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The Reign of George III. - (Concluded.) page 25

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The approbation of the regent and cabinet was all that the Manchester magistrates were destined to find. We have, indeed, been surprised to read, in a modern historian of generally liberal opinions, this observation, that " however grievous an error in judgment they may have committed, it does not appear that the Manchester magistrates can be made out to have done anything absolutely illegal." But it does not appear that, before proceeding to disperse this meeting by an armed force, they even read the Riot Act, without which no such dispersion can be deemed legal or justifiable. True, they had refused their sanction to the meeting, and could have proceeded to arrest the leaders in the movement either before the crowds reached the place of meeting, or afterwards. The latter course had been adopted by the magistrates of Stockport in regard to Sir Charles Wolseley and Dr. Harrison, and that with all necessary effect, and with the avoidance of chance of riot or injury to any one.

In the country at large the most decided condemnation of them prevailed, and they were made to perceive that there is a tribunal at which the acts of magistrates will be tried, where neither prince nor minister can protect them. The reformers of all ranks throughout the kingdom took every means of expressing their sense of the illegality and inhumanity of the deed. Sir Francis Burdett, immediately on reading the account in the newspapers, expressed his abhorrence of it, in the most unsparing terms, in a letter to the electors of Westminster, which he published. For this he was served with an ex officio information for libel by the attorney -general.

Great meetings were held in various towns and counties to condemn the whole proceedings, and addresses were sent up and presented to the prince regent, which were, in fact, censures of his own conduct, and were not, therefore, received in a pleasant manner. To one from the common council of London, he replied that he received it with regret, and that those who drew it up knew little or nothing of the circumstances which preceded or attended the Manchester meeting. The fact was, that they knew these a great deal better than he did. Similar addresses were sent up from Westminster, York, Norwich, Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, and many other towns. A meeting of the county of York was calculated at twenty thousand persons, and amongst them was the earl Fitzwilliam, lord-lieutenant of the West Riding, who had also signed the requisition to the high-sheriff. For this conduct he was summarily dismissed from his lord-lieutenancy. Scarcely less offence was given by the duke of Hamilton, lord-lieutenant of the county of Lanark, who sent a subscription of fifty pounds to the committee for the relief of the Manchester sufferers, expressing, at the same time, his severe censure of the outrage committed on the 16th of August. Of course, the ministerial party in town and country did all in their power to counteract this strong and general expression of disapprobation. In Scotland and the north of England the squirearchy got up associations for raising troops of yeomanry, as in direct approval of the savage conduct of the Manchester yeomanry. In the immediate neighbourhood of the scene of outrage, the conflict of opinion between the two parties ran high. The friends of the people indicted numbers of the Manchester yeomanry for cutting and maiming in St. Peter's Field, with intent to kill; but these bills were thrown out by the grand jury at the Lancaster assizes. An inquest at Oldham, on the body of one of the men killed, was also a scene of a fierce and regular conflict for nine days, and was put an end to by an order from the court of King's Bench. But even men who were accustomed to support ministers generally were startled by their conduct on this occasion. Mr. Ward, afterwards lord Dudley and Ward, in one of his letters written from Paris at the time, and since published, says: - " What do reasonable people think of the Manchester business? I am inclined to suspect that the magistrates were in too great a hurry, and that their loyal zeal, and the nova gloria in armis tempted the yeomanry to too liberal a use of the sabre - in short, that their conduct has given some colour of reason to the complaints and anger of the jacobins. The approbation of government was probably given as the supposed price of Support from the tories in that part of the country." But the worst feature of the case was that the hussars appear to have used their swords as freely as the raw yeomanry.

That the policy of ministers was as foolish as it was un- feeling was very soon manifest. The suffering working classes were exasperated almost to frenzy by this attempt to put them down by the edge of the sword. Undauntedly they continued to meet in all quarters, and expressed in the strangest language their detestation of the late outrage, and of the sanction of it by the regent and his ministers. The magistrates everywhere were alarmed at the vehemence of the excitement produced amongst the working classes by this event. They wrote to the government, representing the country as on the eve of a violent convulsion, and ministers were led to believe that there was to be a simultaneous rising on the 1st of November. But the popular meetings everywhere met and dispersed without any interruption, except at Paisley and Glasgow, where the magistrates were too much of the temper of the magistrates of Manchester, and called out the troops to disperse the gatherings. Everywhere else the Manchester occurrence seemed to have taught a great lesson to the authorities.

