Research Subjects: Government & Politics


 

 

 

Great Britain: The Treasonable and Seditious Practices and the Seditious Meetings Acts ("The Gagging Acts") of 1795

By Tom Holmberg

Introduction

The Act of 1351 defined seven offences that were declared as high treason, including "compassing or imagining the death of the king, his queen, or his heir; violating the queen, the king's eldest unmarried daughter, or the wife of his heir; levying war against the king within his realm or adhering to his enemies; forging his seal or his coins; and killing one of certain royal officials and judges while he is engaged in his duties." Treason was to be punished under the original act by hanging, drawing and quartering.

The government during the trials of the members of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) sought to redefine treason, but the humiliating acquittals of Thomas Hardy, Rev. John Horne Tooke and the others (Thomas Hardy was acquitted after the jury deliberated for little over three hours.  Horne Tooke was acquitted after eight minutes deliberation.  See the group of documents on the "Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act" for more background on the LCS) forced the government to pass new laws in order to quiet the Radical movement. The merger with the Portland Whigs had reduced the opposition in Parliament to "very small dimensions."  Though the parliamentary opposition continued to press for reforms (reform bills were introduced and defeated in 1792, 1793 and 1797), Pitt feared that "the motion for reform was nothing more than the preliminary to the overthrow of the whole system of our present government, and if they succeeded they would overthrow what he thought the best constitution that was ever formed on the habitable globe."

Following their acquittal, the LCS, which had 17 "divisions" (each "division," according to the Society's by-laws, was to have a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 60 members) in March 1795, grew to 40 divisions by July and by October numbered 70 divisions. The continued efforts by the leaders of the LCS to speak out against government policies and in favor of reform, lead to the passage of the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act.  This act expanded the definition of high treason to encompass any conspiracy to overthrow the constitution. The Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act extended the definition of treason to include speaking and writing, even if no subsequent actions followed. The Act made treasonable bringing the King or his government into contempt.  The Act, according to historian Jennifer Mori, "closed all avenues of radical access to the high political world." Samuel Romilly noted that the retreat of moderates from the societies left only a radical faction who desired "to try the boldest political experiments, and [had] a distrust and contempt for all moderate reforms." The Treasonable Practices Act was later made permanent and was in effect until 1848.

The Seditious Meetings Act, introduced at the same time, provided that any public meeting of more than fifty persons had to be authorized by a local magistrate. Justices of the Peace were given discretionary power to disperse any public meeting. Prior notice had to be given of any meeting specifying the time, place and purpose of the gathering and be signed by seven local householders. All rooms where lectures concerning public grievances and other political matters were held had to be previously licensed by two magistrates.  Even lawfully convened meetings could be dissolved if determined "seditious" by the magistrates.  Resistance to the dispersal of a meeting was punishable by death.  William Pitt spoke out against those "who encourage those to frequent deliberations on public affairs, who, of all men, by education and habits of life, and means of information, were least capable of exercising a sound judgement on such subjects, and who are most likely to be improved upon by others."  John Ehrmann, Pitt's "sympathetic biographer, called the Seditious Meeting Act "open-endingly severe."

Together these acts were known as the "Gagging Acts," the "Two Acts," or the "Grenville and Pitt Bills." At the time, the Radicals considered the measures as part and parcel of "Pitt's Terror."  Localized enforcement of the acts meant, in the words of one historian, that "In Glamorgan men were being 'sent aboard men o' war' in one parish for 'offences' which provoked mirth on the Bench in the parish next door." Radicals in Leeds testified that the "arbitrary proceedings of our Justices operated in so terrifying a manner on our Friends in general that their spirits…sank." In Nottingham, the mayor encouraged Loyalist mob actions and searches of the homes of Radicals. LCS leader, John Gale Jones, asserted that the acts were part of a scheme by Pitt to place himself on the throne, and that governments that stifled public debate suffered the highest rates of political assassination.  This was the sort of talk that would raise red flags in the minds of the government.

As early as 21 May 1792 the Pit ministry had issued a proclamation against "wicked and seditious writings," including Tom Paine's answer to Burke, The Rights of Man. The proclamation called on magistrates to search out the authors, publishers and distributors of such writings.  Publisher Richard Phillips was sentenced to a year and a half in jail for selling Paine's book.  Radical attorney John Frost was sentenced to the pillory and eighteen months for the remark, "I am for equality…Why, no kings!" Paine was ordered to appear in court to answer charges of sedition.  The Times editorialized, "It is earnestly recommended to Mad Tom that he should embark for France."  Paine was burned in effigy by Loyalist mobs.  In September Paine, fearful for both his live and liberty, followed the Times' advice and emigrated to France.  Paine was tried in absentia for seditious libel and found guilty.  In October 1794 former Home Secretary Henry Dundas opined that "the Spirit of Faction' was indistinguishable from "sedition and treason."  Reformer Samuel Romilly commented upon the effect of the reaction against the French Revolution in 1808, "If any person be desirous of having an adequate idea of the mischievous effects which have been produced in this country by the French Revolution and all its attendant horrors, he should attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles.  He will then find not only what a stupid dread of innovation, but what a savage spirit, it has infused into the minds of many of his countrymen."

