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Response to Review no. 145

I’m extremely grateful for Jeffrey Richards for this warm and thoughtful review. Imagining the King’s Death is a weird hybrid of a book, in that it looks at material more usually studied by historians in order to talk about a topic – the imagination – which has been of interest mainly to literary critics. All the time I was writing it, and still more since it was published, I’ve been worrying about how my attempts at writing history would be received by professional historians. I have wondered if there was some aspect, some identifying characteristic of historical method that I had somehow never learned about but whose absence from my text would be so glaringly obvious to historians as entirely to invalidate the book. Maybe there is; but the first two reviews have both been by historians, and I seem to be getting away with it. I’m still none the wiser about my opposite anxiety: will literary critics interested in the imagination bother to read such an elaborately detailed account of the debate about treason on the mid 1790s?

Professor Richards raises a few questions at the end of his review, to do with the relation of my book to recent debates among historians of the period. The questions point in different directions, according to the debate to which each alludes: the one about how many radicals there were in Britain in the 1790s, what they stood for, and how dangerous they were; the older one about whether Pitt’s firm way with radicalism was justified because it prevented a domestic revolution. The first question invites me to agree that the popular radical movement was far less dangerous than I suggest, and it’s posed with deliberately provocative irony, as if posterity now feels it safe to adopt again its ancient tone of enormous condescension towards the vulgar and the relatively powerless. ‘Why write about a circle of radicals’ – these are, mainly, the leaders of the popular radical movement, especially of the London Corresponding Society – ‘whom a variety of historians have dismissed as harmless cranks or destructive loonies?’ The second challenges me to acknowledge that the popular radical movement was far more dangerous than I suggest: for if I believe that the radical societies in the mid 1790s posed no serious threat to the king and constitution, why does the government appear to have had ‘real fears’ about domestic radicalism; and, granted that it believed in the reality of that threat, wouldn’t it have been ‘criminally irresponsible and complacent for the government to sit back and do nothing’?

As far as the first question goes, I didn’t particularly think of myself as writing about popular radicals or popular republicans, except in so far as I had to do so in relation to my main theme. I needed to provide a fairly full narrative of their activities, especially in London, largely because those activities were treated by the government as justifying a charge of treason, and thus helped fuel the debates about popular sovereignty, the limits of extra-parliamentary activity, and the meaning of the Treason Act, the Coronation Oath Act and other palladiums of the constitution, that filled the newspapers and pamphlet shops in 1794 and 1795. In so far, however, as I did need to discuss the radicals and their doings, I hadn’t thought of myself as dealing only with that fraction of a fraction picked out by Richards. Though all the radicals I wrote about were represented by the government as ‘atheist, cosmopolitan, republican, and Francophile’, and a few certainly were, others were only some of those things, others still were none of them, and of most of them, it’s hard to know just what they were.

Since the question is raised however I’ll say something about how well those accounts of ‘mainstream’ radicalism by Calhoun and Newman match my sense of what popular radicalism was about in the very short period covered by my book. I agree of course that it is a more useful general characterisation of the LCS (the society that mainly concerns me) to think of it as an artisan rather than as a working class movement, at the same time as it is evidently somewhere on the road from one to the other. I don’t at all believe the LCS was less radical for being willing to petition the king: the society, and other radical societies, debated at length the whole posture of humility required by petitioners to king and parliament, and when it petitioned it did so in order to avoid being accused of having failed to do so before proceeding to extra-parliamentary measures. Its truculent address to the king in 1795 was more like a remonstrance than a petition; it was, for tactical reasons, intended to fail.

Similarly, it is hard to map Gerald Newman’s characterisation of ‘mainstream’ radicalism on to the LCS, at the same time as it would be hard to know where to look for mainstream radicalism in London in the 1790s if not in the LCS, by far the largest grouping of radical opinion. Of the leaders whose opinions are recorded in one form or another, many were dissenters, all probably deplored the corruption of the Church of England, and most were probably republicans, but they did not evince much anxiety actually to declare a republic or bring the king to the block: their hopes of achieving a reform of parliament depended entirely on winning support from those who would have been shocked and alienated by such ambitions. Perhaps, following reform of parliament, it would be possible to agitate for the abolition of the House of Lords and even of the monarchy, but that was a distant ambition.

