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Part I - Publicity, print, and association

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2016

Jon Mee
Affiliation:
University of York
Type
Chapter
Information
Print, Publicity, and Popular Radicalism in the 1790s
The Laurel of Liberty
, pp. 17 - 110
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BYCreative Common License - NC
This content is Open Access and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC-BY-NC 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/cclicenses/

Chapter 1 Popular radical print culture: ‘the more public the better’

Founded in January 1792 by a London shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, and a group of friends, the LCS is commonly seen as the key organisation in the emergence of a new kind of popular radicalism. The 1770s and 1780s had witnessed the appearance of a movement aimed at political education and parliamentary reform, but its participants had been mainly drawn from the landowning classes, associated writers and journalists, lawyers, and other professionals, plenty of nonconformist ministers among them. The LCS came to mediate between these classes and London’s artisans and shopkeepers in the name of ‘the people’ broadly construed. Proposing an unlimited membership and charging a cheap subscription rate of one penny per week, the LCS aimed to broaden the processes of political discussion and the printed circulation of ideas.1 On the national stage, until it was proscribed in 1799, the LCS also played a major part in organising relations between radical societies across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Modern historians, especially since the revival of scholarly interest in popular conservatism in the 1980s, have been inclined to celebrate the initiative displayed by the LCS, but disparage a perceived lack of cogency in its political platform. H. T. Dickinson, for instance, described the reform movement in general as ‘hopelessly divided on what changes ought to be made’ and unable ‘to devise any effective means of implementing their policies’.2 There is more than a little truth in these judgements, but as bald statements they give little sense of the task facing the reform movement as it sought to animate the constitutive power of the people against the congealed authority of the Crown-in-Parliament.3 The fact of major differences within the reform movement is undeniable, but that is hardly a surprise if we examine any reform or revolutionary movement, successful or otherwise. In the case of the 1790s, this diversity reflects the experimental nature of the movement as it faced a range of new possibilities in the wake of the American and French Revolutions. Almost as soon as a radical reform movement appeared on this new terrain, it also had to contend with all kinds of challenges, not least the government’s attempts to use all the resources of the state to extirpate it.

In the face of these pressures, the LCS and its allies engaged in an attempt to create an expanded public sphere out of the widening of popular debate. In a memorable phrase, E. P. Thompson expressed a wish to rescue those involved from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. Nevertheless, even he saw the besetting sin of English Jacobins as ‘self-dramatization’.4 The judgement may be reasonable enough in relation to several of those discussed in these pages, perhaps most obviously John Thelwall, although it may also underestimate the way in which performance, including the performance of personality, was an important aspect of the theatre of Georgian politics across the board. If the LCS and its members critiqued the theatricality of Pitt and others as an empty show, a shabby trick played to deceive the people, they also insisted on their right to produce a drama of their own, with starring roles for radical celebrities. Negative judgements of the radical societies are often predicated on their failure to adhere to a distinct ideological programme, a judgement implying an idea of practice as a mere parole to the langue of intellectual history.5 Sometimes the LCS is represented as disappointingly falling back on conventionally constitutionalist discourse or failing to exploit the political possibilities of the language of natural rights made available by Paine’s Rights of Man. More sensitive to the difficulties of the task it faced would be an acknowledgement of the variety of ways the radical societies put pressure on the authority of constituted power in order to assert the constituent authority of the people. My approach thinks of the LCS in relation to language as embedded in social practices and understands contests over those practices as essential to the politics of the radical movement. The LCS is read not as some absolutely coherent agent, but as a locus for the circulation of print structured by reading, meetings, lectures, conversazione, various encounters in bookshops and many other spaces in the associational world of eighteenth-century London.6

From this perspective, to follow Iain Hampsher-Monk, the politics of the radical societies may not lie simply with the speech act in the text, but in ‘the very act of publication’. In this regard, Hamphser-Monk contends ‘the medium, not the content … is the message, the very fact and facility of such “electric” (a favoured metaphor) communication evinced and comprising the political mobilization of hitherto unpoliticized people from different parts of the country’.7 If this book ends with a defeat of a kind in the passage of the Two Acts through Parliament at the end of 1795, then the triumph of the radicalism of the 1790s was the creation of a popular politics that extended into the nineteenth century. John Bone, Daniel Isaac Eaton, Thomas Hardy, William Hone, Sampson Perry, Francis Place, Thomas Preston, and John Thelwall are only a few of those appearing in these pages, who re-emerged as writers, publishers, booksellers, and activists in the radical cause after 1800. Nineteenth-century commemorations of the Scottish martyrs and those acquitted of treason at the end of 1794, now largely forgotten in British public culture, were only the outward sign of a continuity of popular radicalism that extended into the reform agitation of the 1820s and 1830s and beyond.8

Some of the activities of the radical societies have been regarded as an attempt to discipline a plebeian culture of ‘riot, revelry, and rough music’ into the practices of political citizenship, but there are ample reasons to be wary of assuming that forms of organisation, lectures, and debating societies, for instance, were experienced as a new form of discipline, when they were variations on what were becoming familiar features of the commercial culture of ‘the town’, increasingly accessible to the social classes who participated in the LCS.9 The various sociable gatherings Francis Place later described as mere epiphenomena of the serious political business of the LCS were events taking place in a complicated urban terrain where customary practices had been adapting for some time to interlinked worlds of print and leisure. In this regard at least, the LCS was an extension of the phenomenon – identified by John Brewer with the Wilkes agitation in the 1760s – of ‘independent men, made free through association and educated through the rules, ritual and constitutions of their own clubs and societies’. These associations partly legitimated their activities through the ‘invented’ tradition of popular resistance that they claimed had produced the Revolution of 1688.10 The popular societies laid claim to this tradition – with various redefinitions of ‘independence’ – and extended it further towards a democratic idea of the sovereignty of the people, sometimes styled ‘the general will’, as the constituent power. Towards the end of Rights of Man, Paine had contrasted the ‘savage custom’ that solved disputes over government by civil war, with ‘the new system’ where ‘discussion and the general will, arbitrates the question’ and ‘reference is had to national conventions’.11 At its most radical, this ‘new system’ extended to arguing for the right to call a convention to collect the general will, and even, so the government maintained, to represent it. Over 1793–4, as John Barrell has shown, Pitt’s ministry began to construe these arguments not only as seditious but also treasonable in so far as they presented the popular societies as more legitimately representing the people than Parliament. For their part, members of the LCS like John Baxter, as we shall see in Chapter 2, insisted that attempts to stop the popular societies consulting together were a sign of tyranny that triggered a customary and constitutional right of resistance.

There were certainly tensions within the LCS about discipline and organisation, anxieties about presenting a respectable face to the public, but also arguments about what constituted proper forms of public practice in the name of political citizenship. Eley may be right to note that ‘the advanced democracy of the LCS presumed the very maturity and sophistication it was meant to create’. Polemically, the presumption was essential to the case for universal suffrage, but the struggle to create a democratic culture in the popular societies was a sustained and extraordinarily rich response that seriously alarmed the government of the day and prompted it to take measures.12 Many contemporaries – not only radicals – regarded these measures as both unnecessary and unprecedented. The response to them formed a crucial part of the shaping context of radical print culture. Charles James Fox described Pitt’s measures culminating in the Two Acts as a ‘Reign of Terror’.13 If the phrase is characteristically melodramatic, it does at least speak to the emergent sense of a new landscape for political discourse, one radicals like Baxter regarded as a state of exception that might justify calling a convention.14 In the 1770s, John Jebb, a favourite author of Hardy’s, had insisted on ‘the acknowledged right of the people to new-model the Constitution, and to punish with exemplary rigour every person, with whom they have entrusted power, provided in their opinion, he shall be found to have betrayed that trust’.15 Pitt’s attempts to close down the avenues open to political opinion suggested to some members of the LCS that the moment had arrived when the compact between the people and the state had to be renegotiated. Censorship and repression, in this regard, could both generate and thwart radicalism.

The LCS was part of a complex and distinctive print culture, not without its internal stresses, far from it, but one that was shaped by the practices of eighteenth-century society more generally and the developing contexts of which it was a part. At its heart is the relationship between the LCS and the SCI, founded in 1780, but revived in the early 1790s under the gentleman radical John Horne Tooke, to disseminate political information. The most obvious fruit of the collaboration between the LCS and the SCI was the circulation of cheap editions of Paine’s Rights of Man, but their relationship continued in one form or another, and with different degrees of intensity, from 1792 until the treason trials at the end of 1794. There were important tensions between the two societies, not least to do with social status, roughly speaking between the politer constituency of the SCI and the more popular complexion of the LCS, but these differences were far from absolute. Some key individuals, for instance, Joseph Gerrald, were members of both societies, refusing to observe distinctions between the elite and the lower classes that structured received ideas of who exactly constituted the political nation. Figures like Gerrald and his associates Charles Pigott and Robert Merry, both of whom are discussed more closely in Part II, were regarded as shocking examples to the landowning classes of the personal consequences of dabbling in political alliances with the lower orders.

Part II of this book attends more closely to individuals and texts involved in this broader picture and the complications of their careers. The relation of the conduct of individuals to the societies of which they were members was a crucial one, not least when it came to prosecutions for political opinion. Was a libellous publication the responsibility solely of its author or publisher, or did it represent the official point of view of the LCS or the SCI? This question was asked at more than one trial and also in Parliament. The world of print explored here is not just constituted out of the publications of the SCI and LCS, or of the other political societies associated with them, but also out of the ‘unofficial’ publications of individual members. Some of those involved in the societies, including, for instance, Merry and Pigott, assumed a right as gentlemen to comment on public affairs in print. They were already authors before 1792, practised at writing for newspapers and pamphlets, and, in Merry’s case, associated with Sheridan’s management of the press. Their situation was rather different from that of most members of the LCS, but these did include many who were already immersed in print culture as booksellers, avid readers, members of book clubs and Bible societies, like Thomas Hardy and his brother-in-law George Walne. Such men probably understood their involvement in the LCS as part of a more general commitment to moral improvement. John Thelwall certainly harboured and achieved literary ambitions before he became involved in radical politics. Others, like the silversmith John Baxter, became authors and publishers through their participation in radicalism, becoming ‘literary men’, to use a term that crops up more than once in the archive. Frequently the LCS showed respect for and even deference to the professional skills of writers, not least in late 1794 when it needed copy for The Politician. At the end of his trial for treason in 1794, the judge, Chief Justice Eyre, confessed to finding Thelwall’s ‘character’ to be ‘one of those extraordinary things that puzzle the mind the more they were examined’. How could ‘a man of letters, associating with the company of gentlemen’ have conspired with and even encouraged those accused of plotting treason?16 The judge’s question was a specific version of a more general puzzle. The question of how a distinctive republic of letters could have emerged from such places remained an enigma to a ruling elite, rarely willing to grant someone like Thelwall the literary status begrudgingly allowed to him by the Chief Justice.

Radical print culture in the 1790s was structured as much by tensions between its members as their cooperative will to change their world for the better. The disorientating speed of events that the French Revolution unleashed across Europe further complicated things, as participants had to decide upon the significance of those events for their sense of what was possible in the British situation. As France moved from ancien régime to constitutional monarchy and then to a republic, so the possibilities of what might be done by reform changed too, a fact reflected even in Thomas Paine’s writing. Often described as a republican because of his role in the American struggle against Great Britain, Paine shifted his thinking about Europe as different possibilities emerged in Britain and France. He moved from supporting a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVI to a republic, at least by late 1791, but only announced his support for universal suffrage in Britain in his Letter Addressed to the Addressers, published in August 1792. Quite probably, this development was influenced by his experiences with the LCS and SCI over the spring and summer of 1792.17

When we examine the archive of the radical movement in London, a picture emerges of less-heralded individual members of the LCS and SCI also revising their sense of the possibilities before them, even if the official line of the societies stuck to the Duke of Richmond’s plan of universal suffrage and annual parliaments as their immediate objective. John Horne Tooke famously described his attitude to reform in terms of getting off the Windsor coach at Hounslow, even if his fellow passengers intended to proceed to the terminus. The LCS encouraged all the societies to get on the stage to Richmond and debate the final destination once on board. The radical societies did not simply act out an inherited script of parliamentary reform. They continually recycled resources from the past, often quite literally by republishing the duke’s plan from the 1780s, or even earlier texts from the commonwealth canon. The cutting and pasting techniques that were essential to the rapid-fire achievement of periodicals like Thomas Spence’s Pig’s Meat (1793–5) or Eaton’s Politics for the People (1793–5) did not simply endorse the texts they reproduced, but implicitly transformed them in the interests of raising the political consciousness of their readers. Both Eaton and Spence were LCS members who suffered imprisonment for their commitment to the cause, but by no means all their publications were official LCS materials.18 They published ideas that went beyond those endorsed by the LCS as a corporate body, as with Spence’s appropriation of James Harrington’s Oceania (1656) in support of his radical land plan.19 Nevertheless, anxious as the LCS and SCI may sometimes have been to distance themselves from the views of individual members, Spence included, they were committed to putting a diversity of texts into circulation to stimulate widespread discussion of possible political futures. The Politician described the aim of the LCS as ‘the diffusion of political knowledge by a system of mutual instruction’, an ambition interrupted by ‘that system of unconstitutional persecution, which was the harbinger of the present most execrable and ruinous war’.20 Even so, the journal declared itself open to contrary points of view, including those of a veteran reformer, ironically naming himself ‘An Aristocrat’, who contributed an essay to the first issue arguing against the policy of universal suffrage that the LCS officially supported.

Publicity

Making the question of publicity central to the radical societies in the 1790s may smack of anachronism, but it was a conscious part of their thinking and shaped their political practice. Perhaps nothing puts this into starker perspective than the reasons Maurice Margarot gave in 1796 for refusing the chance to escape from Botany Bay on the American ship that spirited his fellow convict Thomas Muir away:

I came in the Public cause, and here I will wait for my recall by that Public, when the cause shall have prospered as perhaps it will have done before you receive this.21

Transported for his participation in the British Convention at Edinburgh of late 1793, Margarot always defined himself as someone acting in a ‘Public cause’. To creep away on an American ship, as he saw it, would have been to betray the public function that the LCS placed at the centre of its mission. Looking back from 1799, Hardy claimed that ‘the Society was very open in all its measures, indeed their object was publicity, the more public the better’.22 Publicity was not simply the medium for the message of parliamentary reform; it was part of its object.

The LCS conducted itself in the manner in which it understood public bodies to behave. In the process, it affirmed the right of its members – whatever their social class – to be regarded as an actively constituent power, part of the political nation. In this regard, as John Barrell memorably puts it, the LCS also offered its members not just ‘jam tomorrow’, but also ‘a sense of immediate, present participation, to whoever would join it and engage in [their] activities and debates’. Barrell is surely right to claim that ‘for many members of the LCS the prospect of participating in the society’s democratic structures may have been as powerful in persuading them to join as the prospect of eventual parliamentary reform’.23 Ironing over some of the internal controversies about the LCS’s constitution, a matter I will return to at the end of the next chapter, Francis Place, writing much later, gave a succinct account of the organisation of the LCS:

The Society assembled in divisions in various parts of the Metropolis, that to which I belonged was held; as all the others were weekly; at a private house in New Street Covent Garden. Each division elected a delegate and sub delegate, these formed a general committee which also met once a week, in this committee the sub delegate had a seat but could neither speak nor vote whilst the delegate was present.

He also gave a glimpse into the relationship between the official business of the LCS and the penumbra of print sociability that went on around it:

We had book subscriptions … the books for which any one subscribed were read by all the members in rotation who chose to read them before they were finally consigned to the subscriber. We had Sunday evening parties at the residences of those who could accommodate a number of persons. At these meetings we had readings, conversations and discussions. There was at this time a great many such parties, they were highly useful and agreeable.24

Place’s account is more or less corroborated from other sources, including spy reports, which speak of the admixture of official meetings, still often centred on reading, and more informal conversaziones or ‘parties’. Both the divisional meetings and these parties could be much more convivial than Place makes them sound, but it would be wrong to assume that only the more raucous sorts of sociability were somehow authentically ‘popular’. For one thing, toasts and songs, often with copious consumption of alcohol, were ubiquitous across all classes of the associational world. John Horne Tooke, the gentleman radical of the SCI, often got spectacularly drunk at political dinners, as several visitors noted, including those Whigs who regretted attending the infamous anniversary dinner of the SCI on 2 May 1794. The consequences of such conviviality could be grave. On 24 January 1798, at a meeting to celebrate Fox’s birthday at the Crown and Anchor, attended both by Whig politicians and members of the LCS, the Duke of Norfolk toasted ‘our Sovereign’s health … the Majesty of the People!’ The toast was seen as a deliberate slight to the king and provoked considerable commentary.25 The king saw to it that the duke was dismissed from his positions as colonel of the militia and Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire.

Many of the activities encouraged by the LCS represent what Lottes has called a ‘train[ing] in the democracy of the word’.26 Place’s description of a divisional meeting certainly seems to sanction this vocabulary:

The chairman (each man was chairman in rotation,) read from some book or part of a chapter, which as many as could read the chapter at their homes the book passing from one to the other had done and at the next meeting a portion of the chapter was again read and the persons present were invited to make remarks thereon. As many as chose did so, but without rising. Then another portion was read and a second invitation was given – then the remainder was read and a third invitation was given when they who had not before spoken were expected to say something. Then there was a general discussion. No one was permitted to speak more than once during the reading. The same rule was observed in the general discussion, no one could speak a second time until every one who chose had spoken once, then any one might speak again, and so on till the subject was exhausted – these were very important meetings, and the best results to the parties followed.27

These details and other aspects of LCS governance correspond closely to the activities of book clubs and reading societies widespread in the associational world of the eighteenth century, not least in the attempt to create a level plane of discourse to facilitate equitable participation in discussion. Lottes claims that the primary aim of the LCS became a disciplinary concern for each of its members ‘to acquire knowledge on his own without intellectual guidance’. The Report of the Committee of the constitution, of the London Corresponding Society (1794) insisted that the primary duty of a member was ‘to habituate himself both in and out of his Society, to an orderly and amicable manner of reasoning’. Many members were committed to the idea of ‘rational debate’. Sometimes this insistence sounds like a reactive proof of their abilities against the insinuations of much conservative propaganda to the contrary, but even ‘rational debate’ could imply a variety of practices. The report of the committee of constitution was soon mired in arguments about the best form of democratic protocol within the LCS itself, especially the relation of the divisions to the central committee. In the context of these arguments about the report of the committee on the constitution, Hodgson and Thelwall clashed violently about systems of governance early in 1794: ‘Hodgson argued in favour of some System being requisite Thelwall against the necessity of any and his opinion was most applauded.’28

This account might be tainted by the exaggeration of a spy report eager to identify the LCS with anarchy, but other sources confirm that such differences did cause schism within the LCS in 1795. Discussed at more length in Chapter 2, these disagreements were not simply matters of form in any superficial sense. They were rather part of serious debates about how to mediate the sovereign will of the people. These debates could focus on different aspects of the various media of expression available to the society, taking in questions of how members ought to address each other or the conduct of large political meetings. In his account of these debates, Lottes may be relying too much on Place’s perspective when he assumes that ‘the divisions were turned into political classrooms from which all plebeian sociability was banned’.29 I will return to the convivial sociability of songs and toasts later in this chapter, but a major part of the plebeian life world that Lottes ignores is religion. John Bone and Richard Citizen Lee, among others, refused to leave their beliefs at the door of the meeting, even if Thomas Hardy did, despite the strength of his religious convictions. Some LCS divisions defended their right to create their own political space against the centralising drive identified by Lottes. The very idea of the division as a reading group could play into the resistance to political organisation. Furthermore, what was read at the meetings seems to have extended from classics of political philosophy to the squibs and broadsides that could make these gatherings more free and easy than classrooms.30 From this perspective, again, the Lottes version of political education at the LCS appears too austere. Toasts and songs, squibs and burlesques, were all part and parcel of the theatre of Georgian politics broadly construed, familiar to patrician and plebeian alike. Reading often coexisted with singing. Political education was not confined, in this sense at least, to the kinds of texts that might produce the disciplined citizen of Lottes’s account.

These different currents flowing into the LCS meant there were necessarily tensions about the kinds of activities and publications to which the society should lend its name. Clubbing together over books – reading, buying, and printing them – had an obvious economic advantage that John Bone made clear when he proposed a publishing scheme to the LCS in May 1795. He had just seceded in a dispute over constitutional arrangements, probably exacerbated by his religious beliefs, to set up the London Reforming Society, but the schism did not prevent him proposing cooperation for the dissemination of political information. ‘Among the embarrassments the Press has laboured under’, wrote Bone back to his old allies in the LCS, ‘none has had a greater tendency to impede the progress of knowledge, than the difficulty of circulating books.’ Bone proposed that the LCS join together with the Reforming Society to print political books in large runs, copies being given to members in return for their membership dues; ‘by this means, an uniformity of sentiment would be produced in the whole Nation, in proportion to the diffusion of knowledge’. Print magic, here, it seems, brings with it the idea of an ultimate union as the terminus of discussion and debate. More prosaically, the economic advantages of Bone’s plan would also be ‘a very powerful stimulus to induce men to associate’.31 He also addressed a perceived want of matter brought up in the reply to his original proposal. First, he answered, ‘there are in the Patriotic Societies splendid talents, that only want the calling forth into use’. Secondly, ‘why not publish the works of other authors … publishing anything that is calculated to do good’. He mentions Joseph Gerrald’s A Convention the Only Means of Saving us from Ruin (1793), Redhead Yorke’s Thoughts on Civil Government (1794), and ‘any other useful book, of which you can get the copy-right’. Finally, he suggests, ‘there is no necessity to confine ourselves to Politics’; perhaps hinting at his religious interests, ‘there is not a species of knowledge from which some good might not be extracted’.32 The LCS replied positively. Members from the two societies met to discuss the plan, but the collaboration never seems to have got beyond an abridged version of the State of the Representation of England and Wales, already published by the societies in 1793.33

Choosing which other texts should be put out in the name of the societies would almost certainly have led to wrangling, especially in the light of their recent constitutional schism and Bone’s religious opinions. Before he seceded, Bone objected to works like d’Holbach’s The System of Nature and Paine’s The Age of Reason being circulated around the divisions.34 Questions over exactly which texts the LCS should issue in its name caused problems from early on in its history. These problems were exacerbated once it became clear that government surveillance would be quick to identify the LCS with any views that could be construed as seditious. The LCS printed material primarily to encourage public discussion, but also to assert – even to memorialise – its right and the right of the people at large to a place in national debate: addresses to the public, to the king, and accounts of its own constitution and resolutions were the staple of its official output. In 1795 the London Reforming Society adopted the same method: ‘Publicity of conduct, discovers purity of motive; it was therefore being just to yourselves when you resolved to publish your proceedings.’35

On 11 July 1793, the central committee of the LCS met to discuss events at its general meeting, held three days before, where an address to the nation had been read. Written by Margarot, the address was chosen from three originally submitted to the committee.36 As was so often the case with the LCS, the July meeting was taken up with matters of publicity and its costs. An error in the printed version of the address was discussed and accounting for ticket receipts took up most of the rest of the meeting. Finally, coming to ‘other business’, George Walne reported that he had found a pile of pamphlets intended for use as wrapping paper on a counter at a local cheesemonger’s. The pamphlet was The Englishman’s Right: A Dialogue (1793). Walne purchased the whole bundle and offered it to the central committee at cost price (3 farthings each copy). Written by Sir John Hawles and originally published in 1680, Walne had come across the eighth edition of 1771. After some discussion, the LCS central committee accepted Walne’s terms, but then entered into several weeks of deliberation over what to do next. At the general committee two weeks later, one delegate brought forward a motion to print a new edition. Eventually, a sub-committee did some light editing, translated all the Latin phrases into English, and added an appendix on the empanelling of juries, a topic of pressing concern for their members facing prosecution; but this summary hardly does justice to the fate of the pamphlet over the next few months.