But this better teaching had not reached ministers. They became more obstinate in their notions of repression, thus only preparing for themselves more odium and more trouble. The great law lords were particularly exasperated at the bold aspect and language of the people, and did their best to urge on the only too facile ministers to enactments of stronger rigour. Lord Redesdale wrote to lord Sidmouth declaring that " every meeting for radical reform was not merely a seditious attempt to undermine the existing constitution of government, by bringing it into hatred and contempt, but was an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against that constitution of government, including the king as its head." It is scarcely credible to us, at the present day, that language so ridiculous could have been used by any man who had studied the constitution of England, and who knew that there was such a thing as the Bill of Rights, as these law lords must have done. But it shows how much law may exist in a learned head with how very little sound sense. Poor old lord Eldon was still more incensed or alarmed, and protested that the state of our law was such that it did not meet the present case, which was very true, and equally true that the constitution of 1688 never in- tended that there should be such law. But lord Eldon was all impatient for the meeting of parliament that such laws might be passed, persuaded, he Said, as much as he was of his own existence, that, if parliament did not meet forthwith, there would be nothing for it but to let those meetings take place, reading the riot act, if there were any riot at any of them. Just so; that was precisely what a wise government would have done - let the meetings assemble and disperse, as they were doing everywhere, after a constitutional expression of their feeling, without any shadow of a riot or disturbance of any kind.

But the government was, at that juncture, very far from being a wise government. Parliament was called together on the 23rd of November, and opened by the prince regent in person. In his speech he spoke of the unsettled state of the country, and recommended measures of repression. The addresses were in the same tone, and they were commented upon with great warmth by the opposition, and amendments moved. Zealous debates took place in both houses, especially in the commons, where the discussion continued two evenings, and till five o'clock on the third morning. The addresses, however, were carried in the lords by one hundred and fifty-nine to thirty-four, and in the commons by three hundred and eighty-one to one hundred and fifty. The prince regent sent down a mass of papers to both houses relating to the condition of the disturbed districts, and a host of bills, founded on these, were introduced. In the lords, on the 29th of November, the lord chancellor Eldon introduced one in keeping with his alarms, namely, " An Act to prevent delay in the admistration of justice in cases of misdemeanour." This was followed by three others, introduced by lord Sidmouth; one to prevent the training of persons to the use of arms, and to the practice of military evolutions and exercise; another to prevent and punish blasphemous and pernicious libels. Amongst others, Hone was again at work, and ridiculing the despotically spirited ministers in his " Political House that Jack Built." The third was to authorise justices of the peace, in certain disturbed counties, to seize and detain arms collected and kept for purposes dangerous to the public peace. These were to continue in force till 1822. Not thinking he had yet done enough, on the 17th of December lord Sidmouth brought into the peers another act, more effectually to prevent seditious meetings and assemblies, which he proposed should continue in force five years. In the commons, in addition to all this, on the 3rd, lord Castlereagh had introduced a bill for imposing stamp duties, and other regulations on newspapers, to prevent blasphemous and seditious libels, as if Sidmouth's bill on that subject had not fettered the press sufficiently. All these acts were passed, notwithstanding the strongest remonstrances by the opposition as so many infringements of the Constitution, and they became known as Sidmouth's and Castlereagh's Five Acts, and still stand in the public memory as proceedings bearing the strongest resemblance to the acts of James II. of any which have insulted the people of England since.

These enactments, unaccompanied by any others, the object of which was to relieve the distresses of the people, only tended still more to exasperate the feelings of the working classes. In fact, nothing had been so obvious as the effect of the proceedings of government of late in disturbing that peace which they professed themselves so desirous to preserve. They, in truth, were the real agitators. For some time before the outrage at Manchester, the spirit of the people in the manufacturing districts had been more quiet. They were not the more contented, but they were comparatively inactive, because they found so stern a résistance to their Claims on the part of government, and paused, as it were, in a Stupor of despair. The fact that they had had spies and instigators sent amongst them by the government had destroyed all confidence in both ministers and the ruling prince. They were become suspicious of any calls to strive for their rights, lest they should prove a repetition of such insidious temptations. They had, moreover, discovered, what is too commonly the case in such circumstances, that many of their leaders were rather seekers of personal popularity than of the public good; and altogether they were dispirited, and disposed to wait some better turn of affairs at some indefinite time. In many places their meetings had fallen off, and their funds had not been kept up, because they deemed the present struggle useless. The drilling for the great Manchester meeting might probably have been the last public demonstration for years, but the result of that meeting - the letting loose the soldiery upon the people - at once broke the spell of uneasy repose, and roused all the elements of political life into action. The passing of the six acts only made the popular resentment the deeper, and whilst this tended to render the more prudent reformers cautious, it stimulated the lowest and most unprincipled of them to actual and deadly conspiracy. The general conspiracy believed in by ministers never existed, but a conspiracy was actually on foot in London, which again was found to have been, if not originally excited, yet actively stimulated, by the agents of government. The details of this transaction, and of the concluding scene of the Manchester outrage, namely, the trial of Hunt and his associates, necessarily lead us about two months beyond the death of George III., which took place on the 29th of January, 1820. To that event we shall return on completing these transactions.

In November, 1819, whilst government was framing their six acts, the more completely to coerce the people, they were again sending amongst them incendiaries to urge them to an open breach of the laws, in order to furnish justifications for their despotic policy. The leading miscreant of this class was a man named Edwards, who kept a small shop at Eton for the sale of plaster casts. Another was a hackney- coach driver, named Hidon. Besides these, Oliver, the spy, was again in motion, and through him emissaries were sent down into his old field of action, the midland and northern manufacturing counties. Some of these appeared at Middleton, the place of Bamford's abode, but he was in prison awaiting his trial with Hunt and the rest, and the people threatened were too cautious to listen to these agents of government. But in London these agents found more combustible materials, and succeeded in leading into the snare some who had been long ready for any folly or crime. Chief amongst these was Thistlewood, who had been a lieutenant in the army, a man who had, or conceived that he had, suffered injustice at the hands of ministers, and who had wrought up his temper to the perpetration of some desperate deed. Bamford when in London, in 1816, had found Thistlewood mixed up with the Spenceans, and to be met with any day at their places of resort - the Cock, in Grafton-street, the Mulberry Tree, in Moorfields, the Nag's Head, Carnaby-market, No. 8, Lumber-street, Borough, and a public-house in Spa- fields, called Merlin's Cave. At these places they might be found, amidst clouds of tobacco-smoke and the fumes of beer, discussing remedies for the miserable condition of the people. At the latter place, Thistlewood was often to be found with the Watsons, Preston, and Castle, who was employed to betray them. From this spot they issued for their mad attempt on the Tower, on the 2nd of December of that year. Thistlewood was one of those seized on that occasion, but was acquitted on his trial. Not warned by this, he no sooner got abroad than he sent a challenge to lord Sidmouth, for which he was arrested, and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. He issued from gaol still more embittered against Sidmouth and his colleagues, and resolved on striking some mortal blow at them. He did not lack comrades of a like fiery and abandoned stamp, and they determined on a scheme for cutting off the whole cabinet together. The detestable deed was to be perpetrated in the autumn of 1819, a time when the public mind, especially that of the working classes, was so embittered against the government. They did not, however, succeed in their intentions, and it was at this crisis of unwilling delay that the man Edwards became privy to their plans. In November he carried the important, and, as he hoped, to him profitable secret to Sir Herbert Taylor, who was attached to the establishment of the king at Windsor, and by him he was introduced to lord Sidmouth. This minister and his colleagues, with that fondness for the employment of spies, and for fomenting instead of nipping in the bud sedition, immediately engaged Edwards, on good pay, to lead forward the conspirators into overt action. It was not enough for them that, by adding another witness or two to Edwards, they would be able to produce the most complete proof of the treason of these men - they rather luxuriated in the nursing of this plot, and thus ripening it into something bloody and horrible; and in this they succeeded.

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