Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 February 2013
In 1778, in response to news of the American alliance with France, the British government proposed a series of Catholic relief bills aimed at tolerating Catholicism in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Officials saw the legislation as a pragmatic response to a dramatically expanded war, but ordinary Britons were far less tolerant. They argued that the relief acts threatened to undermine a widely shared Protestant British patriotism that defined itself against Catholicism and France. Through an elaborate and well-connected popular print culture, Britons living in distant Atlantic communities, such as Kingston (Jamaica), Glasgow, Dublin, and New York City, publicly engaged in a radical brand of Protestant patriotism that began to question the very legitimacy of their own government. Events culminated in June 1780, with five days of violent, deadly rioting in the nation's capitol. Yet the Gordon Riots represent only the most famous example of this new, more zealous defense of Protestant Whig Britishness. In the British Caribbean and North America, unrelenting fears of French invasions and the perceived incompetence of the government mixed with an increasingly confrontational Protestant political culture to expose the fragile nature of British patriotism. In Scotland, anti-Catholic riots drove the country to near rebellion in early 1779, while in Ireland, Protestants and Catholics took advantage of this political instability to make demands for economic and political independence, culminating in the country's legislative autonomy in 1782. Ultimately, Catholic relief and the American alliance with France fundamentally altered how ordinary Britons viewed their government and, perhaps, laid the foundations for the far more radical political culture of the 1790s.
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5 “London,” London Evening-Post, 3 June 1780.
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8 It was later reported that 1,294 prisoners escaped during the riots. “Correspondence and papers relating to [the Gordon] Riots in London, 1780,” 15 June 1780, the National Archives (TNA): PRO PC 1/3097.
9 “The Thunderer,” 8 June 1780, TNA: PRO WO 34/103/231–33. Rogers argues that the Quebec Act played an important role in shaping popular opposition to the Catholic Relief Bill after 1778. Rogers, Nicholas, “The Gordon Riots and the Politics of War,” in The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture, and Insurrection in the Late Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Haywood, Ian and Seed, John (Cambridge, 2012), 25–28Google Scholar.
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11 “Letter from Richard Worsley, Hyde Park Camp to [Unknown],” 11 June 1780, TNA: PRO WO 34/103/325–26.
12 Rudé, “The Gordon Riots,” 99, 105. This is a conservative number based on official government records. Hibbert suggests that the number of dead was closer to 850. Hibbert, King Mob, 144n.
13 Quoted in Rudé, London and Paris, 268.
14 The introductory chapter to Christopher Hibbert's study is revealing titled, “The Mad Scotchman.” Hibbert, King Mob. J. Pual Castro began his study by quoting Edward Gibbon, who said the riots were marked “by a dark and diabolical fanaticism.” The Gordon Riots, 1. Eugene Black titled his chapter on the Protestant Association “The Children of Darkness.” The Association. George Rudé's 1956 landmark study of the social composition of the rioters may have challenged the fanatical, xenophobic nature of the crowd, but it did little to move the riots beyond London city lines. Rudé, “The Gordon Riots.” Colin Haydon, in his more recent study of anti-Catholicism in eighteenth-century England, is less critical of the rioters, arguing that they were acting on deeply rooted English plebeian cultural and religious fears that were commonly expressed in the eighteenth century. Anti-Catholicism in Eighteenth-Century England, c. 1714–80: A Political and Social Study (Manchester, 1993)Google Scholar and “Popery at St. James's”: The Conspiracy Theses of William Payne, Thomas Hollis, and Lord George Gordon,” in Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theory in Early Modern Europe: From the Waldensians to the French Revolution, ed. Coward, Barry and Swann, Julian (Ashgate, 2004), 173–95Google Scholar.
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16 Stephen Conway's account remains the most comprehensive to date. The British Isles and the War for American Independence (Oxford, 2000), 166–266Google Scholar.
17 This London-centric approach continues to dominate the most recent literature on the riots. For example, see Haywood and Seed, The Gordon Riots. In response to a recent review of their volume, the editors defended their limited geographical approach by wrongly arguing “that the Gordon riots were predominantly a London phenomenon.” Author response to Katrina Navickas, review of The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Ian Haywood and John Seed. Reviews of History, no. 1249 (May 2012), http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1249 (accessed 25 May 2012).
