Research Subjects: Government & Politics



Address of the London Corresponding Society: 19 November 1792

Debate in Parliament on the Suspension of Habeas Corpus

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.

  Address of the London Corresponding Society, 19 November 1792

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)

Debate in Parliament on the Suspension of Habeas Corpus

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,