The Constitution of England is The Business of Every Englishman

To William Cobbett, unlike the Government, ‘the bitterest foes of freedom in England have been, and are, the Methodists’. It was one of his more dogmatic Statements but it contained an element of truth. On the one hand Methodism had fostered the revolutionary spirit which the loyalists rightly saw as one of the root causes of the discontent in the manufacturing districts, Lancashire in particular. On the other hand, Methodism’s belief that the state is ordained of God counterbalanced the spirit it had fostered. So while Dissent equals sedition was one cry, it was also said throughout the period 1816-1820 that even in Manchester the Methodists remained loyal.

William Cobbett was not present at Peterloo. He was not even in England in 1819 but as much as any single man, as opposed to any single creed (i.e., Methodism which he so much disliked) he helped shape the August day. Cobbett was born of humble stock in Farnham, Surrey, in 1763. He grew up with a deep respect for, love of and pride in the old rural ways, the traditions of sturdy English independence, and, native intelligence. But he also possessed an aggressive, curious, seeking mind and at the age of twenty he ran away from the countryside he loved so much and later enshrined in all his writings. He was successively London clerk and regular soldier. By 1792 he had clashed with army authority—though he obtained a legal discharge—and emigrated to the United States. In the land of the free he found his métier—journalism. However, by 1800 he was back in England, having clashed with American authority;

At this period he was still a staunch upholder of the status quo and in 1802 he founded the Political Register, a weekly paper supporting the current Tory Government of Henry Addington. Even as an ally Cobbett was not an unreserved joy. There was his natural aggressiveness. As he himself said, ‘I never was of an accommodating disposition in my life’. There was his genuine hatred of injustice. It was these two qualities that had thus far led to his defiance of authority. Slowly over the years they ‘led him along the road to radicalism, though to the end of his’ days he remained the most conservative radical of all time.

He first fell foul of the Government in 1810 when he attacked the brutal flogging of British troops in East Anglia by German mercenaries. The Government reacted with its ‘usual weapon, a trial for seditious libel. Cobbett was found guilty, fined £1,000 and sent to Newgate for two years. While he was there the Luddite Riots erupted. It was they that first turned his attention northwards, and roused Cobbett’s most vital quality; a feel for the pulse of England, an almost mystical identification- with the soul of his native land. Once his attention was drawn to the North, Cobbett appreciated ‘that the ‘spirit’ in the manufacturing districts, about which the Government wailed so constantly, was a new force that would repay sympathetic, rather than aggressive attention. He was one of the first major figures to do so.

Throughout the Luddite period Cobbett hammered away in the Political Register, which he continued to edit from Newgate, about the causes of the rioting. ‘Measures ought to be adopted, not so much for putting an end to riots, as to prevent the misery out of which they arise.’ He continually urged the people to stop smashing the machines and seek those causes. His weekly utterances had considerable effect in turning them from violent methods to more peaceful solutions. When he was released from prison in 1812 Cobbett had not himself arrived at Parliamentary reform as the initial and major solution, but by 1815 he had become an advocate. Having, seen the light he blasted forth with the enthusiasm and conviction of the convert.

It was in 1816 that Cobbett took the decision that put him into the position of mass influencer. In that year he launched a twopenny weekly Register known to its detractors as Cobbett’s ‘Twopenny Trash’. He continued to write in, and exert his influence through the shilling Register but its price had been beyond the purse of the working classes, although they had it read to them- in public houses and Hampden Clubs. The new twopenny Register, issued as a sheet to avoid stamp duty, was aimed directly at the working classes at a price they could afford. Now thousands more people could read, and have read to them, the highly personal prose that inaugurated a new era of popular journalism. From his American experience Cobbett spoke directly to his readers in a simple, uncluttered, muscular language that contrasted sharply with the verbosity and rhetoric of the day. He employed his dislike of the ‘antalluct’ and ‘feelosofers’, as – opposed to native English wit and intelligence, to make his readers feel he was as much a common man as they. The effect of the ‘Twopenny Trash’ in Lancashire can be gauged from the words of a Government spy: ‘Cobbett hath done more with his Twopenny papers than any Thousand beside him, as anyone can get them, the price being so low and they contain so muck matter as the Children can purchase and read them.’ The matter contained was Cobbett’s common man view of what was wrong with England and how Parliamentary reform would put it right.

