The radical movement was sparked off when two writers of this period – Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine – aired their differing opinions. These opinions caused a debate, which went on to create many revolutionary movements and organisations. Paine’s book – ‘The Rights of Man’ – led to the creation of the London Corresponding Society, founded by Thomas Hardy in 1792. This radical movement threatened Pitt’s authority. Soon there were many movements, meetings being held and leaflets published about reform.
This sudden demand for reform worried the government. The radicals seemed a threat to government, with war disturbing trade and the increase in taxes for the middle and working classes. The poor harvests and increase in taxes caused an increase in food prices. Together with lower wages, things became harder for the middle and working class. This aided the radical movements to spread the word, as they had an audience ready to listen to them due to the circumstances they were in. Corresponding Societies, however, seemed the biggest threat.
The London Corresponding Society was a threat, as it called for radical changes within the government, and also because their popularity was growing within the working class, which could put pressure on the government. Conventions held in Edinburgh were seen as a threat as they seemed to have their own alternative government. Corresponding Societies soon sprung up everywhere. In 1792, The Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information brought 5-6000 people onto the streets to celebrate the French victory at Valmy. In 1794, the same amount of people were on the streets to press for peace abroad and liberty at home.
These groups could have been seen as a threat, as they had large memberships – the LCS had 3000 members in 1794. They corresponded regularly with each other and groups in France. However, despite appearances, the threat was reduced for a number of reasons: the membership numbers were falling – from 3000 to 400, due to government repression. In 1798 the LCS was banned altogether; the government persuaded Parliament to pass a Corresponding Societies Act. It was now illegal for the LCS to meet and the organisation came to an end.
Also, the membership of the LCS was confined to a small proportion of London’s working class. There was a limited appeal to the unskilled workers and the very poor. The radicals never attempted a nation-wide petition. There was also rivalry and differences between regions of the country. Some regions, such as Manchester developed more slowly, whereas Norwich was very quick to develop and rivalled Sheffield in size. The movement made the mistake of overestimating the extent of their support, whilst underestimating the fear it would spark in the authorities.
They also tended to lose heart when they failed to get what they wanted. The radical groups were not really a threat as they were very restrained and not violent. There were, however, isolated incidents; such as in 1795 in Sheffield, attempts were made to incite food rioters. The government was quick to overpower the movements, as Pitt introduced a number of acts and laws to try and outlaw the radicals. A number of anti-radical propaganda material was introduced in the form of newspapers, pamphlets and political cartoons. The government introduced a number of legislation’s against seditious writings and meetings.
Spies were allowed to open letters sent by radical groups, monitor activities and infiltrate radical meetings. A number of legislative measures were introduced to counter the radical threat. Firstly, Pitt suspended ‘Habeas Corpus’, so he could hold prisoners without a trial. Unfortunately, only a few were held without charge. He also introduced the ‘Treasonable Practices Act’ and the ‘Seditious Meetings Act’. However these proved less effective – they both failed to achieve their aims. There was only one prosecution under the ‘Unlawful Oaths Act’ of 1797, which was rushed through parliament to deal with the sailor’s mutiny.
It also seemed as though the ban on these societies were unnecessary as they were already collapsing. Loyalist associations also played a part in the downfall of the radical movements. They adopted methods used by the radical societies i. e. printed propaganda, but also used intimidation tactics and persecution in order to defeat their opponents. The loyalists had more support, which is why they were more successful. Calls for loyalty and patriotism were more popular than calls for radical change. Despite their original mass of support, radical societies were still a minority.
The majority of people were stirred against talk of radicals, and even attacked radical groups in places such as Birmingham. These incidents occurred across the country, showing the effectiveness of the loyalists. Whilst the legislations brought in were less than effective, they were successful in driving away the radicals. In conclusion, I think that it was the weakness of the radical movement that allowed Pitt to survive during these years, as the limited appeal they had caused a large deficit in their support, despite their initial popularity.
There were, however, other reasons contributing to their downfall. The acts brought in did helped to get rid of the radicals. Also, the loyalist actions were successful in that they took support from radical groups, making them less attractive to the public. When the governing class refused to concede reform and resorted to repression and persecution, most radicals lost heart or moderated demands. Despite these other factors, the number of members of the radical societies decreased, so they would have eventually broken up.