The Age of George III
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During the period 1812-22, it could be said that England suffered more, economically, socially and politically, than during the French Wars. Consequently there were a number of manifestations of discontent and distress, in the shape of riots and disaffection, which epitomised the 'Condition of England Question'. Following a series of disturbancesbetween 1811 and 1816, the government passed the so-called "Gag Acts". This legislation did little to end the discontent, which continued during the next two years, culminating in the "Peterloo Massacre", the government used the unrest as the reason, or excuse, for passing the Six Acts. This legislation was the work of Sidmouth although Castlereagh proposed the Bills to the House of Commons. The preamble (introduction) to the Six Acts said:
every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his government
This indicates a pre-supposition by the government that reform would lead to revolution. The government was out-of-date and had an Eighteenth Century mentality; however, it comprised men brought up during the French Wars who had seen what demands for reform had done across the Channel. The Six Acts have been seen as the high point of repression; their purpose was outlined by Sidmouth in the House of Lords on 30 November 1819: He said:
A conspiracy existed for the subversion of the constitution in church and state, and of the rights of property... He should now describe the measures designed to meet this evil... It was proposed, that any person having been tried, convicted and punished for a blasphemous or seditious libel, should on conviction of a second offence, be liable ... to fine, imprisonment, banishment, or transportation ... [and] that all publications, consisting of less than a given number of sheets, should be subjected to a duty equal to that paid by newspapers.
To obviate the danger of tumultuous and seditious meetings... any parties wishing to meet for consideration of subjects connected with church or state, should notify their intention by a requisition signed by seven householders, and it should be illegal for any person not usually inhabiting the place where it was called, to attend. It was proposed to give the magistrates the power, with some limitations, of appointing the time and place of meeting.
It was proposed to prohibit military training except under the authority of a magistrate, or lord lieutenant of the county. . . and it had been deemed necessary to give magistrates in the disaffected districts, on evidence affording well-grounded suspicion of arms being collected for illegal purposes, the power of seizing them.
The Annual Register, Vol.61 (1819) pp.128-9
A contemporary cartoon depicted the effects of the Six Acts as the shackling and gagging of British freedoms.
The Whig leader in the Commons replied to these proposals by saying
Nothing but rigour and coercion were to be resorted to... Would not the new bills rather exasperate than repress? A dead silence in the country might for a season be produced by soldiers and penal laws, but nothing could reconcile the people to the loss of their rights, or compel them to submit quietly to that grievous deprivation... Property never could be exposed to greater danger ultimately than for a popular representation, as this House called itself, to pass nothing but acts of rigour, and omit all attempts at kindness and conciliation. The right of meeting was not only to be taken away, but the broad liberty of the press was to be invaded... Nothing would satisfy the noble lord but an attack upon the very vital principles of the British constitution... The new laws were not such as the public exigency required; the extent, and even the existence of disaffection was not proved; and until it should be so, it was the duty of every honest man to pause.(Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, Vol.41, (l819) cols. 407-412)
The Six Acts comprised
Although these pieces of legislation have been vilified by radical and Marxist historians they were not extreme, given the conditions of the day. The measures were successful in restricting the actions of some extremists and they seem to have been vindicated by the events of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.
The Training Prevention Act prohibited civilian bodies from training
in the use of weapons. This piece of legislation hardly seems out of place
in the modern world, let alone in the period of disaffection of the 18-teens.
It also limited the activities of the agents provocateurs
The Seizure of Arms Act, linked to the the Training Prevention Act, gave JPs and magistrates the right to search private houses for weapons, to seize them and their possessors. This Act also limited the activities of the agents provocateurs
The Seditious Meetings Act restricted to parish level all public meetings that were called to discuss 'any public grievance or any matter on Church and State'. Organisers had to proved local magistrates with due notice of the time and place of the meeting. The magistrates were empowered to change the date and/or time of the meeting at will, to prevent any attempt to organise insurrection. This was, perhaps, the most serious infringement of public liberty but it was repealed in 1824.
The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act fixed the penalties for these activities to fourteen years' transportation. Magistrates were empowered to seek, seize and confiscate all libellous materials in the possession of the accused. This piece of legislation was not especially effective because it was never enforced rigorously, and also because of Fox's 1792 Libel Act. Juries were reluctant to convict people on flimsy evidence.
The Misdemeanours Act provided for speedier legal machinery so that people could be brought to trial faster. This reduced the likelihood of bail being obtained by the accused; it also allowed for quicker convictions. Perhaps this was no bad thing, on either count.
The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act greatly increased the taxes on printed matter, including newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets. Publishers and printers had to provide securities for their 'good behaviour' . Any publication appearing at least once a month, and costing less than 6d. was subject to a tax of 4d. The Act restricted the freedom of the legitimate press. Radical publications simply went 'underground'.
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