The Age of George III
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This statement is, perhaps, true - depending on what one believes about Pitt. If one sees him as a reformer in the years of peace, then his change of policy certainly was reactionary (that is, against reform). However, if one sees him as basically a Tory who pursued reforming policies in order to win parliamentary support, then the French Wars allowed him to revert to norm. It has been said that Britain's involvement in the French Wars pre-empted Pitt's days as a liberal progressive reformer and that after 1793 he was obliged to adopt the attitudes of a traditional 18th century PM because of the change in direction of the French Revolution: he had to:
In 1792 the French government issued the Edict of Fraternity. As the Jacobins came to dominate French political life, Pitt and the government grew cooler towards the Corresponding Societies and saw them as dangerous (cf America).
1793 saw the execution of Louis XVI and beginning of the Revolutionary Wars. In Britain, toleration of reform movements ended. The Societies were seen as agents of rebellion: if reformers were sympathetic to the Revolution they were seen as traitors who supported the national enemy: they were known as ‘English Jacobins'. Pitt decided to suppress the Societies. The Home Office collected all available information on them and clamped down. Several pieces of repressive legislation were passed.
In Scotland, Braxfield earned a reputation comparable to that of Judge Jeffreys. In 1788 Lord Braxfield became Lord Justice Clerk (the chief criminal judge in Scotland). This post gave him his peerage automatically. In the early 1790s, he was investigating treasonable offences and meting out savage punishments such as life transportation for Muir, Margarot and Palmer, the leaders of the Edinburgh Corresponding Society, for sedition; for being in league with the French; for being dangerous revolutionaries. Of the three men, one was a doctor and two were lawyers. They were moderate reformers who wanted some changes in the Constitution, not revolutionaries.
The 1794 harvest was poor; food prices were high and trade was dislocated by both the high prices and the war. Agitators held huge meetings and bread riots broke out in Nottingham, Coventry, Sheffield and Sussex. The King's coach was attacked by a mob in October following the state opening of Parliament, and there were cries of ‘No King', ‘No war', ‘No famine', and ‘No Pitt'. The windows of No 10 Downing Street - the Prime Minister's residence - were smashed.
In the summer and autumn of 1794 the government held a series of treason trials. Leaders of most Corresponding Societies, for example Hardy from London and others from Leeds and Sheffield, were arrested and tried on charges of sedition and treason. The English trials were not so severe as the Scottish ones because:
The evidence of sedition was slight, although Davidson (of Sheffield) had offered Sheffield pikes so people could arm themselves against the government. Local JPs were still giving harsh sentences including terms in gaol, transportation and so on, There was a purge against corresponding Societies. Then the government passed a series of excessively repressive Acts
Other repressive legislation included
It has been said that this change of approach came from necessity, not hypocrisy and that repression and reaction was against Pitt's usual character and attitude. However, his record of reforms in the period 1783-90 is thin and he did not risk his government in the pursuit of reform. It is possible that, at heart, Pitt was a Tory purporting to be a reforming Whig and when the opportunity arose with the outbreak of the French Wars, he reverted to his basic beliefs. The excessive repression reflects the fear of the French Revolution, but whether Pitt was essentially a reformer remains a question of debate.
It is true that much of the reactionism came from the landed interest. The Corresponding Societies were in the towns, and country gentry knew little or nothing about conditions in the towns. Repression was led by the country gentlemen.
James Gillray, "London Corresponding Society alarm'd" (1798).
This is an ugly crew. The man with his back to the viewer has a comb in his hair and a pair of scissors lying on his hat; he is a barber. The man to the left has a butcher's steel hanging from his trousers. The society's membership appears in the book resting on the chair to the right. It includes names like "Forging Sam," "Barber Joe," "Dick Butcher," "Filching Ned," "Dissenting Nick," and "Sheepshead Will." Two posters appear on the wall on the background. The one on the right is entitled "Tom Payne."
Also, war meant that Britain had to be made safe. It was a total and demanding war, and Pitt could not risk domestic problems (cf Lord North's problems with the County Associations, Gordon Riots for example). Lack of adequate communications increased the fears. News was distorted, exaggerated, misinterpreted. The government acted ‘on suspicion', because if things were left to develop, they could be caught with a revolution on their hands, totally unprepared.
By this time, the term ‘revolution' had come to mean a bloody revolt, with violence, threats, executions etc and led to a fear of even minor reform - in case it led to revolution. From 1793 onwards, a wave of anti-reform feeling existed in Britain which lasted well into the 19th century With hindsight one can see that the government over-reacted.
Apart from the two traditional duties of a PM, Pitt had to maintain the loyalty of, and Britain's hold on the Empire and finance the war. Once again, Britain was fighting an idea.
The most vulnerable part of the Empire was Canada, an ex-French colony with the bulk of the population being French Catholic stock. The1791 Canada Act was passed to preclude grievances by French Canadians. Canada was divided into two zones: Upper Canada (English) and Lower Canada (French-Quebec), and the government of the two zones was arranged by the Act. Each had a legislative council elected by the British Crown and parliament, assisted by a representative assembly elected by any £10 freeholder or leaseholder. It was more democratic than the English constitution - but Canada was nearer the most democratic America. French Canada was allowed to retain French civil law and legal system. Canada - and the rest of the Empire - remained loyal to Britain throughout the wars.
Pitt also undertook some financial measures so that Britain could pay for the war and pursued a defensive foreign policy.
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Last modified 5 January, 2011
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