First, a committee meeting postponed publication until it could be discovered how many copies each division would buy. A meeting on the first day of August reported back that the divisions (somewhat optimistically) had promised to buy 750 copies. The committee decided to charge members 2d, strangers 3d, with 4d marked ‘on the book’. Two thousand were to be printed ‘& the press kept standing’. The country societies were to be informed of it by circular letter. The printer’s estimate had said it would not cost more than 2d per copy to reprint with the appendix. These decisions produced only another round of deliberation. The appendix on juries now had to be written. A sub-committee was appointed to write it consisting of Joseph Field, Matthew Moore, Richard Hodgson, John Smith, and George Walne. A week later the central committee met to discuss their work. It approved the edition, but censured the sub-committee for having already submitted it to the press. The print order was stopped. The next meeting delayed it again, although the secretary was given an order to purchase copies of Richard Dinmore Jr’s A Brief account of the Moral and Political Acts of the Kings and Queens of England for distribution around the society.37

Discussion of the appendix was still going on in September when a mistake on a technical question was discovered. John Martin was called in to give his expert legal opinion.38 Only on 19 September did the LCS finally order The Englishman’s Right to be printed. Hardy wrote to various other societies encouraging them to take copies. On 17 October, he asked Henry Buckle of Norwich to promote the pamphlet as ‘a book that ought to be in the possession of every man’. Eight days later, he wrote to Daniel Adams, secretary to the SCI, offering the pamphlet on the same terms, before proceeding to news of the election of delegates to the Edinburgh Convention.39 More than the 700 projected were sold, but the receipts were much less than must have been expected if the LCS was calculating a return of 2d a copy or more. Although some of those sold probably ended up as cheese wrapping anyway, at least one survived to be passed on to another generation of radicals. When Hardy wrote to the Mitcham Book Society in August 1806 to donate various pamphlets to them in hopes of keeping the flame of reform alive, The Englishman’s Right was among them.

This extended account of The Englishman’s Right serves to illustrate how long and hard the LCS debated what to put out in its name. Beyond its list of official publications, individual members produced a wealth of printed matter in their own names or anonymously; material read, discussed, sung, or otherwise performed at meetings. The question of the extent to which this material was owned by the radical societies was a fraught one, inevitably when the government was aiming to fix responsibility for seditious libel and later treason. After being arrested in May 1794, Hardy was interviewed by the Privy Council. The council asked about Eaton’s role as a printer. Hardy acknowledged the bookseller’s association with the LCS, but also took the view that Eaton ‘prints freely – too freely’.40 The response is not only, I think, a self-protective reflex at a juncture when the judicial process was putting Hardy’s life in hazard, but also indicates some of the tensions within the embryonic democratic culture being fostered by the LCS. Why would Hardy worry about Eaton’s freedom? Hardy himself was no narrow reformer focused solely on parliamentary reform. Although he came to the idea of the LCS through reading SCI publications from the 1780s, he also had a background in religious dissent, possibly also in the Protestant Association, but definitely with the campaigns for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and for the abolition of the slave trade.41 All these contexts would have given him ideas about ‘publicity’ and the way it worked, not least in relation to the politics of petitioning.42 Hardy always showed himself anxious about the public face of the LCS, but there was a more general concern to find appropriate forms of intervention. The LCS was confident about the transformative power of print, but also careful about its forms and protocols.

Before turning to discuss some of the general attitudes to print in the radical societies, there is more to be said about the LCS in relation to Jürgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere.43 Among others critical of Habermas’s idealisation of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, Eley has insisted on the ‘diversity’ of the eighteenth-century public sphere, which he defines as always ‘constituted by conflict’.44 Explicitly thinking about groups like the LCS, Eley claims that the French Revolution encouraged various subaltern groups to claim for themselves the emancipatory language of the bourgeois public sphere: ‘It’s open to question’ he continues, ‘how far these were simply derivative of the liberal model (as Habermas argues) and how far they possessed their own dynamics of emergence and peculiar forms of internal life.’ Among these alternative dynamics, Eley acknowledges the variety of religious traditions that certainly informed the development of men like John Bone, Thomas Hardy, Richard Lee, and George Walne. These and other aspects of urban culture helped to sustain an alternative to Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere, says Eley, that was ‘combative and highly literate’.45 Anticipating aspects of Eley’s critique, Terry Eagleton claimed that the 1790s witnessed the emergence of what he called a ‘counter-public sphere’: ‘a whole oppositional network of journals, clubs, pamphlets, debates and institutions invades the dominant consensus, threatening to fragment it from within’.46 Key words here relative to the question of dependency raised by Eley are ‘invades’ and ‘within’. There is no doubt that the activities of the LCS and its members disclosed the limits of the inclusive idea of the public that Habermas writes about. Pitt’s repression from 1792 showed that those outside the political classes possessed no acknowledged right to free debate, at least not when it came to questions of political representation and reform. Out of this situation, the popular societies managed to create the vibrant print culture that is the focus of this book, but the achievement was not predicated on any autonomously plebeian public sphere. Rather the LCS developed various forms available in the ‘urban contact zone’ where, however unevenly, ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ cultures interacted, in terms, that is, of its deployment of already existing platforms such as debating societies, reading groups, the newspapers, and other aspects of print sociability that had developed from at least the time of the Wilkes agitation.47

In 1793, having faced a second unsuccessful prosecution for selling Paine’s writings, Eaton issued a handbill announcing his disgust at the ‘aristocracy of the press’ and his determination ‘to liberate the republic of Letters from the undue influence exerted by those Tyrants, Pride and Avarice’ (Figure. 2). For some of Eaton’s readers, especially any with a complacent faith in print magic, the phrase ‘aristocracy of the press’ may have been an oxymoron. The press was widely thought to operate with an inherent tendency to undermine aristocracy and open oligarchy up to public scrutiny. Others, on the other hand, already had bitter experience of the point he was making. Eaton was showing up the contradiction between the emancipatory claims of the republic of letters and the practical barriers to participation. For Eaton, the ‘republic of Letters’ was not a space where freedom of exchange was guaranteed, but a place in need of liberation. Eaton’s response to the situation was to start publishing ‘for the benefit of his fellow Citizens, in Pamphlets not exceeding the price of Twopence’. At the foot of his handbill, Eaton advertised the first fruits of this new policy: ‘Pearls Cast before Swine by Edmund Burke, scraped together by Old Hubert’, that is, by the apothecary James Parkinson; extermination, or an appeal to the People of England on the present War with France, for 6d’, and finally, on 21 September, the first part of the periodical Hog’s Wash, later known as Politics for the People.48 The Extermination pamphlet might be called Eaton’s first original publication, allowing that it was a typical miscellany that looked towards the more daring mixture of his Politics for the People. There Eaton cooked up a rich stew into which were thrown contemporary newspaper squibs, songs, and excerpts from the Whig canon. From August 1794, Eaton also produced a series of Political Classics, including authors such as Thomas More, Algernon Sydney, and, as we have seen, Rousseau. This series has been seen as proof of Eaton’s affiliation to a ‘Real Whig’ tradition, but did these texts somehow retain a stable meaning across multiple platforms?49 The inclusion of Rousseau suggests that something spicier was going on. Certainly Eaton seems to have believed there was an English tradition of liberty worth knowing, but continually reverenced only in the breach by the nation’s elite. To use the title of a miscellany published by the Aldgate Society of the Friends of the People earlier in 1793, it was ‘a thing of shreds and patches’, but one that might be reworked and put to good use by new readers.50 Eaton did not imagine any autonomous tradition of plebeian opposition, but tasked his readers with newly determining the shape of the public sphere.

Fig 2 Daniel Isaac Eaton [A circular, together with a prospectas of a series of political pamphlets.]

© The British Library Board.
Print magic

Michael Warner begins his study of the role of print culture in the American Revolution with the discussion of an essay by John Adams. Writing in 1765, Adams narrated the progress of print as ‘a relation to power’ a narrative of an idea of the press as ‘indispensible to political life’. Carefully distancing himself from its causative claims, Warner sees this narrative as emerging fully in the Atlantic world of the mid-eighteenth century.51 This faith was a pervasive part of eighteenth-century discourse, especially in the Anglo-American Protestant imagination, where it functioned in opposition to an idea of feudal and papal tyranny. From perspectives Adams shared with many others in the anglophone world, print had freed the people from a ‘religious horror of letters and knowledge’.52 Print is not simply the medium for new ideas in this kind of narrative, but comes bearing a truth in itself; ‘letters have become a technology of publicity whose meaning in the last analysis is civic and emancipatory’.53 Sharing Warner’s scepticism as to the truth of its claims, I understand this narrative – for all its self-identification with Enlightenment – as a faith in print’s magic. Traces of it appear in Paine’s confidence that ‘such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness.’54 The spread of truth, paradoxically needing ‘no inscription’, transcends the need for any mediation whatsoever. This magically transformative power stands in a certain tension with the more calibrated emphasis elsewhere in Rights of Man on continual debate and discussion.

Recent historians of print have tended to echo Warner’s scepticism about taking such attitudes as evidence of the causative power they celebrate. Leah Price, for instance, distances herself from ‘the heroic myth – whether Protestant, liberal, New Critical, or New Historicist – that makes textuality the source of interiority, authenticity, and selfhood’.55 Price is developing James Raven’s caution about placing too much trust in eighteenth-century accounts of print and progress, including those that link ‘the activity of the press to increased literacy and popular political energies’.56 Those within the radical movement in the 1790s repeatedly made this link. Place’s retrospective accounts of the LCS as a moral force, for instance, depended on its introduction of its members to the virtues of print: ‘It induced men to read books, instead of wasting their time in public houses, it taught them to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children.’57 Jonathan Rose claims that men like Place and Hardy ‘were acutely conscious of the power of print, because they saw it work’.58 But Raven’s caution against extrapolating from individual cases to the larger picture is worth heeding: ‘The testimony of the self-improved endorses an undue reverence for the process and volume of learning.’59 Encounters with print often did have a transformative effect, but it was not always so, and print was not necessarily as magically effective as some accounts represented it. The LCS spent a lot of time working hard to create and calibrate its effects.

Looking back on his experiences in the 1790s, Thomas Preston, who had been a member of the LCS, represented reading as crucial to the political awakening of the people:

The increase in reading had dissipated the delusion, and people now knew the meaning of words, whether spoken in the Senate, written in lawyer’s bills of costs, or printed on an impress warrant. The charm of ignorance which had so long lulled my mind into comparative indifference at people’s wrongs, was now beginning to disappear. The moral and political sun of truth had now arisen. The arguments, the irresistible arguments, laid down by the ‘Corresponding Society’ had riveted my heart to the cause of liberty.60

Popular radicalism often exploited the idea of the improving power of reading for rhetorical purposes, for instance, against the counter-revolutionary narrative that Paine and his associates were spreading poison through the press. What was poisonous from the loyalist perspective was a panacea against ignorance for radicals. Many of these thought that it had been working its curative effects ever since the invention of the press.

The idea of the emancipatory magic of the printing press appears again and again as a trope in the 1790s. In 1792, for instance, David Steuart Erskine, Earl of Buchan, and elder brother of Thomas Erskine, the chief defence lawyer at Paine’s trial, argued that if a free constitution was ‘the panacea of moral diseases’, then ‘the printing press has been the dispensary, and half the world have become the voluntary patients of this healing remedy’.61 Two years later, in a speech given at the grand celebration of the acquittal of Hardy, Horne Tooke, and Thelwall, the Earl of Stanhope transposed Buchan’s medical trope into a more familiar image of enlightenment:

The invaluable art of printing has dispelled that former Darkness; and like a new Luminary enlightens the whole Horizon. The gloomy Night of Ignorance is past. The pure unsullied Light of Reason is now much diffused, that it is no longer in the power of Tyranny to destroy it. And I believe, and hope, that glorious intellectual Light will, shortly, shine forth on Europe, with meridian Splendor.

Neither Buchan nor Stanhope, as it happens, subscribed to the strongest version of print magic in these speeches. Their faith was anchored in a constitutionalist perspective wherein the press mediated prior forms of legal and political authority. Stanhope qualified his paean to the press:

The Art of Printing (that most useful and unparalleled Invention) is however, as nothing, without that, which alone can give it energy and effect: you need not to be told, that I mean, the sacred liberty of the press, that Palladium of the people’s Rights.62

Stanhope made his own contribution to the art of printing, designing the first iron letterpress in 1800, a development that allowed a greater number of impressions per hour, and speeded up the administration of the panacea of print to the patient. In this case, Stanhope’s version of print magic drove technological innovation, not the other way round, but it also drew back from those versions of Paine’s faith in the irresistible power of truth that perceived no limits to its horizons.63

Where radicalism dreamed of print as ‘a medium itself unmediated’, then it often used the trope of an electric immediacy of communication.64 Thelwall, as Mary Fairclough has noted, routinely spoke of ‘a glowing energy that may rouse into action every nerve and faculty of the mind, and fly from breast to breast like that electrical principle which is perhaps the true soul of the physical universe’.65 His was the positive version of the ‘electrick communication every where’ feared by Edmund Burke, promising or threatening, depending on one’s point of view, to jump across all channels of ‘transmission’.66 Elite reformers like Buchan and Stanhope may have had reservations about the democratic implications of this trope. In contrast, Thelwall’s political lectures, perhaps the key radical medium of 1794–5, speedily reissued in pamphlet form and widely advertised and reported in the press, often echoed Paine’s sense of the potentially limitless effects of the power of truth.67 In a lecture on the history of prosecutions for political opinion, he projected the idea of an ineluctable progress flowing from the invention of printing. He quoted John Gurney, defence lawyer at Eaton’s second trial, discussed below, on the idea that the libel laws had originated in a panicked response to the emergence of the printing press:

when the invention of printing had introduced political discussion, and when seditious publications (that is to say publications exposing the corruptions and abuses of government and the profligacy of ministers) made their appearance … The control of the press was placed in admirable hands, a licenser, the king’s Attorney General, and a court of inquisition, called the Star Chamber.

Interestingly, Gurney was representing the art of printing as the antecedent of political discussion. Not simply a medium that reports debate, the press is imagined as its condition of possibility. Typically, Thelwall swelled to the theme in the lecture room:

Fortunately for mankind the press cannot be silenced. Placemen and pensioners may associate for ever; inquisitions may be established, and the Nilus of corruption pour forth its broods of spies and informers; but wherever the press has once been established on a broad foundation, liberty must ultimately triumph. It is easier to sweep the whole human race from the surface of the earth than to stop the torrent of information and political improvement, when the art of printing has attained its present height.

For Thelwall, so many of these ‘engines of truth’ were now dispersed around the globe that the progress of liberty was unstoppable. Radical print culture, as John Thelwall told it, was the articulation of a spirit of progress hard-wired into the story of the press.68

From this perspective, whatever local setbacks might occur, an inherent logic guaranteed the irreversible spread of knowledge and thence emancipation. There was often a strong polemical motive recommending this technological determinism in difficult times. Stanhope’s speech, for instance, was made after the apparent setback of the treason trials, when the radical societies needed to believe that the logic of print was being restored to its true course. Hardy saw it being fulfilled when he wrote to congratulate Lafayette on the July Revolution of 1830:

Political knowledge is making a great, and rapid progress. It is now diffused among all classes. The printing press is performing wonders. It was a maxim of the great Lord Bacon that Knowledge is power.69

Such faith was sustaining in the face of repression and after the experience of repeated defeat that Hardy was hoping had finally been overcome. After the passing of the Two Acts at the end of 1795, Thelwall rallied his former colleagues to a belief that reading and discussion, especially his own works, were the way forward. On 15 December 1796, he sent the central committee copies of his recently published Rights of Nature with the following letter:

There is nothing for which I am more anxious than to see the spirit of enquiry revived in our society & prosecuted with all its former ardour. Depend upon it, nothing but information can give us liberty; & however unpromising things may, at this time, to some appear: I cannot but believe that events must be hastning [sic] which will make us wish that the time now lost in wrangling or supineness, had been spent in reading & political discussion, by which our minds might have been prepared for liberty & enabled to obtain it. As a patriotic contribution, towards reviving the discussion so desirable, I present the society with twelve copies [sic] of my first Letter on the Rights of Nature, in answer to Mr. Burke; recommending that twelve readers be appointed by the Committee to read them to the respective divisions, & that the books be of course given to the readers as a trifling compliment for their trouble.70

The idea of the LCS as a society of reading circles – each with its own appointed readers – corroborates Place’s later account of the Society, but seems almost to become an end in itself here, preparatory to some crisis whose coming it seems to have no very obvious active relation to. Faced by the restrictions brought in by the Two Acts, Thelwall counsels trusting to a deeper narrative of the power of print and discussion, rather than any particular form of political organisation to specific ends. Against that, it must be said, Thelwall does not present reading as a retreat into self-improvement, but as part of an ongoing public commitment, to reading as dissemination, even if its relationship to political change seems more occluded than it had in his lectures of 1794 and 1795. He pays an attention typical of the LCS to the disposition of the reading and discussion of his work. This kind of more practical awareness of the need to organise and work with the means of dissemination was not uncommonly intertwined with the technological determinism that I call print magic.

At their most declamatory, radical orators represented resistance to their political cause as an impossible attempt to restrain the inherently progressive drive of print dissemination. From this position, government attempts to control the radical press were foolish attempts to turn back history itself, ripe for satires like Eaton’s The Pernicious Effects of the Art of Printing (1794). Longing for the return of the dark night of the Stuarts, the authorial persona ‘Antitype’ rails against the magical power of print:

before this diabolical Art was introduced among men, there was social order; and as the great Locke expresses it, some subordination-man placed an implicit confidence in his temporal and spiritual directors – Princes and Priests – entertained no doubts of their infallibility; or ever questioned their unerring wisdom.71

On one level, the ironies of the pamphlet may work to suggest that print magic was a mere sham, a Whig myth to be exploded by Eaton’s corrosive satirical method. Pernicious Effects reveals that the elite had never really believed one of the comforting myths of ‘British liberty’. The vaunted freedom of the press, from this perspective, was a smokescreen to distract from the need of the people to assert their rights. On another level, Eaton’s pamphlet may seem to confirm implicitly the basic premise of print magic as a force that can no more be turned back than can the tide. From this perspective, the joke on Antitype is that he can’t see the ineluctable progress of print. His views, Eaton implies, are destined for the dustbin of history.72 In its multiple implications for understanding the power of the medium, Eaton’s pamphlet highlights some of the tensions between the radical commitment to working in print and the technological determinism identified by Warner.

In practice, Eaton never trusted that freedom would come simply through the circulation of what the SCI and LCS called ‘political information’ (the primary form of most of their official publications). As someone who was still involved in radical print culture up to his death in 1814, Eaton might be placed among the honourable company who created the disposition of post-1815 radicalism towards press freedom described by Kevin Gilmartin: ‘The recognition (and experience) of press corruption went a long way towards discouraging strictly determinist attitudes: attention shifted from the nature of the technology to the conditions under which it developed.’73 Certainly Eaton showed an unparalleled ability to adapt print to circumstance in order to sustain what Stanhope called its ‘energy and effect’. For Stanhope himself, the principle of the liberty of the press, with the constitution behind it, was the legitimate idea that could impart this energy and restore British liberty. Eaton, in contrast, was quick to realise the potential of irony as a resource. Well he might, given that the principles of the free press proved far less protective of him than a noble lord. Eaton’s engagement with print often took the form of hand-to-hand combat with the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, founded in November 1792. He deployed whatever weapons lay to hand in the armoury of print, often appropriating the satirical methods of earlier participants, including Marvell, Pope, and Swift, regardless of their original political sympathies.

Since the abolition of the Licensing Act at the end of the seventeenth century, the chief means for controlling political opinion had been the law of seditious libel. This legal condition had already shaped the nature of print culture for many decades before the prosecutions of Paine and his publishers in 1792.74 Many of the techniques developed by Eaton and others drew on this archive of resistance, but they were quick to adapt and disseminate them to a wider audience. Legal procedure meant that the indictment prepared for any sedition trial had to include exact statements of the libel being prosecuted. February 1793 saw Thomas Spence acquitted of selling Rights of Man because the book was misquoted in the indictment. The situation was even more complicated in prosecutions that depended on the interpretation of figurative or ironic material. Eaton’s trial in February 1794 for publishing the ‘King Chaunticlere’ allegory became the most celebrated instance. On 16 November 1793, Eaton’s Politics for the People carried a story based on a Thelwall performance at the Capel Court debating society.75 Thelwall’s allegory told the story of a tyrannical gamecock,

a haughty sanguinary tyrant, nursed in blood and slaughter from his infancy – fond of foreign wars and domestic rebellions, into which he would sometimes drive his subjects, by his oppressive obstinacy, in hopes that he might increase his power and glory by their suppression.

The government claimed that the allegory as printed by Eaton libelled George III. In such cases, the prosecution had to specify exactly what construction they were putting on the passages named in the indictment. The glosses or ‘innuendoes’ that appear on the charge were requirements of the legal process: the first reference to the ‘gamecock’ in the indictment was followed by an innuendo explaining the phrase as being used ‘to denote and represent our said lord the king’.

John Gurney’s brilliant defence of Eaton secured an acquittal. The prosecution had gone so far in its eagerness to find libels, argued Gurney, that they had ‘set themselves to work to make one’. More obvious, he argued, to see the gamecock as Louis XVI, or tyrants in general, than George III, who surely, he added archly, could not be understood as a tyrant.76 The growing self-consciousness of radicals about the manufacture of libels – as they saw it – can be glimpsed in the fact that just three issues before ‘King Chaunticlere’, Eaton had already published a sonnet ‘What Makes a Libel? A Fable’:

In AESOP’s new-made World of Wit,
Where Beasts could talk, and read, and, write,
And say and do as he thought fit;
A certain Fellow thought himself abus’d,
And represented by an Ass,
And Aesop to the Judge accus’d
That he defamed was.
Friend, quoth the Judge, How do you know,
Whether you are defam’d or no?
How can you prove that he must mean
You, rather than another Man?
Sir, quoth the Man, it needs must be,
All Circumstances so agree,
And all the Neighbours say ’tis Me.
That’s somewhat, quoth the Judge, indeed;
But let this matter pass.
Since twas not AESOP, ’tis agreed
But Application made the Ass.77

If Eaton had published Thelwall’s allegory in full awareness of the defence that could be provided for it, as the sonnet suggests, others quickly picked up on his example. Soon after Eaton’s acquittal, for instance, Thomas Spence published two pages under the title ‘Examples of Safe Printing’, framed as a response to ‘these prosecuting times’. They included a passage from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene glossed by bogus innuendoes pretending to distance the poem from any malicious intent:

That tiger, or that other salvage wight:-
Is so exceeding furious and fell,
As WRONG,

[Not meaning our most gracious sovereign Lord the King, or the Government of this country]

Spence is alerting his readers to the possibilities of the medium and what can be said by not saying what one means:

Let us, O ye humble Britons be careful to shew what we do not mean, that the Attorney General may not, in his Indictments, do it for us.

