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Accession of George IV

The Cato Street Conspiracy - Disturbances in the North - The New Parliament - Death of Grattan - Henry Grattan on National Education.
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The reign of George IV. commences an era of social revolution in England, which has continued its silent working ever since with an influence constantly- deepening and expanding, affecting the destinies of the world throughout all time. Never did society make such rapid progress as during the period on which we are now entering. It has been impelled forward from various directions by mighty, simultaneous movements, for the most part as quiet in their action as they have been irresistible in their force. The great fundamental principles of government have been debated earnestly in the presence of the people, till the cause of freedom and of right has been triumphantly established by the suffrages of the nation. Religious equality, so far as it is consistent with the principles of the established church, which is still maintained as an element in the best and most successful constitution in the world, has become a fixed and essential principle of our national policy. Dissenters have been released from their galling disabilities, and have obtained equal political and civil rights with the rest of the community. Catholic emancipation has removed from the majority of the Irish people every remnant of the penal code, and placed them on the same footing with their protestant fellow-countrymen. The representation of the people in the imperial parliament has been reformed, after a protracted and violent struggle, verging upon revolution, and if our representative system does not yet fully answer the design of the constitution, and give complete effect to the enlightened popular will in the legislation and government of the country, principles have been admitted and measures adopted which guarantee that this consummation is only the work of time. The science of political economy - the ignorance of which in our legislators caused so much privation and suffering among the masses of the people, debarring them from the enjoyment of the blessings which the beneficent Author of our being has so bountifully provided for the human family - is now perfectly understood, and its main principles, so long vehemently discussed, and so fiercely resisted as ruinous to all the interests of the country, are now admitted by every- educated man as indisputable maxims of sound policy. The cause of popular education, which may be said to have come into existence within this period, has made extraordinary progress, dissipating the anti-social prejudice that the diffusion of knowledge among the masses of the people is dangerous to the commonwealth. Science, in its highest branches, and in its practical application, has been cultivated to an extent and with a success unprecedented in past ages, and has contributed to the vast and boundless development of national industry and wealth; effecting marvellous ' rapidity of locomotion and international communication; multiplying the resources of commerce in a constantly increasing ratio; breaking down the barriers to human progress in every country; carrying the benign influences of Christian civilisation into the most ancient of heathen empires, and the most alien of barbarous races; leading to the hope that at no very distant day the expectations of the philanthropist will be realised in the diffusion of general happiness throughout the whole human family, by the prevalence of knowledge, freedom, just government, and pure religion.

It is manifest, then, that the history of England - the centre of all those mighty civilising influences during the era commencing with the reign of George IV., when the nation, having been released from the toil and strain of war, and having secured its independence, devoted itself with alacrity and energy to the works of peace - must be fraught with the deepest interest, and the most valuable instruction to the masses of the people. To secure both these objects to the utmost of our ability is the task which we have set before us in the following pages.

George III. expired on the 29th of January, 1820. Although it was Sunday, both houses of parliament met according to the requisition of the statute, 6 Anne c. 7. Lord Eldon merely appeared on the woolsack; and, as soon as prayers were read, the house of peers was adjourned. The same day a council was held at Carlton House, when the usual ceremonies were observed, as upon the commencement of a new reign, although George IV. had been virtually king during the period of the regency. On this occasion the ministers delivered up the emblems of their different offices, and were all graciously re-appointed. Lord Eldon, in a letter to his daughter, congratulates himself on having been thus placed " in the very singular situation, that of a third chancellorship. " But lord Campbell remarks that he was probably not aware that one of his predecessors had been chancellor five times. His immediate successor had been four times chancellor, and lord Cottenham three times (Lives of the Lord Chancellors," vol. vii., p. 356). "It is amusing," says lord Campbell, "to observe how he enhances the delight he felt at the commencement of this third chancellorship by protestations that he was reluctantly induced again to accept the worthless bauble, lest, by declining it, he should be chargeable with ingratitude." The chancellor made similar protestations of reluctance and humility when George IV., grateful for his services in connection with the prosecution of the queen, pressed upon him accumulated honours; giving him, at the same time, two additional steps in the peerage, as viscount Encombe and earl of Eldon - honours which, he said, he had repeatedly declined to accept when offered by George III.

