Great Britain: Suspension of Habeas Corpus. 7 May 1794
By Tom Holmberg
The Habeas Corpus Act was passed by English Parliament in 1679 (according to legend, only due to a miscounting of votes) laying down procedures for the use of the writ, set penalties for officials ignoring the act and closed certain loopholes in the use of habeas corpus. The Habeas Corpus Act covered only criminal charges. It guaranteed that a person detained by the authorities would have to be brought before a court of law and produce the reason for his detention so that the legality of the detention could be established. In times of social unrest, however, Parliament had the power to suspend habeas corpus. "The practical effect" of the suspension of habeas corpus, according to Eric Evans, "was that the authorities could arrest anyone on suspicion of having committed a crime and detain them indefinitely without bringing specific charges."
The government had considered suspending habeas corpus as early as November and December of 1792, following reports of radical meetings and incidents of rioting having broken out in the Midlands, East Anglia, the north-east and Scotland, as well as the French legislature's "fraternal" decree offering aid to all peoples seeking to throw off the chains of tyranny. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act was passed on 7 May 1794 and habeas corpus was suspended on 16 May 1794. The suspension lasted from May 1794 to July 1795 and again from April 1798 to March 1801.
The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was founded in January 1792 (the first Corresponding Society was set up in Sheffield in the previous year) by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy and the silk merchant John Thelwall as a political reform movement. Corresponding societies sprang up throughout Britain, especially in the industrial towns, which were underrepresented in Parliament. The societies called for universal manhood suffrage. With Britain's entrance into the war against Revolutionary France on 1 February 1793, the activities of the Corresponding Societies and other reformers were seen as a threat to the established order.
Delegates of the English and Scottish corresponding societies met, styling themselves the "British Convention." Robert Dundas, writing to his brother, the Home Secretary, expressed a hope that the convention wouldn't "break up without doing something which will enable us to interfere." The Lord Provost of Edinburgh and his constables broke up the meeting on the evening of 5 December 1793. Joseph Gerrald, William Skirving, and Maurice Margarot were arrested and charged with sedition. They were subsequently sentenced, like their predecessors Thomas Muir and Rev. Palmer to fourteen years transportation to the penal colony at Botany Bay (Australia).
Both foreign and domestic affairs had dictated a need for a crackdown on dissent. According to Jennifer Mori (William Pitt and the French Revolution. Edinburgh: Keele Univ., 1997), the Prince and Princess of Orange "were anxious" for a demonstration of British commitment to counter-revolution and the Dutch were "alarmed by the strength of the British reform movement," which called into question the "stability of the ministry." The increased efforts by the government to crackdown on dissent were also a factor in the coalition of the Portland Whigs, who had broken with the Foxites, with the thus strengthened ministry. The merger, in Roger Wells' opinion, was an attempt "to forestall growing opposition" to Pitt's government
The government on 12 May seized the papers of the corresponding societies. A Committee of Secrecy, "packed" in Jennifer Mori's words with "the nominees of the government," was established by Parliament to review the papers. The Committee included William Pitt, Henry Dundas and William Windham, whose views on suspending habeas corpus are given below. In the spring of 1794, William Wickham, later to be a British spymaster in Switzerland, had submitted a report to the Home Office based upon the alarming reports of informers in the LCS. Though the Home Office had been unable to find any evidence of a traitorous correspondence with French agents, the secret committee considered the Radical's sympathy with the French revolution alone as evidence of treason. The only arms which had been discovered was an "arsenal" of pikeheads in the home of a disgruntled government spy. Pitt nonetheless recommended suspending habeas corpus on the basis of the committee's reading of the societies' papers. The opposition to the Act forced 16 divisions of the House (a stalling tactic of calling for repeated votes to delay a vote on the main measure) before the bill was passed on its third reading. It was passed on 18 May by 146 votes to 38. It passed the Lords on 22 May and received royal assent on the following day.
"In government eyes," according to Malcolm I. Thomis and Peter Holt (Threats of Revolution in Britain, 1789-1848. Hamden, CT: 1977), "open-air meetings demanding parliamentary reform were both a threat to established order and the precursors of revolutionary mobs demanding blood, whatever the protestations of the reformers…The events that had occurred in France from 1789 [and] the coming of war in 1793…all combined to ensure that the British government would react in a less than rational manner when confronted with reform demands. The radical nature of the pleas for universal suffrage and their attendant ideas of the rights of man and the sovereignty of the people provoked Pitt's government into the mistaken assumption that ideas which were revolutionary in their implications must be supported by organisations with revolutionary designs…" Church and King mobs, pro-government "bludgeon-men" and other manifestations of Loyalism were supported by the government to oppose the Radical movement. More than 2,000 government-sponsored Loyalist societies had been founded, often by local magistrates, clergy or other elites.