If there was a kind of print magic being conjured here, it was far from being a simple faith that it was enough to print the truth for it to be victorious.78

Spatial politics

Print made it possible for radicals to imagine themselves addressing a potentially limitless category of ‘the people’ and for their readers to imagine themselves as subjects within this category, but these relationships were not experienced as an impersonal information economy or an anonymous public sphere. Personality was one diversifying element within the radical print economy, tracked in four detailed examples in Part II of this book. So too was the variety of spaces wherein readers encountered print and met to debate and discuss it with each other. The radical societies imagined themselves as disseminating political information through a world where print and improvements in transport and communications made ‘the people’ a more knowable entity than it had ever previously been. The mail coach system, introduced in 1784 by John Palmer, ‘provided unprecedented opportunity for “correspondence” and for the diffusion of radical material beyond its metropolitan strongholds’.79 This speeding up of communication was a crucial part of the context that recommended the electrical metaphor of political sympathy’s rapid movement from breast to breast. Such ideas were reinforced at LCS open meetings, where the radical societies could show themselves to be ‘public’ institutions, rather than a conspiratorial underground their opponents often claimed, but these were only perhaps the most obvious of a range of locations constructed and inhabited by the SCI and LCS.

Location is an important issue for thinking about radical culture. The venues where things happened or were imagined to be happening changed their meanings, an issue that had legal status when it came to questions of innocence or guilt in trials for sedition and treason, as we shall see. Theories of the role of space in the production of social meaning now abound, but in the 1790s places were inevitably fought over as part of a process of establishing the political geography of London. Spaces were contested most obviously in competitions over occupancy. Debating societies were systematically driven from public houses over 1792–3. More complex to resolve were questions of how spaces were understood and perceived. The LCS’s idea of itself as improving, for instance, meant that it also produced various spaces in the image of the associational worlds of the eighteenth century, actively participating, as it saw it, in the wider political nation. In 1797, for instance, the informer (never uncovered by his comrades), clerk, and aspiring playwright James Powell wrote to Richard Ford his paymaster in the Treasury Solicitor’s office asking for his promised remuneration.80 Powell’s plaintive letter gives an insight into some of the aspirations of those associated with the LCS, and some of the complexities involved in understanding the spaces of popular radicalism.

Powell records expenses involved in setting up a ‘conversatione’ that he boasted was more numerously attended than one Thelwall inaugurated after his acquittal. Among those who attended Powell’s gathering was Citizen Lee, who became ‘a constant attendant on that evening but on every other when I was not at home’. When Lee fled to America at the beginning of 1796, he went with Powell’s wife. Perhaps more surprisingly, at the time of the ‘conversatione’, early in 1795, Godwin seems to have been meeting with LCS members as a group, including Powell, Thelwall, and probably Citizen Lee. The entry in Godwin’s diary for 17 January refers to ‘tea Powel's, w. Ht, Thelwal, Iliff, Bailey, Walker, Manning, Hubbard, Lee, Johns, Fawcet & Dyer’. A similar cast also assembled on the last day of the month: ‘tea Powel’s, w. Thelwal, Bailey, Hubbard, Vincent, Hunter, G Richter, Walker, Bone, Manning & Lee’.

Meeting with LCS members may have been an attempt at Godwin’s ‘collision of mind with mind’.81 No doubt the members of the LCS who attended these meetings were thrilled at the chance to meet the philosopher, which is not to say that they necessarily agreed with his ideas. Tea with Godwin did at least provide an opportunity for the LCS men to demonstrate that they were quite as capable as he of sustaining intellectual improvement. The question of Godwin’s influence in the LCS is a topic for later on, but for now I want to pause over Powell’s letter and read it with the brief entry in Godwin’s diary. On the face of it, Powell’s provision of ‘bread & cheese & porter’ might seem appropriate for members of an organisation often identified with the culture of the alehouse. ‘Tea’, the term used in Godwin’s diary, on the other hand, suggests something more ‘polite’, perhaps ‘domestic’ even, as if Powell had got the best china out to welcome the famous political philosopher, but this juxtaposition would imply too crude an opposition between ‘polite’ and ‘popular’. Powell almost certainly knew Godwin before January 1795. He was from a respectable background; at least his father had been a clerk in the Customs House, ‘a man of property’, Francis Place claimed.82 Powell certainly harboured literary ambitions, as did others who attended the meeting with Godwin, including Thelwall and Citizen Lee.83 Secondly, Powell’s ‘conversatione’ took place not in an alehouse, but in a ‘private’ or ‘domestic’ context. Powell’s wife was evidently a regular presence. Whether she was a participant or someone whose domestic labour facilitated the event and added to its politeness is not known. Many years later Francis Place – who dismissed Powell as ‘honest, but silly’, still not knowing him to have been a spy – claimed she was ‘a woman of the town’.84 Regardless of Place’s judgement, the Powells quite probably aspired to rational improvement of the sort Godwin wrote about in Political justice.

‘Tea’ is Godwin’s description of his meeting at Powell’s, but the word needs careful treatment. The evidence of the diary is that it may simply be Godwin’s general word for any modest repast served in the home (in late afternoon). In the diary, it is often used for meetings that included the consideration of weighty philosophical questions (often in mixed company), and need not imply politeness in a way that militated against the vigorous discussion of political issues. Take, for instance, the ‘tea’ at ‘Barbauld’s w. Belsham, Carr, Shiel, Notcut & Aikin jr’, on 29 October 1795, where Godwin and his friends ‘talk of self-delusion & gen principles’. The same was true at Helen Maria Williams’s salon, which aspired to rather more in terms of intellectual exchange than the word ‘politeness’ may sometimes seem to imply. All these occasions seem to have allowed for the collision of mind with mind, to some degree at least, within the home, even if not within strictly ‘domestic’ circumstances. For my purposes, the main point is that the LCS and its members involved themselves in the diffusion of knowledge across a diversified urban terrain, which included their homes. The conversaziones held by Powell, Thelwall, and others were intrinsic to their commitment to ‘reform’. They were one of many spaces beyond LCS meetings proper, but produced by their activity, where ideas were hammered out and solidarity cemented in a convivial environment. Convivial these spaces may have been, but they were also often contested, usually threatened by surveillance, and sometimes even violently interrupted by law officers and their minions.

Epstein has argued for a better understanding of the relationship ‘between the logic of spatial practices and language, or better the production of meanings’. Radical culture in the 1790s provides Epstein’s key examples of ‘naming, mapping, tracking, settling, imagining and counter-imagining’ as it played out in ‘taverns, courtrooms and the street’. Following Michel de Certeau’s understanding of ‘space’ as ‘practiced place’, Epstein relates spatial production to ‘democratic political practice, possibilities of representation, and visions of possibility’.85 The ambit of these practices included spaces beyond the tavern and the street, including the bookshop and the theatre, and even, for instance, prisons. No less important were everyday places where the practices of taking ‘tea’ or ‘bread & cheese & porter’ might give a cast to understanding the activities of the LCS very different from the hostile representations found, for instance, in Gillray’s The London-Corresponding-Society alarm’d (Figure 3). Gillray’s representation of the spatial practices of the LCS as subhuman and beneath contempt, of course, was easier to sustain after the Two Acts had in one sense driven the LCS underground, although in publications like John Gale Jones’s Sketch of a political tour (1796) the LCS continued to imagine the development of a public sphere out of the interactions between citizens in a variety of places beyond the alehouse, including a stage coach, a circulating library, and even a dance at a public assembly.86

Fig 3 James Gillray, London-Corresponding-Society alarm’d: vide guilty consciences [1798].

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.

Eighteenth-century spaces such as taverns and coffee houses have been understood in Habermasian terms as arenas of ‘conviviality where ideas circulate freely among equals’.87 London’s debating societies may seem to be the apotheosis of this idea, but they were subject to an ongoing commentary about their respectability before the 1790s. After the royal proclamations against seditious writings in May and November 1792, they were very much subject not only to surveillance, but also direct and often violent interventions in their proceedings. The reports the spy Captain George Munro sent into the Home Office in November 1792 often struggle to fit his understanding of popular culture with what he saw at the LCS’s own debates. He melodramatically described the meeting he saw at the Cock and Crown tavern as a gathering of the ‘lowest tradesmen, all continually smoaking and drinking porter’, but then concedes they were ‘extremely civil’.88 Such concessions were rare in spy reports. When he started reporting in February 1794, John Groves insisted that it ‘requires some mastery over that innate pride, which every well-educated man must naturally possess, even to sit down in their company’.89 Perhaps more anxious about his social status than Munro, Groves may have felt a social pressure to confirm to his masters that he was of a different order from the men he was reporting on. How such men managed to organise themselves into their own version of the public sphere continued to puzzle polite commentators and the government alike.

John Barrell has provided a nuanced map of LCS organisation across London boroughs.90 My concern is less with geography than with the production and contestation of different kinds of space. Michael T. Davis has shown the importance of ‘the politics of civility’ in the LCS. Thomas Hardy’s account of the first ‘public’ meeting – in the Bell on Exeter Street off the Strand – described the participants as ‘plain, homely citizens’.91 The Bell may very well have been neat and ‘homely’ compared to some of the alehouses where LCS divisions met. Newman rightly points out that distinctions between alehouses and taverns have often been flattened out in analysis.92 Davis notes how much of the LCS’s official documentation is concerned with the orderliness that Place was keen to stress in his Autobiography. Davis primarily understands these self-representations as the product of the LCS’s need ‘to represent itself as inclusive, autonomous, as a rule-regulated organization based upon the principle of equality and rational deliberation in order to invert the political messages of loyalists’.93 This idea of civility extended even to prison sociability, which included visits from Godwin, Amelia Alderson, and various other literary figures sympathetic to reform.94

The LCS frequently did represent its own behaviour as intended to ‘defeat the various calumnies with which they have been loaded by the advocates of Tyranny & Oppression’.95 But this self-representation should not be understood only as a functional need to demonstrate its respectability. There is a danger of constructing the LCS as most authentically itself when involved in ‘unrespectable’ tavern-based activities, as I have already mentioned, and somehow only deferring to external notions of respectability when it met in more disciplined social forms. Quite apart from the practicalities involved in running business meetings, the LCS carried on the popular aspect of enlightenment that saw ‘reform’ as an opportunity for participation across a diversity of social worlds from debating societies to other forms of print sociability. Lydia and Thomas Hardy (as abolitionists), Citizen Lee (as an evangelical poet, first published under the sponsorship of the Evangelical Magazine), and John Thelwall (as a member of debating and numerous other literary and scientific societies) all participated in such worlds before they joined the radical societies. Each saw the LCS as an extension of their commitment to a spirit of improvement, however variously understood.

Long before the 1790s, the contact zones of urban leisure were already subject to complex pressures of policing, representation, and interpretation. In 1781, David Turner, president of the Westminster Forum, presented its debates as a site for the integration of what he calls ‘public conversation’, but acknowledged that sometimes they failed to transcend their ‘ale-house’ (Turner’s word) associations. The roughness of the debates, Turner believed, discouraged some of those capable of ‘classical erudition’ from attending, although he insisted that plenty of the educated classes did go.96 Several times Turner mentions the presence of women at the debates. On one occasion, in response to a remark on the growth of population, ‘the brilliant set of ladies in the gallery, spread their fans before their faces’.97 The presence of women was always crucial to how meaning was constructed in social space. They could grant an aura of respectability, although for some commentators their presence could itself function as a sign of transgression. Powell’s wife may have passed from one to the other pole of this representation during the life of his conversazione. Her disappearance with Lee into exile in America may have confirmed her status as a ‘woman of the town’ from Place’s point of view, but to others her presence at Powell’s gatherings may have conferred politeness on them.

The spatial definitions of such places could have very real consequences for radical groups, as the case of John Frost shows.98 Frost was an attorney who had been closely involved with the SCI from its beginnings in the 1780s and played an important role in its revival under Horne Tooke’s leadership in 1791. When Paine left for Paris in September 1792, Frost accompanied him, writing back regularly to Horne Tooke to describe their progress. Returning to London in October, Frost sat on the SCI committee chosen to confer with the LCS over addressing the French Convention. Reporting on Frost’s speech to an LCS meeting a few weeks later, the spy Munro described him as ‘almost the only decent Man I have seen in any of their Divisions’. The SCI chose Frost with Joel Barlow to deliver their address to the Convention (and a consignment of a thousand pairs of shoes for the French army). Munro’s report of the event from Paris maliciously described Frost being mistaken for a shoemaker by the Convention’s deputies.99 On 6 November between his two trips to Paris, Frost had attended the dinner of an agricultural society at the Percy, a fashionable London coffee house. On his way out, he was stopped by the apothecary Matthew Yateman and asked about France. The two men already knew each other, but their conversation grew heated after Frost told Yateman ‘I am for Equality and no King.’ When Yateman asked if he meant ‘no King in this country’, Frost is said to have bawled out ‘no Kings in Englands’. At this point, according to their evidence in court, others became involved in the fracas. Although a complaint against Frost was made immediately, the government did not take any action until it was sure he was back in France. A price was put on his head, but Frost wrote from Paris vehemently denying that he had fled justice, and reminding Pitt that they had at one time attended the same meetings in favour of reform. Almost certainly the government wished to avoid a trial, not least because of Frost’s possession of correspondence with Pitt from the 1780s, later reprinted in the proceedings of the trial. Probably to dissuade Frost from returning, the government newspapers began suggesting that he had fled to avoid bankruptcy. His wife Eliza informed the Morning Chronicle that he was solvent, which Frost proved on his reappearance. With Frost back in London, stalemate ensued. Sheridan queried the silence on the case in Parliament on 4 March to suggest that the government now wished to drop it.

When the trial did finally commence two months later, Thomas Erskine’s defence strategy turned on two issues. The first was whether Frost spoke ‘advisedly’, that is, whether he could be charged with intentionally aiming to spread disaffection if he had been in drink. The second part of the defence depended upon understanding the space of the coffee house as ‘private’ and properly beyond the reach of a law on seditious words. Erskine insisted that the ‘common and private intercourses of life’ were protected from prosecution:

Does any man put such constraints upon himself in the most private moments of his life, that he would be contented to have his loosest and lightest words recorded, and set in array against him in a Court of Justice?

Informants, who ‘dog men into taverns and coffee-houses’, as Erskine put it, ‘eavesdropping … upon loose conversations’, were proving themselves no gentlemen in their failure to respect distinctions between private and public life. The prosecution agreed that it was hard to imagine a case in which ‘the public necessity and expediency of a prosecution should be so strong as to break in upon the relations of a private life’.100 It rejected the idea that ‘a public coffee house’ could be imagined in these terms. The Attorney General insisted there had been no ‘breach of the sweet confidences of private life’: the word ‘sweet’, as Barrell has noted, implying something like an understanding of ‘private’ as ‘domestic’.101 Few instances from the 1790s reveal more clearly how space was central to the production of meaning. The prosecution’s mention of ‘sweet confidences’ at Frost’s trial, implicitly using an idea of female spheres of influence to quarantine the domestic from the political, also shows how much questions of gender were continuously involved in the production of those meanings.

Gendering radicalism

Political meetings in the eighteenth century were routinely masculine affairs, dominated by rituals of speech-making, toasts, and serious alcohol consumption, equally routinely reported in the newspapers, and, in this regard at least, open to public scrutiny and censure. So Charles James Fox’s speech to the Whig Club in December 1792, a few weeks after the incident with Frost at the Percy coffee house, and a few days prior to Paine’s trial, was reported in the newspapers and, not unusually, garnered satirical poems by way of response. One such poem presented the event as a series of empty toasts on the principles of reform:

The zealous Whigs, obedient to command,
Drink till they stare, and call again for more:
Nor does the Bottle quit their ready hand,
Till Whigs with Whigs lie Tumbling on the floor.102

Originally printed in the Sun newspaper, the poem also came out in a Ridgway pamphlet accompanied by a satirical account of Frost’s trip to Paris. Imprisoned for publishing Paine’s Rights of Man a few months later, it was Ridgway who had put Fox’s speech – or a version of it – into circulation as a two penny pamphlet. Fox’s allies in the Whig Club swiftly wrote to the newspapers to distance their leader from the declaration of support for reform. The satirical poet makes great play with the price of Ridgway’s pamphlet and implied that Fox was selling himself cheap in drink, but shows no signs of discomfort at or censure of the bibulous behaviour itself. Fox is indulging, as it were, in what men-of-the-world did, without it necessarily compromising his claims to be regarded as a public figure. The satire comes from the idea of an alliance of a statesman like Fox with the principles of Paine in a 2d pamphlet.

Plenty of other satirists in the 1790s exploited the idea of gentlemen drunkenly losing their sense of social hierarchy by consorting with lower-class radicals, or at least seeming to consort with them in sentiment if not in practice. Take, for instance, the satires on the anniversary dinner of the friends of the French Revolution held at the Crown and Anchor on 14 July 1791. After toasting ‘The Rights of Man’, Merry’s Ode for the fourteenth of July was recited and then its chorus sung to celebrate the Fall of the Bastille.103 Although there are conflicting reports of the poet’s presence at the meeting, Merry’s poem, as Harriet Guest has pointed out, ‘delights in communicating a social exuberance that, in male company at least, appears limitless and unconstrained’.104 The social trajectory of Merry’s heady blend of poetry and radical politics is the subject of a later chapter, but its direction was implicit in the familiar electrical metaphor:

Fill high the animating glass,
And let the electric ruby pass
From hand to hand, from soul to soul,
Who shall the energy control,
Exalted, pure, refin’d,
The Health of Humankind.105

The response of the Treasury newspapers to these dinners, in Guest’s words, ‘oscillated rather uneasily between treating the occasion as a serious threat to national stability and security, and dismissively mocking its folly’.106 ‘The Political Mirror’ paragraphs that appeared in the World (15 July 1791) began by placing the meeting in the context of the political sociability of the time:

In the circumstance of a set of people assembling for the purposes of conviviality – however numerous the meeting – however mixt – or however riotous and brutal in its conduct and effects, there can be no cause for even momentary alarm.

Having confirmed the idea that British society was tolerant of such meetings – even when they met ‘for the avowed purpose of celebrating an important political event’ – the paper then suggested that these gentlemen would need to be watched with special vigilance, partly because they were in danger of losing a properly masculine sense of their social and political identities:

The Englishman who can now avow such rapturous admiration of a Government unformed and inefficient has lost all due respect for his own – and in a mind thus prone to change, and doating on licentiousness, the transition from thought to action is made with an accommodating facility.

W. T. Fitzgerald satirised ‘revolution dinners’ in The Sturdy Reformer (1792) as scenarios where elite libertinism descended into social confusion:

In the world no distinction of rank shall be seen,
But a billingsgate Drab be a Mate for a Queen;
Dukes, Dustmen, Grooms, Barons, in friendship shall meet
And with porter and gin hiccup through the street.107

The idea that irresponsible members of the elite were encouraging those who had no head for politics to think themselves deprived of their rights was a criticism often made against Merry, especially after May 1792 when he became increasingly active, first in the SCI’s negotiations with the LCS, and then later in the British Club at Paris. Ironically, at around the time Fitzgerald was attacking gentleman reformers, he and Merry were also serving together on the committee of the Literary Fund.108 Re-elected to the Fund’s committee in absentia in May 1792, Merry never appeared there again. He had fallen out of one form of ‘sociability’ and towards another that men such as Fitzgerald thought scarcely merited the word.

The relative tolerance shown for the bibulous behaviour of Merry and his friends at the Crown and Anchor dinner was not likely to be extended to the LCS. Sometimes the two worlds mixed, as at the anniversary dinner of the SCI on 2 May 1794 also held at the Crown and Anchor. Horne Tooke invited some few Whig MPs thought to be sympathetic to reform, but also gave away free tickets to LCS members.109 Among those who attended from more respectable circles was the MP for Beverley, John Wharton. Interviewed by the Privy Council after the arrests for treason had begun, Wharton was embarrassed and perhaps fearful, insisting that he had attended only because Horne Tooke had persuaded him that he would lend the ‘convivial’ meeting an air of respectability. Pressed about the presence of LCS members and the kinds of toasts Horne Tooke and others gave from the chair, Wharton claimed to have been shocked to see them at the meeting, admitting it dangerous ‘to give such Toasts to such persons’. ‘So much disgusted with the proceedings of the day’, was Wharton, ‘that I expressed my resolution to many of my Friends that night to have nothing more to do with such societies.’110 Others did not see much out of the ordinary run of conduct at political meetings. Thomas Symonds told the Privy Council it ‘did not appear to him that the people at the dinner were so very inferior a class’.111 Horne Tooke was a gentleman in social terms and his conduct was quite as inebriated as that of Fox and his friends had been at the Whig Club. When at their free-and-easies LCS members went through their own boozy rituals and symbolic toasts, they were articulating their own version of eighteenth-century political theatre, but even when they mixed at the politer arena of the Crown and Anchor elite reviewers seldom saw it in these terms.

Some of the LCS’s own members also thought drunken levity unworthy of an organisation aiming at political reform. Here the issue was less about social hierarchy than codes of behaviour the members themselves deemed appropriate to the LCS as a political association. These concerns could manifest themselves in terms of broader cultural shifts associated with the improvement of manners and morals. They could also be raised in relation to questions of the political discipline discussed by Lottes. The larger associational world that housed the political theatre of the eighteenth century was growing more inclined to worry at the libertinism of Fox and his ilk by the end of the eighteenth century. Songs and toasts were becoming objects of concern, for instance, when they seemed to license behaviour coming to be seen as unrespectable. The Toast Master, for instance, was reissued in 1792, probably to take advantage of the profusion of political dinners ‘in this grand aera of contention for political and civil Liberty’, but warned that ‘the Libertine alone’ would be disappointed by its selection. This ‘genteel collection’ was careful to distance itself from any ‘Language that is degrading to human Nature’ and any ‘evil Tendency arising from improper Sentiments’. A few years later Pocock’s Everlasting Songster (1800) presented its collection of songs and toasts as avoiding ‘those of a political, wicked or vulgar tendency, which have so long been suffered by Chairmen of different Societies to reign predominant’. The ‘rules for behaviour’ it offered were designed in part at least to make it more possible for women to be part of convivial meetings: ‘at this place it will not be amiss to say, that a popular toast which has been the too general rule to give first (“To the Exclusion of every Female,” whose company we ought rather to court than discourage) has been a disgrace’.112

LCS toast lists seem to respect these rules for the most part. Thomson’s list in Tribute to Liberty, discussed in the next chapter, included toasts to ‘the Rights of Woman’ and ‘female patriots’. Women were present at LCS-related events, but not at divisional meetings, from what the archive shows, or, probably, at the more boisterous alehouse celebrations. Thelwall’s radicalism tended to be strongly freighted towards the idea of an affective domain that distanced itself from the libertinism of men such as Horne Tooke. The memoir published by his second wife acknowledged her husband’s political debts to Horne Tooke, accepting he was his ‘political father’, but printed Thelwall’s reservations about his ‘deficiencies of heart and morals’. The memoir made it clear that Tooke’s politics could not excuse his moral laxity:

I still indeed respect the politician, but I abhor the man … the being who even in his attachments and social intercourse is merely a politician, is without feeling.