Parliament again met for a few days, but only to vote addresses of condolence and congratulation, as a dissolution had been determined on. The marquis of Lansdowne pointed out that there was not the usual reason for a dissolution which occurred upon a demise of the crown; but lord Eldon explained that, at common law, the parliament died with the sovereign in whose name it was called; and although, by the statute of William III., it could sit six: months longer, it was liable to be dissolved sooner; and constitutionally, it ought to be dissolved as soon as public business would allow; so that noble lords who started any business to delay the dissolution would be obstructing the- due exercise of the royal prerogative. He, as lord commissioner, therefore, concluded the session by delivering the royal speech, which deplored the loss of a sovereign, the common father of all his people, and praised the prudence and firmness with which the lords and commons, had counteracted the designs of the disaffected. It concluded with the following words: - "If any doubt had remained as to the nature of those principles by which the peace and happiness of the nation were so seriously menaced, or of the excesses to which they were likely to lead, the flagrant and sanguinary conspiracy which has- lately been detected must open the eyes of the most incredulous, and must vindicate to the whole world the justice and expediency of those measures to which you judged it necessary to resort in defence of the laws and constitution of the kingdom." The conspiracy referred to- has been called the " Cato Street Conspiracy", justly pronounced one of the most diabolical, and, at the same time, the most preposterous plot recorded in our annals. But nothing could be more unfair or more sophistical than the use made of it in the royal speech. The speech was delivered on the 28th of February, and the conspiracy was detected on the 23rd. The public mind was then filled with horror at the atrocity of its design, and the ministers tried to make the nation see in this enormous crime a justification of the policy of repression by which it was sought to counteract the effects of their own despotic proceedings, which had driven it to the verge of insurrection. At the same time, they endeavoured to cover the liberal cause with the odium attaching to a sanguinary plot, concocted by a few crazy fanatics, instigated by a man who afterwards betrayed them. The facts of this conspiracy were narrated in the last volume of this history, but as that volume may not be in the hands of all the readers of these pages, a brief résumé of the case, in this place, may not be unacceptable. The principal conspirators were one Thistlewood, who had been a subaltern officer in the army, and had been previously tried for a similar crime; Ings, a butcher; Tidd and Brunt, shoemakers; and Davidson, a man of colour. The first design was to assassinate the king. This was soon abandoned, and it was resolved to murder all his majesty's ministers, each in his own house, for which forty men were to be told off; and if any of them faltered in his mission, his own life was to be forfeited. Two guns stationed in Gray's Inn and six in the Artillery Ground were to be seized, with which the Mansion House and the Bank were to be attacked; London being, at the same time, set on fire in several places. The design was afterwards modified when Thistlewood learned that the whole cabinet were to dine at lord Harrowby's, in Grosvenor Square. He said to his fellow-conspirators, " As there has not been a dinner for so long, there will no doubt be fourteen or sixteen there. It will be a rare haul to murder them all together!"

A room was taken above a stable in Cato Street, where the conspirators assembled on the afternoon of the day appointed for the cabinet dinner. This room could be entered only by a ladder, which led up to a trap-door. Everything was in readiness: arms and ammunition, fireballs, to ignite a straw depot in the cavalry barracks, King Street, and a proclamation to be issued next day, announcing the new government. At six o'clock in the evening Thistlewood and twenty-four of his companions were arming themselves in the hay-loft by the light of two small candles. One of the party was to present 4a note for one of the ministers, while they were at dinner at lord Harrowby's. On the door being opened, all were to rush into the dining-room, and execute the bloody work, bringing forth, as proofs of their success and trophies, the heads of lords Sidmouth and Castlereagh.

Meanwhile the government had been informed, through Edwards, an accomplice, of all that was going on. Orders were given that the preparations for the dinner should go forward, as if nothing was known - the members of the cabinet having arranged to dine privately in Downing Street. When the hour arrived, a party of fourteen policemen proceeded to Cato Street. The first who ascended the trap-door was an officer named Smithers. He called upon the conspirators to surrender. They refused, when he rushed forward to seize Thistlewood, by whom he was run through the body, and he immediately fell. The lights were instantly extinguished, and a terrific struggle took place in the dark. Some flung themselves down through the trap-door; others got out through a window. At the critical moment a body of the foot-guards arrived, and arrested several of those who were trying to escape. Nine were taken prisoners; the rest, in the darkness and confusion, got off. Among these was Thistlewood, for whose apprehension a reward of one thousand pounds was offered, and he was taken prisoner next morning in his bed. Thistlewood, Ings, Tidd, Brunt, and Davidson were convicted of high treason, and were executed on the 1st of May: first hanged and then decapitated. The latter bloody process, a relic of barbarous ages, greatly horrified the immense concourse of spectators, through which ran a shuddering sensation like an electric shock. Five of the others were sentenced to transportation for life; and one received a free pardon. All the efforts that could be made to induce them to repent were vain. "In ten minutes," said Ings, as he ascended the scaffold "we shall know the great secret." They all behaved with I the greatest firmness, defending their conduct as not only justifiable, but meritorious and patriotic. Thistlewood, who was an educated man, made a speech before the passing of his sentence, in which he said that high treason had been committed against the people at Manchester,, who were indiscriminately massacred, and justice was I closed against the mutilated and the maimed; that " the prince, by the advice of his ministers, thanked the murderers, still reeking in the gore of their victims. Insurrection then became a public duty, and the blood of the victims should have been the watchword for vengeance on their murderers."

