as Wilkes was seen to represent. Because the Marquis of Rockingham's following was strong in the counties, the petitioning movement gravitated away from London to the provinces.

In June 1769 the Livery of London managed to force a petition to the Crown against the unseating of Wilkes and also a meeting of the Surrey freeholders decided to petition on the matter. There was some feeling in Yorkshire that a petition should be organised but Rockingham was cool towards the idea because he disliked petitions. Consequently, the activities of the movements slowed down.

In July, Burke was influential in getting the Buckinghamshire petition under way and other supporters of the Marquis started petitions in Cornwall, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. Little was done in Yorkshire until the beginning of the races at York. Traditionally, the Marquis conducted his political business at York races and 1769 was no different. A county meeting was called during the week of 27 September and the petition was started. Once Yorkshire had begun circulating a petition, other counties followed suit: Cumberland, Essex, Derbyshire. By the end of 1769, eighteen counties and thirteen cities had petitioned for the dissolution of parliament and over a quarter of the total electorate had signed them. The petitions all met the same fate. They were totally ignored by Grafton's ministry.

However, it was becoming clear that public opinion was a force with which the government must reckon. The Petitioning Movement proved to be the fore-runner of other popular movements that had far more impact.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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