These comments were primarily to do with the coldness Horne Tooke showed Thelwall after the treason trials, advising him to quit politics, but they also reveal that Tooke had advised Thelwall that he could have done better than marry his first wife Susan Thelwall, or ‘Stella’, as he called her in his poetry.113 From the sentimental perspectives that informed much of Thelwall’s writing, Tooke was a representative of an older Whig-aristocratic idea of sociability that was increasingly the object of discourses of moral improvement from across the political spectrum.

Thelwall’s moral perspective sometimes translated into an idea of separate spheres that would exclude his wife from involvement in his political life.114 His poetry ‘To Stella’ did frequently present hearth and home as a place presided over by his wife’s genius from which he was torn by the demands of politics. The lived experience of their political and domestic lives was more complex. Her letters to her family at home reveal Susan Thelwall to have been passionately involved and well informed about her husband’s struggle to keep the popular debating societies open. They also suggest that she sometimes attended them with him. Her presence might be understood as similar to Amelia Alderson’s experiences of radical London in 1794, as Guest puts it, ‘from within a group of kith and kin’.115 Outside that protection, politically active women, especially from outside the elite, were very vulnerable to the kind of misogynistic assessment Place made of James Powell’s wife. Thelwall was certainly in the vanguard of those who defended the domestic virtues of the radical movement. He often spoke from the position outlined by Anna Barbauld’s Civic sermons to the people (1792):

Love then this Country; unite its idea with your domestic comforts … remember that each of you, however inconsiderable, is benefited by your Country; so your Country, however extensive, is benefited by every one of the least of you.116

Invasions of the sweetness of domestic life by informers were central to Thelwall’s descriptions of his struggles with political authority, as Wagner has shown in her account of his ‘exploitation of privacy’. From early on in the 1790s, Thelwall routinely presented his private life as the basis of his political virtue. At the same time, he represented intrusion into his premises in Beaufort Buildings as an unwonted intrusion into private life:

My hours of conviviality have been attended by spies and sycophants, my doors beset with evedroppers [sic], my private chambers haunted by the familiar spirits of an Infernal Inquisition, and my confidential friends stretched on the rack of interrogatory, in order to extort from them the conversation which in the unsuspecting hours of social hilarity may have been uttered at my own table.117

The irony, of course, as Wagner points out, is that Thelwall invited scrutiny of the space that he constructs as vulnerable to invasions by public authorities. ‘The very sphere of life [Thelwall] aims to protect from public interference’, she writes, ‘is the sphere he places squarely before the enquiring eyes of the public.’118

In the rejoinder to the attack on his lecturing in Godwin’s Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s bills (1795), Thelwall invoked the philosopher’s bachelorhood and his supposed social reclusiveness as evidence of his unfitness to judge of politics as a social domain. Godwin’s ‘life of domestic solitude’ had rendered him unsympathetic to ‘every feeling of private, and sometimes public justice’.119 Here the gendered separate spheres sometimes imagined in Thelwall’s poetry are collapsed into a more complicated relationship. The domestic is not opposed to the political, but serves as its condition of possibility. In practice, Thelwall’s ‘private chambers’ in Beaufort Buildings were also places of ‘conviviality’ and ‘social hilarity’. Effectively the headquarters of the LCS in the early months of 1794, Beaufort Buildings provided Thelwall with a lecture hall, a family home (on the top floor), a place for LCS committee meetings (on the ground floor), and, on the same level, a bookshop for distributing radical literature; but even before their removal to Beaufort Buildings Susan Thelwall participated in the political life of the metropolis.

The couple had married in the summer of 1791, when Susan Thelwall was seventeen. Among the papers seized at Thelwall’s arrest in 1794 were two letters she wrote back to her family in Oakham. The first is dated 19 December 1792 from the period when Thelwall was struggling to keep open the debating societies:

I suppose you have heard by the newspapers that politics run very high at present, but as those papers are generally the vehicles of falshood & corruption, you perhaps may receive truer information from a female democrate. The society which was last winter held at Coach Makers Hall & which has this winter been remov’d to the King’s Arms Cornhill has been illegally suppressed.

Self-conscious about the novelty of her involvement in politics, it seems, she makes her politicisation the occasion of sending the letter at all: ‘I should perhaps not have written (for I believe you are a letter in my debt) if I was not become a great politician.’ The letter recalls accompanying Thelwall to a debate at the King’s Arms, Cornhill, a few weeks earlier, in an ‘exceedingly crowded room’, where ‘a foolish Aristocrate’ loaded him with ‘invective and abuse’. The meeting eventually broke up in confusion. The debate was almost certainly the one attended by James Walsh, a Bow Street officer, on ‘The Alliance of Kings against the Liberties of France’ on 12 November, with around five hundred people present.120

Mary Thale and Donna Andrew have shown that women often attended and spoke at debating societies, especially around 1780, a peak, it seems, for such societies in the metropolis, but they continued to be a visible presence into the late 1780s. In 1780 ‘The Female Congress’ met at the King’s Arms, presumably in the same great room where Thelwall spoke in 1792. By this time it was no longer a tavern, having been broken up into separate apartments after a fire in 1778, but a large room available for auctions as well as debates. La Belle Assemblée was another female society thriving at this point. In February 1780, meeting in rooms in the Haymarket, it boasted that its members ‘knowing nothing of the affairs of state, do not interfere with them’, but by the following month it was asking its members: ‘Whether it would not be for the benefit of this Country, if Females had a Voice in the Elections of Representatives, and were eligible to sit in Parliament, as well as the Men?’121 When La Belle Assemblée was revived for a few weeks in 1788, now in Golden Square, it began by again raising the question of votes for women.122 The City Debates met at the King’s Arms in this period, proud of ‘the display of female eloquence from which this society has already received so many obligations’, before being replaced by one comprised mainly of law students at the end of 1791. The students were keen to distance themselves from the previous management. Public opinion was far from undivided on debating societies, especially when it came to the involvement of women. The Times of 29 October 1788 took the view that ‘the debating ladies would be better employed at their needle and thread, a good sempstress being a more amiable character than a female orator’.

There is no evidence that Susan Thelwall directly participated in the debates she attended in 1792, even if we know other women were doing so a few years before. The King’s Arms may no longer have been part of a tavern by then, but even so things obviously got boisterous enough for the Lord Mayor to use the riotous behaviour as a pretext to close the debating society down. Susan Thelwall’s letter and other sources suggest that the mayor had provoked the disorder with this end in mind. She had obviously been reading newspaper reports of Fox’s speech at the Whig Club, and judges it to have been more radical than the radical societies had anticipated:

Fox’s speech, which I suppose you have read, & which is bolder & more explicit, than any body expected of him, has put us poor democrates a little in heart again. If you have read it, you are informed that a proposition was to be made to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act, which will prevent persons who are taken prisoners from receiving bail, which will be a fine oppressive thing; for I am informed that more than a thousand names are down for prosecution, among which, I suppose, is my Thelwalls.123

Her next letter, probably from 9 March 1793, the day of a dinner of the Friends of the Press that Thelwall attended, complains at political interference in the publication of The Peripatetic, but notes with pride the interest that aristocrats were showing in his work: ‘Mr. T has receiv’d information from Horne Took that several Members of Parliament & those sort of folk among the Blues & Buffs that is the opposition party have made great enquiries after him & seem’d inclin’d to assist him.’124 She revels in informing her brother of her new status as a political woman, announced in her first letter: ‘things are gone to such a length that you see it even makes us women politicians’. She even contemplates imprisonment in the cause: ‘For my part, Mr T has taken such an active part in them, that I have been in expectation of accompanying him to prison. Well, if it should be so never mind. I think I might accompany him there in a much worse cause.’ Taken together, Susan Thelwall’s two letters convey not just her sense of pride in her husband, both as a radical and literary man, but also an equally vigorous sense of her own engagement with public affairs.

Nearly three years later, after he had actually been imprisoned, John Thelwall was in dispute with William Godwin about whether the virtues of conversation and debate could be sustained in populous assemblies as in more constrained forms of sociability. Thelwall’s construction of a private sphere against the encroachment of state surveillance was not centred solely on the domestic space, but was constituted by a complex sense of the relations between the domestic and other spaces of urban sociability, including the coffee house, lecture theatre, playhouse, and convivial meetings in the tavern where he often cut a memorable figure. Presenting the domestic space as at the heart of what was being attacked by government was not unique to Thelwall. Richard Citizen Lee, for instance, had come to prominence within the radical movement (as Powell noted in his letter) with his efforts on behalf of the imprisoned patriots. These seem to have included a poem he published on the death of Lydia Hardy. Lee’s poem was published in a cheap freestanding pamphlet, sold for the benefit of the families of those imprisoned under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.125 Lydia Hardy is made a martyr to her husband’s virtue: ‘For thee O husband! ’Tis for thee I die’. If Lee’s poem subsumes her potential for radical agency into wifely duty, not all accounts represent her in quite such passive terms.126 Soon after Hardy’s arrest, the LCS published An account of the seizure of citizen Thomas Hardy that presented it as an invasion of private life that Lydia Hardy firmly resisted:

The house of Citizen Hardy, was assailed about half an hour after six on Monday morning, the 12th May 1794, by a messenger from one of the secretaries of state, accompanied by four or five runners. Mrs Hardy having learned the occasion of the intrusion, requested them to withdraw while she put on some clothes: This they refused, and she anxious of sending for some friends was obliged to dress herself in their presence, one of them walking about all the whole with a pistol in hand.127

The scene could be construed as a pointed rewriting of Burke’s famous account of Marie Antoinette in his Reflections. The object of sensibility is now not limited to the refined sufferings of the queen of France, but extended to the family of the shoemaker secretary of the LCS. In his Sketch of a political tour, John Gale Jones proudly records bringing a lecture audience to tears with his account of the death of Mrs Hardy.128 ‘The same unconstitutional means’, insisted the LCS pamphlet, had seen ‘Citizen Eaton’s house plundered’, with the illegal confiscation of ‘a considerable quantities of printed books’.129 Home and bookshop are conjoined here as spaces that ought to be beyond the reach of government interference, but not as outside political practice as such.

Women do not seem to have been members of the LCS itself, but they were a presence in the radical movement in a broader sense, and not simply identified with the sanctity of the home as a sphere absolutely separate from politics. Sarah Thomson and Susan Thelwall both petitioned the LCS for family support when their husbands were in prison, on the assumption that the society had a moral obligation in this regard. John Hillier’s statement to the Privy Council in the wake of the May arrests for treason claimed to remember Thomas Breillat’s wife interrupting a meeting to ask the group when they were going to free the prisoners from Newgate.130 Here was a case of the domestic exploding into the political. There are other accounts of women being welcomed into the political sociability of the LCS. Amelia Alderson, of higher status than most of the women mentioned so far, recorded a visit to Eaton’s shop with her cousin Ives Hurry:

I then told [Mrs Eaton] that curiosity led me to her shop, and that I came from that city of sedition Norwich … at last we became so fraternized, that Mrs. Eaton shut the shop door and gave us chairs. I will not relate the information I heard, but I could have talked with him all night.131

Another customer, who turned out to be Charles Sinclair, lately released from gaol in Edinburgh, told Alderson ‘that democratic women were rare, and that he heartily wished he could introduce me to two charming patriots at Edinburgh, who were, though women, up to circumstances’.132 Bookshops were important places of radical sociability, but perhaps represented a more easily insulated space than the King’s Arms. Powell’s self-pitying letter to his superiors in the Treasury Solicitor’s office notes that he had first met Lee in Eaton’s shop. When their husbands were in prison or on the run, as Eaton may have at the time of Alderson's visit, women like Susannah Eaton ran their businesses and hosted radical conversaziones.133 Locking the door and placing the chairs in a circle may have construed the bookshop space into an intimate or domestic configuration, but the conversation follows the latest political news. Alderson certainly ventured into the diversity of social spaces in eighteenth-century London. The same evening that she visited the bookshop, she went on – with Hurry, Sinclair, and a man she calls MacDonald, who was probably the journalist D. E. MacDonnell – to visit Joseph Gerrald in Newgate. Alderson also seems to have been on familiar terms with radicals like Thomas Hardy, passing on his greetings to William Godwin in one of her letters, which also includes a casual mention of visiting political lectures in Norwich.134 Returning to Norwich from these exciting London scenes was a matter for regret in at least one of her letters to Godwin. Nevertheless, as Guest points out, Alderson’s relative licence may have been conditional upon friends and family strongly connected to London’s radical networks. The same may hold true, as I have suggested, for Susan Thelwall’s visits to hear her husband debate.135

Amelia Alderson and Susan Thelwall may have been special cases in their freedom to visit various scenes in the landscape of London radicalism, but radical associations did not necessarily elide women in their worldview. Arianne Chernock has warned against the assumption that available masculine categories of citizenship always operated to the exclusion of women. She notes, for instance, that John Gale Jones defended the idea of a ‘female legislature’ on his tour of Kent in 1796.136 Earlier, in the late summer of 1793, the LCS’s central committee had recommended ‘the establishment of a female Society of Patriots &c’. The minutes confirmed ‘this Society will give every assistance to all who work to promote the cause of Reform’.137 The question of female suffrage had certainly been alive in many of the debating societies that had given LCS members their civic training. In October 1788, ‘a Club of female literatae’ had proposed a debate at Coachmakers’ Hall, the venue where Thelwall made his name. Such groups, as we have already seen, did not confine themselves to what the Coachmakers’ Hall society called ‘questions as more immediately interest the female heart’, but also debated the role of women in politics. Just such a group may have fed into the society of female patriots welcomed by the LCS. The open-air LCS meetings of 1795, addressed by Gale Jones, Thelwall, and others, were reportedly ‘crowded with Citizens, both male and female’. In the account of the 26 October meeting published by Citizen Lee, the spatial rhetoric is of a gathering ‘met in the open face of day’, scorning attempts to drive it underground in retreat from ‘the eye of observation’. If the language of invasions of privacy appears in its reference to a victimised cast of ‘the helpless widow and wretched orphan’, at the open meetings women were implicitly taken to contribute to the ‘persevering efforts of reason’.138 Interestingly, Lee’s account ends with an advertisement for a cheap edition of Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman, flanked by others for two scurrilous pamphlets, A faithful narrative of the last illness, death, and interment of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt and A True Copy of an extraordinary Indictment found in a Pocket Book dropped by an Attorney General.139 Whether Lee ever brought out the cheap edition of Wollstonecraft seems unlikely, but perhaps only because he was arrested a few weeks after the meeting. He advertised it in more than one place. Similarly William Hodgson produced a proposal for a treatise called The Female Citizen. His address ‘To the Public’ argued that ‘in a general Struggle for freedom … it would be a scandalous Omission to overlook the Injuries of the fairer part of the creation’.140 Like the 1793 proposal for a society of female patriots, Hodgson and Lee’s advertisements suggest we should be careful of any assumption that the radical movement operated with an exclusively masculine notion of citizenship. Nevertheless, the proliferation of radical societies after 1792, the focus of the next chapter, did not see this ‘scandalous Omission’ rectified. Hodgson and Lee’s proposals seems to have been lost in the turbulence of ‘these prosecuting times’ when both men found themselves imprisoned for seditious libel.

Chapter 2 The radical associations and ‘the general will’

‘The general will is always good, and can never deceive. By what sign shall we know it?’ This question was asked in an essay published by Citizen Lee in 1797, exiled in Philadelphia.1 The answer given was: ‘By the open call of the general and common interest.’ Despite the confidence of this answer, Lee and his former associates in London had been searching for political and cultural forms commensurate with the sovereignty of the people since the foundation of the LCS in 1792. Not just a body focused on the extension of the franchise, the LCS participated in a more general enquiry into how best to collect and represent the opinions of the people. The issue was often ‘moral’ as well as ‘political’, to use the terms of the magazine the LCS began to publish in 1796. ‘Painite democrats’, writes Seth Cotlar,

devoted so much time and energy to the production and dissemination of print because they regarded it as the best way to create a world where political ideas and decisions would emerge out of conversations among ordinary citizens and not just filter down from their leaders.2

Paine’s Rights of Man had celebrated revolutions as ‘the subjects of universal conversation’.3 How best to sustain this universal conversation, what forms it should take, were questions asked by the radical societies from the very beginning, when Thomas Hardy set out the terms he thought the LCS should proceed upon.

Mr Hardy’s correspondents

Thomas Hardy is now routinely acknowledged as the founder of the LCS and most often mentioned as one of the defendants at the treason trials of 1794, with the ‘gentleman radical’ Horne Tooke and Thelwall. Of late, Thelwall has started to generate a rich secondary literature, focused especially on his poetry, the relationship with Coleridge and Wordsworth, and most recently his novel The Daughter of Adoption.4 These developments followed on from the interest in Thelwall’s political ideas and his role as the ‘organic’ intellectual of the LCS stimulated by E. P. Thompson’s essay ‘Hunting the Jacobin Fox’.5 My final chapter engages with the recent academic work on Thelwall, but Hardy has scarcely ever been thought about as a political agent in the same terms. Instead his place has been as a solid figure with ‘a demure cast of character’, as his friend Francis Place put it.6 Historians of radicalism usually present him as the representative artisan radical, the political cobbler. Thompson excepted him from what he called ‘the characteristic vice of the English Jacobins – self-dramatization’, but in the process only confirmed the idea of Hardy set out in John Binns’s picture of him as a man who ‘dressed plainly, talked frankly, never at any time assuming airs or making pretensions’.7 Binns may be providing an accurate enough description of Hardy, but dressing plainly and talking frankly were themselves forms of self-fashioning that carried with them certain social meanings.

Examining Hardy’s role in giving the LCS its early character reveals a more complex figure than accounts of him as a stolid constitutionalist with eyes fixed on the Duke of Richmond’s plan allow. Although this is not the place to talk about his later career in any detail, in it he fulfilled a role as the historian and archivist of the LCS; continued to be active in support of the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett; played a key role in setting up a society for London Scots; facilitated the return of several political exiles via the Literary Fund; and wrote regularly to newspapers and magazines under the pseudonym ‘Crispin’.8 Just after his death, Memoir of Thomas Hardy, Founder of and Secretary to, the London Corresponding Society (1832) was published.9 Hardy’s Memoir originated as an institutional history of the LCS begun no later than 1799, the year the society was outlawed. Only after several failed attempts to get it published, offering it at least twice to the journalist John Dyer Collier, in 1802 and 1807, did he transmute it into the posthumous autobiography.10 Hardy’s Memoir stands at the end of a sustained effort on his behalf to keep the possibilities of a democratic politics alive. The bundle of pamphlets he donated to the Mitcham Book Society was part of the same attempt: ‘I sincerely wish that it may prosper – societies of that kind are calculated to diffuse much knowledge and information to the members who compose it when judiciously conducted.’11 Hardy’s later accounts of the earliest weeks of the LCS present it as emerging from precisely the kind of popular discussion and debate he imagined the Mitcham society perpetuating.

The LCS fashioned a place within the ‘public conversation’ that had been emerging out of the uneasy relationships between newspapers, debating societies, and politics throughout the eighteenth century.12 By 1790 there was ‘a cacophony of open debating societies discussing a medley of topics’.13 John Thelwall found his way into the political arena via the Society for Free Debate at Coachmakers’ Hall in the 1780s. The occasion for Thelwall’s involvement was probably the surge of public interest surrounding the fall of the Fox–North coalition and the fate of the Pitt ministry over 1783–4.14 An earlier satirical poem on the Society there, dating from 1780, described it as a place where ‘our introductory sixpences, like death and stage-coaches, had levelled all distinctions, and jostled wits, lawyers, politicians, and mechanics, into the confusion of the last day’. The last phrase alludes to the millenarian confusion of the Gordon Riots of 1780, occasioned by Lord George Gordon presenting the petition of the Protestant Association to Parliament. Gordon had announced his plans at a meeting at Coachmakers’ Hall attended by two thousand people at the end of May 1780. The ferment surrounding Gordon was an important part of the surge in activity in the debating societies. By 1792, its effects were far from dissipated. A mob was rumoured to have been gathering to break Gordon out of Newgate on the evening of the 14 July dinner of 1791. His influence was a palpable if often unwelcome presence in the early years of the LCS until his death.15

Thomas Hardy arrived in London in 1777. At some unknown point, he became an associate of Lord Gordon’s and very likely a member of the Protestant Association. Gordon is an important figure in the early pages of Hardy’s Memoir, although they distance the shoemaker from the nobleman’s ‘wild schemes’.16 In its early months, the LCS blocked attempts by Gordon and his associates to gain influence in the society, although his spectre haunted the LCS even after his death in 1793.17 Hardy’s role in these decisions is not clear from the surviving minutes, but in the Memoir, where they are not mentioned, he defended Gordon as ‘a much injured man’. This opaquely sympathetic passage implies an establishment conspiracy against Gordon, presenting him as a victim to ‘the malice of his persecutors’, but declines ‘to state who they were’.18 An earlier draft ‘History’ of the LCS mentions no trace of any connection between Hardy and Gordon; presumably the memory of 1780 was still too close to risk even mentioning the name in a document designed to justify the LCS as a public body. In both the ‘History’ and the published Memoir, Hardy presents the origins of the society as arising from a culture of informal engagement in public affairs by working men in their leisure hours: ‘After the business of the day was ended they retired as was customary for tradesmen to do to a public house after supper… conversation followed condoling with each other on the miserable and wretched state the people were reduced to.’19

Evidence from Hardy’s letter book of the period both corroborates and complicates this picture. Written on the back of the first letter in Hardy’s surviving correspondence is a draft of LCS rules and resolutions. They register his characteristic sense of the people’s ability to shape their own destiny:

Providence has kindly furnished men in every situation with faculties necessary for judging of what concerns them it is somewhat strange that the multitude should suffer a few with no better natural intellects than their own to usurp the important power of governing them without controul.20

Addressed to a cousin back in Scotland, the next letter was written only a few days after the LCS started meeting. Beginning with family matters, including Lydia Hardy’s ill health, it uses an everyday metaphor to introduce the politics of the day:

A dish of Chat about politicks Foreign or domestick I relish very well when I have leisure hour or two & will give you my opinions in few words without being asked of the revolution of France [which] at this present moment engrosses conversation.21

The French Revolution Hardy describes as ‘one of the greatest events that has taken place in the history of the world’ and goes on to explain that there is ‘a good deal of talk here of society’s forming in different parts of the Nation for a reform of parliament’. Some sense of Hardy standing on the edge of a new way of thinking about and doing politics is hinted at by the fact that ‘nation’ here was originally written as ‘kingdom’. Hardy is beginning to conceive of those linked across the hundreds of miles between England and Scotland as ‘the people’ of a nation and less as the ‘subjects’ of a kingdom. More specifically, Hardy seems to be edging towards the sense of ‘an emerging nation of reader-citizens’ that Seth Cotlar sees as central to Paine’s legacy.22

The idea of nation scouted in Hardy’s letter may also suggest a people inhabiting something like the homogenous empty time of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities. Anderson’s communities are synchronised across distance in space by print, including acts of reading the daily newspaper.23 Whether literally present to each other to discuss the news of the day in London public houses, as were Hardy and his friends, or dispersed members of a familial network linked by correspondence, as Hardy was with his cousin, these networks develop a national imaginary facilitated by emergent systems of public communication. Nevertheless, further examination of Hardy’s correspondence reveals his idea of time to have been neither homogenous nor empty in the Andersonian sense. Ultimately, Anderson’s thesis assumes the steady onward march of nation predicated on a secular modernity, but a messianic religious perspective, not surprising in an associate of Lord Gordon’s, fired Hardy’s private worldview. At Hardy’s trial in 1794, the prosecution – without much explanation – made a great deal of the ‘enthusiasm’ of his belief that the rights of man would herald universal peace. At one point, he is even linked with the millenarian ‘Fifth Monarchy Men’ of the previous century. ‘In their case’, the judge commented in his summing up, ‘their treason grew out of their religion.’24 Little obvious in the published documents of the LCS or even those seized by the government seems to warrant such a digression. The spy George Lynam had testified to the exclusion of Gordon’s associates, seemingly ignorant of Hardy’s association with the nobleman.25 Possibly the link between Hardy and enthusiasm was based on the general assumption that popular opinion operated as a kind of virus, whether religious or not, but the court may also have drawn its own conclusions from the religious complexion of those who testified to Hardy’s piety. Most of them were Scots Presbyterians, including the minister James Steven (sometimes Stevens), of the Crown Court chapel, which Hardy attended.26 No doubt an English judge ready to bring up the Fifth Monarchy men in his summing up already had his own negative view of Scots Presbyterians and the ‘auld licht’.