Petitions sent to parliament opposing passage of the "Gagging Acts" bore four times as many signatures as those in support.  The government moved large concentrations of troops to the capital during the parliamentary discussions over the "Two Acts."  Meetings were held drawing large crowds in St. George's Fields in Southwark in June 1795 and at Copenhagen House in Islington in November that drew a reported 150,000-200,000 protesters. A proclamation by the King against "seditious activities" in November 1795 specifically named these meetings as seditious.  An article in the Morning Post of 5 November 1795 stated, "The Proclamation… insinuates, the Meetings at St. George's Fields, Copenhagen House, &c. are illegal, without daring to make the unequivocal affirmative.  It is only calculated to create alarm in the public mind, and can be issued for no other purpose, than to feel the pulse of the Nation, preparatory to some measure, which Government are at present fearful of putting in execution."  "the speed with which both bills were presented to Parliament," observes Jennifer Mori, confirming the suspicions of the Morning Post, "suggests that they had existed in draft form for some time."  The opposition in parliament argued that the "Gagging Acts" outlawed the very thing that had brought Pitt into the ministry. 

 Modern views on these and the other laws are mixed. E. P. Thompson considered the passage of these and similar repressive measures as "halting steps" towards a government that would "dispense with the rule of law, dismantle their elaborate constitutional structures, countermand their own rhetoric and exercise power by force."  Harry Dickinson calls them "serious infringements of civil liberties and they were always a threat hanging over the heads of radicals…" Historian Jennifer Mori, on the other hand, sees the "Gagging Acts" as "temporary and partial in conception and execution."  Historians have been quick to point out that the array of repressive laws were only infrequently employed.  H.T. Dickinson has observed, however, that, "Although the Government did not arrest vast numbers of radicals, it did prosecute, harass and intimidate most of the leading radicals.  These actions destroyed the effective leadership of the radical societies, silenced the most able radical propagandists, and frightened many of the rank and file into abandoning the reform movement."

The Home Office employed a small army of spies, informers and agents provocateurs that Charles James Fox believed were hired solely to "depress the cause of freedom."  The Post Office and Customs Service kept a close watch for "treasonable" activities, as did local magistrates, justices of the peace and police officials.  Foreigners were kept under surveillance by the Alien Office.  Michael Harris has pointed out that in the booktrades "a high proportion of personnel was involved in legal proceedings at some stage in their working life." All of this created, in the words of Burke's disciple, William Wickham, "a System of Preventative Police."

The acts were passed in a climate of mutual distrust, as well as harvest failures and an economic depression.  Prime Minister William Pitt commented that "My head would be off in a fortnight were I to resign," and the King was of the opinion that it was "not improbable that he should be the last King of England." The so-called "Pop-Gun Plot" was a probably-imaginary conspiracy cooked up by government informers in which Radicals were to attempt to assassinate the King with an air gun capable of discharging a poison arrow. The plot was probably exaggerated by the government to assist in the passage of repressive legislation. The actual case, when it came to court, was dropped due to flimsy evidence, but the perceived threat had achieved its purpose in alienating public opinion from the reform movement.

An alleged air rifle featured also in the attack on the King's carriage during his procession on 29 October 1795 to the opening of Parliament. Despite rumors that the King had been fired upon, perhaps by an air rifle, in fact it was a pebble thrown at the carriage, as it reached the "narrowest part of the street called St Margaret's," that had broken the coach's window.  On his way back to the palace the carriage was again assaulted by a mob and the door to the coach opened by a rioter (though the witnesses in "Testimony in the Parliament about the "Attack on his Majesty" neither mention nor are asked about such an incident).  The crowd, described as "all of the worst and lowest sort," shouted anti-war slogans and insults at the King, including "No Pitt, No War, Bread, Bread, Peace, Peace!"  Five individuals were arrested but there were no trials.  Many at the time believed that the attack on the King's carriage had been arranged by the government in order to garner public support for further repressive measures.

For a time after the passage of the "Two Acts" orators used various devices to circumvent the law.  John Thelwall continued to speak out for a short time under cover of lecturing on classical history.  When his talks were repeatedly broken up by government-instigated "Church and King" mobs, Thelwall retired from public speaking for the duration of the war.

Only 45 members of the House of Commons voted against the Treasonable Practices Act and 51 against the Seditious Meetings Act. The "Two Acts" received royal assent on 18 December 1795 and became the law of the land.  The acts did have a "chilling effect" on dissent in Britain. In John Barrell's words, "never again" would the definition of treason "be the subject of the kind of argument, fervent, inventive, paradoxical, often flippant but always deadly serious, that had characterized so much political and legal debate in the two years from January 1794 to December 1795."  Lord Auckland put it that "Much will depend on the doing enough and the doing it well, without doing too much."  The harassment continued even into the next century.  In December 1817, after passage of a new set of "Gagging Acts," the government put pamphleteer William Hone on trial three times in three days.

Besides Thelwall's retirement from public speaking, the repression led to the emigration of some leaders such as Dr. Priestley and Daniel Isaac Eaton and the retirement of others including Thomas Hardy.  A Loyalist mob celebrating the naval victory "Glorious First of June" attacked Hardy's home with stones and brickbats.  Hardy's wife, six months pregnant, was badly bruised attempting to flee the mob.  Hardy's home was again attacked following the victory of Camperdown.  Joseph Ritson commented, "I find it prudent to say as little as possible upon political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate."  The government crackdown also led to the split of the LCS and other Radical societies into squabbling factions.  As historian Clive Emsley grudgingly admits, "probably their existence on the statute book did frighten some reformers…" Membership in the LCS dropped from 2,000 to just 200 by the end of 1796.  The acts also forced many of those who continued to press for reforms to go underground.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series July 2002

 

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