Of the rank and file members of the LCS it would be hard to show that they were either republican or monarchist, for or against the established church. Members of the society were expected to profess a belief in the need for universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments, but if they passed that test they might join, no doubt, for numerous reasons, of which conformity to a particular set of radical beliefs may not have been the most important. There was the desire to ‘improve’, by the programme of readings and discussion in which members were expected to participate: this was given by a number of members as a reason for joining. There was the opportunity to participate in organisational work, in committee-work, to occupy posts of quasi-civic responsibility. There seem to have been few LCS members who lived and worked in the City, as compared either with the composition of the movement for parliamentary reform in the early 1780s, or as compared with the number of members of the society from Westminster and the metropolitan parishes of Middlesex. This may have been because the LCS, whose divisions, tythings, and delegate-committees in some ways resembled the structures of the government of the City, could attract from non-city parishes men whose civic ambitions were frustrated by the closed vestries there. In the City, on the other hand, there was a wide array of opportunities open to artisans who wanted to play a public role, and, to that extent, less occasion for them to join the LCS.

Was there ever a serious threat from popular radicalism to the life of the king? I see no evidence of it. Radical activists knew that if one king was killed, another would take his place, with a mandate to suppress the popular reform movement: they could not expect to be the winners in any confrontation that followed.. The LCS, without whose participation no insurrection would have been possible, was deeply infiltrated by spies who found little evidence – though they made the most of what they did find – of any desire to use physical force, and none, except the odd loose or drunken remark, of any interest in killing the king. The society had fewer arms than were kept in the gunroom or decorated the walls of an average country house. The Loyal Lambeth Society, which the government attempted to represent as the armed wing of the society, attracted very little support – one meeting was attended by only three members, two of them spies – and anyway seems to have been more concerned to make a point about the right to bear arms than to mount what would have been a suicide-mission against a very well defended capital.

I have no doubt that many loyalists, and a few members of Pitt’s cabinet, had ‘real fears’ for the life of the king, but fears may be real without being well-founded. I see no evidence that the main actors in the prosecutions of 1794 – Pitt, Dundas, Sir John Scott (later Lord Eldon), the Duke of Portland – shared these regicidal alarms, though it was convenient for them to keep them alive. On several occasions men the government claimed were dangerous regicides were left to walk freely around London, wanted men whom the government did not, for one reason or another, want to arrest. The government did not pass the two acts to help protect the life of the king: the 1351 Treason Act already gave the state all the power it could ever need for that purpose. The point of the 1795 treason act was to confirm the precedents made in the 1794 trials, especially in the trial of Tooke, to the effect that it was as much high treason to imagine the figurative ‘death’ of that symbol of the king, his crown, as to imagine the real death of his real body – a judgement that gave crown lawyers much latitude to dream up ways in which it could be argued that the government or the constitution was in danger of ‘dying’. But because this controversial act was the confirmation of a precedent, the government did not need to use it: it could bring prosecutions for High Treason under the 1351 statute with the 1794 interpretation, and could appear to be exercising an admirable restraint by not invoking the new act.

The government certainly had real fears for the safety of the constitution; at least, it was certainly determined not to sanction universal manhood suffrage, and not to countenance the pursuit of constitutional change by extra-parliamentary means however peaceful. Granted they believed these things, it is of course not surprising or necessarily reprehensible that they chose to ‘crack down’ on the popular movement for reform. To the extent that my book represents Pitt and his coadjutors as villains, it is on account of the deliberate misrepresentations they propagated of the aims and numbers of the reform societies, the elaborate means by which they attempted to prevent the fair trial of those they charged with high treason, and their cynical insistence that the extraordinary interpretation they placed up the law of treason was entirely in the spirit of the precedents in flouted. ‘If the crime of treason be indeterminate,’ wrote Montesquieu, ‘this alone is sufficient to make the government degenerate into an arbitrary power’. In 1794-6 Pitt’s government was saved from being an arbitrary power only by four juries.

I think I must have misunderstood the parallel between Pitt’s repression – which as Stephen Poole has suggested probably involved far more than the 200 prosecutions identified by Clive Emsley – and McCarthy’s. It seems, however, to be saying that McCarthy’s ‘witch-hunt’ was justified because a few of his victims were eventually shown to have been genuine spies; and that therefore Pitt’s ‘terror’ of 1794 was also justified, because a few of the reformers charged with High Treason might eventually be revealed as the agents of a foreign state, though they haven’t been yet. I’m not sure where an argument like this stops, or what it could not be used to justify. It is an argument sufficient to make any government degenerate into an arbitrary power.