Much as he cultivated the Radical climate, by 1819 Cobbett had once more fled his native land. The major Radical leader, the key figure at Peterloo, was Henry Hunt An extraordinary character he was too. Hunt was born at Upavon in Wiltshire in 1773 of yeoman stock. He himself preferred the term ‘gentleman farmer’, with the emphasis on gentleman. His, early life was typical of his class, grammar school at Andover, then managing his father’s farm which left him ample time to hunt, shoot and fish and have wild parties at night He spent the dawn of the nineteenth century in the King’s Bench prison, though not for political reasons. He had a violent quarrel with Lord Bruce, refused to apologize and was consequently imprisoned. It was through his imprisonment that he first met the then leading radicals, Sir Francis Burdett, Thomas Hardy, Home Tooke and Major Cartwright but the meetings did not constitute a dramatic turning point in his life.

On his release from prison Hunt presided over his first public meeting, for the purpose of considering how the men of Wiltshire could best assist the Government in repelling the threatened French invasion. The date of this first public meeting according to Hunt, the least reliable of witnesses, was August 16th, 1801, and the conclusion to be drawn, how coincidental an omen, for eighteen years on. However, self-dramatization, another besetting sin, could have had more connection with the date than accuracy. But in 1802 he became infatuated with Mrs Vince, the wife of a friend. They went ta Brighton together, Hunt’s excuse for Brighton being that the Prince Regent and Mrs Fitzherbert were living there openly in sin. But then he did something which though typical of him was not typical of the period. He separated legally from his own wife and lived with Mrs Vince to whom he remained faithful. This act was to follow him for the rest of his life, and was to be of great disservice to the Radical cause. Cobbett before he met Hunt said, ‘Beware of him! he rides the country with a whore, the wife of another man, having deserted his wife.’ Cobbett was later to regret these words but, as always, they expressed most people’s feelings. That Hunt surmounted his adultery is a tribute to the force of his personality

In 1803 Hunt was still a loyalist, raising a troop of militia. But two years later he was immersed in politics on the radical side. It was in 1805 that he first met Cobbett whom he did not then like. ‘He was very brief and blunt; a tall robust man with a florid face, his hair cut close to his head and himself dressed in a blue coat and scarlet waistcoat.’ As a gentleman Hunt objected to the close cut hair, and took exception to the clothing because it was a boiling hot day. Hunt himself was, always something of a dandy. He had a fine figure, standing well over six foot, with ‘the neatest and firmest’ of legs. In the days when men, not women, showed their legs off Hunt took great care to display his wellformed calves and ankles to the best advantage. He was not particularly good looking, having rather thin lips and heavy eyes, but his figure and proud bearing lifted him out of the crowd. The voice that made him the most ‘famous mob orator of his day, was clear and bell-like. In 1806 he had his Address to the Independent Freeholders of Wiltshire printed by .Cobbett in the Political Register. In 1810 he was again sent to prison, for assaulting a gamekeeper, and for part of the time he shared a room with Cobbett in Newgate. In 1812 he stood as a radical candidate for Bristol (he lost).

What turned this vain, restless, arrogant, bellicose gentleman farmer into a radical?

It is a difficult question to answer. Hunt wrote his memoirs, three stunningly boring volumes, while in prison after Peterloo. In them there is no clear statement of belief, no overt reasons for his conversion. The picture that emerges is the one we already have of a selfish, self-centred, boastful, bombastic creature with the additive that post-Peterloo he considered himself exceedingly ill-used. It is a picture that his enemies, and he made many, would have certified as genuine. And one erstwhile friend, Bamford, later, made the damaging statement that Hunt ‘would sell his soul for the cheers of the mob’. So was he an opportunist who discovered he had oratorical ability to sway masses and climbed on to the radical bandwagon believing it would lead him to power and glory? The answer to that question seems clearer—with Hunt one always has to qualify—but no. When he became converted to radicalism it was not much of a bandwagon. To the end of his life, when hopes of power and glory had long faded, he remained a consistent radical, consistent being his own favourite adjective. He became a demagogue; He loved the mass adulation, the excitement and the power. But as a demagogue he was always legally aware of the power he wielded and he did not appeal to the prejudices of the masses. He appealed to a genuine distress with the genuine remedy of Parliamentary reform. In sum, however much he adored himself and the limelight, his feelings for the rights and liberties of the people seem to have been sincere The comparison that has been made by one modern writer, Laurence Webley in Across the Atlantic, between Hunt and Hitler appears ridiculous. Hunt never achieved real power, neither had he Hitler’s; sense of the possible nor his genius for the impossible. The specious similarities are that both were great mob orators and both wrote boring memoirs in prison, even then Hitler’s are revealing of motive and intent whereas Hunt’s are not.