Lord Campbell, in his "Life of Eldon," observes, "I do not think that ministers deserved any censure for the manner in which they conducted themselves in this affair, unless that they somewhat unscrupulously yielded to the temptation of arguing that the plot was a justification of their recent coercive laws, and of" pretending to infer from this insane scheme that there was a revolutionary spirit generally prevailing in the country." The attempt to justify those laws by such an event was indeed absurd. If they had been effective, they would have prevented the plot. It might be more reasonably argued that it was the severity of those laws, and the harshness with which they were executed, that drove ignorant and weak-minded men to desperation. At any rate, just indignation was excited against the government for making a speech from the throne the instrument of fixing so foul a stigma upon the character of the mass of the English people, groaning under oppression, associating them with a band of assassins with which they had no connection, and with which, but for the iniquitous proceedings of the government, they would have no sympathy.

Lord Eldon thus referred to his escape in a letter to a lady of his family: - "For the past, thankfulness and gratitude, I trust, will relieve all other feelings. As to the future, I trust there is something to be hoped for of protection in human caution, and that we may all fully depend upon that Providence to which we are so largely indebted." The ministers whose lives had been saved by the frustration of this plot returned thanks publicly in St. Paul's, a few days after.

Notwithstanding the vigilance of the executive, and its Sternly repressive policy, dangerous agitation had prevailed during the winter in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, and Glasgow. Nothing less than a general insurrection was contemplated. It was postponed from time to time, and at length fixed to take place on the 2nd of April. A large military force, however, stationed in the disturbed districts, prevented any serious outbreak in the north of England: in Scotland the danger appeared greater. On Sunday morning, the 2nd of April, a treasonable proclamation was found posted over all the streets of Glasgow, Paisley, and Stirling, and the neighbouring towns. There was no name to the proclamation, nor did any one know the source from which it emanated. It purported to come from a provisional government, calling on the people to cease working, close their shops, and prepare for a revolution. The army were invoked to imitate the glorious example of the Spanish troops. No royal proclamation was ever more implicitly obeyed. Work everywhere ceased; the factories were deserted; the sounds of industry were hushed in the busiest districts; the streets were thronged with people, watching with intense interest for the march of revolution from the south. Manifestly, the excited masses only wanted a military leader and arms to enrol themselves under the standard of revolution. But Scotland was equal to the emergency. The yeomanry and the volunteer corps, which had been recently formed, came forward for the defence of the throne and the constitution with the greatest promptitude and alacrity. In a few days an army of five thousand men, including two thousand horse, were assembled in Glasgow. This great demonstration of volunteer strength extinguished the hopes of the insurgents. The expected movement in England did not take place: the appointed signal of stopping the London mail was looked for in vain. Thus confronted and discouraged, the leaders of the movement abandoned their enterprise in despair, the people gradually resumed their avocations, and this outbreak, which at first had appeared so threatening, was exterminated with a sacrifice of only two men executed at Stirling, one at Glasgow, and seven or eight transported. " But," says Sir Archibald Alison, "the rebellious spirit of the manufacturing districts was suppressed in a far more effectual and better way, which neither caused blood to flow nor a tear to fall. They were morally slaughtered; the strength of their opponents and their own weakness were evinced in an unmistakeable manner. The ancient spirit and loyalty of the Scotch were shown in the most striking manner on this occasion: the flower of the youth in all the counties ranged themselves in arms around the standard of their country; and Sir Walter Scott, whose chivalrous spirit was strongly roused by these exciting events, boasted in the pride of his heart, at a public dinner of eight hundred gentlemen in Edinburgh, presided over by the marquis of Huntly, that there were gentlemen enough assembled to have raised fifty thousand men in arms." Sir Archibald adds, " that the Edinburgh squadron at that time, which was the successor of that in which Sir Walter Scott had served and has immortalised, contained several young men destined to distinguished eminence; among others, the present lord justice clerk, Hope, Mr. Patrick Tytler, the historian of Scotland, Mr. Lockhart, since editor of the ' Quarterly Review,' and Mr. Francis Grant, since so eminent as a painter, in London."

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