The Age of George III

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Pitt's Domestic Policies during the French Wars

"The French Revolution made Pitt a Tory"— that is, it pre-empted his days as a liberal, progressive reformer. He was obliged to adopt the attitudes of a traditional Eighteenth Century Prime Minister because of the change in direction of the French Revolution. He had to ensure that he continued with the only two compulsory duties of any Prime Minister:

  1. maintain domestic law and order
  2. protect the realm from foreign invasion

It was a retrogressive and reactionary step against progressive reform, but the changes in Pitt's policies did not take place in the period 1789-92 when France still had a peaceful Constitutional Monarchy.

Pitt maintained a cautious neutrality towards the reform clubs

He did not suppress the Corresponding Societies, but local JPs, Lords Lieutenant etc. were advised by the Home Office to keep an eye on any democratic movements and to send reports, copies of letters sent/ received by members, and copies of publications to the Home Office so Pitt and the government could monitor their activities.

1792: Edict of Fraternity

As the Jacobins came to dominate French political life, Pitt and the government grew cooler towards the Corresponding Societies and saw them as dangerous (cf America).

1793 : Death of Louis XVI and beginning of the Revolutionary Wars

In Britain, toleration of reform movements ended. The Societies were seen as agents of rebellion: if reformers were sympathetic to the Revolution they were seen as traitors who supported the national enemy: they were referred to as 'English Jacobins'. Pitt decided to suppress the Societies. The Home Office collected all available information on them and clamped down.

1793 Aliens Act prevented any French Republican from coming to England. It also stopped the exchange of visitors and speakers - but allowed emigrés to travel freely.

23 May 1794 Suspension of Habeas Corpus allowed the arrest and imprisonment of persons 'on suspicion' without requiring charges or a trial.

Local JPs were ordered to investigate the leaders of the Corresponding Societies, and if there was any evidence against them, to prosecute. JPs were very active because they represented the landed interest, and feared for their lives and property in the event of a revolution. There were many trials and imprisonments.

 In SCOTLAND, Braxfield earned a reputation comparable to that of Judge Jeffries. Braxfield was an Edinburgh JP who was investigating treasonable offences and meting out savage punishments such as giving sentences of life transportation to Muir, Margarot and Palmer, the leaders of the Edinburgh Corresponding Society. They were condemned for sedition; for being in league with the French; for being dangerous revolutionaries: in reality they were a doctor and two lawyers who were MODERATE REFORM ERS asking for some changes in the Constitution. They were not revolutionaries.

1794 - The harvest was poor; food prices were high and trade was dislocated by high prices and war. Agitators held huge meetings and bread riots broke out in Nottingham, Coventry, Sheffield and Sussex. The King 's coach was attacked by a mob in October (at the state opening of Parliament), with cries of 'No King', 'No war', 'No famine', 'No Pitt'. The windows of No 10 Downing Street were smashed.

Summer/Autumn 1794

The Government held a series of TREASON TRIALS. Leaders of most Corresponding Societies (e.g. Hardy from London; others from Leeds, Sheffield etc) were arrested and tried on charges of sedition and treason. The English trials were NOT so severe as the Scottish ones because

1792 Libel Act

Put through parliament by Fox. It altered the administration of English justice. Until this Act, the jury advised the judge in cases of libel. The Act gave juries the right to find a verdict.  In the treason trials, once the evidence had been presented the juries tended to find the accused not guilty of treason, or of being revolutionaries and returned 'Not Guilty ' verdicts.

Lord Erskine believed that Pitt's fears were exaggerated, and defended those accused of treason. He destroyed the government's cases against many reformers such as Thomas Hardy.

The evidence of sedition was slight, although Davidson (of Sheffield) had offered Sheffield pikes so people could arm themselves against the government.


SEDITION conduct or language directed unlawfully against State authority; public commotion or riot, NOT amounting to insurrection or rebellion and therefore not treason.

TREASON: violation by subject of his allegiance to sovereign beg compassing or intending sovereign's death, levying war against him or adhering to his enemies.

LIBEL: published statement damaging to a person's reputation; accuse falsely and maliciously.

Local JPs were still giving harsh sentences such as lengthy gaol sentences, transportation etc, There was a purge against Corresponding Societies.

The rise of the 'radical orator' in the early 1790s posed a major threat to the government's ability to control the circulation of political ideas. This had led to a series of increasingly repressive laws against free speech and a propaganda offensive that relied heavily on the stereotype of the vulgar, reckless, devious, anarchic demagogue. Caricature played an important part in this campaign by targeting the most prominent of the radical speakers of the 1790s, "Citizen" John Thelwall.

In Gillray's Copenhagen House (1795) a satirical depiction of a huge London Corresponding Society protest against the Two Acts, Thelwall is depicted as a ranting clownish figure. He is declaiming to an audience who are just as interested in gambling as they are in listening, although some are also wearing the Jacobin red cap, a hint that the situation could become violent with a little provocation. As early as 21 May 1792 the Pitt ministry had issued a proclamation against "wicked and seditious writings," including Tom Paine's The Rights of Man. The proclamation called on magistrates to search out the authors, publishers and distributors of such writings.  Publisher Richard Phillips was sentenced to a year and a half in jail for selling Paine's book.  Radical attorney John Frost was sentenced to the pillory and eighteen months for the remark, "I am for equality…Why, no kings!" Paine was ordered to appear in court to answer charges of sedition. 

The Times editorialized, "It is earnestly recommended to Mad Tom that he should embark for France."  Paine was burned in effigy by Loyalist mobs.  In September Paine, fearful for both his life and liberty, followed the Times' advice and emigrated to France.  Paine was tried in absentia for seditious libel and found guilty.  In October 1794 former Home Secretary Henry Dundas opined that "the Spirit of Faction' was indistinguishable from "sedition and treason."  Reformer Samuel Romilly commented upon the effect of the reaction against the French Revolution in 1808, "If any person be desirous of having an adequate idea of the mischievous effects which have been produced in this country by the French Revolution and all its attendant horrors, he should attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles.  He will then find not only what a stupid dread of innovation, but what a savage spirit, it has infused into the minds of many of his countrymen."

Then the government passed a series of excessively repressive Acts