"The very name of British Convention," charged the solicitor-general at the trial of the Convention's secretary, "carries sedition along with it. And the British Convention, associated for what? for the purpose of obtaining universal suffrage; in other words, for the purpose of subverting the government of Great Britain." Lord Chief Justice Eyre, at the trial of Thomas Hardy, warned that, "Associations and assemblies of men, for the purpose of obtaining a reform" of the British Constitution carried the danger that they might "degenerate and become unlawful in the highest degree…[A] few well meaning men…assemble peacably…The number increases, the discussion grows animated, eager, and violent. A rash measure is proposed, adopted, and acted upon. Who can say when this will stop, and that those men who originally assembled peacably, shall not finally and suddenly, perhaps, involve themselves in the crime of high treason?" Robert Dundas, at the trial of Thomas Muir, pronounced, "I appeal to you all, whether or not you are living under a happy government in peace and plenty, in perfect security of your lives and property, the happiest nation upon the face of the earth ... for a set of men in that situation to raise a faction in the minds of the lower order of the people and to create disaffection to the Government, and consequently make a division in that country. I say these things appear to be from the very conjuncture at which they were brought about, sedition of a very high nature." The word "convention," said radical orator John Thelwall, was the "war-whoop of the tribe in power."
Though the number of prosecutions for seditious libel in the 1790 numbered less than 200, those acquitted often served long jail sentences awaiting trial, with subsequent loss of income and they had to incur the costs of their own defense. "It was, of course, the bark which Pitt wanted," as one historian has put it, "fear spies, watchful magistrates with undefined powers, [and] the occasional example." Poet and artist, William Blake was famously tried and acquitted of sedition in 1800 for allegedly telling a soldier who had invaded his garden, "Damn the King, and damn all his soldiers, they are all his slaves!" Historian Jennifer Mori points out that "as an exercise in intimidation, the state trials were a success."
In December 1793 the Sheffield and Leeds delegates to the Scottish Convention were arrested and more arrests followed in 1794. A number of the delegates to the Scottish convention were charged with sedition, the requisites of which were "(1) publication of sentiment, oral or written, (2) disrespect of the authority of the state; ridicule or defiance of the sovereign, the Parliament, public officers and departments, and (3) malicious intent to destroy confidence in the government." A number of the defendants were found guilty and were sentenced to 14 years transportation. Hardy and other LCS leaders, including John Horne Tooke, Thomas Holcroft, and John Thelwall, were arrested and held without being charged with a crime for five months. In the end they were charged by the government with high treason by reason of organizing meetings encouraging the people to disobey King and Parliament. Hardy and his fellow defendants were found not guilty. Planning a convention for the purpose of pressing for parliamentary reform, no matter how radical, could hardly fit the definition of treason in the statute of 1351 as "compassing the death of the King or levying war against him."
Following the acquittal of the LCS leaders Parliament passed the so-called "The Gagging Acts," the Treasonable Practices, extended the definition of ‘treason’ to include speaking and writing, even if no action followed and dispensed with certain procedural and evidentiary requirements, and the Seditious Meetings Act, which required any public meeting of more than 50 persons to be authorised by a magistrate, as additional weapons to use against the British "Jacobins." The government also set up a system of domestic spying that included the use of spies, agents provocateurs and intercepting the mail of suspects. The LCS was banned in 1799.
Friends and Fellow Countrymen!
Unless we are greatly deceived, the Time is approaching when the Object for which we struggle is likely to come within our Reach.—That a Nation like Britain should be free, it is requisite only that Britons should will it to become so: that such should be their Will, the Abuses of our Original Constitution, and the Alarm of our Aristocratic Enemies, sufficiently witness.—Confident in the Purity of out Motives, and in the Justice of our Cause, let us meet Falsehood with Proofs, and Hypocrisy with Plainness: Let us persevere in declaring our Principles, and Misrepresentation will meet its due Reward—Contempt.
In this View the Artificers of a late Aristocratic Association, formed on the 20th Instant, call for a few Remarks, on account of the Declaration they have published relative to other Clubs and Societies formed in this Nation. It is true that this Meeting of Gentlemen (for so they style themselves) have mentioned no Names, instanced no Facts, quoted no Authorities; but they take upon themselves to assert, that Bodies of their Countrymen have been associated professing Opinions favourable to the Rights of Man, to Liberty, and Equality; and moreover that those Opinions are conveyed in the Terms ["]No King! No Parliament!["]—So much for their Assertions.
If this be intended to include the Societies to which we respectively belong, we here in the most solemn Manner deny the latter Part of the Charge; while in admitting the former, we claim the Privilege, and glory in the Character, of Britons. Whoever shall attribute to us (who wish only the Restoration of the lost Liberties of our Country) the expressions of ["]No King! No Parliament!["] or any Design of invading the Property of other Men, is guilty of a wilful, and impudent, and a malicious Falsehood.
We know and are sensible that the Wages of every Man are his Right; that Difference of Strength, of Talents, and of Industry, do and ought to afford proportional Distinctions of Property, which, when acquired and confirmed by the Laws, is sacred and inviolable. We defy the most slavish and malevolent Man in the Meeting of the 20th Instant, to bring the remotest Proof to the Contrary: If there be no Proof, we call upon them to jstify an insidious Calumny, which seems invented only to terrify Independent Britons from reclaiming the Rightful Constitution of their Country.