It was the partnership of the self-opinionated personification of the common man known as William Cobbett and the equally self-opinionated, but sincere, Hunt that led the front that started to gain strength. Theirs was the first working-class movement for the simple reason that they were the first people to appreciate that a working class, i.e., the new industrial masses, had arisen. They responded to the spirit induced by economic grievance, Methodism, the spread of education and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. The spirit responded to them. The movement day. What were the main points? With characteristic clarity and gusto Cobbett asked and answered the question: What would a Reformed Parliament do? It would:

      1. Do away with bribery and corruption at elections.
      2. Do away with Parliamentary interest. People would succeed by merit.
      3. Do away with sinecures.
      4. It would enquire into and cut down salaries.
      5. It would reduce the army and sift the navy.
      6. It would employ no secret service. ‘There would be none of this disgraceful spy work’.
      7. It would reform the Bar and make it independent of ministers.
      8. It would give real freedom to the press.
      9. It would cut down the Civil List and reform administration of Crown Lands.
      10. It would stop paying interest on the National Debt and reduce taxes. Thus by saving the nation from pauperism it would prevent revolution and bring back stability.

In addition, the Radicals proposed annual Parliaments and voting by ballot.- They favoured the repeal of the Corn Laws, not only to help the industrial masses but also the agricultural labourers and small tenant farmers. -They stressed their agricultural reforms feeling, rightly, that their support lay in the industrial areas and they needed to win over the agricultural workers. Their industrial programme was in fact vague. They proposed higher wages and shorter hours but how this was to be economically effected remained unclear. They borrowed heavily from Cobbett on the question of the National Debt which loomed, large throughout the period. They urged that the boroughmongers, i.e., those who had profited by the Debt, should pay off the principal and the interest. Leading on from this, as the Debt existed and needed heavy taxes to support it, came their cry ‘No Taxation Without Representation!’ On the general currency question they also borrowed heavily from Cobbett, particularly from his pamphlet Paper Against Gold, arguing not always too clearly for a clamp-down on the spiralling value, or lack of value, of paper money and the necessity for gold standard. The Radicals were not anti-Royalist in wanting republic but they attacked the Crown as the lynch pin of the present corrupt system. They attacked the vast sums of public money lavished on the Prince Regent and the royal dukes. The Prince Regent, spending his time ‘acquiring old masters and new mistresses’, they simply attacked

Another leading figure in the working-class Radical movement was Sir Charles Wolseley. Born in 1769, he came from an old Staffordshire family. He had witnessed the storming of the Bastille, a turning point in his life, and tended to talk as if he had personally stormed it single-handed. In the years up to Peterloo he was a stalwart Radical supporter, and post-Peterloo his generous purse was to be of invaluable help to those arrested.

Then, there were two fringes to the mainstream of the Radical movement. Incidentally, the capital ‘R’ came into being in 1817 as the Hunt/Cobbett front gained strength. The first group would not have cared to be referred to as a fringe, as it was led by Sir Francis Burdett. He regarded ‘himself as the doyen of radicalism, with perhaps a backward pat to Major Cartwright who had started the whole idea. Burdett was extremely rich and eccentric, and was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism. He advocated rational reorganization of national and local government at a rational pace, with the organized education of the working classes, but with an even stronger emphasis than Cartwright’s on their being guided by their betters, in the period prior to Peterloo Burdett sat sulkily on the fence, not openly opposing the new front -in case it won through, but indulging in considerable back-biting and shoulder-stabbing (returned in full measure by Hunt and Cobbett) to establish his position as a: moderate in case it did not Burdett had the advantage of being one of the few radicals actually to sit in Parliament.

The second fringe group was the extremist element, the Spenceans. They were the disciples of the Yorkshire schoolmaster, Spence, who propounded a doctrine of agricultural communism and advocated the use of force. Chief among them were Arthur Thistlewood and Doctor Watson. They were important not so much for what they achieved but for the wildness of their views which alienated many people who might have been sympathetic towards the Radical movement.