18 Historians no longer debate that the empire's peripheries shaped mainland British politics, especially during the American war. For example, see Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992)Google Scholar; Gould, Eliga H., The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 2000)Google Scholar; Wilson, The Sense of the People; Conway, The British Isles. Few, however, have moved beyond this “two-way street” thinking to see British political culture and patriotism as the product of a complex web of connections in which communities on the peripheries were connected with one another and to the imperial center in London. For a later, nineteenth-century example of this approach, see Ballantyne, Tony, Orientalism and Race (London, 2007)Google Scholar. The definitive study of the emergence of an English/British Atlantic print culture remains Steele, Ian K., The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York, 1986)Google Scholar.
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22 All four communities enjoyed a vibrant print culture during the American Revolution. There were two newspapers published weekly in Kingston, and two in Glasgow, in addition to the ever-popular monthly Scots Magazine. Dubliners enjoyed the greatest access to news, with as many as six newspapers published during the American War. New Yorkers also benefited from an expansive print culture, with a total of four newspapers published weekly in the final years of the conflict, including arguably one of the most famous newspapers in all of the empire, James Rivington's Rivington's Gazette.
23 The term “popular political culture,” while fairly amorphous, can be best understood as the formal and informal political beliefs and culture of ordinary British subjects. This political culture found expression in the eighteenth-century emergence of what Jürgen Habermas called the “public sphere.” The space was both real and imagined, and often assumed textual existence in the many newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and broadsides that emerged during this period. Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Burger, Thomas and Lawrence, Frederic (Boston, 1989)Google Scholar. Newman, Simon, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture of the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, 2000), 5–6Google Scholar.
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36 Conway, The British Isles, 16–20. The term “rage militaire” was first used by Charles Royster to describe the American response to Lexington and Concord in 1775. See Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783 (Chapel Hill, 1979), 25–53Google Scholar.
37 Conditions were worse in Scotland, where there was very little military protection and no local militias. See “Letter from Oughton to Lord Suffolk, Edinburgh,” 27 April 1778, TNA: PRO SP 54/47/131; “Letter from Oughton to Lord Suffolk, Edinburgh,” 19 May 1778, TNA: PRO SP 54/47/135; “Letter from Oughton to George III, Edinburgh,” 7 September 1778, TNA: PRO SP 54/47/187; “Letter from W. Hamilton to Lord Viscount Weymouth, Edinburgh,” 29 October 1779, TNA: PRO SP 54/47/346–47. See also Donovan, Robert Kent, No Popery and Radicalism: Opposition to Roman Catholic Relief in Scotland, 1778–1782 (New York, 1987), 204–07Google Scholar.
38 Donovan, No Popery, 58; Transactions of the Eighty-Five Societies, in and about Glasgow: United … to Oppose a Repeal of the Penal Statues against Papists in Scotland (Glasgow, 1779)Google Scholar.
39 Many of the public declarations made in opposition to the Catholic relief act mentioned France's alliance with the Americans. Glasgow Mercury, 7 January 1779, 14 January 1779, and 21 January 1779; Scots Magazine 41 (February 1779), 106–08. See also “Supplement to the Glasgow Journal, No. 1957,” n.d., TNA: PRO SP 54/47/210–211.
40 Donovan, No Popery, 67.
41 Scots Magazine 41 (February 1779), 107.
42 “Address of the Paisley Ayr Shire Society,” Glasgow Mercury, 28 January 1779; “Address of the Society of Weavers in Pollockshaws,” Glasgow Mercury, 4 February 1779.
43 “Address from the heritors, kirk-session, society of weavers, and other mechanics in Govan,” Glasgow Mercury, 25 February 1779.
44 “Address from the heritors, elders, and people of the parish of Galston,” Glasgow Mercury, 4 February 1779.
45 “Letter to Lord Suffolk,” in Transactions of the Eighty-Five Societies, 7.
46 “Address from the heritors and heads of families in the parish of Carluke, Lanerk County,” Glasgow Mercury, 28 January 1779. See also “London,” London Evening-Post, 9 February 1779; “London, Feb. 9, 10,” Freeman's Journal, 16 February 1779.