We admit and we declare, that we are Friends to Civil Liberty, and therefore to Natural Equality, both of which we consider as the Rights of Mankind—Could we believe them to be 'in direct Opposition to the Laws of this Land,' we should blush to find ourselves among the Number of its Inhabitants; but we are persuaded that the Abuses of the Constitution will never pass current for its true Principles, since we are told in its first Charter that all are Equal in the Sight of the Law, which 'shall neither be sold, nor refused, nor delayed, to any Free Man whatsoever.' Should it ever happen that 'Right and Justice' are opposed by Expence, by Refusal, or by Delay, then is this Principle of Equality violated, and we are no longer Freemen.
Such are our Notions of those Rights, which it is boldly maintained are 'inconsistent with the Well-being of Society.' But let us not suffer Men, who avow no Principles of Liberty. Whose favorite Cry is Inequality of Property, to estrange other of our Countrymen from aiding us in serving the Community, and from recovering to the Nation that Share of its Sovereignty, which has unhappily been sacrificed to Corrupt Courtiers and intriguing Bourough-mongers.
If our Laws and Constitution be just and wise in their Origin and their Principle, every Deviation from them as first established must be injurious to the People, whose Persons and Property were then secured; if, at the Revolution, this Country was adequately represented, it is now so no longer; and therefore calls aloud for reform.
If it be true that the People of Britain are superior to other Nations, is it that our Taxes are less burthensome, or that our Provisions are less expensive? Is it from the various Productions of our soil that we are rich? Is it owing to the Majority of our Numbers that we are strong? Certainly not! France has the Advantage in all these Respects, and up to this Period she has never been our superior in Wealth, in Power, in Talents, or in Virtues. But let us not deceive ourselves, the Difference between us and that Nation was, formerly, that our Monarchy was limited while theirs was absolute; that the Number of our Aristocracy did not equal the Thousandth Part of theirs; that we had Trial by Jury while they had none; that our Persons were protected by the Laws, while their Lives were at the Mercy of every titled Individual. We therefore had that to fight for which to them was unknown, since we were Men while they were Slaves.
The scene indeed has changed: Like our brave Ancestors of the last Century, they have driven out the Family that would have destroyed then: they have scattered the Mercenaries who invaded their Freedom, 'and have broken their Chains on the Heads of their Oppressors.' If during this Conflict with military Assassins and domestic Traitors, Cruelty and Revenge have arisen among a few Inhabitants of the Capital, let us lament these effects of a bloody and tyrannous Manifesto; but let us leave to the hypocritical Pretenders to Humanity the Talk of blackening the Misfortune, and attributing to a whole Nation the Act of an enraged Populace.
As we have never yet been cast so low at the Foot of Despotism, so is it not requisite that we should appeal to the same awful Tribunal with our Brethren on the Continent. May our Enmities be written in Sand, but may our Rights be engraven on marble! We desire to overthrow no Property but what has been raised on the Ruins of Our Liberty! We look with Reverence on the landed and commercial Interests of our country; but we view with Abhorrence that Monopoly of Burgage Tenures [Burgage tenure is "a form of tenure, both in England and Scotland, applicable to the property connected with the old municipal corporations and their privileges. In England, it was a tenure whereby houses or tenements in an ancient borough were held of the king or other person as lord at a certain rent."], unwarranted by Law or Reason in this or any other Nation in Europe.
Let us continue, with Patience and Firmness, in the Path which is begun; let us then wait and watch the ensuing Parliament, from whom we have much to hope and little to fear. The House of Commons may have been the Source of our Calamity, it may prove that of our Deliverance. Should it not, we trust we shall not prove unworthy of our Forefathers, Whose Exertions in the Cause of Mankind So Well Deserve Our Imitation.
Source: Address of the London Corresponding Society to the other Societies of Great Britain, united in obtaining a reform in Parliament. (London: James Ridgway, 1793)
On the 12th of May, a message from the King was delivered to the House Commons by Mr. Dundas, informing them that seditious practices had been carried on by societies in London, in correspondence with other societies, to the intent of assembling a convention to represent the people of England, in defiance and opposition to Parliament; and on principles subversive of the laws and constitution of the kingdom, and introductory of the anarchy prevailing in France. Their papers had been seized, and would be laid before Parliament; to which it was recommended to examine them, and to adopt such measures as might appear necessary. They were produced accordingly on the next day; when Mr. Pitt moved an address of thanks to the King, for the communication received, and proposed that the papers should be referred to a committee of secrecy, consisting of twenty-one members, chosen by ballot. The report of this committee was produced to the House by Mr. Pitt on the 16th of May. It contained the proceedings of the two societies, from the year 1791: most of which, however, had been already published in the newspapers by the societies themselves.
