Radical History: the London Corresponding Society vs the Privy Council, 1794

The long essay linked here is something I wrote years and years back, as an undergraduate, and I have finally now got round to finding somewhere useful for it to live online. It is set at a time, in the late 18th c. Britain made famous by Blackadder the Third, of a rise in popular radicalism, political organisation by artisans and labourers, and campaigns to extend the franchise. The essay looks specifically at the process, in many ways unprecedented and bizarre, whereby organisers of, participants in, and vague or occasional sympathisers with campaigns for popular democracy were rounded up and questioned by the highest echelons of a hostile, uncomprehending and paranoid state. (Think the Thatcher cabinet doggedly interrogating not only the NUM leadership but also the whole audience of a Coal Not Dole fundraiser, or, idk, the present cabinet interrogating UK Uncut.)

Like many things which can be given that kind of build-up, the actual material of the interrogations can be a surprisingly dull read, but there were several aspects that I found, and hopefully the general reader will find, of interest, amusement, and continued relevance, viz:

To begin with, despite the mass arrests of radicals being justified by panicky accusations of treason, this accusation wasn’t a comfortable fit with the evidence. Treason in 1794 specifically related to plotting against the reigning monarch rather than the government, and the societies agitating for popular democracy, despite a preoccupation with Revolutionary France, were invariably concerned more with the latter than the former. The 1794 interrogations and the trials which followed, however, were an abrupt step in a long-term shift of the legal location of sovereign power towards Parliament, in which the extra-parliamentary advocacy of constitutional change became construed as a treasonable practice. In 1795, the new Treason Act defined as traitors not only all those who ‘compassed or devised’ the death or deposition of the monarch, but also those seeking ‘to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament’.

There is also the notable use of spies and informants by the government* to produce, as evidence of radical sympathies and/or activity, opinions expressed by individuals in semi-private settings, ie pubs and coffee houses, and sometimes private homes or businesses. Seditious speech was here defined solely by its inflammatory content, without allowing for the potentially mitigating intention behind or context of its use, and words spoken privately or semi-privately were considered sufficient to warrant prosecution – irrespective, as one historian points out, of ‘traditional senses that there were boundaries between public and private speech the honouring of which was central to the preservation of English liberty’.**
Thirdly, radical examinants, hauled into a situation over which they had almost no control, attempted to to redress this imbalance of power through strategies of passive resistance. This involved mind games, non-cooperation, and attempts to radicalise or subvert the political meaning of language. Those in control of the examinations, by contrast, displayed an overriding concern with defending the current meanings of particular terms and, through that, the current social order.

Relevant today? Take your pick. My thanks to the John Thelwall Society, who are great.

Talking Treason? John Thelwall and the Privy Council examinations of the English Jacobins, 1794

* E P Thompson: “But for spies, narks and letter-copiers, the history of the English working class would be unknown.”

** M. Philp, ‘Intrusions’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (2008), pp. 220-7

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