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This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1890
Lord George Gordon, an agitator, was a younger son of Cosmo George, third duke of Gordon. He was born in Upper Grosvenor Street, London, 26 December 1751. He received a commission as ensign ‘when in petticoats,’ but afterwards became a midshipman, served on the American station, rose to be a lieutenant (passed 23 March 1772), and resigned his commission because Lord Sandwich would not promise him a ship. He contested Inverness-shire against General Fraser, and became so popular by talking Gaelic and giving balls, to which he brought lovely highland girls in his yacht, that Fraser became alarmed, and bought the seat of Ludgershall, Wiltshire, from Lord Melbourne, for his rival. Gordon took his seat in 1774.
He seems to have shown some erratic tendencies, but did not attract much notice until 1780. In December 1779 he had accepted the presidency of the Protestant Association, formed to secure the repeal of the act by which (in 1778) the catholic disabilities imposed by the statute 11 and 12 Will. III had been removed. At a meeting of this body (29 May) a resolution was passed, in consequence of which many thousand persons met in St. George's Fields, and marched in four divisions to the House of Commons. They filled the lobbies while Gordon presented the petition. The petition was read, but the house voted to adjourn the consideration until the 6th.
The crowd outside had become noisy and insulting, and Gordon several times came out and addressed them upon the proceedings within. They retired peaceably upon the arrival of troops, but the same night destroyed some catholic chapels. The magistrates acted feebly, and the riots became more formidable, though the Protestant Association was alarmed, and on Monday, 5 June, circulated appeals for peaceable behaviour. On the 6th, when the petition was to be considered, a violent mob gathered round the houses of parliament. The House of Commons adjourned after passing some resolutions against the mob. Gordon offered to pacify his followers, and took Sir Philip Jennings Clerke into his carriage for protection.
The mob took out the horses and dragged the carriage in triumph to Alderman Bull's house in the city. The same evening they burnt Newgate and opened other prisons, besides destroying the houses of Lord Mansfield and Sir John Fielding. The mob, recruited by some two thousand criminals, was now more anxious for plunder than persecution, and on the 7th, besides destroying the King's Bench prison and the New Bridewell, threatened the Bank. On the 8th, however, twenty thousand troops were got together, and the rioters quelled, some three hundred having been killed; 192 rioters were convicted and 25 executed.
On 9 June Gordon was sent to the Tower and kept there for eight months. He was tried for high treason in the king's bench 5 Feb. 1781. There was no proof that he had approved the riots. The strongest point was that he had encouraged the petitioners by the example of Scotland, where riots had taken place in the previous year. Gordon asserted that he only referred to the constitutional resistance of the Scots. He had also given a paper asking protection from the mob to a man whose house was threatened. But he had advised peaceable conduct, and had offered his services to the king on the 7th. The eloquence of his junior counsel, Erskine (led by Kenyon), gained an acquittal after a trial which lasted from 8 a.m. on Monday till 4.45 a.m. on the Tuesday.
Gordon visited Paris in 1782; he supported Fox in the Westminster election of 1784, and wrote letters to Pitt, protesting against various taxes. In November following he again appeared as a protestant champion in the quarrel between the Dutch and the Emperor Joseph. He accompanied the Dutch ambassador to St. James's (10 November), dressed in a Dutch uniform with a highland broadsword, and persuaded the soldiers on guard to present arms to the ambassador and to cut their ribbons into Dutch cockades. A week later he told Pitt that he had received offers from several hundred seamen to serve against the emperor. Pitt warned him that he was acting without authority. On 30 November he addressed a meeting of sailors, who offered to pull down Pitt's house, upon which he ‘made a low bow and withdrew.’
The pope failed at this time in an attempt (if he made it) to poison the protestant hero. The Machiavelian policy of Pitt in giving offices to Gordon's relations is thought by his biographer to have been more successful. In 1786 he took up the case of Cagliostro, who had come to England after the diamond necklace affair. Gordon put a couple of paragraphs in the Public Advertiser, accusing Marie-Antoinette of persecuting this honest man. He was meanwhile corresponding with the Jews (having had some flirtations with the quakers), and became a Jew himself, partly in order to give celebrity to his financial scheme. He hoped that the Jews would combine to withhold loans for carrying on wars.
He wrote a ‘petition from the prisoners at Newgate to Lord George Gordon,’ praying him to prevent them from being sent to Botany Bay, denouncing the severity of the English criminal law, inconsistent, as he thought, with the Mosaic code, and sent copies to Pitt and the keepers of Newgate. He endeavoured to obtain admission to Newgate, where he expected (reasonably enough) to find converts to his views as to the inexpediency of hanging and transporting. Some severe remarks upon British justice in this paper led to a prosecution. He was convicted of libel 6 June 1787, and on 13 June following was also convicted for the paragraphs referring to Marie-Antoinette.
Gordon went to Amsterdam, but was sent back by the magistrates. He retired to Birmingham, where he lived quietly in the house of a Jew, wearing a long beard and adopting the Jewish customs. On 28 January 1788 he was brought up for judgment, sentenced to be imprisoned for five years in Newgate for the two libels, and then to pay a fine of £500 and find two securities for his good behaviour in £2,500 apiece.
He lived pretty comfortably in Newgate, wrote letters, including fruitless appeals to the French National Assembly to apply for his release, amused himself with music, especially the bagpipes, had six or eight persons to dinner daily, including the society of Newgate, and occasionally distinguished outsiders, who all dined on terms of strict equality; gave a ball once a fortnight, and conformed in all respects to the Jewish religion. On the expiration of the five years he was unable to obtain the securities required, and had to stay in Newgate, where he soon caught a fever, and died 1 November 1793, after singing the ‘Ça ira.’
Gordon would clearly have been in an asylum instead of a prison at the present day, and the severity of his punishment is probably to be explained by the fear that he might again become a hero of the mob, as was made not improbable by his dealings with the sailors in 1784. Dickens's description of Gordon and the riots of 1780 in ‘Barnaby Rudge’ is familiar.
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