It appeared to the committee, Mr. Pitt said, that a plan had been formed, and was in forwardness, to assemble a convention of the people; which was to assume the character and powers of a national representation, and to supersede the authority of parliament. If the House concurred in the same opinion, of which he entertained no doubt, not one moment should be lost in arming the executive power with sufficient authority to prevent the execution of such an attempt. A mere parliamentary reform was not the real aim of these societies: their papers would make it evident, that they were, during the two last years, leagued in correspondence with other societies in this and a neighbouring country; from which the clearest inference might be drawn, that a convention, such as described, had been their original view; and that they were only waiting a fit opportunity to realize it. He bitterly inveighed against the doctrines contained in the performance termed the Rights of Man; charging it with all the evils that had befallen France, and as tending to propagate them in all Europe. The report, he said, would shew that a correspondence had subsisted between these societies and the Jacobin club; that they had sent delegates to the Convention at Paris, which had formally received them; and that when the French Jacobin government commenced the war against Great Britain, these societies had, to the utmost of their power, acted an hostile part, manifested adherence to the same cause, affirmed their expressions and appellations, and laboured to disseminate their principles. It was chiefly in the manufacturing towns their efforts were greatest, from the number of ignorant and discontented people with which they abounded. Not withstanding their endeavours to conceal their intentions at times, they had not been able to disguise them at others. In one of their letters, that to the society at Norwich, they plainly intimated that they looked for no reform but from the convention they had in view, advising, however, a continuance of the petitions for reform, as a cover to their designs. They had the audacity to style the Scottish convention a legal representation of the people; and to justify those whom the law had sentenced to punishment. The condemnation of those men was the signal at which they had agreed to come finally to an issue upon the point, whether the law should frighten them into compliance, or whether they should oppose it with its own weapons, force and power. What was this, Mr. Pitt said, but declaring, in other words, that the time was come when either tamely to submit to the laws of their country, or resolutely to rise up against them! This society, however despicable, and consisting of the lowest vulgar, had found the means of a most expeditious and extensive increase: it counted thirty divisions in London only, some of them amounting to six hundred individuals; and it kept a regular correspondence with many others, systematically distributed through various parts of the kingdom, particularly in the manufacturing towns. It has audaciously assumed the task of watching over the transactions of parliament, and of limiting boundaries to its powers, threatening destruction if it dared to transgress them. It was no longer than six weeks, he said, since the Corresponding Society had laid before the Constitutional Society, a scheme for calling together a convention of the people, manifestly for the purpose of dissolving the government, and lodging the supreme power in their own hands. This was to have been executed in a few weeks. The address they had drawn up to this effect were circulated with the utmost care and expedition: they had chosen a central spot, in order to facilitate the assembling of delegates from all parts; and every society was requested to transmit an estimate of its numbers, that the strength of the combined societies might be exactly known. These wretches, said Mr. Pitt, expected, by following the precedents of the Jacobin principles and practices, to arrive at the same degree of power. The had, no longer since the 14th of April, held a consultation, wherein the members of every department of the state had been most scandalously vilified, as unworthy and incompetent to hold their official situations. The report, he also said, mentioned that arms had been actually procured and distributed by those societies. In consequence, therefore, of the informations contained in this report, he would move for a suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, as particularly necessary when a conspiracy existed in the heart of the country; against which government ought to be empowered to proceed with all possible vigour and expedition.
In answer to Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox expressed his astonishment, that so much pains had been taken by the committee of secrecy to lay before the House a collection of facts notoriously known to them and to the public at large for years. Whether the individuals concerned in the transactions just related, had acted consistently or not, was not deserving of consideration. One point in their conduct was clear: through the whole of the business they had taken in hand, they consistently expressed their wishes for a parliamentary reform. The Scotch convention had, in the most public manner, declared a resolution not to oppose the government, but only to request a redress of grievances. Were convention and sedition synonymous terms? He had been a member of one in the year 1780, which corresponded openly with societies formed on the same principles in divers parts of England. They presented their joint petition to the House, which formally received it, without charging them with sedition. Conventions never had, till the present period, been reputed contrary to the letter, or to the spirit of the constitution. By a convention the Irish had obtained a free constitution: by the same means the catholics in that kingdom had obtained the privileges they now enjoyed. He would not countenance the convention proposed by the societies; but it would be dangerous for a House of Commons, the immediate protectors of the franchises of their fellow subjects, to declare it illegal. To pretend alarm at their attempting to seize the reins of government, was mere affectation. Were any convention formed on such a plan, to be so dispossessed of their reason as to venture on such a step, they must immediately become an object of too much derision to command any obedience. The extent of the ministerial measure was no than to invest the executive power with absolute authority over every subject in the kingdom: the restraints with which it surrounded every man, were incompatible with that manly freedom of thought and speech, without which no liberty could exist. The suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, was by no means warranted by any actual necessity. The suspensions that took place in the years 1715 and 1745, were no precedent for the present period. Those were truly perilous times: the religion, the liberty of the kingdom were both menaced by a rebellion in favour of a popish pretender, and of a despotic government.
Mr. Sheridan, in opposition to the bill, took severe notice of the impatience with which the ministerial party had called for the question. Such conduct went to the preclusion of all parliamentary discussion, and to impose silence at once upon the legislative body.—It would be more reasonable to limit the operation of the bill to individuals belonging to societies engaged in the carrying forward political undertakings, than to deliver up all men indiscriminately to the will of the minister.
Mr. Burke contended that the catholics in Ireland had not denominated their assembling together a convention, but simply a meeting of delegates. Their object was manifest and acknowledged; but the convention alluded to, embracing every object, and assumed a latitude of power superior to that of parliament itself. The suspension, far from being an oppressive measure, had frequently saved families from ruin, by placing the heads of them in custody, and preventing their rushing into rebellion.
The motion for a suspension being carried by a large majority, the bill, at three o'clock in the morning, after going through a first and second reading, was voted into a committee and reported.
But the third reading was deferred to the next day, when it was moved, but strenuously opposed by Mr. Grey. He accused the minister of unjustifiable practices in appealing to the public voice when he flattered himself it would be favourable to him, and by speaking of it in a disparaging manner when he expected it would reprobate his measures. He reminded him of his behaviour when defeated in his former projects of parliamentary reform, and of the resolution in which he participated at Thatched House [Pitt had attended a meeting of reformers at the Thatched House Tavern in Westminster on 16 May 1782. When the question about the meeting was later raised at Horne Tooke's trial for high treason in November 1794, Pitt "took refuge in a faulty memory"], in conjunction with Mr. Horne Tooke and other gentlemen: 'that, considering it was in vain to look to parliament for a regeneration originating within itself, it be recommended to the people throughout the kingdom, to assemble during the ensuing summer, in districts, for the purpose of an application to parliament upon that subject." What difference could there be, said Mr. Grey, between the meetings thus recommended, and the convention that was now proposed? Were not their objects precisely similar? But how altered was the promoter of those former meetings! William Pitt, the reformer of that day, was the prosecutor and persecutor of reformers at the present! he [Mr. Pitt] then exerted himself to stir up the passions of the people, and to render parliament odious to them; but he now thought them unqualified to judge of their rights and interests; and he pursued with the rancour of an apostate his once intimate associate in the business of parliamentary reform. He had that very day been taken up in the examination of Mr. Tooke, for persevering in the sentiments which he had himself warmly avowed. He ought therefore to be considered as an abettor of the doctrine of appealing to the people, instead of applying to parliament: if there were guilt in this, the minister was eminently guilty.
It was asserted by Mr. Canning, on the ministerial side, that if precedents were wanting, the occasion would justify the measure proposed, and it was clearly warranted by the report of the committee. He fully agreed in the opinion with the minister, that though a parliamentary reform might be a proper object of discussion at a season of tranquillity, it was highly improper in times of war and popular agitation. He explicitly declared, that as he had sided with the minister in his ideas on this subject, he should feel no repugnance in adopting his sentiments upon it on any future occasion, when he might be pleased to express them, confident that they would be apposite to times and circumstances.
Mr. Courteney, after noticing, with much humour, the readiness of Mr. Canning to adhere firmly to the minister, and which had already produced not a little laughter, observed how strongly Montesquieu, in his Spirit of Laws had recommended it to the English nation, to consider the Habeas Corpus act as the palladium of their liberty. Nothing therefore could justify its suspension, but the extremest necessity; but none existed at present: no arms had been taken up, nor correspondence carried on with the enemy; and no legal proof could be adduced of a conspiracy to subvert the government.
In answer to what had been spoken concerning precedents, Mr. Dundas observed, that an exact concurrence of circumstances precisely similarly, was, in the nature of things, hardly possible. In matters of great moment, it was sufficient that incidents bore some resemblence to authorize a similitude of conduct. The Habeas Corpus act had been suspended nine times since the [English] Revolution, under circumstances of danger to the state, without producing those evils that were described in such alarming colours. No undue severities had been exercised by the government on those occasions, and no individual ever had just reason to complain of being ill-treated in consequence of that suspension. The low condition in life of the members and friends of the societies in question, was pleaded as a motive for viewing them rather with contempt than terror; but from individuals of this description much was certainly to be apprehended: having little or nothing to lose by civil disorders and confusions, and perhaps, in their imaginations, a great deal to expect, numbers if not the majority, might justly be presumed to favour public disturbances. A mere parliamentary reform would not answer their views. In one of their societies it had been expressly stated, "That some things were not to be submitted to, either with or without the sanction of parliament." But though they did not all affect such a style, he had not the least doubt that a convention, met on the principle of establishing universal suffrage and annual parliaments, was totally inconsistent with the existence of the monarchy and parliament.
Mr. Dundas was replied to by Mr. Sheridan, who took particular notice, that ever since the French revolution, ministry had betrayed a remarkable apprehension of a parliamentary reform. Granting that discontents existed, did they prove a determination to rise in open revolt? Did the report, so much insisted on, make it appear that the arms said to be in possession of those societies, had not been provided by individuals to guard against the fury of the church and king mob [The "Church and King mobs" were conservative crowds that in defense of the existing order attacked radicals and radical meetings. The chemist and Unitarian minister Dr. Joseph Priestley, for example, was one who had been targeted by a "Church and King" crowd for his outspoken views. His home and laboratory was destroyed in 1791 by the mob and Priestley eventually emigrated to the United States]?
Mr. Wyndham observed, that it could not be reasonably denied that sufficient proofs had been adduced of a conspiracy to overthrow the constitution. The principle of universal suffrage was alone a source of the most lamentable evils, as France could amply testify. The mild conduct of government having failed of putting a stop to the licentious proceedings of ill-intentioned individuals, it was time to employ severe methods; and if those did not produce the end proposed, stronger and severer measures still must be adopted. The evils threatened must be obviated at all events; and if the laws in being were inadequate to that purpose, others more effectual ought indispensably to be framed.
These observations occasioned a most animated speech by Mr. Fox. After condemning the measure of suspension in the strongest terms, he adverted to the menacing terror of Mr. Wyndham's discourse, which seemed to portend a gradual deprivation of their liberties to Englishmen. Should the restraints already laid upon then not answer the views proposed, which were apparently to break their spirit, and tame them into submission, other means were to be tried, and others still to succeed, until those views were completely effected. But what severer usage than the present could remain in the contemplation of ministers? Would they forbid people to meet and communicate their sentiments on public affairs? Were such an injunction disobeyed, would they sentence them to imprisonment? Would they, in the rage of resentment, at the hatred excited by their tyranny, erect tribunals to punish the indignant public? Was it resolved, in short, to demolish the British constitution one part after another, under pretence of pretending its destruction by French principles? The fact was, that in England, as well as in France, terror was to be made the order of the day, and not a voice be lifted up against the ministers. The word Convention was now held up as an object of alarm, to terrify the people, and induce them to think the kingdom was in imminent danger of some great calamity. But what was a convention but a meeting of the people? wherein, if they behaved seditiously, or did any thing unlawful, they were liable to be imprisoned and punished in the same manner as if there were no convention. Where then was the danger of such a meeting? The object of the societies, which they scrupled not to acknowledge, was to obtain universal suffrage. Allowing such a system to be impracticable, it was far from clear that the confusions in France had arisen from that cause; it was a theory which, like all others, might through the iniquity of men be rendered instrumental to wicked purposes; but did it follow that, because improper ideas of liberty had been taken up by the French, or that liberty itself had been abused, every man who mentioned that word should be charged with disloyalty? The misfortunes of France were due to the previous oppressions of the former government, which had rendered the French nation desperate, and prepared it to receive any tenets that thwarted tyranny. Had that nation been protected by a Habeas Corpus act; had the government been constrained by the standing laws, to respect the rights of the community, those tenets would not have found an entrance into that unhappy country. By parity of reasoning, those misfortunes were not to be dreaded here, while the constitution remained free from perversions. But it was the very essence of the English constitution, that men should speak their minds. Were the freedom of complaining against grievances, and of meeting for the purpose of petitioning for redress, and of expostulating with persons in authority, to be branded with the name of sedition, what would become of our boasted constitution, of that liberty which distinguished the English from all others nations? But nothing was more certain than its very speedy dissolution, if ministers were permitted to carry every measure they proposed for the curtailment of the long established franchises of the people. As the thirst of power was never satiated, so those who possessed it, would if unobstructed, proceed step after step, to surround themselves with all the terrors of parliamentary decrees in favour of the executive authority delegated to them, until that authority become finally paramount to all resistance. But why, said, Mr. Fox, should the manifest danger of so fatal an issue be incurred? Was it to punish the discontented, and root out all discontents? But if the suspension was to continue till this were effected, then it must never have an end: a supposition which would not suffer a moment's countenance.
The necessity of suspending the Habeas Corpus act, was argued no less strenuously by Mr. Pitt. The question, he said, was, whether the dangers threatened to the state, were greater than any that could arise from the suspension proposed, which would terminate in six months, and could not in the mean time anywise affect the rights of the people, or the privileges of any rank of society? Were the power thus conferred to be abused, the law would still lie open against the guilty, and prove more inexorable than in any other instances of misconduct, from the very nature of the offence; which would be a breach of public trust in the most criminal degree. It was unjust, he said, to compare the conduct of government in this country to that which was now exercised over the French. The truth was, that we were necessitated to resist French crimes by opposing to them French principles. Whatever might be alleged against severer measures, if those already employed to obviate the apprehended evils were inefficacious, more effectual must be used. Was lenity to be admitted where the constitution was at stake? Were a convention upon Jacobin principles once established, who could foresee how it would end? No indulgence, no concession ought to be shewn to those societies.—How could they expect or deserve any from a government and constitution they indubitably proposed to subvert? Not to stop the progress of their opinions, were better than granting a toleration to sedition and anarchy. As to the extent of the rigour intended against them, that must depend wholly on the audacity of their attempts. No undue severities, however, said Mr. Pitt, would be resorted to; and the degree of punishment would not exceed that of criminality. It were nugatory to deny the existence of designs against the government and constitution; and he doubted not that the measure to obviate these would appear exceeding proper, as it did not oppose the right of the people to meet together for lawful purposes, or to petition for a reform, or a redress of abuses. But the convention proposed by the societies, went far beyond all those bounds, as fully appeared from their papers. Nothing would have satisfied it less than a controul over parliament itself.
Lord Grenville, on the 17th of May, brought into the House of Lords a message from the King, similar to that which had been delivered to the Commons of the 12th. He moved, that the report of the secret committee of that House should be referred to a secret committee of the House of Lords.
This motion was opposed by Lord Stanhope, on the ground of the papers differing in those respects materially from the report; which could not, for that reason, be considered as fair and impartial. But the motion for a secret committee was carried. This committee stated to the House of Lords, on the 22nd, that having compared the report of the committee of the Commons with the papers it was accompanied with, it had come to the same resolutions that had been adopted by that committee.
Lord Grenville moved in consequence, that, in order to strengthen the hands of the government, the Habeas Corpus act should be suspended. He supported this motion with arguments similar to those that had been employed for the same end in the House of Commons.
Lord Stanhope opposed the motion in the same style of reasoning with which it had been combated in the Lower House. He reprobated the bill of the suspension as a counter part to the Bastille and the Lettres de Cachet ["A royal warrant from the king of France, ordering the imprisonment, without trial, of a person, for as long as the king desired"].
Lord Thurlow expressed himself with great caution on this subject. He acceded to the bill, he said, merely on the presumption that its necessity had been proved. From his inspection of the report, it contained, in his opinion, many facts amounting to real sedition, but not to any higher crime. The suspension would not, he said, invalidate the Habeas Corpus act, which would remain in full force, those cases only excepted where an individual was detained on suspicions well founded.
Lord Lauderdale spoke vehemently against the bill of suspension. Ministry, he asserted, was pursuing a revolutionary system in this country by a chain of innovations fundamentally destructive of the constitution. It was hard to decide, he said, which was the greatest calamity to a state,—a successful struggle for an increase f despotic authority, or the introduction of licentiousness. The bill, he contended, should not extend beyond the societies under accusation; otherwise it would establish that system of terror which we so much reprobated in France. He concluded by moving an adjournment.
Other Lords spoke for and against the bill.
Among a variety of arguments, it was alleged by the Marquis of Lansdowne, that the societies now so grievously accused, were in truth the offspring of those societies that made so much noise in this country towards the close of the American war; and to which much more reproach, if any were deserved, was due, for having led the way in this method of calling upon government to do justice to the public. But the English Jacobins of that day had renounced their principles, and were now persecuting the Jacobins of the present. As to the demands insisted on by the Jacobins of both epochs, if they were justly founded, such was the disposition of the people and the nature of the constitution, that they must ultimately be granted to them in despite of all ministerial opposition,—unless indeed one were to suppose that the constitution was so far gone, as to be irretrievable, and the people become so degenerate, as to have lost all ideas of asserting their rights. What are the objects of the harsh measures already adopted, and of the still harsher, so explicitly threatened? Was total silence to be imposed upon the British nation on the imprudence and mismanagement of their rulers? Were armies of informers to be let loose on the community, to discover what preparations were making against their employers? But, without such odious and despicable instruments, why did not ministers, if they really apprehended that arms were fabricating against them, apply for information to some of the chief armourers in the metropolis? without whose knowledge no fabrication to any large amount could possibly take place.
The Marquis of Lansdowne was replied to by the Lord Chancellor, who, among other reasonings, alleged, that the constant mention of a parliamentary reform by the societies, could no more clear them of illegal intent, as their proposed convention, than the expression of God save the King, at the bottom of a seditious libel, could clear it of sedition. The individuals composing those societies, he asserted to be ten times as numerous as those condemned in the [anti-Catholic Gordon] riots of the year 1780.
After the adjournment moved by Lord Lauderdale had been negatived, a motion for the third reading of the bill was opposed by him as irregular, and violating the standing order of the House, that no bill should go twice through a reading on the same day. Such precipitation, he said, would impress the public with a belief, that it was intended to prevent a petition against the bill: but his opposition was over-ruled, not however without a spirited protest against the bill by the Duke of Bedford, and the Earls of Albemarle, Stanhope, and Lauderdale.
An address being moved, on the 13th of June, by Lord Grenville, to assure the King of the House's loyalty and determination to punish the participaters in the conspiracy laid before it, and to invest him with additional power for the suppression of attempts against the government, it was warmly opposed by Lord Lauderdale, but carried and sent to the Commons for their concurrence.
On Mr. Pitt's motion for an address to the King, similar to that of the House of Lords, Mr. Lambton took the occasion to condemn the methods used in framing the report of the secret committee. Partial selections and extracts from the letters and papers of the societies, could not, he said, be considered as fair proofs of the charges alleged against them. He appealed to the words of Algernon Sidney [Sidney was executed in 1683 for allegedly conspiring to kill King Charles II] on his trial, "that if quotations were suffered to be mangled and disguised to answer party purposes, he would prove from the Bible itself that there was no God." Partial extracts, without any overt act, were not evidence in a court of law, and could not therefore be admitted as proofs by the court of parliament. The statements in the report were inconsistent and confused: it mentioned that arms had been prepared: they amounted to a specification of eighteen pike-heads, ten battle-axes, and twenty sword-blades. Such were the warlike preparations for encountering and destroying the British government.