47 Kaplan points out that the British public was well aware of private Catholic meetinghouses in their communities into the nineteenth century. They helped to preserve, he argues, “the monopoly of a community's official church in the public sphere” by forcing dissenting groups to the private, though known, margins of society. Kaplan, Benjamin J., Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2007), 172–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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49 “Letter from J. Oughton to Lord Suffolk, Edinburgh,” 12 February 1779, TNA: PRO SP 54/47/228; Glasgow Mercury, 11 February 1779; “Extract of a letter from Glasgow, dated Feb. 9 eight at night,” London Evening-Post, 16 February 1779. His surname also appears as Bagnal, Bagnall, and Baynall in various publications. Marwick, James D. and Renwick, Robert, eds., Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow with Charters and Other Documents, 11 vols. (Glasgow, 1876–1916), 8:547–53Google Scholar. The riots are all the more shocking considering there were only twenty known communicants in the entire city. Darragh, James, “The Catholic Population of Scotland Since the Year 1680,” Innes Review 4 (1953): 55CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A similar, if not more violent, riot occurred a day later in nearby Edinburgh. “Extra of a letter from Edinburgh, Feb. 5,” London Evening-Post, 9 February 1779.
50 “To the Committee for conducting the Free-Pres [sic],” Freeman's Journal, 20 February 1779.
51 “Dublin, February 16,” Freeman's Journal, 16 February 1779.
52 By the summer of 1780, there were as many as 60,000 volunteers. In Dublin, contemporary reports suggest that at least 8,000 men had joined by August 1780, or nearly 1 in every 5 Protestants in the city. Smyth, Peter, “‘Our Cloud-Cap't Grenadiers’: The Volunteers as a Military Force,” Irish Sword 13 (1978–79): 185–207Google Scholar; O'Connell, Maurice R., Irish Politics and Social Conflict in the Age of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1965), 68–102Google Scholar; McBride, Ian, Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1998), 123–33Google Scholar; McDowell, R. B., Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760–1801 (Oxford, 1979), 239–74Google Scholar; O'Connor, Stephen, “The Volunteers of Dublin 1778–84: A Short Study of Urban Volunteering,” in Georgian Dublin, ed. O'Brien, Gillian and O'Kane, Finola (Dublin, 2008), 68–77Google Scholar.
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54 Quoted in Morley, Irish Opinion, 204.
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57 Their rise in prominence was partly due to the rumored (though never realized) French invasion months earlier, in which the volunteers were praised for defending their island in a time of crisis. Smyth, “The Volunteers and Parliament,” 115–19; Morley, Irish Opinion, 198–203.
58 For a more typical Protestant British celebration, see “Dublin, November 5,” Freeman's Journal, 5 November 1778.
59 “Dublin,” Freeman's Journal, 6 November 1779.
60 “To the Committee for conducting the Free-Press,” Freeman's Journal, 4 November 1779.
61 “Dublin,” Freeman's Journal, 6 November 1779.
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67 Wilson has counted at least seventy-five provincial towns celebrating Keppel's acquittal in Wilson, The Sense of the People, 257. In comparison, there were seventy-six demonstrations in favor of Wilkes between 1767 and 1771. Brewer, John, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George the Third (Cambridge, 1976), 175CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The London Evening-Post listed reports of celebrations in forty-four different towns and villages throughout England and Wales. London Evening-Post, 18 February 1779. For examples of celebrations outside of England, see “European Intelligence. London, February 11,” Jamaica Mercury, and Kingston Weekly Advertiser, 8 May 1779. “Major General James Pattison to Captain Blomfield, New York City, 3 May 1779,” in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, for the Year 1875 (New York, 1876), 51Google Scholar. “Dublin. February 27,” Royal American Gazette, [New York City] 27 May 1779Google Scholar. “Dublin, February 20,” Freeman's Journal, 18 February 1779; Morley, Irish Opinion, 176–77.
68 Wilson argued that the Keppel riots revealed strong pro-American sentiment in England. Wilson, The Sense of the People, 255–69. Rogers, however, correctly points out that there were only a small minority of protests that spoke in favor of the Americans and in several instances the rioters actually called for “a happy and speeding reconciliation with the Americans” but a “severe drubbing to France.” Rogers, Crowds, Culture and Politics, 143–46.