Finally there was an emergent species concentrated in Manchester—the middle-class Radicals They were taking a long, cool, careful look at the current problems and producing detailed, earnest, sober, though still radical, solutions. In 1819 they were only ‘a small but determined band, a hive of similar minds with similar purpose. They had the common factor of being Unitarian by religion and Utilitarian by principle. Prominent among them were John Edward Taylor, John Shuttleworth, Archibald Prentice and the Potter family. Taylor was born in Somerset in 1791, coming to Manchester with his schoolmaster father in 1805 He had, an excellent dear brain and although officially a cotton merchant he was finding a talent as a journalist, writing for the middle-of-the-road Manchester Gazette. Shuttleworth, known— to Cobbett anyway—as Cackling Shuttleworth, was born in 1786 and was a cotton dealer. Archibald Prentice was a Scot from Lanarkshire who did not settle in Manchester until 1815, but once there he quickly joined the hive. (In fact, by religion Prentice was Presbyterian, not a Unitarian) The Potter family, father John, Sons Thomas and Richard, hailed from Yorkshire, but father had started a drapery business in Manchester and Dick and Thomas were cotton merchants. It was Dick, ‘Radical Dick, who emerged as the leader of the group when it became a movement rather than a gathering of like, minds. Much of the early discussions took place in the big back room of the drapery house which became known as ‘Potter’s Planning Parlour’.

The discussions in the Planning Parlour were as earnest as those in the Hampden Clubs and much more high-minded, both in the intellectual and moral sense. The hive believed in the Benthamite view of society as a collection of individuals existing in isolation, united solely by deliberate acts of choice, and therefore saw the art of education as the instruction of the child to associate, personal and corporate happiness. Part of their task, thrashed out in the Planning Parlour and their high-minded societies, lay in trying to find this balance. They believed in the rational re-organization of local government so as to be both cheap and efficient, cheapness and efficiency being synonymous in their programme. Up to 1819 their effect was confined to questions of education and local government. Taylor and Shuttleworth were prominent supporters and defenders of the Nonconformist Lancasterian Schools, while the group as a whole attacked ‘the strange anomalous’ system, or lack of system, provided by the High Tory oligarchy. They managed to unearth three major scandals connected with the provision of bran for the town’s horses, a very high tender for the gasworks and for cement used in its construction. In each case friends and relations of the oligarchy were found to be concerned with irregular payments. In such instances they were working in concert with the working-class Radicals who were also hot on the trail of corruption and inefficiency.

Indeed up to 1819 the middle-class Radicals were in a dilemma. Fundamentally they believed in the principles and objectives of the working-class Radical movement. They too wanted Parliamentary reform, though less than the universal suffrage demanded by Hunt and their master, Bentham. They, too, strongly favoured the repeal of the Corn Laws, though their emphasis was on the Free Trade aspect which the laws negated. What they did not approve of was the methods by which the working-class Radicals hoped to achieve their objectives. Neither did they approve of the leaders themselves. Hunt, Cobbett, Cartwright, Knight and Johnson ‘were not men by whom the intellect of the country will submit to be led’. They were ‘lacking in that high tone of moral feeling which can alone dignify human nature’.

In high moral tone the middle-class Radicals abounded. From their lofty perch they saw themselves as the middle force. They were the people who could bridge the gap between masters and men whose future in the long run was bound together. They recognized both sides of the question with intellectual clarity, whereas the Hunt brigade saw only and appealed only to the working classes and could thus but widen the gap. They were on a much higher intellectual plane than any of the working-class Radicals, and heir earnest, serious intelligence was to be the force that shaped Manchester (and England) in the years after Peter-loo. But if one were asked what their effect was on the actual day the immediate answer would be, none. However, on reflection, the very fact that they did not support the working-class Radical movement had an indirect effect on the day’s events. It has been said- that had they been its leaders Peterloo would never have occurred. This is so obviously true, their characters and beliefs being so contrary to the emotional approach of mass meetings, as to be hardly in need of stating. It is more interesting to speculate what would have happened if they had decided it was in the general interest, the greatest good for the greatest number in which they so firmly believed, to reach a compromise with the working-class Radicals. But their cool, disapproving withdrawal from the Hunt front in one way held back people who might have been tempted to join, in another pushed the people into the arms of the working-class Radicals. It was one of the great popular movements of British history and the sober, earnest pre-Victorians might have considered adding their restraint and intelligence to the emotions aroused.