Continuing the radical tradition
‘The poor man has an equal right, but more need to have a representative in Parliament than a rich one’ John Cartwright, Give Us Our Rights! 1782
As early as March 1776 the MP John Wilkes had addressed Parliament on the need for reform.
In what he referred to as the ‘great and growing evil’, Wilkes spoke of the injustice of an outdated system which saw Cornwall return almost as many MPs as Scotland, and the ‘populous trading towns’ like Manchester have no representation.
He also highlighted the rotten boroughs, those historical constituencies which had seen their populations decline to the point where just a few voters elected two MPs to Parliament.
1776 also saw the publication of Take Your Choice by Major John Cartwright. Cartwright argued for universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts and a secret ballot.
At this time only 10 percent of adult males were eligible to vote. Under the Septennial Act of 1716 elections took place every seven years and the voting process was prone to bribery and corruption.
Cartwright also proposed the registration of voters, a measure which would not be introduced until the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.
The radicals supported the ideals behind the American and French Revolutions and held them up as examples of a better system of government.
One of the most influential of these radical reformers was Thomas Paine. In his book Rights of Man published in two parts in 1791 and 1792, Paine argued that the vote was a ‘natural right’ of every man.
Parliament was corrupt as it did not directly represent the people and was under the control of a wealthy minority which had inherited their land and titles.
The radicals also established societies to debate and promote their ideas of parliamentary reform.
In 1780 John Cartwright set up the Society for the Promotion of Constitutional Information. In January 1792 the Scottish shoemaker Thomas Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society. It included amongst its members the tailor Francis Place, who went on to help William Lovett draft The People’s Charter.
Further Corresponding Societies were established across the country, and were particularly popular in the industrial North.
However the revolutionary principles which had inspired the radicals caused panic and distrust amongst the conservative establishment.
As the French Revolution grew more violent the reform societies were looked upon with suspicion and their members accused of being English Jacobins or republicans.
The Government, fearful of revolution, launched a crackdown on the reformers. In 1795 the ‘Gagging Acts’ were passed in an effort to supress the activities of the societies. In 1799 legislation was passed banning the reform societies altogether, the London Corresponding Society being mentioned by name.
1815 brought an end to the war with France. Britain entered a period of economic depression. High unemployment, low wages and rising food prices led to widespread discontent.
Demands for reform were renewed. The radicals argued that the lives of the working classes would only improve once they had gained their full political rights.
New radical organisations were established, such as the Hampden Clubs. These were debating societies founded by John Cartwright and named for John Hampden, Parliamentarian and opponent of King Charles I.
The radical press flourished with cheap publications such as William Cobbett’s Political Register, Thomas Wooler’s Black Dwarf and Richard Carlile’s Sherwin’s Political Register aimed specifically at the working classes.
Not only did these popularise the reformist cause, they also helped to further develop the growing political awareness amongst the working classes.
Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government however, viewed the discontent and the growth of political radicalism as a threat. They took repressive measures to try and curtail the reformers.
Lord Castlereagh accused the Hampden Clubs and their like of communicating ‘revolutionary principles’. On the 24 February 1817 he introduced a Bill for ‘more effectually preventing seditious meetings and assemblies’.
On the same day in the Lords during a debate on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth warned that the radicals had ‘parliamentary reform in their mouths, but rebellion and revolution in their hearts’.
Despite these repressive measures the reform movement continued to grow. Open-air mass meetings became popular.
Upwards of 60,000 people gathered to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field Manchester, on the 16 August 1819.
It became known as the Peterloo Massacre after the local magistrates sent in the Manchester Yeomanry and 15th Hussars to arrest Hunt and break up the meeting, killing at least eleven people and injuring over 600 more in the process.
The attack on the unarmed and peaceful crowd brought widespread condemnation and did much for the radical cause.
The Tory Government responded with strong measures to supress the reformist movement. Key reformers were imprisoned, leaving the movement with no effective leadership. New legislation, the Six Acts, was brought in.
These put restrictions on public meetings and strengthened the seditious libel laws. The Government also tried to silence the radical press by increasing the stamp duty on newspapers and making them too expensive for their working class readership.
This would lead to the War of the Unstamped which had a strong influence on the rise of Chartism.