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The Reign of George III. - (Concluded.) page 14


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We must return from victory abroad to discontent at home. On the 28th of January the prince regent proceeded to open the fifth session of parliament. In his speech he expressed indignation at " the attempts which had been made to take advantage of the distresses of the country for the purpose of exciting a spirit of sedition and violence; " and he declared himself determined to put down these attempts by stern measures. The seconder of the address in the commons had the good sense to believe that the demagogues and their acts would die of themselves. Certainly, if the demagogues had no cause on which to base their efforts, those efforts must have proved fruitless; and the wisdom of government consisted in seriously inquiring whether there were such causes. To attempt to insure peace by smothering distress is the old remedy of tyrants, and is like heaping fuel on fire to put it out. Whilst this debate was proceeding, a message arrived from the lords to announce that the regent, on his return from the house, had beeil insulted, and some missile thrown through the windows of his carriage. The house agreed upon an address to the regent on this event, and then adjourned.

The next day the debate was resumed. It appeared that the prince had been hooted, and a stone, or something of the kind, flung through the window of the carriage. The ministerial party endeavoured to raise the occurrence into an attempt on the prince's life; the opposition hinted, as the expression of public disgust with the tone which government was assuming towards the distresses of the people, and called zealously for stringent reductions of expense, and they moved an amendment to that effect. But the government had yet much to learn on this head; and lord Sidmouth announced that the prince regent in three days would send down a message on the disaffection of large masses of the people. It would have been wise to have added to this measure a recommendation of serious inquiry into the causes of this disaffection, for disaffection towards a government rarely exists without a sufficient cause; but the government had carried on matters so easily whilst they had nothing to do but to vote large sums of money for foreign war, and had been so much in co-operation with arbitrary monarchs, that they had acquired too much of the same spirit; and they now set about to put down the people of England as they, by the people of England, had put down Buonaparte. It was their plan to create alarm, and, under the influence of that alarm, to pass severe measures for the crippling of the constitution and the suppression of all complaints of political evil.

In the debate on this subject, George Canning, who on many occasions had shown himself capable of better things, breathed the very language of toryism. He declared the representation of parliament perfect, and treated the most moderate proposals for reform as only emanations from the mad theories of the Spenceans. The message of the prince regent came down on the 3rd of February, ordering certain papers to be laid before the house, "concerning certain practices, meetings, and combinations in the metropolis, and in différent parts of the kingdom, evidently calculated to endanger the public tranquillity, to donate the affections of his majesty's subjects from his majesty's person and government, and to bring into hatred and contempt the whole system of our laws and institutions." Lord Sid- mouth endeavoured to guard the house of peers against the belief that the insult to the regent had any share in the origination of this message, but the house of lords, in its address, directly charged this event as an additional proof of the public disaffection. So far as the prince regent was concerned, Machiavelli long before had described his mental condition, in that of "princes who, neglecting all virtuous actions, began to believe that they were exalted for no other purpose than to discriminate themselves from their subjects by their pomp, luxury, and all other effeminate qualities, by which means they fell into the hatred of their people, and, by consequence, that fear increasing, they began to meditate revenge." Unfortunately, the regent had two houses of parliament only too much disposed to make themselves the instruments of such vengeance. The message was referred to a secret committee in each house, and on the 18th and 19th of February they respectively made their reports. Both went at great length into the affair of the Spa Fields meeting, and the proceedings and designs of the Spenceans were made to represent the designs of the working classes all over the kingdom; that such men as Thistlewood, who not long after suffered for his justly odious conduct, were conspicuous among the Spenceans, and that there had been an affray in Spa Fields were circumstances to give ample colouring to the reports of these committees. That of the lords stated - " It appears clear that the object is, by means of societies, or clubs, established, or to be established, in all parts of Great Britain, under pretence of parliamentary reform, to infest the minds of all classes of the community, and particularly of those whose situation most exposes them to such impressions, with a spirit of discontent and disaffection, of insubordination, and contempt of all law, religion, and morality; and to hold out to them the plunder of all property as the main object of their efforts, and the restoration of their natural rights; and no endeavours are omitted to prepare them to take up arms, on the first signal, for accomplishing their designs."

The country societies were pointed out "as principally to be found in, and in the neighbourhood of Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham, Mansfield, Derby, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Blackburn, Manchester, Birmingham, Norwich, Glasgow, and its vicinity; but," it added, "they extend, and are spreading in some parts of the country, to almost every village." The report of the commons went much over the same ground, dwelling particularly on the Hampden clubs, as avowed engines of revolution. It dwelt on the acts and activity of the leaders, of the numbers which they had seduced and were seducing, the oaths which bound them together, the means prepared for the forcible attainment of their objects, which were the overthrow of all rights of property and all the national institutions, to introduce a reign of general confusion, plunder, and anarchy.

Now, though in some obscure and ignorant parts of the country there were clubs which contemplated the foolish idea of seizing on neighbouring properties, the committees must have been very ill informed to have drawn any such conclusion as to the Hampden clubs, which were organised for parliamentary reform, under the auspices of Sir Francis Burdett, major Cartwright, lord Cochrane, Cobbett, and others. Most of these persons had large properties to be sacrificed by the propagation of any such principles, and the great topics of Cobbett's " Register," the organ through which he communicated with the people, were the necessity of refraining from all violence, and of rising into influence by purely political co-operation. But these reports answered the purposes of the government, and they proceeded to introduce, and succeeded in passing four acts for the suppression of popular opinion. The first was to provide severe punishment for all attempts to seduce the soldiers or sailors from their allegiance; the second to give further safeguards to the person of the sovereign, but did not include the most effectual of all - that of making him beloved; the third was to prevent seditious meetings, and gave great power to the magistrates and police to interfere with any meeting for the most mild reforms; the fourth was the old measure of suspension of the habeas corpus act, which armed the magistrates with the fearful authority to arrest and imprison at pleasure, without being compelled to bring the accused to trial. The last of these acts was not passed till the 29th of March, and it was to continue in force only till the 1st of July. But in the meantime events took place which occasioned its renewal.

