2839. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 10 September 1816

2839. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 10 September 1816⁠* 

My dear Grosvenor

I have thought upon your letters night & morning. [1]  You have long known what my opinion is of the state of public opinion in this country. For years I have distinctly seen the danger. Imus, imus præcipites! [2]  We are hurrying on headlong to revolution, – & my hopes that we may be saved from what in its consequences would lead to the destruction of social order, not here alone but in France also, & in the whole of Europe, – rest more upon the providence of God than upon any other foundation. – If this feeling were confined to myself there might seem to be less cause for it, but unhappily it is confirmed by the opinions of those men on whose judgement, & sound sense I have the most reliance.

The greater the danger the more necessary is it that we should face it manfully, & resist it to the utmost. And if Government will show that Jupiter has not blinded them to their perilous state, [3]  some presumption may be drawn, that he does not mean to destroy us. The Press must be employed, ably & actively employed in its behalf, – but this will not suffice unless a speedy & effectual check be given to its Licentiousness. There was not half the danger in 1794 that there is at this time; [4]  & it is partly owing to the injudicious measures which were then pursued that the danger is now what it is.

The present punishment for sedition is altogether nugatory. Fines & imprisonment affect a public libeller slightly for a time in his comforts, & something perhaps (which the law has not intended) in his health, – <but> his fortunes are rather bettered by the sentence than otherwise; the whole means of mischief are left him, & the disposition to it is aggravated & inflamed. [5]  The punishment ought to be transportation. I, who upon the general question stand up for the vindictive character of penal justice, would in this case strip it of every thing vindictive. The object is to rid the country of men, who seek to overthrow it, – & as these men have their friends as well as admirers, & some of them however mischievous, & however xxxx are rather mistaken than wicked, there would be both fitness, grace, & political advantage in alleviating the sentence by indulgences suited to the circumstances of the culprit; – upon the conviction of such a man he should be shipped off as soon as possible, – a passage given his family & that with such attention to their comforts as humanity requires, – he should not be regarded as a convict on his arrival, (otherwise than as being not being at liberty to leave the settlement) & every facility xxxxxx given him for settling himself in the land, where he must necessarily become a useful colonist. [6]  The sentence would intimidate the disaffected, & the temper in which it was executed would extort from them a feeling of respect, not less beneficial to the Government.

If such an alteration in the Law cannot be effected, – or if verdicts could not be procured, – the remedy then would be the less-desirable measure of suspending the Habeas Corpus, - [7]  & laying the most mischievous of the Revolutionary writers in confinement, under such restrictions as should render it impossible for them to carry on their journals. For either of these measures the sound part of the Public must be prepared, & xxxx for this object xxxxx the aid of the Press is mainly necessary. It is possible that some Reflections upon the State of the Nation, if well written & widely circulated before the meeting of Parliament, might go far towards couching [8]  the eyes of many of the Members. [9]  I will make the attempt if it be required, – xx openly or covertly, whichever may be thought best, – with all my heart & with all my soul & with all my strength. – To aid this, & to continue the effect it would be desirable that a journal should be established like the Anti-Jacobin [10]  in its object, tho xxxxxxxx more scrupulous as to the means employed. – I could not manage such a journal, – nor xxx indeed would that be wished of me; but, from this distance, I could bear part in it, & write <knave>, with aqua-fortis [11]  upon foreheads of brass.

My dear Grosvenor you have here the result of much consideration, as anxiously & seriously given as the importance of the subject required. Communicate this to Herries. It does not appear to me necessary that I should go to London, nevertheless if he thought so, I will set my house in order & depart. But I can write any thing better than I can say it. – My fear is that Government is not aware of the extent of the evil – how widely the contagion is spread, & how actively it is propagated. It is indeed necessary, & urgently so, that every effort should be made by means of the press to check the evil which the press produces, – but if Government <Ministers> depend upon this, it will not even impede for a moment the progress of that Revolution which like Jaggernauts Car [12]  will crush them & me, Nobles, Priests, Princes, – & whatever stands in its way. The art of combining against the laws is perfectly understood by the disaffected, – so is the art of raising money to support such combinations, – so are the tactics of insurrection, – which is as capable of being reduced to system as the art of war. Bear witness Nottingham! [13]  The Revolution is effected in the minds of the populace; the lower orders of tradesmen are very generally disaffected, the evil has spread & is spreading in the middle class of society, – & if the dry rot were to reach the soldiers, – the earthquake which in the course of one day laid Lisbon in dust & ashes [14]  would be but a faint type of the destruction that must overtake this miserable country. Perhaps the evil is already too far gone – in my secret heart I am afraid so, – & for many years have felt & expressed an unwilling belief that to this we must come at last. The breach is made; & if Government do not silence the batteries, all is lost.

God bless you


10 Sept. 1816


* MS: Collection of Paul Betz. ALS; 4p. (A copy in another hand is in Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 25. TR; 3p.)
Endorsement: Keswick 10 Sepr. 1816
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, pp. 141–144.
Note on MS: the letter was originally an enclosure in Southey to Bedford on 10 September 1816, see Letter 2838. BACK

[1] Bedford had written communicating a ministerial proposal that Southey should edit a journal supporting the government and attacking its critics. This letter constituted Southey’s considered reply. BACK

[2] Aulus Persius Flaccus (34–62 AD), Satire 3, line 40, ‘We are going over the precipice’. BACK

[3] As in the common Latin tag, ‘Quem Jupiter vult pedere, dementat prius’; ‘Whom Jupiter would destroy, he first sends mad’. BACK

[4] In 1794 the panic about domestic revolution, inspired by events in France, was at its height; Habeas Corpus was suspended, allowing imprisonment without trial, and a number of prominent radicals were tried for treason. BACK

[5] Southey had in mind the imprisonment for two years of the radical journalists Leigh Hunt (in 1813–1815 for libelling the Prince Regent) and Cobbett (in 1810–1812 for seditious libel). Both men continued to edit their newspapers from prison and emerged with their standing amongst radicals enhanced. BACK

[6] Five prominent radicals had been sentenced and deported to Australia in 1793–1794, events Southey had condemned in his ‘To the Exiled Patriots ‘ (1794). Their time in Australia was easier than that of most deportees as they had received substantial gifts of money from radical sympathisers, which allowed them to avoid forced labour and buy plots of land. Southey may have had this experience in mind in formulating his policy. BACK

[7] Habeas corpus was suspended in 1794–1795, 1798–1801 and again 1817–1818. BACK

[8] The operation to remove a cataract. BACK

[9] Southey considered writing, but did not produce, such a work on the ‘State of the Nation’. BACK

[10] The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, or, Monthly Political and Literary Censor 1798–1821. BACK

[11] Nitric acid; Southey is also referring to Isaiah 48: 4, ‘Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass’. BACK

[12] It was widely believed in Europe that Hindu devotees threw themselves under chariots bearing statues of the Hindu gods at Puri. Southey had used this idea in The Curse of Kehama (1810), Book 14. BACK

[13] The post-war depression added to previously existing causes of poverty in the textile manufacturing midlands, leading to outbreaks of machine-breaking and protest. There were a number of trials for arson and frame-breaking in Nottingham in August 1816, but Southey may have had in mind the trial at Leicester on 10 August for the attack on Heathcote and Boden’s lace mill in Loughborough on 28 June 1816. BACK

[14] The earthquake at Lisbon on 1 November 1755. BACK

People mentioned