The Age of George III

I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.

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

1795 Treasonable Practices Act (this legislation remained in force until 1848)

This was a vicious attack on personal liberties.

(a) it extended the definition of 'treason' to include speaking and writing, even if no action followed. This attacked public meetings, clubs, pamphlets etc. Tom Paine had been outlawed; his writings were deemed to be treasonable and were blacked (Paine was in France).

(b) it became treasonable to bring the king or his government into contempt.

1795 Seditious Meetings Act

Any public meeting of more than fifty persons had to be authorised by a magistrate. JPs had the discretionary power to disperse any public meeting.

Together, the Treasonable and Seditious Practices and the Seditious Meetings Acts were known as the "Gagging Acts" or the "Two Acts.

1797: Taxes on printed matter were vastly increased, to price cheap periodicals off the market. This merely created an 'underground' press. To counteract this underground, radical press, publications from the traditionalists were published. The Anti-Jacobin made its first appearance in November 1797, for example. This was edited by George Canning.

1799 and 1800 Combination Acts

These laws forbade the establishment of societies or amalgamations of persons for the purpose of political reform. Interference with commerce and trade became illegal. Penalty : 3 months' gaol. The laws were passed because trade clubs and societies effectively demanded wage rises to keep pace with inflation. The Government saw wage claims as a clear sign of disaffection. The Combination Acts introduced no new principle - unlawful combinations were already unlawful. These laws offered faster application of the law : summary trial before a JP instead of awaiting the Assize. They were not widely used because older laws were much more severe: instead of three months in prison, the old laws allowed for a sentence of seven years' transportation. The Combination Acts were passed because of :

(a)a fear of democracy (industrial and social) - which was equated with Jacobinism.

(b) the desire and determination of Pitt to prevent industry being held to ransom in tim e of war.

It could be asked whether this was a manifestation of

  1. snobbery? - the ruling classes deciding that the lower orders should be kept in their place.
  2. or that the landed gentry did not understand industrial society - this was their way of maintaining law and order.

Between 1793 and 1800 reform movements were driven underground in the attempt to suppress them. Pitt the reformer became Pitt the reactionary, from necessity, not hypocrisy. It was against his usual character and attitude.

The excessive repression reflects the fear of the French Revolution. Pitt was essentially a reformer - cf early attempts at reform. Much of the reactionism came from the landed interest. The Corresponding Societies were in the towns, and country gentry knew little or nothing about conditions in the towns. Repression was led by the country gentlemen. ALSO, war meant that Britain had to be made safe. It was a total and demanding war, and Pitt could not risk domestic problems (cf Lord North: County Associations, Gordon Riots etc).

Lack of adequate communications increased the fears. News was distorted, exaggerated , misinterpreted. The government acted 'on suspicion ', because if things were left to develop, they could be caught with a revolution on their hands, totally unprepared. 'Revolution ' had come to mean a bloody revolt, with violence, threats, executions etc and led to a fear of even minor reform - in case it led to revolution. From 1793 onwards, a wave of anti-reform feeling existed, lasting well into the 19th century.

WITH HINDSIGHT one can see that the government over-reacted. Apart from the two traditional duties of a PM, Pitt had to:

  1. maintain the loyalty of, and Britain 's hold on the Empire.
  2. finance the war. Once again, Britain was fighting an idea.

The most vulnerable part of the Empire was Canada - an ex-French colony with the bulk of the population being French Roman Catholic stock.

1791 Canada Act

This was passed to preclude grievances by French Canadians. Canada was divided into two zones: Upper Canada (English) and Lower Canada (French-Quebec), and arranged for the government of the two zones. EACH had a legislative council elected by the British Crown and parliament, assisted by a representative assembly elected by any £10 freeholder or leaseholder. It was more democratic than the English constitution - but Canada was nearer the most democratic America. French Canada was allowed to retain French civil law and legal system.

Canada - and the rest of the Empire - remained loyal to Britain throughout the wars.


Pitt needed GOLD to pay and equip the army and navy and to pay European armies to fight the French in Europe. War led to fears of invasion, which resulted in financial panic. Investors removed money from the banks in gold; an internal drain on gold resulted, leaving less available for the government to draw upon.

1797: Suspension of cash payments by the Bank of England put England on a paper money economy and kept the gold for the government. Britain was taken off the gold standard (resumed 1821 ).

It was a wise measure at the time, but as it continued, inflation followed - hence demands for higher wages (and dearer bread as imports ceased). It DID stop the panic AND the drain on gold. Until 1793, the Bank of England had never issued notes worth less than £10.

1797 Income Tax was imposed as a temporary measure, for the duration of the war. It was repealed in 1816. It was levied at 2d in the £ 1 on incomes over £60 pa graduated up to 2/- in the £1 on incomes over £200 pa. Again, it was a wise measure since trade was restricted because of the war and government revenue from indirect taxation fell.


Pitt had a clear policy and intention: defend Britain and her Empire first, and deal with France in Europe as an incidental.

The principles were:

1 . defend Britain from invasion

2. defend Britain's colonies - the source of raw materials, markets and re-exports, vital to the war effort in terms of money. One result of this was the West Indies campaigns which killed thousands of of troops.

ALL BRITAIN'S MILITARY CONCENTRATION WAS ON THE NAVY — Britain's 'wooden walls'. Sea power was crucial to Britain 's defence. A token army under the Duke of York (the Grand Old Duke of York) was sent to Europe, but Pitt preferred to send subsidies instead of men, to help her allies - cf Chatham. Britain's army was weak and scattered. Things were so bad that the government had difficulty in raising 5,000 men to send to help the Dutch.

Pitt negotiated European coalitions to raise armies to fight France on land while Britain used her sea-power to defend European sea routes and blockade France: the French had a huge army which Britain was unable to engage at this point; the British had a huge and growing navy which the French were unable to engage; like the elephant and whale, neither nation was able to fight the other directly.

The FRENCH defeated European coalitions on land
BRITAIN defeated the French navy at sea result: stalemate

France was prevented from invading Britain and the Empire, so Pitt's personal objectives were met. The long-term objective — the defeat of France, was NOT met.

EUROPE was not really the aggressor; it was forced into war by the French revolutionaries.

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 23 April, 2017

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind