By the early 1790s, it was blindingly obvious to liberal-minded thinkers that Britain's corrupt electoral system was long overdue for reform. Unless you were a member of the governing elite, of course - the rich had inherited the earth, and their sons were destined to rule over the middle and lower classes.
The Radicals included some prominent Whigs like Charles James Fox and Sir Francis Burdett. They wanted the abolition of rotten boroughs, the introduction of annual parliaments, and a more representative franchise. Reformers harked back to the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which they believed enshrined men’s civil liberties and rights. They looked back to a long-lost Saxon golden age in which all men had the vote. (On the other hand, the government asserted that there was no historical precedent for universal suffrage).
Major John Cartwright (1740–1824) was convinced that ‘many of the political evils of the day’ emanated from ‘ignorance of the principles of the constitution’. This former naval officer, a neat, upright gentleman, had served with distinction until the American War of Independence, but resigned in disgust over what he perceived as Britain's unjust treatment of the colonists.
|Charles James Fox.|
Cartwright, a prolific writer and campaigner, believed that petitioning parliament was the only way to achieve radical reform. The Major was a founder member of the Society of Constitutional Information in 1780, along with John Horne Tooke and others. Even Pitt the Younger, then the great white hope of the reform movement, was a member – ironic considering his later treatment of the Radicals.
In the 1790s, Thomas Paine’s revolutionary ideas were taken up by the Society of Constitutional Information and by the ‘corresponding societies’. These societies wrote to one another about parliamentary reform and the rights of man, and spread these ideas widely in Britain. One group, the United Englishmen, expressed the views of many freethinkers in its ‘Declaration, Resolutions and Constitution’: ‘The House of Commons...is now thoroughly corrupted, and from being the representative of a great and free People, is become a junto of Placemen, Pensioners and Court Dependents...The only effectual remedy...is a radical Reform of the Representation of the People in Parliament’ (PC/1/42/144, 1798).
Corresponding societies were formed in London, Manchester, Leeds,
Nottingham, Norwich and Sheffield. The Sheffield Society for
Constitutional Information had nearly two thousand members. The Society
resolved that Paine should be thanked ‘for the affectionate concern he has
shown in his second work on Behalf of the Poor, the Infant and the Aged; who
notwithstanding the opulence which blesses other parts of the community, are by
the grievous weight of Taxes, rendered the miserable victims of Poverty and
wretchedness’. (Resolutions of the SSCI, 14 March 1792, Sheffield Archives, MD
|Matthew Campbell Browne.|
The government's spies kept close watch on the corresponding societies. Although most of the societies' members were peaceful, there were a select few with revolutionary intentions, as we shall see.
Noted Radicals: John Wilkes, John Horne Tooke, Sir Francis Burdett (5th Baronet), William Cobbett and Henry Hunt. History of England, Henry Fisher, Son, & Co., 1828. Author’s collection.
Charles James Fox, Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale, T.N. Foulis, 1910. Author’s collection.
‘Mad Tom, or the Man of Rights’. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3847.
Citizen Matthew Campbell Browne, ‘Delegate from the Sheffield & Leeds Constitutional Societies to the British Convention’ at Edinburgh in 1794. Engraving by John Kay, 1794. Hugh Paton (ed.), A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by the late John Kay, Vol. 2, (Adam and Charles Black, 1877). Author’s collection.