Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
Writing to his friend John Hobhouse from Italy in 1820, Byron commented on the term 'radical' that it was entirely new to him: 'Upon reform you have long known my opinion - but radical is a new word since my time - it was not in the political vocabulary of 1816 - when I left England - and I don't know what it means - is it uprooting?' Byron’s etymological understanding of the term is spot on, and in an abstract way tells us a great deal about the political force of nineteenth-century radicalism. The political temperature was running high in England in 1820: the 'Peterloo Massacre' of the previous year in which eleven peaceful demonstrators were killed was still fresh in the memory, and William Cobbett led a vanguard of popular protests in support of the exiled Queen Caroline. In this fevered political climate the journalist Thomas Wooler gave a characteristically witty account of the meaning of the term 'radical' in his trial parody, 'TRIAL EXTRAORDINARY: MR CANNING VERSUS THE RADICAL REFORMERS':
judge: What complaint have you to make, Mr Canning, against the men, whom I see there, behind you, looking so thin and pale, clothed in rags, and having pad-locks on their mouths and thumb-screws on their hands.
mr canning: Oh! Don't you know them? I thought all the world knew them! They are the Radicals.
judge: The Radicals, Sir! What does that name mean?
mr canning: Mean! (What a fool the man must be - aside) Mean! Why, it means everything that is bad.