From his arrival in London in the 1770s, Hardy had worshipped at Crown Court, near Covent Garden, initially presided over by Rev. William Cruden, the predecessor of Steven.27 Something of the flavour of Cruden’s own scriptural politics can be gleaned from the volume of sermons he published after his death:

there are no slaves in the house of God. His yoke is easy; his burden light; and his work truly honourable and glorious. Much of the allegiance rendered to earthly Sovereigns, is the effect of dread or compulsion, and dictated by the fears of the subjects; and as extorted from them, in many cases, by the tyrannical engines of arbitrary power, they long for an opportunity of breaking off the yoke.28

Brad Jones has recently suggested that this kind of religious questioning of the legitimacy of government formed a trail of gunpowder from the Protestant Association to the radicalism of the 1790s.29 The Baptist minister William Winterbotham followed this trail to Newgate in 1793.30 Hardy may have started in much the same place to end up in the same prison in 1794. The Protestant petition that sparked the riots of 1780 lists ‘Thomas Hardy’ next to ‘William McMaster’, the name of another member of the congregation at Crown Court.31

Later in the 1780s, Hardy was involved in controversy about the rights of the congregation at Crown Court chapel. Debates over the right of the congregation to select its minister were just the kind of thing that made English judges suspicious of Scots Presbyterians. Hardy seems to have been a ringleader in the resistance to an attempt to impose a minister on Crown Court after Cruden’s death. His draft Memoir makes the connection between kirk politics and his later radicalism explicit:

This circumstance is mentioned to show what hand Thomas Hardy had in this, and what a great fire a little spark may kindle: He afterwards was the founder of the London Corresponding Society which threatened destruction to the old & deep rooted corruptions of the Government of the country by a radical reformation of the gross abuses in the government – both these things were begun by him with the purest motives, to do good to his fellow men.32

In the version published in 1832, instead of this rapid assertion of the connection between religious politics and the LCS, Hardy inserted an anecdote about an unfortunate visit of Lord Gordon to Crown Court at the shoemaker’s invitation. The effect within the text is to break the more direct causal relationship between kirk politics and radicalism that the draft proposes, although Gordon’s behaviour as described in the anecdote – he stood up and execrated the minister for giving a pre-prepared sermon – scarcely meliorates Anglican stereotypes of Scots Presbyterians.33

One of those involved in the early tavern discussions about founding the LCS was George Walne, Hardy’s brother-in-law, who later discovered The Englishman’s Right in a cheese shop. In 1791, Walne’s name appeared at the end of a pamphlet called Divine Warrants, Ends, Advantages, and Rules, of the Fellowship Society. Based at Crown Court, this ‘Fellowship Society’ aimed at promoting ‘prayer, spiritual conversation, &c.’, with rules about meeting for discussion very like those of the LCS:

That we shall keep a correspondence with other Christian Societies of the same nature in England or Scotland, &c. in order that brotherly love may be promoted, and that all may be edified. That we shall endeavor, in our several stations, to have a conversation becoming the Gospel; and to use every mean in our power, to raise up a seed to serve our Glorious Lord jesus christ, the head and king of his church.34

Within months, Walne was putting this experience of print publicity at the service of the LCS. Divine Warrants also anticipates the LCS’s desire to make its resolutions and rules open to public inspection, using print to advertise its mission and reassure readers of its credentials. Walne and his associates were drawing on a long history of print organisation within Dissent. In the campaign against restrictions on Dissenting ministers in 1772, for instance, a Baptist minister Daniel Turner wrote to Josiah Thompson to call for 'a perpetual standing committee for correspondence or something of that nature'. His correspondent Thompson proposed a permanent standing committee of twelve ministers in London 'under the Style and Title of ye Corresponding Society'.35

Perhaps the most obvious ways that Protestant Dissent had organised through print in the years immediately prior to the formation of the LCS was in the various campaigns against the Test and Corporation Acts.36 Hardy seems to have been immersed in this literature. In an 1803 letter to John Evans of Islington, author of A Sketch of all the Denominations of the Christian World (1808), he recommended a tract written by David Bogue, but published anonymously.37 Scholars now best know Bogue as an evangelical Independent minister, who set up an academy in Gosport, near Portsmouth, in 1777. He played an important part in the formation of the Evangelical Magazine in 1793 and the London Missionary Society soon afterwards.38 James Steven, Hardy’s minister at Crown Court, was closely involved with Bogue’s ventures.39 Hardy took another opportunity to remind a historian of Dissent of Bogue’s radical past when in 1809 he wrote to Walter Wilson, author of The History and Antiquities of the Dissenting Churches (1808–14).40 Hardy claimed that Wilson had omitted an ‘unanswerable’ pamphlet published with Charles Dilly from a list of Bogue’s publications. Hardy also suspected there was one other, perhaps two, published by Joseph Johnson. He thinks it was called something like ‘The French Revolution foreseen in 1639’, but then, perhaps rather archly commenting on Bogue’s more recent respectability, added, ‘that being rather of a political nature perhaps he would not like to own it’.41

Hardy was not an obscure reader of Bogue’s pamphlets, unknown to their author, but corresponded and met with him in the early 1790s. The two men had even gone on board the transport ship The Surprise together in 1794 to convey funds to Maurice Margarot, about to be transported to Botany Bay.42 According to Hardy’s Memoir, Bogue was later one of the ‘particular friends’ – along with James Steven – with whom he spent the evening after his acquittal.43 The government had been suspicious enough of the relationship with Bogue to raise it at the trial.44 Although the prosecution do not seem to have had access to their letters, Hardy and Bogue had corresponded in the first few months of the LCS’s existence, showing a shared interest in the millenarian understanding of contemporary political history. In a letter from June 1792, Hardy first raised the question of their views on ‘civil’ government. He sent Bogue a copy of the LCS’s resolutions and asked for his opinion.45 Evidently the response was not hostile. A few weeks later, Hardy wrote to another clergyman in the Portsmouth area and asked him to pass on his regards to Bogue, ‘you will find him a true friend in the cause of freedom’.46 In these letters, Hardy was patching into a network of Dissenting opinion experienced in the ways of organising opinion in print.

He also had his own experience from the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade to draw upon. The Treasury Solicitor’s Papers include a moving letter from Lydia Hardy to her husband, written in April 1792, when she was convalescing in the country with her family, which throws some light on their joint commitment to abolition. After mentioning her ill health and the pleasure she takes in reading the Bible, she switches topic to ask: ‘What has been donn in the palement house consurning the slave trade[?]’47 On 8 April, Wilberforce had introduced his latest abolition bill to Parliament. Its fate takes up much more of the letter than the LCS. She asks after ‘Vassa’ (Gustavus Vassa or Olaudah Equiano, as he is more often known now) and hopes he will be successful on his tour to Scotland. The tour was to promote a new edition of his The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano. On 8 March 1792, Hardy had written to Rev. Thomas Bryant of Sheffield on Equiano’s recommendation as ‘a zealous friend for the Abolition of that accurs’d traffick denominated the Slave Trade’. Hardy explained to Bryant that he assumed ‘that you was a friend to freedom on the broad basis of the Rights of Man for I am fully persuaded that no man who is an advocate from principle for liberty for a Black Man but will strenuously promote and support the rights of a White Man’.48 In the Memoir, Hardy recalls reading Bryant’s reply to the assembled LCS members, who adopted the correspondence as a ‘transaction … of the whole body’.

Hardy claimed that its effect ‘tended very much to animate the Corresponding Society in the great cause of Parliamentary Reform’. Connecting the importance of publicity to both causes, Hardy had given Bryant a statement of the principles of the LCS: ‘the views and intentions of this Society are to collect opinions and know the determination (as far as possible) of the unrepresented!’ Hardy’s association with Equiano would have brought practical knowledge of the role of ‘opinion’ in an increasingly complex communications system.49 Equiano wrote to Hardy in May asking him to acquire copies of those newspapers spreading damaging reports that he had not been born in Africa. Switching to wish Hardy success with the LCS, he informs him that he has not come across any reform societies in Scotland. More generally, as several scholars have noted, Equiano provided a bridge between the emergent radical societies and the abolitionist movement.50 His letter to Hardy ends with an expression of religious faith common in Hardy’s own correspondence: ‘I am resolved ever to look to Jesus Christ – & submit to his Preordinations.’51 This faith was underpinned by a sophisticated awareness of the role of print networks in spreading the twinned message of political reform and abolitionism that the two men shared.

This twinned message looked beyond any narrowly constitutionalist concern for the reform of Parliament.52 Hardy’s ardour was powerfully informed by his religious zeal, as Richard Citizen Lee recognised. Another staunch abolitionist, Lee wrote ‘Tribute of Civic Gratitude’ to commemorate Hardy’s acquittal of the charge of treason. Lee provided a note insisting that Hardy was a ‘christian hero’:

Let the infidel candidly investigate (if Infidelity can possibly be candid) let him candidly investigate this illustrious Character, and then lift his audacious Front to the Heavens and tell the allmighty, that pure Christianity is inimical to the Cause of Freedom – Rather let him yield to the Power of Conviction, and own with Admiration the Rationality of that sublime System which, while it gives glory to god, inculcates peace on earth, and good-will towards men.53

As the defensive tone of his note suggests, Lee’s poem appeared at a point when religious differences were causing problems within the LCS, discussed more fully later in this chapter. Suffice to note for now that Lee’s collection Songs from the rock (1795) was devoted to the idea of the French Revolution as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, full of the rhetoric that had once been identified with Gordon’s Protestant Association. Hardy had his own millenarian perspective on contemporary events. In a letter he wrote to Bogue in 1793, Hardy provided a vision of the resistless spread of political change through the media of print and political discussion:

Of course the subject of a reform in parliament will be repeatedly agitated in the House of Commons the debates will be published in the newspapers then circulated in different parts of the Country. Thousands of people will make it the subject of conversation and enquiry who never thought of it before.54

The origins of this kind of thinking in the marrow of Protestant Dissent are revealed when Hardy asks Bogue if he thinks Ezekiel 21: 25–7 refers to France:

I think there have been two overturns in that country already and a third must take place before the pure gospel of Jesus Christ can prevail in that Nation, although there is a door open for propagating it and I hope it will never be shut till the end of time.

No wonder both men were interested in The French Revolution foreseen, in 1639! Hardy’s letter to Bogue suggests he understood each wave of the Revolution as part of an unfolding history of Protestant enlightenment. What is equally striking, however, is the absence of this aspect of his thinking from his public work for the LCS.

In this regard, Hardy’s millenarianism never takes on the public role it does in Citizen Lee’s poetry, where it explicitly justifies his politics. Hardy never allowed his own religiosity to play any part in the LCS’s attempts to represent the voice of the people. Michael Warner’s discussion of the eighteenth-century republic of letters identifies a secularising shift whereby the Protestant idea of print as a medium for the unfolding of God’s word gave way to the idea of ‘the public’ as a more secular entity.55 Although the displacement of the former by the latter was surely a much more uneven process than Warner allows, as Lee’s case shows, it is a distinction relevant to thinking about Hardy’s religious beliefs in relation to his ‘public’ role. If his private correspondence reveals how far his thinking was structured by his religious zeal, he seems to have been very careful not to allow it to enter any of the LCS’s official business or documents. His manuscript ‘History’ is explicit on the fact that the LCS was careful to avoid religious disputes. All kinds of religious believers were represented in the LCS, Hardy claimed, including those who ‘cared for none of those things’.56

This claim does not necessarily mean that Hardy himself found the prohibition comfortable. Certainly, religious controversy did rear its head in the LCS, especially after Paine’s Age of Reason (1794) appeared. By 1795, after Hardy had stepped down from his role as secretary, various schisms appeared over religious matters. Perhaps his former comrades missed his careful navigation of this particular ground. The complexity of Hardy’s own position resists any straightforward secular teleology. His concern with political reform did not mean he simply abandoned the religious idea of progress found in his letters to Bogue. Indeed, next to his comment about avoiding religious disputes, an annotation gives an extract from what he calls ‘an excellent recent publication’, James Bennett’s Sacred Politics, as if he couldn’t quite help himself.57 Published anonymously in 1795, Bennett’s pamphlet ends by concluding that ‘the Scriptures incline strongly in favour of a well-ordered democracy’.58 Reviewers quickly condemned the pamphlet as ‘sedition, dressed up in scripture, recommended by the name of Jesus’.59 Whatever his enthusiasm for Bennett’s thinking, Hardy did not allow it to play a direct part in his ‘public’ role with the LCS. Hardy’s retrospective accounts of the early years place their emphasis on the abilities of the people at large to organise themselves rather than any sense of divine favour. His Memoir reprints Lee’s poem on the death of Hardy’s wife, records the fact that the poet migrated to American soon afterwards, but suggests no other association between them. Understandably enough, Hardy glosses over the enthusiasm of Lee’s religio-political poetry, and says nothing about the tribute he was paid as a specifically ‘Christian hero’. Hardy’s public vision of the LCS, one might say, simply did not acknowledge this category, at least not in the public sphere.

Hardy’s primary public mode was to collect popular opinion, placing questions of religious belief to one side. On 10 April 1792, Hardy wrote to the Borough Society, Thelwall’s original base, invoking a universal perspective that may have originated in his religious beliefs, but does not allude to them:

As we are all engaged in the same grand and important cause there is an absolute necessity for us to unite together and communicate with each other that our sentiments and determinations may center in one point viz to have the rights of man established especially in this island but our views of the rights of man are not solely confined to this small island but are extended to the whole human race black or white, high or low, rich or poor.60

Among those to whom he had also written in the early months of the LCS was Lord Daer, another Scotsman, whom he reminded that his subscription was due. Written on the auspicious date of 14 July, the letter celebrated the success of the society against the ‘combined influence of Court Minions and those who do the dirty work of a corrupt and despotick and trembling administration’. Hardy was confident of the imminent fall of tyranny:

The Aristocracy is trembling in every joint for their exclusive privileges. Excuse me for speaking so plainly I am addressing you as a member of the same society with me and a fellow labourer in the glorious cause. I am a plain man love honest dealing and hates dissembling. I was happy to see your name at the head of a long list of patriots engaged in a similar cause in another part of the Nation.61

Typically Hardy ended the letter on a practical egalitarian note: ‘I have taken the liberty of renewing your ticket for this Quarter at the very large sum of one penny it is here enclosed.’

If Hardy disciplined his own religious convictions into a public role that he believed would best advance the cause of reform, this self-discipline did not translate into social deference, a point that should be borne in mind when thinking about his relationship with the elite reformers of the 1780s. Daer was the eldest son of the Earl of Selkirk, a member of the Friends of the People that had been formed in April 1792 by Charles Grey and his Whig associates, but also a rare nobleman willing to participate in the more popular societies. He was present at SCI meetings in April and participated in the shadowy ‘London Society of the Friends of the People’ that existed briefly in mid 1792.62 Unlike its Whig namesake, this society was committed to the platform of universal male suffrage. Following the usual practice of finding a nobleman to assume positions of leadership in all kinds of associations, Daer was proposed as chairman of the LCS, but Hardy’s manuscript recalls ‘it was objected it wd. appear to be a party business and might prevent them exerting themselves in their own cause’. Hardy’s manner towards Daer in their correspondence suggests that he shared this opinion. Despite their shared Scottish roots, Daer’s social status, and his influential connections within reform more generally, Hardy refused to defer to the nobleman when it came to leadership of the LCS and insisted instead on addressing him as ‘a fellow labourer in the glorious cause’.63

Nevertheless, Hardy chose not to come forward in 1792 as the ‘founder’ of the LCS, a matter he also discusses in the manuscript history. He was concerned as to perceptions of ‘respectability’, although he quickly provides the gloss, ‘the common received idea of respectability’. He insisted upon the origin of the LCS, as we have seen, in the discussions of ordinary tradesmen. If he refused to stand forward as the founder of the society, Hardy did agree to sign his name to its first address as secretary (even though its author was Margarot). The explanation given in the ‘History’ is that Hardy was the most ‘independent’ of those involved. He felt the need to go on and explain his idea of this word too, perhaps because it was so mired in the Whig idea that only the propertied classes could truly be trusted with the welfare of the state. In contrast, Hardy disputed any idea of ‘independent’ as ‘rich and increased in worldly goods’. Instead, as a self-employed journeyman, he was free from the control of an employer, but also independent because ‘conscious that I was doing that which was right – fearless of consequence’.64

Authorised by the signature of this independent man, the address and resolutions were sent to the SCI, then the newspapers, before being distributed by the LCS as a handbill.65 In Hardy’s manuscript ‘History of the LCS’, this event is represented as the crossing of a threshold: ‘after that time the London Corresponding Society became public’.66 For Hardy, it appears, publicity involved certain acts of self-discipline, the regulation of his own religious zeal, and a certain orientation towards the nation in print, including an independence from the authority of the political elite, whatever advice he may have taken from them. In the published Memoir, this discipline meant that the personal was defined primarily in terms of the political, even including the brief description of the death of Lydia Hardy ending with Lee’s poem.67 Compared to the way Thelwall was to place his private affections at the centre of his claims to political virtue, Hardy seems to have identified his public self much more completely with the LCS, excluding the personal and the religious, both in his political conduct in the 1790s and in his later writing.

Ferment 1792–3

Publication of the April address and resolutions was the first step towards the LCS taking leadership of the popular societies emerging onto the public stage in London and across Britain in 1792. Although in retrospect this role may seem to have been inevitable, the LCS was initially part of a bubbling ferment of such societies, responding to events in France and to Paine’s Rights of Man. The most prominent of these societies was the SCI, of which Paine himself was a member, and which had facilitated the publication and dissemination of the first part of his book.68 Paine’s ideas changed in response to this ferment, only explicitly advocating universal suffrage in his Letter Addressed to the Addressers after his involvement with the LCS and SCI. Hardy was quick to make contact with John Horne Tooke, the leading figure in the SCI, and the two societies began to collaborate from early on in 1792, sending representatives to each other’s meetings. The popular radical movement in London, however, extended further beyond these two key organisations than many accounts notice, even if most of the societies that emerged were short lived and would repay further research.

Hardy’s ‘History of the LCS’ is a useful point of departure for understanding this rapidly developing situation. His sense of the LCS’s achievement was predicated on its sustained commitment when other societies rose and fell. He acknowledged the initial importance of elite groups. Grey’s Society of the Friends of the People ‘carried people to flock in astonishing numbers to the Corresponding Society’, but these Whigs were guilty of arrogating to themselves a role as natural leaders that Hardy was unwilling to grant. His moral sense of the importance of ‘the people’ coming to a sense of itself was always likely to bridle against such assumptions. Those who formed societies in imitation of Grey and his associates – he mentions the Borough and Aldgate societies, as well as others who used some version of the title ‘friends of the people’ – he dismissed as ‘professed friends who are only seen in the sun shine of prosperity’. The readiness of these societies ‘to learn from their superiors’ he described in a cancelled passage as ‘proof of great docility in them’:

when these go beforehand, those follow – when those stop, those stand still – they called themselves friends of the people when in reality they were part of the oppressed people they wished to befriend.69

Hardy also carefully distinguished the LCS from those who had promoted parliamentary reform in the previous decade. Hardy saw his colleagues in the LCS as ‘another class of reformers – they were of the lower and middling class of society called the people’:

these two classes of reformers being almost total strangers to each other – some of those strenuous for a certain reform in 1782 scarcely knew those who had associated for a reform in 1792.

The ‘History’ shows a sharp awareness of what was at stake when it came to the question of leadership within the movement: ‘the higher class as they are called have at all times made use of the middling and lower classes as a ladder to raise themselves into power then kick it away’.70

Nevertheless, the situation on the ground in 1792–3 was more fluid than Hardy’s later account suggests. Clubs and individuals charted various courses across a rapidly changing political landscape in this period. The parts played by Grey’s Friends of the People and the SCI are fairly well known, but there were many other groups in London closer to the LCS in this period, even if Hardy treats them as transient.71 For instance, the LCS courted the assistance of the Borough Society (also known as the Southwark Society of the Friends of the People) for much of 1792. Thelwall was heavily involved there. The Aldgate Society, formed out of a disaffected division of the LCS early in 1793, made its own contribution to print radicalism via the satirical miscellany A Thing of Shreds and Patches (1793), but association with Gordon tainted them in many eyes. Other groups, like the Holborn Society, self-described as republicans, seem to have merged with the LCS early in 1793.72 Nor, in this volatile early period, were the class profiles of participants quite as neat as Hardy suggests in his retrospective accounts. Merry was involved in the early stages of Grey’s Friends of the People, for instance, but his name disappears from membership lists by the middle of 1792. At meetings of the SCI, which he had joined in 1791, he played a conspicuous role in its collaborations with the LCS. Merry retained a confidence in the ‘electric’ power of print to spread enlightenment on a global scale. Many ‘literary men’ who shared Merry’s sympathies showed an appetite for association in this period, although far from all of them were willing to condone his sense of its limitless social horizon.

In 1790, Merry was one of several reform-minded writers involved in the inauguration of the Literary Fund. The brainchild of the minister and political theorist David Williams, its primary purpose was to aid authors in distress, but its mission was predicated on a sense of the influence of men of letters on political affairs that drew inspiration from events in France. Many early members of its general committee were political reformers. Aside from Merry, they included John Hurford Stone, Thomas Christie, editor of the Analytical Review, Godwin’s friend Major Alexander Jardine, and Captain Thomas Morris, brother of the famous political song-writer Captain Charles Morris.73 These were men, as John Gifford put it later, ‘neither remarkable for the purity of their religious tenets, nor for the soundness of their political principles’, but they were not necessarily averse to exploiting the protection of an aristocratic patron, and early in 1791 Merry was asked to use his connections to approach the Duke of Leeds, already president of the Philanthropic Society.74 By 1792, reform sympathies within the Literary Fund manifested themselves in a notable overlap with SCI membership. Merry was unable to attend the Literary Fund’s committee meeting of 4 May, because he was at the SCI with Paine in a key period for its discussions of the distribution of cheap editions of Rights of Man.75 Despite his absence from the meeting, it re-elected Merry to the committee, but he never reappeared. Two SCI members who did attend the May meeting of the Literary Fund were John Hurford Stone and George Edwards (both of whom, as it happens, also seem to have been involved in the short-lived London Society of the Friends of the People at around this time). Thereafter, like Merry, they seem to have been busier with the SCI than the Fund. Stone is reputed to have turned down Williams’s offer to serve on the Fund’s committee. By the end of 1792, Edwards, Merry, and Stone were in Paris with Paine, where they participated in the British Club at White’s Hotel frequented by John Oswald, vegetarian theorist and revolutionary soldier, who received financial aid from the Fund.76

Williams conveyed the Fund’s grant to Oswald in Paris, but seems not to have attended the British Club. He already had a reputation in France as a serious political thinker. J.P. Brissot had invited Williams to consult on the new republican constitution. Manon Roland placed Williams above Paine as a philosopher:

Paine throws light upon a revolution better than he concurs in the making of a constitution. He takes up, and establishes those great principles, of which the exposition strikes every eye, gains the applause of a club, or excites the enthusiasm of a tavern; but for cool in a committee, or the regular labours of a legislator, I conceive David Williams infinitely more proper than he. Williams, made a French citizen also, was not chosen a member of the Convention, in which he would have been of more use; but he was invited by the government to repair to Paris, where he passed several months, and frequently conferred with the most active representatives of the nation.77

The terms of her praise hint at a distinctive aspect of Williams’s thinking, particularly his deep ambivalence about popular associations, and his preference for committee work or smaller more ‘select’ gatherings than he found in the raucous activities of the National Convention.78

Williams’s justification of a charity for authors had been the assumption that their highest calling was as writers of constitutions:

Princes are influenced, ministers propose measures, and magistrates are instructed by the industry of literature; while the authors of hints, suggestions, and disquisitions, may be languishing in obscurity, or dying in distress.79

Both Williams and Merry took up this role in France in the debate on the new republican constitution.80 Newspaper advertisements from 1791–2 suggest the pressure of events in France on the definition of the ‘literary’ supported by the Fund. Take this one from the World for 16 February 1791:

At a period when literature is asserting its just claims, to influence the Councils, and point out the interests of political societies

The committee … solicit, not those only who are friends to literature, from taste and love of science, but all who are interested in the most effective and important instruments of public information and public prosperity.

The strong link between constitutions and literary men was later eclipsed by a defence of the general utility of literature in most of the other writing by Williams on the Fund, but in these heady months it was at the heart of his thinking.

Williams always made it clear that the Fund was not intended to encourage people into authorship. He also saw the provision of relief as a means of stopping the rancour that produced ‘libel’ and ‘personal satire’ among those disappointed of a literary career, modes that were at the heart of Georgian political theatre.81 Beyond the Fund, as a political writer, Williams imagined himself occupying a philosophical position above the political societies, giving them direction perhaps, but not joining them, a position not unlike the one Godwin took up after the success of Political justice. He spelled out his position in a letter to Brissot from May 1792:

The Constitutional Societies which have adopted Paine & his Pamphlets … are here actuated by bad Men; & their exertions are petulant & intemperate. The Indiscretion of the Government in prosecuting Paine … will give these Societies great Advantage. – But I join none of them; because I think they waste the Spirits & excite the Hopes of the People to no Purpose; & they alarm Government just enough to be on it’s guard, but not to reform any of it’s [sic] Abuses… I am for instructing the People only: & having no Contest with Government, until I can give it a mortal Blow.82

Williams was a theorist of conventions as the proper medium for the expression of the general will, but far from sanguine about the direct participation of the people out-of-doors.83 In France at the end of the year, he was shocked by the constant interruptions from the gallery in the Convention. He did make his own contribution to the French constitutional debate in Observations sur la dernière constitution de la France (1793), but predictably enough the document seems never to have been printed in England. Despite their ostensible political sympathies, Williams already had doubts about Paine and his associates in the SCI. He had always been a proponent of that species of Enlightenment thinking that looked for unlimited enquiry within regulated conditions. In Lessons to a young prince (1790), for instance, he had written ‘I never saw an assembly, exceeding twenty, whatever the abilities of the members, that was not more disposed to passion and tumult, than to reason and judgment’, a position echoed in Godwin’s Political justice.84 For both Godwin and Williams, the autonomy of private judgement had to be preserved when it came to political justice.

Nevertheless, like Godwin, Williams actively participated in the more selective versions of conviviality in literary London. In his case, these were mainly comprised of likeminded proponents of improvement like ‘The Club of Thirteen’ from which the idea for the Literary Fund sprang.85 From 1793, soon after its inception, the Literary Fund began to have an annual dinner. A manuscript list of toasts and songs for the 1793 dinner contains the sentiment ‘Government without Oppression, & Liberty without Licentiousness’. A sign of the sensitivity of the political context is that the word ‘Tyranny’ is struck out and replaced by ‘Oppression’. By 1800, there was no equivocation. The toasts included: ‘The Constitution of England, untampered, & unimpaired by French Quackery’ and ‘One Mind, one Heart, one Voice, from the Cottage to the Throne’.86 No less than the philanthropic gentlemen of the Literary Fund, the LCS confirmed its own sense of identity through toasts and songs, which were later to be scrutinised at the trials of its members, as were the entrance tickets issued in its name. As the membership of the LCS grew, these tickets soon had to be printed rather than handwritten by Hardy, as they initially were. Maurice Margarot had to be persuaded that Hardy’s proposed motto ‘Unite, persevere, and be free’ would not be injurious to the cause. Tickets were also a means of policing entrance to the Society’s meetings as it became increasingly conscious of surveillance, by government spies and informers, but issuing them was also an aspect of its conformity to the norms of the associational world more generally. On Thursday 23 August 1792, the LCS’s general committee passed a resolution that

no Delegate, no member of the Society do presume to publish or send to any newspaper, any letter or pamphlet or writing connected to the society by any member or society, unless by express order from the Committee under the penalty of exclusion.

The resolution seems to have been prompted by the appearance of a broadside song ‘God Save the Rights of Man’. At the 13 September meeting, the delegates of three divisions were severely reprimanded for allowing the song to be published. The author was Robert Thomson (sometimes Thompson) who appeared at the committee meeting of 30 August as ‘the pro tempore delegate of Division No. 5’.87

By trade, Thomson was an auctioneer, whom the MPM’s ‘History of the Society’ (1796) recalled as one of those early members ‘indefatigable in visiting and instructing new divisions’.88 Perhaps recalling the anxiety about Thomson’s song, the ‘History’ went on to describe his ‘lively poetical genius, which did not exactly accord with the calm prudential principles on which the Society was instituted’. Here, Thomson’s ‘poetical genius’ seems to place him beneath what the LCS required of the ‘literary men’ it at times tried to recruit, but it is the conviviality of song, hinted at in the word ‘lively’, that seems to be the primary source of anxiety. None the less, the account acknowledged that he was

extensively admired in the Society, and probably would have experienced a similar degree of approbation from the country at large, had not persecution nearly suppressed his works, and compelled him to seek refuge in France, where, we are happy to learn he has since succeeded as a bookseller.

Thomson was a Scot by birth. He shared ties of religion and a lasting friendship with his countryman Hardy.89 Thomson returned from Paris some time soon after 1800 to publish a feisty rebuttal of Paine’s The Age of Reason.90 After Waterloo, impoverished, he returned again, when Hardy among others helped with an application to the Literary Fund, prudently suppressing his early role in the LCS. Although a very different organisation from what it had been in 1792, the Fund granted him £10 on more than one occasion until his death in 1820.91

The brief account of Thomson in MPM is corroborated and extended by the spy reports of Captain George Munro from November 1792.92 Munro had been having trouble gaining entry to LCS divisions as a ‘stranger’, but his luck turned when he met Thomson:

The third [division] I visited was the Marquis of Granby kept by one Pride this is the 5th Division, there were a vast number of Scotchmen in this, it seemed the best attended and best conducted, the Delegates name was Thomson, discovering I was a countryman of his (for he was Scotch) I was admitted a member of this Division with little difficulty, and have the honour of accompanying this with one of their printed papers, which will give you a clear idea of the nature of these Society’s who’s intentions [are] that of corrupting the minds of the lower orders of the people by inflaming their imaginations with imaginary grievances, and working them up to comit some great excess.

‘Papers’ suggests a slip or broadside version, possibly one of Thomson’s songs, the most influential of which was ‘God Save the Rights of Man’, the song that had caused ructions at the LCS in late August. The slip version of that song in the British Library shown here (Figure 4) has ‘November 1792’ written on it, the month of Munro’s visit to the Marquis of Granby. The song was later collected in Thomson’s A Tribute to Liberty (1793) where it is described as ‘composed before the Duke of Brunswick ran away’, a reference to the French victory at Valmy on 20 September. This composition date fits in with the chronology of the LCS debates over whether it should be owned by the society. By the time the song appeared in A Tribute to Liberty, published from Temple Yard with Robert Littlejohn, another LCS member, Thomson was a confirmed delegate to the central committee, perhaps in recognition of the ‘vigour’ MPM later credited him with bringing to the failing spirits of the society. Despite the committee’s doubts about identifying his songs as official LCS publications, he had probably been among those dispatched to the Marquis of Granby to revive its fortunes in August. Munro’s report from November corroborates his success.

Fig 4 [Robert Thomson] A New song, to an old tune,-viz. “God save the king”.

© The British Library Board.

‘To the London Corresponding Society’, one of Thomson’s songs gathered in Tribute to Liberty, seems a direct contribution to the process of creating solidarity and imparting spirit to the members:

See our numbers how they grow!
Crowding and dividing;
Eager all their Rights to know,
Reason still presiding.93

A note glosses ‘crowding and dividing’ as a reference ‘to the affiliated divisions which file off every night of meeting to different parts of the town’. For those singing the song at a meeting, it would have provided a sense of unity both ‘here’ within the particular division and also with those ‘dividing’ meetings imagined as going on simultaneously:

Boldly all with heart and hand,
Meet we here united,
By each other firmly stand,
To see our Country righted.94

Like ‘God Save the Rights of Man’, this song probably first existed as a slip that could be passed around at meetings. Others gathered in the collection are still extant as slips, including ‘Whitehall Alarmed!’ and ‘Burke’s Address to the Swinish Multitude’.95 Thomson’s book also republished songs that he had not written, including two sung by Charles Dignum at the Revolution Society’s anniversary dinner in November 1792. LCS member Robert Hawes of Whitechapel had already printed these as slips.96 Songs were certainly a very malleable cultural form, easily adapted to circumstances, and capable of being produced as slips, printed in newspapers, or gathered in anthologies. Spence’s Pig’s Meat reprinted ‘God Save the Rights of Man’ as it did ‘Burke’s Address to the Swinish Multitude’.97

Print allowed songs and toasts to be circulated across different kinds of social space, as with the songs Dignum performed for the Revolution Society, reprinted by Hawes and Thomson for LCS use. The anniversary dinner of the Revolution Society in 1792 took place at the London Tavern, a venue grander than most used by the LCS. Providing LCS members with access to these songs, Hawes and Thomson implied they had as much right to a place in the domain of British politics as the Revolution Society and more exalted associations. The press closely scrutinised the role of songs and toasts at political dinners and meetings, as we have already seen. Reformers and Whigs often began their toasts with ‘the majesty of the people’ to make their sense of the relative importance of the different arms of the constitution plain. The king appeared only in third place at the Revolution Society’s 1789 dinner.98 Things had changed by 1792. The Morning Chronicle’s report of the 1792 dinner of 5 November does not mention the royal family and gives the first four toasts as ‘The Rights of Man’, ‘The Glorious Revolution of 1688’, ‘May unjust power be opposed by all the friends of just Government’, and ‘The Sovereignty of the People acting by an equal Representation’. In A Tribute to Liberty, Thomson went further in his list of toasts and signalled his affiliations by placing ‘Thomas Paine!!!’ first, followed by ‘The Rights of Man!!!’, ‘The Rights of Woman!!!’, and then ‘The Majesty of the People!!!’99

Preparing the evidence for the treason trials in 1794, the Second report from the Committee of Secrecy noted the use ‘even of play bills and songs, seditious toasts; and a studied selection of the tunes which have been in use since the revolution’ as a means to ‘seduce and corrupt the thoughtless and uninformed’: ‘The appearance of insignificance and levity, which belongs at first sight to his part of the system, is, in truth, only an additional proof of the art and industry with which it has been pursued.’100 But the LCS itself, as its magazine ‘History’ of 1796 implies, was not without qualms about the political theatre of toasts and songs: ‘The fervent desire for moral reform, educational improvement, and rational debate’, James Epstein and David Karr have suggested, ‘was at odds with the norms of plebeian sociability’.101 One needs to be careful of not oversimplifying the notion of ‘plebeian sociability’. Reading, debating, singing, and toasting coexisted as activities within the LCS, even if for some members they might relate to very different forms of print sociability, especially those anxious about descending, as Godwin put it, from ‘the conviviality of the feast to the depredations of a riot’.102 From 1794, for instance, John Thelwall took over something of Thomson’s role as LCS songwriter, sometimes printing his songs three to a sheet to ease circulation, but his practice generally made no sharp distinction between the levity of songs, the theatre of toasting, and the gravity of reading groups.103 The great archivist of the LCS, Francis Place, apparently felt otherwise. He certainly registered the tension between improvement and theatricality described by Epstein and Karr, but then his entire account of the organisation is notoriously marked by his concern with respectability, as he saw it. Place’s Autobiography strongly favoured the idea that reading and debate were the key activities of the LCS and represented its main achievement as the bringing of sobriety and usefulness to working-class culture. Song’s association with conviviality pushed it away from the respectability he accorded other more studious forms of literary endeavour. Songs did appear in his accounts of the older plebeian world that he remembered from his childhood before he joined the LCS in 1794, but primarily as markers of its social degeneracy:

Some of these songs sung by the respectable tradesmen who spent their evenings in my fathers [sic] parlour, were very gross, yet I have known the parlour door thrown open, that whoever was in the bar and the Tap room might hear every word.104

Not that his attitude to this material was simple. He was fascinated enough by it to form a collection and did not note its passing entirely without regret. These songs, he recalled, ‘were sung with considerable humour by men who were very much excited’.105 Place’s primary concern is with lewdness rather than politics as such in these passages, but his account of their disappearance is specifically placed in the context of the emergence of the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property:

John Reeves and his associates together with the magistrates extinguished them. The association printed a large number of what they called loyal songs, and gave them to ballad singers, if any one was found singing any but loyal songs he or she was carried before the magistrate who admonished and dismissed him or her, they were then told they might have loyal songs for nothing and that they would not be molested while singing them. Thus the bawdy songs, and those in praise of thieving and getting drunk were pushed out of existence.106

This scenario is precisely the context of Thomson’s flight to France under pressure from Reeves, but Place mentions neither the LCS’s songwriter in chief nor radical songs more generally. Indeed the category ‘political songs’ would probably have represented a kind of oxymoron for him. Nowhere does his account of LCS meetings mention the singing of the songs provided by Thomson, Thelwall, or Reid, to name but three of many songwriters in the LCS. Despite their importance in cementing the LCS together and imparting ‘vigour’ at times of crisis, Place has nothing to say about the role of songs and toasts in its success. They seem to lie outside his idea of what constituted political discourse and beneath what he might have expected of ‘literary men’.

‘These prosecuting times’

Thomson was one of many victims of the intensification of surveillance after the inception of the Association in November 1792. Although Reeves and his associates operated independently of government, the Treasury was also doing what it could to ensure local authorities all over the country clamped down on sedition, not least by encouraging the harassment of booksellers who stocked Paine’s Rights of Man and Pigott’s Jockey Club.107 The signal event in this new era of repression was the trial of Paine himself in absentia on 18 December. The law officers discussed prosecuting publishers of Rights of Man from as early as April 1791, but they did not indict J. S. Jordan until 14 May 1792, a week before the first royal proclamation against seditious writings. A summons was served on Paine on the same day as the proclamation was issued, but the government did not act on it, apart from continuing to encourage abuse of the author in the newspapers. In June, the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, announced the postponement of the trial until December. On 13 September, Paine left for France, where he had been elected deputy for Calais. He was harassed by customs officers at Dover, who seem to have made great show of going through his papers, but no effort was made to prevent him leaving the country at dawn the next day. Now the government could prosecute without the risk that Paine would be there to use the occasion as a political platform.108

Paine had placed discussion at the heart of his vision of politics. The commitment to a visible constitution in Rights of Man lies not in a desire to set political truth in stone, but to bringing it into print and, thereby, making it available for debate. Rights of Man offered an account of political change in the United States as the product of ‘public discussion, carried on through the channel of the press, and in conversations’, an ongoing process of reader-citizens ‘revising, altering, and amending’.109 ‘In this vision of politics’, as Cotlar has described it, ‘ideas do not emanate from the center, but emerge slowly out of an inclusive and incessant conversation among citizens’.110 The imagined scenario is something like the discussions between Hardy and his friends held after work surrounded by the newspapers and pamphlets of the day. Paine’s presence at SCI meetings in 1792 was another practical manifestation of this cultural imaginary. He both participated in the discussion of political principles, giving advice directly to the LCS, and did what he could – refusing to accept profits from the book – to make sure Rights of Man achieved a wide circulation in the popular societies.

Paine’s practical involvement with the societies was not something his attorney, Thomas Erskine, emphasised at his trial when it finally came on. He did not wish Paine to be associated with ‘tavern’ politics. The version of print magic Erskine presented at the trial was distanced from such messy mediations.111 Erskine’s primary strategy was to present Paine as part of a pantheon of political philosophy. Paine undermined this defence when he wrote to the Attorney General from Paris in November 1792 to deride the prosecution. Not only did Paine mock the royal family and taunt the crown officers with the events in Paris of August and September 1792, but he also insisted that ‘coffee-houses, and places where I was unknown’ were reasonable places for ‘collecting the natural currency of opinion’. For the Attorney General, Sir Archibald Macdonald, this idea was laughable as a serious account of the role of ‘the people’ in the political system, but it was also encouraging sedition. Paine was inflaming ‘that part of the public whose minds cannot be supposed to be conversant with subjects of this sort, and who cannot therefore correct as they go along’. The passages chosen on the indictment are there not because of the political ideas they expressed alone, but because of their ‘phrase and manner’, in Macdonald’s words. Here was not ‘reasoning and well meant discussion’, according to the Attorney General, but ‘a deliberate design to calumniate … to perform the shorter process of inflammation’. Rights of Man, in Macdonald’s eyes, was being directed towards readers who could not distinguish scurrility from ‘sober discussion’.112 This part of ‘the public’, as the Attorney General did at least acknowledge them to be in name at least, was imagined as incapable of any public function.

Erskine objected to Paine’s letter from Paris being produced in court, insisting on its irrelevance for the prosecution of a book published months before. His strategy was to abstract Paine’s sense of the political nation from any idea of the people at large as directly involved in the political process. The cheapness of Rights of Man was simply encouraging ‘the most extensive purchase of it’ so that ‘his work should be generally read’. ‘Extensive purchase’ allows Erskine to recast the Attorney General’s qualitative point about readership into a simple judgement of quantity. Erskine presented Rights of Man as addressed ‘to the reason of the nation at large, and not to the passions of individuals’. The importance of the French Revolution for Erskine was primarily as a stimulus to the English, ‘reminding the people of this country of their own glorious deliverance in former ages’. Paine is to be placed in a long line of British political thinkers, ‘persons on whom my friend will find it hard to fasten the character of libellers’. The ‘grave speculative opinions’ of these political giants cannot be regarded as intended to ‘diffuse discontent’. They are examples of ‘great authority in all learning’. Each is brought forward by Erskine as ‘a distinguished classic in the language’ whose address is to ‘an impartial public, or to posterity’.113 He did not present these constitutional master texts as addressed entirely to an abstract idea of the people. He conceded that some were written ‘not in the abstract like the author before you, but upon the spur of the occasion’. Political controversy, from this perspective, might provide the winnowing that delivers forth the nation’s political classics. Quoting Montesquieu (and anticipating Godwin in doing so), Erskine asserted that ‘it matters not whether individuals reason well or ill; it is sufficient that they do reason. Truth arises from the collision, and from thence springs liberty.’ Such vigorous collision leads him to a final stirring vision sustained by Milton’s ‘mighty imagination’ of ‘a noble and puissant nation rousing itself, like a strong man after sleep’.114 Erskine was famous for his impassioned performances in the courtroom. Here his speech crackled with tension between the idea of an inter-textual horizon made up of classics and a politically militant nation seeking to turn ideas into action. Not that this tension gave too much pause for thought to the packed jury. Before the Attorney General could rise to reply to Erskine’s speech, the foreman declared Paine guilty.

The tension in Erskine’s defence did not disappear with the verdict, but lingered on as an issue within the reform movement. On 22 December, four days after the trial, the newly formed Society of Friends to the Liberty of the Press met to congratulate Erskine on his defence. Some of the Friends were very clear that they were not congratulating him on his defence of Paine’s book, but only the principle of free speech. The Society was an unstable mix of Whig MPs and members of the popular radical movement, including Gerrald and Thelwall. Whatever the Opposition members present thought of those two, they were decidedly uncomfortable with Rights of Man. After Thelwall and others spoke in praise of Erskine, an argument broke out centred around a motion of thanks to Erskine. Thomas Maitland, brother of the Earl of Lauderdale, recently returned from France, proposed the motion. Some members questioned ‘the propriety, at this time, of making the most distant mention of the work called The Rights of Man’. Maitland’s vote of thanks ‘might imply their approbation of the whole Doctrines contained in the Book’. Joseph Gerrald immediately rose to assert that ‘it was absurd to praise Mr. Erskine’s Defence and at the same time to censure his Client’s Political Doctrines’.115

Gerrald’s intervention effectively insisted on the right of the LCS and its members to be understood as an active part of the political nation. Over the course of 1792, the pretensions of the Society of the Friends of the People to shape and control these aspirations had been increasingly under attack in the popular radical press. By November 1792 The Argus, the newspaper most sympathetic to the LCS, was unforgiving on the issue:

We at first observed of this Society, that it appeared to us to be designed as a conductor to turn away the lightning accompanying the thunder of the Public for a reform of abuses in Government … we hope they will [now] lay aside their violent fears, at least those expressed for the several classes of men whose interest they profess to have at heart. There is no occasion for apprehensions from Mr. paine’s advice on the score of Economy and Reform.116

At the Friends to the Liberty of the Press meeting, full of members of the Society of the Friends of the People, these fears were amply on display. The motion of thanks was amended to omit Paine’s name and the title of his book. Erskine emerges as the hero of the hour, effectively himself becoming part of a pantheon from which Paine was excluded.