Mr. Lambton was seconded by Mr. Robinson and Mr. Martin, and opposed by Mr. Serjeant Watson, Sir Watkin Lewis, Mr. Alderman Newnham, and Mr. Burden.
The address was opposed by Mr. Fox. He thought it unnecessary in the present case, and tending to make it appear of more importance than it really was. No motive existed to prompt government to the extraordinary exertions of power, recommended by ministers:—the courts of law were amply competent to punish the individuals arrested on treasonable charges, if they were found guilty. The loyalty of the House could not be questioned on this or any other occasion, and it advice was not called for. What could therefore be the purport of an address at present, unless to assure the King of their persuasion that a conspiracy existed, the reality of which had not however been legally proved? Was this a matter worthy of an address, which was solemnly to declare the constitution in danger? He strongly reprobated the affected alarm at the term Convention, as if the thing itself were necessarily pregnant with evil. He reminded the House that a convention had called the King's ancestors to the succession of the British crown. This alone proved the utility of conventions, and that popular meetings ought not to be held in an odious light. Were people once debarred from assembling in order to discuss political subjects, it would infallibly prove a mortal wound to the constitution, of which it might linger a while, but would ultimately die. The old Tory faction, he said, was fast reviving in this country, and zealously striving to destroy the only fence to the constitution, in cases of extremity. This only effectual fence was the lawful resistance to lawless proceedings, authorized both by the theory and practice of the constitution. Was it impossible to suppose a case wherein the people might legally assemble by their delegates, and call upon parliament to do that which of its own accord and motion would never have been done? Why, therefore, countenance doctrines and measures that would necessarily establish passive obedience and non-resistance, and rob us at once of that constitution which some persons invested, in an evil hour for this country, with high credit and authority, durst not asperse with their words, but were indefatigably striving to subvert by their actions? When we viewed with a dispassionate eye the persons implicated in the supposed plot, they appeared to be men who might co-operate in a revolution, but would never produce one. Such men the law could easily reach, if guilty of what they were accused. They might have held imprudent and even seditious language; but that was punishable without recurring to severities to terrify the whole community, and without anticipating the declaration of their guilt in a court of justice after a regular trial. Such an anticipation parliament could manifestly be charged with, by declaring its belief in the accusations brought against them. He acknowledged, that in states where the destruction of a few persons subverted the order of things, a small number of obscure individuals might effect a revolution; but in this country, where such an event must rest on the broadest foundations of popularity, it was unreasonable to think that so insignificant and diminutive a set of men could seriously, with any remains of sanity in their minds, have engaged in such an undertaking. He concluded a long speech of great animation, by recommending principles of moderation as the firmest security of government, and finally moving to omit that part of the address which specified the persuasion of the House, that a conspiracy had been carrying on against the constitution.
Sir William Dolben warmly rejected the proposed amendment, as disrespectful to the Lords, and tending to expose the proceedings of both Houses on the subject before them, to public derision. Were such an amendment adopted, we should then have, he said, a passive obedient King, non-resisting Lords, and a rampant republican House of Commons.
The Attorney General, in support of the address, contended that the societies had incontestibly the most treasonable views. He considered, in particular, that which was style the Friends of the People; and another instituted for the Liberty of the Press, as particularly dangerous, from the persons of birth and distinction that formed them: the latter of these societies made it their business to applaud and patronize individuals convicted of misdemeanours against government, and to extol the integrity and patriotism of those members of the law who had pleaded their cause, as if those retained on the opposite side merited reprobation. He warmly maintained the propriety of the address. The expressions it contained relating to the conspiracy, were founded on indubitable facts; and to retrench them, would deprive it of the most essential part. The measures proposed by ministry, were the most apposite to the threatened evils; they went to prevent them; which was certainly better than to wait till the punishment became necessary. Had government taken preventive measures in the year 1780, much mischief would have been obviated.—The issue of this long and warm debate, was the rejection of Mr. Fox's amendment, and the passing of the address.
In this manner terminated the parliamentary discussions on the apprehension of the members of the societies, and the suspension of Habeas Corpus act. Those members remained, in consequence, close prisoners in the Tower, till they were brought to a solemn trial before a special commission at the Old Bailey, on the 25th of October. A bill of indictment had been previously found in the grand jury, at the Sessions-House, Clerkenwell, on the 2nd of October, against Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, J.A. Bonney, Stewart Kydd, Jeremiah Joice, Thomas Wardell, Thomas Holcroft, John Richter, Matthew Moore, John Thelwall, R. Hodson, John Baxter, and John Martin.
Source: The Annual Register, or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1794. London: Printed by R. Wilks for W. Otridge and Sons, etal. (Publisher varies by year.) Published for the years 1758-1837 in 80 vols.; illus., maps; 21-23 cm. Alternate titles for some years include: Annual Register, or, a View of the History and Politics of the Year... and New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year... Succeeded by: Annual Register of World Events.
Placed on the Napoleon Series July 2002
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