Within a few days after the first passing of this act - that is, in the first week of March - a body of weavers, said by the government to amount to ten thousand men, but by a more competent authority, Samuel Bamford, the author of the " Life of a Radical," not to have exceeded four or five thousand, met in St. Peter's Field, at Manchester, and commenced a march southward. The intention was to proceed to London, to present to the prince regent, in person, a petition describing their distress. Bamford had been consulted, and had condemned the project as wild, and likely to bring down nothing but trouble on the petitioners. He believed that they were instigated by spies sent out by government, in order to find an opportunity of justifying their arbitrary reassures. Suspicious persons had been trying him. But the poor, deluded people assembled, " many of them," says Bamford, " having blankets, rugs, or large coats rolled up, and tied knapsack-like on their backs. Some had papers, supposed to be petitions, rolled up, and some had stout walking-sticks." From their blankets, they afterwards acquired the name of Blanketeers. The magistrates appeared and read the riot act, and dispersed the multitude by soldiers and constables; but three or four hundred fled in the direction of their intended route, and continued their march, pursued by a body of yeomanry. By the time that they reached Macclesfield, at nine o'clock at night, they amounted to only one hundred and eighty; yet many of them persisted in proceeding, but they continually melted away, from hunger and from the misery of lying out in the fields on March nights. By the time that they reached Leek they were reduced to twenty, and six only were known to pass over the bridge at Ashbourn.

This was an attempt as constitutional as it was ignorantly and hopelessly planned by suffering people; but more criminal speculations were on foot. A second report of the lords' secret committee, recommending the renewal of the suspension of the habeas corpus act, stated that a general insurrection was planned to take place at Manchester, on the 30th of Mardi - to seize the magistrates, to liberate the prisoners, burn the soldiers in their barracks, and set fire to a number of factories; and that such proposals were really in agitation is confirmed by Bamford, and other of the radical leaders. The report says that the design was discovered by the vigilance of the magistrates, a few days before its intended taking place; but it is far more probable that the magistrates had received some intimations of what was in progress from those who had misguided the ignorant multitude. Bamford tells us that both he and his friends had been applied to to engage in the design, but they had condemned it as the work of incendiaries, who had availed themselves of the resentment of the Blanketeers at their treatment, to instigate them to a dreadful revenge. The truth was, a number of spies in the pay of government, with the notorious Oliver at their head, were traversing the manufacturing districts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire, to stimulate the suffering population into open insurrection, that they might be crushed by the military. Bamford and the more enlightened workmen at once saw through the snare, and not only repulsed the tempters, but warned their fellows against their arts. The failure of the first attempt, however, did not put an end to the diabolical attempt on the part of the spies. They recommended the most secret meetings for the purpose; that another night attack should be prepared for Manchester, and that ministers should be assassinated. Such proposals were again made to Bamford and his friends, but they not only indignantly repelled them, but sought safety for their own persons in concealment, for there were now continual seizures of leading reformers made.

Disappointed in this quarter, the odious race of incendiary spies of government tried their arts, and succeeded in duping some individuals in Yorkshire, and many more in Derbyshire. That the principal government spy, Oliver, was busily engaged in this work of stirring up the ignorant and suffering population to open insurrection from the 17th of April to the 7th of June, when such an outbreak took place in Derbyshire, we have the most complete evidence. Immediately after this unhappy outbreak, on the 10th of June, we have Mr. Ponsonby making remarkable statements. It was on the 23rd of June, on the debate for renewing the suspension of the habeas corpus act, that he made them. He had been a member of the secret committee, but had strongly dissented from the opinions of the majority of the committee as to the necessity of the renewal of the suspension. He remarked that Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire had for some years been agitated by violent prejudices against the use of machinery, and that men assembling under the name of Luddites, or followers of Ned Ludd, had repeatedly committed nocturnal acts of such destruction. These proceedings, he properly stated, had no political character whatever, as was fully shown on the trials of eight of the Luddites, at the spring assizes at Leicester, of whom six were convicted of such outrages at Loughborough, and hanged. But it pointed out to government that the materials of insurrection existed in the Midland Counties, if they were duly excited. And here the arch instigator comes to light! This Mr. Oliver had been examined before the secret committee, and the account which he gave of his proceedings was this: he represented that a man, calling himself a delegate, had come up to London to seek the sympathy and co-operation of the London agitators; that this man had received no encouragement from the reformers, but had met with two persons ready to go down with him into the Midland Counties, and to these three Oliver had joined himself as a fourth delegate. This is Mr. Ponsonby's statement: " Before they proceeded on their journey, Oliver was in communication with the home office, but received no instructions to compromise the safety of any one, by tempting them with practices which he afterwards exposed. The co-delegates fully relied on Oliver; the country delegate introduced him to all his friends as a second self. Oliver remained amongst these people from the 17th of April to the 27th of May, everywhere received as the London delegate. He was examined before the secret committee, and told them he was very shy of giving information. What he said was, that London was ready to rise, and only wished to know what assistance could be derived from the country. His friend the country delegate gave effect to this information, by telling his brethren the country delegates that seventy-five thousand individuals could be relied on in the eastern part of the capital, and seventy-five thousand in the western."

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Pictures for The Reign of George III. - (Concluded.) page 14

Elba
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