By the beginning of 1793, then, the radical societies were operating in a situation where publishing their opinions and meeting to discuss them were being regarded as seditious. The supposed friends of reform in the political elite were backing away from active collaboration. For the most part it was the booksellers and publishers who became the objects of direct legal sanction. Robert Thomson and Samson Perry were forced out of the country after Paine’s departure.117 Indictments for publishing Rights of Man, Letter Addressed to the Addressers, and the Jockey Club secured the convictions of the booksellers Ridgway and Symonds. Indictments were also sent out to the regions. Several prosecutions misfired because of errors in the paperwork. Different editions of the Jockey Club, expanded by the addition of different parts over the course of 1792, caused bibliographical confusion and legal failure because the correct edition of whichever part was improperly named in the indictment.118 The comedy of legal errors aside, the question of legal forms seems to have intensified an awareness of nuances of mediation in the radical societies. Notions that it was an Englishman’s right to discuss politics or that print was inherently disposed towards political progress had to confront a hostile legal context. This situation encouraged flexibility when it came to printed formats, including the exploitation of satire and parody, but it also drew attention to the question of political opinion and its relation to issues of representation. As Thelwall put it in 1795, ‘he who devises the method of collecting this opinion with the greatest purity (that is to say with the greatest freedom from influence, fear or corruption) will confer the greatest possible benefit upon the human race’.119

Convention politics

Made in 1795, Thelwall’s judgement was the result of bitter experience in the struggle to keep open spaces for political discussion. The very language of debate became subject to immense critical pressure. In these conditions, much could depend on a word. John Barrell’s Imagining the King’s Death has delineated the strain put on the key terms of the treason statutes by the government and its supporters. Although at the treason trials the government argued that radicals were arming themselves for a violent insurrection, much of their case turned on the word ‘convention’ and whether it constituted a forum for the collection of opinion or an anti-parliament, opening up a path, as the prosecution saw it, that must lead to the overthrow of the monarchy. I won’t rehearse Barrell’s brilliant account of the struggle over use of the word ‘imagine’ in the statutes on treason, but I do want to pursue the wider question of the battle over words and its relation to other issues of mediation and representation on a larger scale.

Among the very earliest of the publications associated with the LCS, but not actually published in its name, was an attempt at disambiguation in the interest of rational political debate. An Explanation of the Word Equality (1793) was a four-page pamphlet probably published in January 1793. In terms of its content, the pamphlet was an explicit rebuttal of the attempts of Reeves and his associates to identify the LCS with the idea that ‘the equality to be contended for, is an equality of wealth and possessions’. It goes on to make it clear that equality of rights was the issue, insisting that ‘to render property insecure would destroy all motives to exertion, and tear up public happiness by the roots’. Reform, the author went on to insist, was a question of ‘great and unchangeable truths’ that needed protection ‘from the wilful perversions of a word’, but the four-page pamphlet was not quite the straightforward assertion of the plain truth it claimed. The opening paragraph suggested that ‘if the “swinish multitude” should take it into their heads that they are justified in inforcing such a system, the consequences will rest upon those, who, by a perversion of terms, have wickedly or foolishly propagated such doctrine’. The idea that loyalists were causing or at least imagining the revolution they feared was not an uncommon device of radical rhetoric. It played its part, as we have already seen, in several trials, including Eaton’s, and it was to reappear at the treason trials. Possibly An Explanation of the Word Equality was an attempt to distance the LCS from Spence’s land plan, which did argue for the redistribution of property, but most of the latter part of Explanation is an address ‘to the swinish multitude’ in the hope that the definition of the word it provides will encourage them to a careful consideration of the case for reform.120 Consequently, its primary effect is not to insist on security of property, but to encourage readers of a halfpenny pamphlet into political debate. Indeed, the economic aspects of reform take up the last pages of the pamphlet, which lists a selection of placemen who benefit from taxation and privilege, ending the fourth and final page with a blunt statement of economic constraints: ‘The paper will not permit the list to be extended.

A motion to have An Explanation of the Word Equality published as an official LCS document was put before the general committee of 10 January 1793, but negatived because of the costs. The delegates did agree to subscribe as individuals and ‘furnish their Divisions with such as were already printed, at their own Expence’.121 Quite possibly there was some nervousness in the committee about the pamphlet’s equivocations. At this meeting a rule that the committee would only receive manuscripts submitted for publication via delegates was carried. The LCS was worried about the cost of publishing, but also, as with Thomson’s ‘God Save the Rights of Man’, about quite which principles would be affixed to its name. If the LCS did sometimes present itself as the honest repository of grand and inalienable truths, often it seemed more comfortable with presenting itself as a forum for debate and discussion. Even within this scenario, though, issues remained about the exact terms of debate and, not least, the processes by which debate could legitimately be said to represent the popular will. Nowhere were these tensions more acute than in the rolling controversy that surrounded the word ‘convention’. Did it simply denote a repository for opinions collected by the LCS from around the country, or was it a medium that might presume to articulate the will of the people?

The account of the American Revolution in Paine’s Rights of Man had presented a convention as the means of translating the local discussions of smaller clubs and societies into an expression of the popular will. An older tradition went back to at least the 1770s and the writings of James Burgh, an important influence on Spence, and Major Cartwright.122 In the societies, these ideas were picked up as early as April 1792 in a letter from the Norwich Revolution Society to the SCI. In September, the Friends of Universal Peace and the Rights of Man in Stockport wrote to attack the LCS for its caution and argued all the abuses of the system could be ‘done away with at once by the people assembled in Convention’. On 11 November, a ‘Society for Political Information’ wrote from Norwich to ask ‘whether the generality of the societies meant to rest satisfied with the Duke of Richmond’s plan only; or whether it is their private design to rip up monarchy by the roots, and place democracy in its stead?’ Maurice Margarot was cautious in his reply, but made it clear that the LCS was primarily concerned ‘to disseminate political knowledge’. Its immediate object was ‘annual parliaments’, elected by ‘the unbought and even unbiased suffrage of every Citizen in possession of his reason’. ‘The trifling difference that may have arisen between the several Societies’, he downplayed. The main thing, he argued, was to get ‘a majority of the nation to act as they do, the proposed reform will effect itself’. Annual parliaments would be ‘the ground-work of every necessary reform’, a response that the prosecution at Hardy’s trial took to imply that the LCS was open to an ultimate goal of ‘a clear and pure democracy’.123 Margarot’s words sound more like a general expression of faith in the power of print to bring about change almost in and of itself.

After consulting with other societies, the LCS decided early in 1793 to unite behind a plan of petitioning Parliament rather than calling a convention. The United Societies at Norwich reluctantly accepted petitioning as the only means available to ‘a conquered people’, although the same letter also thought that a ‘refusal’ of the petition would constitute an ‘insult’ that ought to be registered ‘to the remotest part of the kingdom’.124 The exchange assumed that petitioning was widely recognised as a traditional means of popular participation in the unreformed system. Nevertheless, it had been argued within the living memory of LCS members – at Lord Gordon’s trial for treason – that even petitioning could constitute an attempt to overawe Parliament.125 Parliament itself was often hostile to any pretension to direct representation of the popular will in a petition.126 In 1793 the LCS was careful to follow what it understood to be the proper forms of addressing Parliament, inviting Fox, as MP for Westminster, to present it to the House. Citing his known opposition to universal suffrage, he refused. Sir Phillip Francis eventually presented it on 6 May. Parliament ordered the petition to lie on the table. Petitions that followed were rejected as disrespectful in their language. Charles Grey’s petition fared only a little better, despite representing the opinion of the gentlemen of the Friends of the People.127

Given Parliament’s perfunctory treatment of what the LCS understood to be a constitutionally ratified form, pressures were bound to mount within the movement to find other ways. Indeed pressures were mounting on many levels to adopt forms free of deference. In his draft reply to Norwich back in November 1792, Margarot had scratched out ‘gentlemen’ and replaced it with ‘fellow-citizens’. At Hardy’s trial, the prosecution accepted that the word ‘citizen’ was in itself inoffensive, but noted the distinction drawn by the LCS committee for revising the constitution between the ‘Citizen’ of a free state and the ‘Subject’ of a conquered one.128 The February 1794 report on the constitution had certainly been scrupulous in its recommendations on the vocabulary to be used within the LCS:

All political appellations which do not in their immediate interpretation convey an idea of political sentiment or situation, are party names. The following do not fall under this objection as will appear by their explanations.

Republican, -

One who wishes to promote the general welfare of his country.

Democrat, -

A supporter of the rights and power of the people.

Aristocrat, -

One who wishes to promote the interest of a few at the expense of the many.

Royalist, -

Among the ignorant part of mankind signifies, a person attached to regal government: among artful courtiers it is a veil for their own aristocracy.

Loyalist, -

A supporter of the constitution of his country.

Citizen, ‐

The ancient appellation given to members of free states.

Subject, -

Can only with propriety, be applied to a member of a State, whose government has been instituted by foreign conquest or the prevalence of a domestic faction.129

Philp understands this glossary as an attempt ‘to stabilize the language in which people expressed their views and disagreements, as well as stabilizing the order and the institutional structure in which they did so’.130 This process turned out to be much more difficult than Hardy could have imagined when he founded the society back in early 1792.

In the debates about its own constitution, a matter I will return to later, the LCS was very alert to questions of democratic practice more generally. Francis Place, who served on a later committee of revision, claimed it aimed at ‘assimilating its organization as much as possible to what we conceived to be the best form for governing the Nation’.131 Place’s comment would seem to run counter to Gunther Lottes’s suggestion that questions about internal governance of the LCS rarely translated to its reform programme more generally. Lottes understands the latter as trapped within a tradition wherein ‘political representation formed so natural a part of English political culture that the advocates of radical reform had a blunted sensibility to its problems’.132 Deafness to these questions is not evident in Thelwall’s claim that he who devised the best means of collecting ‘the aggregate opinion of a nation … will confer the greatest possible benefit upon the human race’. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the LCS did not foreground its own constitutional arrangements in its reform programme when they were still a subject of internal wrangling. Lottes is certainly prone to think of the LCS in corporate terms, when it might be better understood as a more provisional entity, both in relation to its own processes and to wider forms of representation, committed to creating spaces for these issues to be debated.

Questions of representation and responsibility also surfaced in the way the LCS imagined its role in relation to other societies. Margarot’s answer to Norwich at the end of 1792 seems to prize the unity of the reform movement over any specific political position, possibly implying, as the prosecution at the treason trials claimed, that he was open to further changes to the constitution in the future. Sometimes, however, a desire for unity became a drive towards uniformity. Eighteenth-century book clubs and other literary societies regularly circulated their rules and regulations. The LCS was frequently asked to provide theirs in the name of more effective circulation of political information.133 A draft letter to Leeds presented at the 1 August committee raised the question of ‘uniting their Society to our Own and adopting the title of Corresp. Society’. The committee recommended that a similar offer be made to other societies. This was reinforced the following month when a motion came into the central committee that a circular letter be written to all the ‘Country Societies’, as those in the regions were called, ‘inviting them to adopt our Title & by incorporating themselves, with us form in time a Universal Society’.134 Before any debate on the issue could commence, the motion was withdrawn, because Hardy had just received a reply from Tewkesbury declining an earlier offer.135

John Lloyd had originally written to the LCS from the Tewkesbury Society in July 1793, signing himself your ‘fellow citizen & cooperator in the glorious cause of Liberty’. Margarot had replied with copies of the LCS address to the public and a set of rules, ‘adviseable for you to abide entirely by’. The draft goes on to inform the Tewkesbury Society that the LCS ‘will willingly incorporate your Society with our own under the title of the Corresponding Society in Tewkesbury & if so our Rules will become yours, our Intelligence will be the same & our Correspondence weekly and regularly carried on’. Margarot insisted ‘our mode of proceeding must be entirely alike & no reserve must take place between us’. He was confident ‘some other societies in other parts of the country will fall into the plan’. The effect he imagined as rendering much more ‘forcible … everything that came from us’. Some societies did adopt a uniform title and rules, including the Manchester Corresponding Society, but one imagines that a society which already existed, like the Tewkesbury Society, with its own rules already adapted to its local circumstances, was less likely simply to dissolve itself into Margarot’s plan. Margarot’s letter seems tactless to say the least, but it reveals tendencies towards codification and centralisation in the attempt to represent the LCS as the incorporated voice of the people. There seems little doubt that for some at least within the LCS the dream of the flow of knowledge across a commonwealth of reason was part of their idea of improvement. Equally the decision to drop the plan once Tewkesbury and other societies rejected it suggests that the idea of a uniform public sphere was far from being a core principle of the society as a whole. Faced with claims for autonomy from associated societies, the LCS was willing to understand the question of collecting the opinions of the people as a complex matter of representation and self-determination.

On the same day as the LCS approved the letter to Leeds, several divisions recommended that a copyist be hired to transcribe ‘all the letters received from the Country’. The purpose was to allow them to be read in each division, so that individual members could have proper access to the activities of the society. The practical question of processing and storing increasing volumes of information for and about the membership was obviously a driving mechanism, but it had political consequences, which the Tewkesbury Society at least resisted, and which the central committee did not necessarily embrace (the debate on the copyist was deferred). Probably as a defence mechanism against prosecution for unguarded comments from correspondents, the committee decided at the next meeting that only ‘such parts of the letters received as were proper to be communicated, should be transcribed’. However functionalist one’s account of these developments, questions of authorial responsibility and democratic participation were clearly shaping the LCS’s decisions at all levels, including the debates, going on at just this time, about whether and in what form the Society should republish The Englishman’s Right discussed in Chapter 1. They were also debating the writing of a proposed ‘Address to the King’, not least in relation to the question of the appropriate forms of address that should be used to the monarch.

This last issue was weighty enough to require the setting up of yet another sub-committee, comprising Margarot, Parkinson, Walne, Baxter, and Moore. The plan was for the address to be published, but only after being read at a second general meeting set for 24 October to canvas opinion more widely. Afterwards, Baxter objected that the agreed statement of public grievances had been dropped in favour of a plea for ‘speedy termination to the War’. Eaton also signed the protest against this decision as ‘unjustified and unconstitutional’. These things may seem mere minutae compared with the larger issues for which the LCS was contending, but such a lofty perspective risks missing Baxter’s insistence on respecting democratic forms and on an uncowed disposition towards the king. Gerrald was chosen to read the ‘Address to the King’ at the general meeting. Not long afterwards he published A Convention the Only Means of Saving us from Ruin (1793). Gerrald’s pamphlet opened with an account of the disastrous effects of war on the nation in order to argue that conditions in the country were so exceptional as to warrant the calling of a convention of the people. In the wake of the failure of the petitions supporting Grey’s half-hearted motion for reform in May, the societies had begun discussing alternatives in earnest, including the possibility of a convention. Gerrald came at the issue in a roundabout way. After spending many pages attacking the war and the corruption of the legal system, he claimed that ‘to the want of an adequate representation in parliament may be traced all our sufferings, under whatever aspect they are presented’. Given the refusal of Parliament to reform itself, there was ‘no other resource, than the interposition of the great body of the people themselves, electing deputies in whom they can confide, and imparting instructions which they must injoin to be executed’.136

Gerrald is typical of what Green calls the ‘confrontational exploitation of the ambiguities of constitutional limits’.137 He was only too well aware that the word ‘convention’ had a fraught history caught up with questions of whether the people were understood to wield a constituent power. His own uses of the word in the pamphlet’s early pages are to do with the National Convention of France’s decision to depose Louis XVI, but his argument avoids the word for the most part and concerns itself with British precedents. Gerrald argued that the right ‘of assembling to deliberate on the best mode of promoting the public welfare, is no where forbidden by any positive statute’. If the ‘right of assembling then is lawful’, he continued, then ‘the power of exercising that right is a necessary consequence of it’. He finds ample precedent in British constitutional history, but ultimately goes right back to Anglo-Saxon times, at one point providing ‘convention’ as a gloss for ‘folk-mote’.138 Blackstone’s Commentaries and the Scottish radical John Millar treated the folk-mote as ‘an oligarchic council of wise men’, as Barrell phrases it, but Gerrald presented it as ‘a democratic assembly’.139 Burke, Gerrald claimed, had once ranked it ‘among public misfortunes, that the House of Commons should be wholly untouched by the opinions and feelings of the people out of doors’. Gerrald dismissed the idea of virtual representation as ‘nonsensical jargon’ and set about presenting his own plan for a convention, with deputies elected at primary assemblies.140 An attempt to set up an Irish convention in 1792 had been met with legislation banning just such an association, but Gerrald used this legislation as proof of the legality of such a meeting in England, where no such law existed. He also invoked the authority of the associations of the 1780s, enjoying the fact that ministers like Pitt and the Duke of Richmond had been involved. There are also echoes in the plan of the proposals that Gerrald’s friend Robert Merry had put forward to the National Convention in France at the end of 1792. 141 The influences of Paine and David Williams, the latter explicitly acknowledged, are also apparent. Overall, Gerrald made his convention sound much less like a forum for collecting public opinion and more like an alternative to Parliament, but the uncertainty was unresolved. Ambiguity over the implications of calling a convention was soon to land Gerrald in prison.

The LCS never really resolved its attitude to what a convention would be or do, if it ever called one. From early on, various societies had written to the LCS suggesting it as the best way forward. In Scotland, the Scottish Friends of the People – an organisation quite different from Grey’s association – had already held conventions in December 1792 and May 1793, without ever resolving the issue. On 17 May, Hardy and Margarot had written to Scotland to ask William Skirving for his view: ‘Our Petitions have been all of them unsuccessful; our Attention must now therefore be turned to some more effectual Means – from your Society we would willingly learn them.’ In his reply, Skirving recommended what he called ‘a general union’ of the reform societies as a first step. In July a general meeting of the LCS resolved to promote closer union with all the reform societies, perhaps the origin of the suggestion made to Tewkesbury about names and rules, but also perhaps a step towards Skirving’s suggested course. In the correspondence between Skirving and the LCS, a suspicion is registered that Pitt may have been contemplating a version of the anti-convention laws passed in Ireland. Barrell has suggested this fear may account for the hasty meeting of the ‘British Convention’ in Scotland at the end of 1793.142 On 24 October, the LCS called a general meeting to elect its delegates for Edinburgh. Helped by the reputation of his pamphlet no doubt, Gerrald was elected. The meeting itself was held on grounds in Spitalfields, owned by a pump-maker Thomas Breillat.143 The large crowd that attended confirmed to the LCS the potential in large open-air meetings. ‘Many who came there to ridicule and abuse’, Hardy claimed later, ‘went away converted and afterwards joined the society and became zealous promoters of the cause.’144 Given the scepticism about virtual representation, such meetings came to be understood as an embodied presence of the constituent power of the people daring Parliament to ignore its views.

The government certainly did not ignore events in Edinburgh. The LCS delegates Gerrald and Margarot arrived too late for the General Convention of the Friends of the People, which began on 29 October and ended a few days later with a resolution to petition Parliament for a reform based on the Duke of Richmond’s plan. Their advent forced the meeting to reconvene as the British Convention on 19 November. Despite Gerrald’s gestures towards the ‘folk-mote’, it soon began to model itself consciously after the National Convention of France. The implication, as Barrell puts it, was that it understood itself ‘as a legislative, not as a petitioning body’.145 The question of its constitutive power was still being debated when the Scottish authorities dispersed the meeting. The LCS delegates understood a motion to have been passed that justified the calling of a convention if a petition was rejected by Parliament. Skirving and Margarot were brought to trial in January and sentenced to fourteen years transportation. Charles Sinclair, the SCI delegate, was arrested at the same time, but later released. Granted bail, Gerrald appeared as a guest of honour at the SCI meeting on 17 January. Three days later he appeared at the general meeting of the LCS at the Globe Tavern. Friends, including his former teacher Samuel Parr, advised him to flee, but he returned to Scotland for his trial.146 His decision may have been influenced by a sense of his ‘public’ role enjoined on him by William Godwin who wrote to congratulate him for being ‘Fertile in genius {,} strong in moral feeling {,} prepared with every accomplishment that literature & reflection can give.’ Godwin advised him to make use of the trial to tell ‘a tale upon which the Happiness of Nations depends’.147 In one obvious sense the advice failed, as Gerrald received the same sentence as Skirving and Margarot and died in New South Wales in 1796. In another sense, he achieved the immortality that Godwin promised him. ‘Gerrald understood’, as James Epstein has put it, ‘that he was creating a literary text’, one very alert to the mediating contexts of courtroom and print. In order to transmit his words to the reading public as swiftly as possible, the LCS sent a shorthand writer to the court.148

Gerrald took up the role of martyr in his defence speech with gusto. Presenting himself, as Epstein shows, as ‘a simple individual’ upon whom had fallen ‘a sacred trust’, he placed himself in a long tradition of British liberty.149 Not presuming to speak for the people, he presented himself as a martyr to their right to be heard. After an opening that set out the case for reform on the grounds of natural rights, he quickly moved to arguing that those grounds were intrinsic to the ancient constitution being eroded by the encroachments of the Crown. He certainly succeeded in entering the pantheon of the radical movement, not as a theorist perhaps, but as an icon of heroic suffering for the people. John Richter wrote an address to Gerrald that he read at the Chalk Farm general meeting on 14 April 1794. Following a string of declarations that presented the nation as declining towards a state where ‘britons are no longer free’, Richter addressed Gerrald as ‘beloved and respected friend and fellow citizen, a Martyr to the Glorious Cause of Equal Representation’.150 Here was a reimagining of the ‘Glorious Cause’ as always tending towards universal suffrage, an idea Thelwall was hammering away at in his lectures at the time, with the crowd at Chalk Farm being implicitly treated as the embodied form of the political nation, ‘a literal representation of the virtual collectives enabled by the press’.151 Richter’s address was published in an official LCS account of the meeting. Gerrald’s trial had concluded a month earlier, and versions were also quickly published, ‘for the benefit of his infant daughter’.152 Succeeding to Gerrald’s role as the LCS’s most dashing orator, Thelwall barely gave a lecture without mention of his predecessor, and scarcely ever failed to make use of the seventeenth-century precedents Gerrald used at his trial. A visit to Gerrald on board the Surprise before he sailed for Australia added to his stock of emotional scenarios.153

By 1795, there was a substantial canon of Gerraldiana. Joseph Gerrald, A Fragment published by John Smith, gives a short version of his life, supplemented by another newspaper account, together with ‘To Citizen Gerrald’ a poem in his praise. Eaton had already published ‘Tribute of a Humble Muse to the Memory of Joseph Gerrald’ by ‘a patriotic female’, one of several other poems of this kind, in the pages of Politics for the People.154 Joseph Gerrald, A Fragment includes a list of other works by and about Gerrald published by Smith: a new edition of A Convention at 2s 6d, The Trial of Joseph Gerrald … with his Portrait, 4s, The Defence of Joseph Gerrald, 1s 6d, Gerrald’s Address of the British Convention, at 6d. Some of these prices suggest that it was not only members of the LCS who were expected to react to their portraits of the suffering patriot. Eaton brought out two editions of Authentic biographical anecdotes of Gerrald in 1795 ‘written by a friend’. In Conciones ad Populum (1795), Coleridge invited his audience to imagine Gerrald:

Withering in the sickly and tainted gales of a prison, his healthful soul looks down from the citadel of his integrity on his impotent persecution.

Within a year, Coleridge had changed his tune. He tried to persuade Thelwall that Gerrald was one of those ‘Atheistic Brethren’ who ‘square their moral systems exactly according to their inclinations’. The radical movement more generally continued to promote Gerrald as a suffering martyr. Acknowledging that his hero had some faults, Thelwall insisted that Gerrald’s life remained largely ‘unblemished’: ‘for what are the little extravagancies of a young man of genius, born, not for the narrow circle of a family, but for the universe – and who, dissipating only what was his own, lays no burthen on society to replace it’.155

Constitutional schisms

Gerrald bequeathed to the radical societies a strong idea of the legitimacy of convention politics, but a continued uncertainty as to exactly what they meant. In the early months of 1794, the possibilities of calling one were debated at various meetings and in correspondence between the LCS and the regional societies, but enthusiasm for it seems to have dwindled by May 1794. Nevertheless, the idea that a convention was being planned to overawe Parliament played a crucial role at the treason trials at the end of the year.156 Rather than retrace Barrell’s discussion of the trials, I shall revert to the internal issues of representation within the LCS, especially those surrounding the revision of the constitution. Security matters intensified these debates, especially after the arrests in May 1794, but they were clearly informed by ongoing issues surrounding democratic processes and forms of address. In this regard, the question of the convention was not unrelated, as both turned on how relations between representation and participation were to be conceived. By 1795, these issues had become even more acute within the LCS, as a significant body of members seems to have resisted strengthening the power of an executive committee as a usurpation of the rights of the members gathered in the divisions. Some of the latter left the LCS and formed themselves into separate societies, devoted to reading, discussion, and political lectures as the proper means of political change, sometimes with a distinctively Godwinian inflection.