69 “The Humble Petition of his Majesty's loyal Protestant Subjects of the Cities of London and Westminister,” London Chronicle, 8 January 1780; “Protestant Association,” St. James's Chronicle; or, the British Evening Post, 8 January 1780; “Protestant Association,” Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, [London]14 January 1780; “Protestant Association,” St. James's Chronicle; or, the British Evening Post, 22 February 1780; “Protestant Association,” London Evening-Post, 11 May 1780. See also Black, The Association, 31–130; Gould, The Persistence of Empire, 164–78.
70 For example, see “The following is the Petition of the Protestant Association, agreed upon at a late Meeting,” Supplement to the Royal Gazette [Kingston], 29 April 1780Google Scholar.
71 “An Appeal from the Protestant Association to the People of Great Britain” (London, 1779).
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75 Quoted in Hibbert, King Mob, 37.
76 Quoted in Castro, The Gordon Riots, 24–25.
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79 For Kingston, see Royal Gazette, 12 August 1780; Supplement to the Royal Gazette, 12 August 1780; Royal Gazette, 26 August 1780. For New York City, see “Letter from London, dated June 7,” Rivington's Gazette, 26 August 1780; Royal American Gazette, 31 August 1780; “New-York, September 6,” Rivington's Gazette, 6 September 1780; Royal American Gazette, 14 September 1780.
80 Supplement to the Royal Gazette, [Kingston] 12 August 1780.
82 Supplement to the Royal Gazette, [Kingston] 2 September 1780.
84 The writer was most likely referring to Benjamin Franklin, the American diplomat in Paris at the time. “New-York, September 6,” Rivington's Gazette, 6 September 1780.
85 “Extract of a letter from a gentleman in London to his friend in New-York, dated July 5, 1780,” Rivington's Gazette, 6 September 1780.
86 “Dublin, June 10,” Freeman's Journal, 10 June 1780.
87 “Dublin, June 24,” Freeman's Journal, 24, June 1780.
88 Earl of Hillsborough to Lord Buckingham, 11 June 1780. “Report on the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Lothian Preserved at Blickling Hall, Norfolk” (London, 1905), 367–68. There were also rumors several months earlier of dissenting Irish MPs forming an association modeled after Gordon's. O'Flaherty, “Ecclesiastical Politics,” 43.
89 There are no accurate population numbers for Dublin in 1780. In 1766 there were about 59,000 Protestants in a city of 145,000, but those numbers continued to decline throughout the remainder of the century. Fagan, Patrick, Catholics in a Protestant Country: The Papist Constituency in Eighteenth-Century Dublin (Portland, 1998), 44–45Google Scholar.
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91 Edwards, R. Dudley, “Minute Book of the Catholic Committee, 1773–1792,” Archivium Hibernicum 9 (1942): 47–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The situation worsened when Parliament passed the Combination Act, which sought to suppress journeymen combinations (preindustrial unions) in Ireland. On 13 June, nearly 20,000 Catholic and Protestant journeymen gathered in Phoenix Park to present a petition to the Lord Lieutenant in opposition to the bill. A riot was avoided only after the volunteers were called out to breakup the protest. “Extract of a Letter from Dublin, June 14,” London Chronicle, 22 June 1780; O'Connell, Maurice, “Class Conflict in a Pre-Industrial Society: Dublin in 1780,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record 103, no. 2 (February 1965): 93–108Google Scholar.
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93 For more on the connection between legislative independence and free trade, see Hill, From Patriots, 146–53.
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97 Freeman's Journal, 26 February 1782.
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99 “Dublin, June 6,” Freeman's Journal, 6 June 1782.
100 “To Mr. Rivington,” Rivington's Gazette, 6 January 1779.
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102 “An American,” Rivington's Gazette, 20 June 1778.
103 “Extract of a letter from New York,” Glasgow Mercury, 12 November 1778.
104 “From the New York Gazette,” Glasgow Mercury, 1 April 1779.
105 “Extract of a letter from Philadelphia,” Glasgow Mercury, 29 June 1780.
106 Supplement to The Jamaica Mercury, 8 May 1779.
107 “Continuation of the Debate on the Catholic Bill on Wednesday last,” Freeman's Journal, 26 February 1782.