Spies, defense from sedition, and the "swinish multitudes"
The first flood of loyalist activity poured out of England as a result of
King George III's proclamation of May 21, 1792 against "divers wicked and
seditious writing." "Four out of every five Englishmen in the political
community agreed with the ministry that the inflammatory literature in
circulation" posed a danger to the body politic. (Dozier 1). At this time,
it seems that the government had no idea that
the proclamation would produce such a strong response (Dozier 15).
Loyalists responded by sending hundreds of addresses to the king
supporting the proclamation. The addresses were written at meetings
organized throughout the countryside, largely by gentlemen, and placed in
public areas where all could sign (Dozier).
The next outburst of loyalist sentiment occurred in response to the
perceived crisis of late 1792 in the form of numerous loyalist
associations, headed by John Reeves' Crown and Anchor Association,
officially the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property
against Republicans and Levellers (APLP). Shortly before or after its
first meeting, an association advertised its existence in local or London
newspapers. Following the model of the LCS, loyalist organizations set
their subscriptions low and set up correspondence with similar
Dozier gives compelling evidence for the popularity of loyalist response.
Probably about 1,000 loyalist organizations were formed throughout
England, and because of the advertisement of their existence, the sheer
number of associations was nearly as important as the number of people
joining them. Estimates of membership range as high as a quarter or a
third of all adult males in England, an enormous number for any type of
¸political activity. According to Dozier, newspapers and individual papers
gave an impression of near-unanimity in England, at least in late 1792 and
early 1793. And while many associations were initially organized by
prominent, already-enfranchised citizens, trade associations of porters,
underwriters, butchers, bakers and stationers also joined the loyalist
lines. "Working class loyalists in the first half of the decade were not
always dependent on the promptings and bribes of their social superiors"
Furthermore, as with other methods of social contention at the
time, both sides engaged in similar methods: loyalists were also sometimes
ostracized or economically terrorized for their political beliefs (804).
However, the dubious ways by which these organizations sometimes obtained
members throws into doubt their populist credentials. In some cases,
association members took their resolutions to all the homes in their
district and took note of those who refused to sign (Dozier 64),
potentially intimidating them into lending their written support.
Government support, financial or otherwise, for the Crown and Anchor
Associations also undermine their populist credentials. If nothing else,
their initial creation seems to have not been the public affair it
appeared. Several people testified that no more than two people
participated in the association.s first meeting, and no proof of other
members appears until its next meeting (Dozier 58-59).
Besides sending addresses and otherwise declaring their support for the
constitution and government, loyalists took actions against those who they
saw as threatening these things. In Manchester a procession threatened a
radical leader, and in London, loyalists gave some radicals a dunking in
the Thames (Dozier 84). Dozier maintains, though, that loyalists usually
minimized their physical actions and punished radicals largely through
social and economic ostracism and threats to prosecute under the laws of
sedition. Emsley gives numerous examples of social and economic
repression: tenants were threatened with the loss of their land, numerous
radicals were refused entry at public houses and lost their jobs, William
Frend was banished from Cambridge for his pamphlet Peace and Union
Recommended and even an Oxford chemist lost a position due to his
politics (Emsley 802-3). Loyalist associations took steps to investigate
and apprehend local radicals under the promise of aiding justices of the
The loyalists further countered radical activities through a propaganda
campaign conducted through newspaper advertising, handbill distribution,
parades and banquets, and the distribution of loyalist and anti-radical
pamphlets and tracts (Dozier 89).
One of the loyalists' more common and visible activities was burning
effigies of Tom Paine. Though the activities did not usually involve
violence, they did send a clear reminder of the violence of which
loyalists were capable and of what could happen to radicals if they
continued in their unpatriotic actions. The symbolic killing of Paine,
therefore, served as a powerful preventive to further activities seen as
disloyal. In Shipley, loyalists went so far as to burn an effigy of a
parish clerk who defended The Rights of Man on his own doorstep
(Dozier 92). While intimidating and mocking their opposition, these
burnings also celebrated the loyalist cause with parades, bands, banquets
and drink (Dozier 91-92).
Who were the loyalists? How much of the country expressed loyalist
sympathies, and how many Britons followed the seditious call of the
reformers and radicals? According to Dozier, loyalists spread across all
ranks of life, and, at least during the time period between early 1792 and
late 1794, vastly outnumbered the radical movement (x).
Perhaps one way of understanding the discrepancies between the apparent
popularity of loyalist movements and of radical movements is if one
considers the English populace not as masses with entrenched viewpoints on
the issues of the day but as actors likely to change the viewpoints
frequently as new information became available to them. For example,
during the initial organization of loyalist movements in late 1793, at
least four societies formerly devoted to the reformation of the
constitution changed their names to emphasize their defense of the
constitution (Dozier 59).
History has generally not smiled on the loyalists. Just as the radicals
became known as the Jacobins by their contemporaries and were portrayed in
such a way that the good things they seemed to stand against became more
important than the good things for which they stood, the loyalists became
known as the Anti-Jacobins, and were defined by what they opposed rather
than what they supported.
The success of popular loyalist groups demonstrated the power of informal
methods of political expression, just as the British government in the
1790s found it most effective to work through extra-legal means. And while
loyalists organized against movements professing democratic principles,
the loyalist movement demonstrated some tendencies towards democracy
almost despite itself. Its sheer size and, to a certain extent, its
presence across a broad range of social groups illustrated the potential
power of mass political movement in ways inherently disturbing to the calm
rule of law by the privileged, especially during a time period in which
people seemed to change their political views at the drop of a hat.
In some ways, even though organized in supposed support for the law,
loyalists challenged government's assumed authority to control the state.
"An outburst of loyalty on this scale, paradoxically, posed some dangers
to internal peace," writes Dozier of the Association movement of 1793-4
(23). On the third anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the government
stationed large numbers of troops at Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham,
Coventry, Norwich and Manchester, not for fear of revolutionary
disturbances but of loyalist fervor.
In 1795, John Reeves published Thoughts on the English Government,
an ultra-Tory tract which portrayed the king as the sole embodiment of
English government, a view nearly as frightening to Pittite members of
Parliament as was the idea that "the people" were the embodiment of
government. Parliament decided to prosecute him for seditious libel
against the Constitution, and though he was acquitted, his trial marked "a
watershed in the fortunes of 'ultra' tory ideology" (Beedell 802), after which
anti-Enlightenment philosophizing over the
"natural right of kings" never had quite the same legitimacy.
Reeves's tract, however, was only threatening because of his connections
to mass political movements and his demonstrated skill in catalyzing them.
His prosecution, therefore, demonstrated government paranoia of mass
politics. While sometimes circumstantially advantageous, the very
existence of mass politics, even when mobilized in support of the state,
proved threatening to a government strongly invested in not allowing the
masses a legitimate means through which to influence the state.
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