A strain of thinking in the LCS that tended towards imagining print as telegraphic in the immediacy of its effects, as we have seen, always coexisted with a practical attentiveness to the materiality of its mediations. In this regard, the idea that every document had to be subjected to some form of democratic scrutiny was a foundational if often divisive aspect of the print culture of the LCS. This scrutiny extended to the question of the constitution of the society and ended up opening the larger question of understanding reform in a broader ‘moral’ sense, where the latter could even include scepticism about the need for government at all. In response to the arrests for treason in May 1794, the central committee hurriedly proposed the adoption of a new constitution without fully consulting the divisions. They were quickly accused of ‘an act of great usurpation and aristocracy’.157 Such accusations had scarred earlier debates on the issue. Reporting on a meeting at division 29 in February, the spy Taylor described the debate between Thelwall and Hodgson on 18 February mentioned in Chapter 1. Despite their agreement on the need for change, Hodgson argued in favour of a proper constitution for the society, but Thelwall thought it unnecessary and gained most applause. Three days later at his lecture, according to Taylor’s notes, Thelwall argued that ‘Reason truth and justice were at all times better than positive Laws’.158 His position probably drew on his reading in Political justice, where Godwin had declared that ‘law is merely relative to the exercise of political force, and must perish when the necessity of that force ceases, if the influence of truth do not sooner extirpate it from the practice of mankind’.159

The central committee’s proposal for a new constitution was the culmination of the report by different committees that had been sitting since at least March 1793. The Report of the Committee of the Constitution, of the London Corresponding Society published in February 1794 was rejected, and a sub-committee to revise it was appointed at the meeting where Hodgson and Thelwall clashed. Hodgson and Richter objected to the new committee and made the issue into one of direct participation: ‘any discussion or resolutions of any constituted body relative to this object are Factious & can only tend to over awe the opinion of our Constituents’.160 At around this time, John Pearce, an attorney, seems to have taken to attending meetings with a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries under his arm: to ‘make a quotation or two for the instruction of the Citizens, respecting the power’s [sic] of Bodies who create & the Subordination of the Created’.161 The question was of the relative authority of constitutive and constituted power. Blackstone had been a major force in cementing the idea of the sovereignty of Parliament over the people.162 The LCS’s internal struggle over its constitution intersected with its debates about the authority of a convention relative to Parliament. The report of the new committee of revision was ready by April and sent out to be debated by the divisions. The spy Groves claimed that division 2 had to adjourn its debate when it came to the phrase ‘all government abstractly considered, being itself an evil’. When the debate restarted at their meeting of 5 May, it was objected that the statement against government ‘would give room to the Enemies of the Society & the cause to declaim against their principles’.163

While these heated debates were continued, the question of whether a national convention of societies ought to be summoned was also being discussed. Given urgency by the fear that the government was contemplating anti-convention legislation, these were primarily conducted by a secret committee, but complicated by the different opinions on what kind of body constituted a convention. For some, it was the most direct mode of expressing the popular will, and as such potentially a direct challenge to the authority of Parliament. For others, it seems, the gathering was only a means of sounding opinion and deciding on what their next course of action should be. Those who favoured this last understanding, including the SCI’s representatives, tended to steer away from the word ‘convention’ as savouring too much of French practices, notwithstanding the purchase of the word within British constitutionalist discourse. At the beginning of April 1794, a joint conference of the LCS and SCI met to discuss the calling of a convention. Thelwall produced a plan, but the SCI delegates objected to the use of the word ‘convention’. Later at his interview before the Privy Council, William Sharp the engraver claimed that most of the meeting was taken up with arguments over forms of words.164 A few days later, on 14 April, the LCS held a general meeting at Chalk Farm, on the road north out of London. The meeting resolved that the treatment of Gerrald and his fellows was proof that Britons were no longer free. Further, echoing Gerrald, their treatment ‘ought to be considered as dissolving entirely the social compact between the English Nation and their Governors; and driving them to an immediate appeal to that incontrovertible maxim of eternal Justice, that the safety of the People is the supreme, and in cases of necessity, the only Law’. This opinion could certainly sound like preparation for a convention that would presume to speak for the will of the people to a Parliament that had defaulted on its duty. At the address of thanks to Lord Stanhope, Richter and Hodgson condemned the aristocratic title ‘lord’ and proposed ‘citizen’ instead. A similar wrangle followed about the word ‘senate’, which Thelwall claimed meant ‘Respectful & Wise Men’. In all the arguments about words, the question was one of deference to received forms and how much they might be reconstituted in the state of crisis.165

The government’s decision to arrest the leaders of the societies in May was predicated on the strongest possible understanding of ‘convention’ politics, that is, in terms of the statute on treason, as an attempt to overawe and ultimately replace Parliament.166 Although the arrests understandably soon put a stop to the debates in the LCS about internal structures, the hiatus did not last long, despite the absence of key figures in custody. The debate over the authority of the executive rekindled in June 1794, now reinforced by the need to protect meetings from infiltration by spies and informers. Groves explained to his masters that these debates had always had an eye to the question of what was being imagined for the governance of the nation at large:

The Report of that Commee & the Form of Government recommended gave rise to great Jealousies & Animosities, as founded on principles incompatible with that Liberty which the Society was seeking for in the National System of Governmnt. And as investing Powers & creating Offices & Officers among themselves which would infallibly render the Division a Cypher, and the whole management & Controul be placed in the hands of a few, & thereby their Government will be Monarchical or something worse.

Now it seemed the question of the LCS’s constitution might serve to rally the society:

The increased operations of Government having excited a general panic, and the defection being so great as to threaten the Society with a total annihilation, and it having been adjudged that bringing forward the Constitution again, in any form, rather than being without one at all, would serve to rally the Society, and restore it to its original vigour, the preceding expedient was hit upon & the Motion accordingly submitted.

The central committee recommended that the revised report be adopted, but some of the divisions reiterated the objection of ‘usurpation and Aristocracy’. Despite supporting the revised constitution, John Bone rose to observe that ‘the French Convention had never dared speak of a Constitution until it had been sanctioned by and had received the compleat approbation of the people’. In the circumstances of needing to prepare for the impending trials, it was decided to put the debate aside and continue using the original constitution, although Hodgson wrote in August from ‘on the tramp’, having fled to escape arrest, to insist on his old position that the LCS urgently required a new one.167

In the light of the government’s attempts to prepare for the trials by peppering the press with accounts of the LCS’s plans for a convention as a treasonable conspiracy, the committee insisted on its primary role as the dissemination of political information. Accounts of Hardy’s arrest and the fate of his wife were published, mainly taken up with rebutting the claims made by the first report of the committee of secrecy that there was any conspiracy afoot.168 With numbers dwindling in the face of the arrests, attempts were made to revive conviviality. Division 9 devoted an evening to ‘pleasure rather than business’. The spy Metcalfe noted ‘many Treasonable songs were sung’.169 Other songs were written by Thomas Upton, an informer, and distributed to the divisions to sell at a half penny. Printing costs were squeezing finances straitened by defections. On 3 July, the printer Citizen Davidson wrote to complain that his bills had not been met, his irritation compounded by the fact the LCS was starting to employ others, presumably to spread its debts. One additional cost was the need to produce new membership tickets to replace those that had fallen into the hands of the government. At first the engraver William Worship was entrusted with the task, but he seems to have been struck by panic at the arrests. A week later Citizen Williams promised a ‘voluntary Engraving for the New Tickets’ in the form of an old man instructing his three sons that they could only break a bundle of sticks by snapping them one at a time: ‘The Allegory is The acquisition of Strength by Unanimity’.170 The central committee also invested in a series of pamphlets primarily aimed at rebutting the idea that it supported violent revolution, most of them written or revised by Eaton’s old collaborator James Parkinson. They were Revolutions without Bloodshed, published by Eaton and Smith, with proceeds going to the wives and children of the prisoners; Reformers no Rioters, written by Bone, but revised by Burks and Parkinson, published in response to the Crimp riots that shook London a few weeks earlier; and Vindication of the London Corresponding Society, largely concerned with defending the LCS from the government press campaign in the weeks leading up to the trials.171 The final page of Parkinson’s Vindication carries an advertisement for the others, each sold at a penny, together with one for the LCS’s other major print project, a new periodical called The Politician.

The idea for The Politician had been around in the LCS since July when John Bone raised the issue of a weekly publication ‘in the Nature of Paine’s Crisis’. No doubt the proposal was partly inspired by the reputation of the Crisis as the paper that had stiffened the resolve of the Americans in the War of Independence. Bone’s suggestion was agreed and a public receiving box was set up for contributions. Not unusually in the LCS, there then followed weeks of debate about how to go about the business, despite the fact that John Smith reported to the committee of correspondence that ‘a New Patriotic Newspaper would shortly be published twice a week’. There was a hint of pride in Smith’s confidence that it would be ‘a compleat Democratic paper … indeed the Society might call it their own Paper’. In this regard, the committee was trying to occupy the ground so successfully worked by Eaton’s Politics for the People and Spence’s Pig’s Meat, with more control of the content by the LCS itself. The delay may have been exacerbated by the fact most of the members experienced with print were in prison, as was Spence, or on the run, as Eaton seems to have been. A long list of ‘literary men’ who might be approached was deliberated over. With the pending trials in mind, the committee approached the attorneys Gurney and Vaughan for an essay on ‘the Rights of Witnesses’. Hodgson drew up a prospectus for the new paper that provoked furious debate, especially about a passage ‘which seem’d to hold out the publication as a medium for discussing other questions than those which immediately related to a Reform in Parliament and universal Suffrage, and partaly [sic] to a part which courted a discussion upon the Merits and advantages of other Governments’. As well as French affairs, Hodgson seems to glance at the broader ‘moral’ aspects of the LCS’s mission of social ‘improvement’.

The meeting decided that the document ought to be referred to Parkinson, probably the most experienced LCS writer at liberty. Parkinson decided on a list of ‘literary gentlemen’ who ought to be approached to revise the prospectus, including James Mackintosh, still regarded as the defender of the French Revolution; the dissenting minister Joseph Towers; Thomas Holcroft, soon to turn himself in on the treason charge; and someone called Beaumont, probably the journalist at the Telegraph.172 Each declined and Parkinson decided Hodgson’s prospectus should be sent to a Mr Bayley, who had said he would revise and correct it.173 At the same meeting, Bone produced the original draft of Reformers no Rioters, according to the spy Metcalfe, ‘full of the most violent and seditious expressions & calculated to renew the tumults which so lately prevail’d’. Parkinson and Burks were called on to ‘revise and modify’. With the treason trials looming, the LCS was being particularly careful about the sentiments associated with its name. Smith was left with the decision as to who should print and edit the Politician, ‘whose Name is not to be made public’. Contributions were only to be received at Smith’s shop. Burks was then given the task of writing to a list of forty-eight ‘Literary Men’ requesting contributions. Further progress must have been delayed by the fact Smith himself was arrested a few weeks later for his supposed involvement in the pop-gun plot to assassinate the king.174 In the event, the paper did not appear until 13 December.

Coming only a week or so after the acquittal of Thelwall, the paper was a sign of confidence blossoming again after the victories at the treason trials. The title-page was bold enough to name William Townly as editor, contrary to the earlier decision to withhold such details. Burks and Smith were to receive communications. The paper presented itself as a forum for political discussion, allowing ‘rational’ attacks against universal suffrage as well as support for the principle. The first number duly contained an essay arguing for reform but against universal suffrage. Another essay, celebrating Margarot, returned to the issue of ‘party names’. Signed ‘R. H.’, the stalwart printer Robert Hawes may have been the author. On a similar theme, an essay in the final issue called for the LCS to rename itself ‘Society for Reform’, so as to avoid any aspersion that it was in correspondence with the French.175 Thelwall dominated the third and penultimate number, although he apologised that ‘my engagements at this time do not permit me to comply in a more ample manner with your request for literary Communications’. Acknowledging ‘the important utility of little publications’ as a ready means for the dissemination of political information, Thelwall went on to rebut some of the specific charges made against him at his trial. The next few pages were taken up with a copy of his speech given to the court after the verdict and a poem he had composed in the Tower.176 Other poems were promised for later numbers, but in the event only one more ever appeared. The fourth number of the Politician (3 January 1795) was the last. Contrary to the expectations of the LCS, the stamp commissioners informed the publishers that they were liable for duty. The editors ended with a pledge to return that was never fulfilled.

The LCS made other investments in print over these dark months following the arrests of May 1794. Poems were sent in to the LCS from ‘Tommy Pindar junior’. July saw Hodgson receive another ‘large parcel of printed verses’. ‘Written by a good citizen for the relief of the Wives & Children of the imprisoned Citizens’, these were doled out to each delegate to be sold at a halfpenny’.177 Possibly they were Citizen Lee’s poems as Powell later described him as ‘very active in supporting the subscriptions for the persons imprison’d & very liberal himself’. Smith and Burks were selling Lee’s poem On the death of Mrs Hardy, wife of Mr. Thomas Hardy for 1d each or 7s per hundred in the same cause.178 The onset of the treason trials also produced some virulent satire against Pitt, including A warning to judges and jurors on state trials, which ends with a protracted account of the Grand Vizier hanging himself. Many other imaginings of Pitt’s death soon followed, including the wonderful series of mock advertising bills for Signor Pittachio.179 By mid-1795 satires like A faithful narrative of the last illness, death, and interment of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt were flying off the radical presses, not least Citizen Lee’s, by this time operating as a bookseller in his own right.

In general terms, the acquittals at the treason trials gave a spur to radical print culture, but the legal process left scars that threatened the unity of the movement. Horne Tooke announced that he was retiring from politics. The SCI effectively ceased to exist. Hardy concentrated on recovering his shoemaking business. Thelwall recommenced lecturing at Beaufort Buildings, but withdrew from the LCS for months. A number of narratives recorded the anger of those who had been arrested, including Thelwall’s Natural and Constitutional Right (1795), Holcroft’s A narrative of facts (1795), and Jeremiah Joyce’s Mr. Joyce’s arrest (1795). Not all the prisoners were released quickly. Richter and Baxter remained in prison until mid-December, John Martin until September 1795. Pig’s Meat published songs from the various celebrations, but Spence also supplied some bitter reflections on the festivities after his release on 22 December:

If half the wealth, and half the wind,
That there was spent to no great end,
Had been employ’d for to relieve
The wants of patr’ots that now grieve,
Who blushing for a nation’s crimes,
Dare yield to truth the homage due? 180

Horne Tooke’s conduct at the trials themselves was subjected to scathing attack in the anonymous John Horne Tooke Stripped Naked and Dissected:

After adhering like a buzzing and teizing gnat, for so many years, to the buttocks of the Aristocracy, you now in the period of the grand climacteric, apologise for the annoyance, by the forfeiture of your admitted principle.181

If there was personal resentment here, there was also a sense that the movement ought to be orienting itself to its broadest constituency, giving voice to the popular will, rather than deferring to friends of liberty within the elite.

Ill feeling translated itself into rancorous debates in the LCS itself, as the arguments over its constitution flared again between February and May 1795. Several divisions seceded. In an attempt to draw the LCS back together, the committee published an appeal that characterised the contending parties in terms of two extremes. One position questioned the need for any constitution at all. This body of opinion appeared to believe:

That the only means of securing social happiness is by the general diffusion of Knowledge, and this being effected, all regard to constitutional and legal rules would become unnecessary.

From this position, identifiable with Thelwall’s in his argument with Hodgson back in 1794, the LCS ought to have been committed to a democratic version of Godwin’s faith in the power of discussion alone as a force for political change. The other party in the LCS debate saw such thinking as visionary delusion and insisted that ‘constitutional regulations, judiciously formed, are to be considered as beacons rather than as fetters’. This position owed more to Paine’s thinking about the importance of constitutions and less to Godwin’s ideas of perfectibility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leadership showed more sympathy for a position that accepted the impossibility of ‘achieving moral perfection’. Instead, it affirmed the need for ‘prudent regulations, and the propagation of laudable principles, to guard against those follies and vices which have so frequently disturbed the happiness of Society’. It also confirmed its commitment to ‘the Diffusion by means of cheap publications of such Knowledge as may tend to awaken the Public Mind to the necessity of Universal Suffrage & Annual Parliaments’.182

The appeal was insufficient to recall the two divisions who had already seceded. At the end of March, division 12 had written to complain of the treatment of its delegate John Bone (who had been accused of spying) and separated itself as the London Reforming Society. At the same time, the main body of his accusers, primarily members of division 16, had left to form ‘the Friends of Liberty’. In a letter to the central committee, their secretary Stephen Cooper made clear that the schism had to do with constitutional matters and stated that he had always been against the formation of an executive within the Society. For its part, the London Reforming Society set about proposing a book plan, effectively a restatement of the idea that the divisions represented autonomous cells for the dissemination and debate of political information. It was not averse to cooperation with other societies in this regard, indeed Bone wrote to the LCS in May with his plan.183 If his idea seems to chime in with an ecumenical vision of little societies bringing about reform via the media of reading and discussion, then Bone’s religious views were proving more troublesome to the LCS. He seems to have been a ‘saint’ who propagated his religious opinions at meetings, probably one of several unhappy with the society’s support for Paine and Volney’s deism. On 15 October 1795 a letter came from ‘the religious Seceders’, formerly division 27, saying they had formed a society called ‘the Friends of Religious & Civil Liberty’. Despite the rift, they wished to continue to correspond with the LCS, although Hodgson and other LCS members opposed their ‘conduct’ as enshrined in the first article in their regulations: ‘no members should be admitted but who pledged themselves to believe in the Scripturs’.184 Citizen Lee was probably a casualty of these schisms within the LCS. He may even have joined the Friends of Religious and Civil Liberty. Certainly he and Hawes, another religious man, were the only booksellers of any previous standing with the LCS who sold the new society’s tracts.185

For the most part, the schismatics continued to coordinate their efforts in one way or another with the LCS, whatever their differences. With food shortages and military setbacks threatening the stability of the government, by early summer 1795 conditions seemed ripe for another concerted push for reform. The situation turned attention away from the question of the LCS’s constitution and back to the idea of a larger crisis that threatened a suspension of the compact between the people and their government. The LCS called the first in a series of outdoor meetings for the end of June. The official LCS account described ‘a spectacle at once sublime and awful, since it seems as though the whole British Nation had convened itself upon this extraordinary occasion, to witness the propriety of our conduct, and testify for the legality of our proceedings’. This vision of the people gathered in protest, of course, implies that the will of the people was finding an alternative voice in response to Parliament’s failure to fulfil its obligations to the nation. At this critical juncture, the ‘Address to the Nation’ insisted, the slow spread of political information must give way to more urgent councils. ‘Calm remonstrances of reason’, the introduction continues, must now cede to the ‘strong impulse of necessity.’ In the face of ‘impending danger’ it goes on ‘your chief, perhaps your only hope is in yourselves’.186

Much the same message was hammered out at meetings through the summer and autumn, as it became clear the government intended to introduce legislation against a convention. Threats were made against ministers, especially Pitt, and in one infamous broadside published by Citizen Lee even king killing was imagined. Edward Henry Iliff’s A summary of the duties of citizenship! on the other hand, cautioned patience. Writing in response to the king’s refusal to countenance the addresses of the LCS, Iliff sketches out a situation where the citizenship is surrounded by species of tyranny ranging from the army to the bishops. His pamphlet imagines that the government has broken its compact with the governed, but ultimately advises the LCS to continue its campaign of political education along Godwinian lines: ’Tis not amidst the buzzing tumult of popular assemblies that you will reap the harvest of information.’ Instead of listening to ‘hot-brained demagogues, that inflame your passions’, he urged his readers to seek ‘men familiarized to practical, and speculative morality’.187 Nevertheless, his message was deemed dangerous enough for the pamphlet to be included on the indictment against its publisher Lee.

Apparently much less Godwinian in emphasis, John Baxter delivered a lecture to the Friends of Liberty (9 November) that insisted on the right to resistance. Printed and sold for a penny by his old associate Burks, Baxter insisted that his aim was to preserve the constitution against the incursions of despotism. Resistance, Baxter argued, was not simply a matter of arms, although he produced historical precedents anyway, but also of a right to ‘association to obtain a redress of grievances’.188 Here was an idea of the right of resistance that probed what Jeremy Bentham called the ‘juncture for resistance’, that is, the point where even Blackstone acknowledged that the people had the right to assert their constituent power. Uncertainty about what Bentham called the ‘Common sign’, the signal that this point had been reached, was part of the ambiguity surrounding Baxter’s insistence on the right of the people to resist. The same fuzzy logic had informed Gerrald’s convention politics. To the government, this way of thinking was simply a new form of treason, asserting a bogus idea of the popular sovereignty against the constituted authority of Parliament.189

Despite their differences, Baxter and Iliff both imagined that public opinion would force the government into conceding the argument for reform, as if the manifestation of the constituent power of the people would quite literally overawe Parliament. Exploiting the attack on the king’s coach at the end of November, the government chose instead to bring the Two Acts before Parliament, severely restricting rights of association and freedom of expression. London radicalism had built up for itself a complex network of routes for the circulation of political information. Reading, writing, and discussion were the primary media for its imagining of political transformation, in some imaginings even transcending forms of political organisation in favour of a slowly unfolding moral revolution of the kind, for instance, Iliff seems to have derived from Godwin. For a few, especially Citizen Lee, this power of the word was actually a fulfilment of the Word, as the divine right of republics played itself out in human affairs. Thomas Hardy was a religious man, but he did not make the same appeal to divine providence in his shaping of the LCS’s public role. Most radicals shared Godwin’s secular sense of public opinion shaped by discussion and the dissemination of print, but with Paine showed much more faith than the philosopher in the power of public assembly and constitution making. Despite in some regards being a disciple of Godwin’s, John Thelwall argued that these two visions of change were not mutually exclusive. The period had seen a growing confidence in the constituent power of the people as ‘stubbornly active and physical’.190 Many like Thelwall retained the same robust attitude to print as a medium that had to be adapted to circumstance rather than simply left to work its magic. Many authors and publishers came forward in the attempt to shape and give voice to this popular will. Some survived as writers and publishers beyond the heady years of the 1790s. In the process they and their comrades created a new kind of national imaginary that influenced the radicalism of the nineteenth century. Their achievement was in their contentious ideas about what constituted ‘the public’ and the role of print in forming it for the new century.

Footnotes

Chapter 1 Popular radical print culture: ‘the more public the better’

Chapter 2 The radical associations and ‘the general will’

Figure 0

Fig 2 Daniel Isaac Eaton [A circular, together with a prospectas of a series of political pamphlets.]

© The British Library Board.
Figure 1

Fig 3 James Gillray, London-Corresponding-Society alarm’d: vide guilty consciences [1798].

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.
Figure 2

Fig 4 [Robert Thomson] A New song, to an old tune,-viz. “God save the king”.

© The British Library Board.