2094. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14[–15] May 1812

2094. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14[–15] May 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick. May 14. 1812.

My dear Grosvenor

In spite of myself I have been weeping, – this has relieved the throbbings of my head, – but my mind is overcharged & must pour itself out. I am going to write something upon the state of popular feeling, which must <will probably> appear in the Courier [1]  as the where it will obtain the readiest & widest circulation. Enough to alarm the people I shall be able to say xxxx, but I would fain alarm the Government, & if this were done in public they would think it imprudent, & indeed it would be so. –

I shall probably begin with what you say of the sensation occasioned by this most fatal event, [2]  – & then give the reverse of your account as I have received it from Coleridge: – what he heard in a pot house into which he went on the night of the murder, not more to quench his thirst, than for the purpose of hearing what the xx populace would say. – Did I not speak to you with ominous truth upon this subject in one of my last hasty xxxxxx letters? This country is upon the brink of the most dreadful of all conceivable states, – an insurrection of the poor against the rich: & if by some providential infatuation the Burdettites had not continued to insult the soldiers, the existing Government would not be worth a weeks purchase, nor any throat which could be could be supposed to be worth cutting, safe for a month longer.

You know Grosvenor I am no agueish politician, nor is this a sudden apprehension which has seized me. Look to what I have said of the effect of Mrs Clarkes business upon the public in the last years Register, [3]  & look to the remarks upon the tendency of manufactures to this state, in Espriella, written five years ago. [4]  Things are in that state at this time that nothing but the army preserves us. – it is the single plank between us & the red sea of an English Jacquerie, – a Bellum Servile, [5]  not provoked as both those convulsions were by grievous oppression, but prepared by the inevitable tendency of the manufacturing system, & hastened on by a f the folly of a besotted faction, & the wickedness of a few individuals. – The end of these things is full of evil even upon the happiest termination, – for the loss of liberty is the penalty which has always been paid for the abuse of it. But we must not now employ our thought upon the danger of our own victory, – there is but too much yet to be done to render the victory certain.

The first step should be the immediate renewal of associations for the protection of our lives & properties, & of the British Constitution: with the reestablishment to the utmost possible extent of the volunteers, [6]  – as effective a force against a mob of United Englishmen [7]  – as they would be inefficient in the first shock of an invasion. This may be safely said & prest upon the people government & the people, what I dare not say publicly is that there is yet danger from the army, – that cursed flogging for the repeal abolition [8]  of which Burdett has been suffered to appear as the advocate! Oh that Perceval had prevented this popularity, by coming forward himself as the soldiers friend. He has good works enough for his good name, as well as for his soul’s rest, – but this would have remained for his colleagues & for the country.

This of course can not be touched upon immediately, for it would be too obviously an act of fear, – but if I knew the ministers I would urgently press upon them the wisdom of granting some boon to the soldiers, – something which at little cost to the nation would yet come home to the feelings of every individual in the army. The mere institution of honorary rewards would do this, – fifty pounds in copper medals would go farther than as many thousands in bounties towards recruiting it hereafter. But I would couple it with something more – for instance ten or twenty of the oldest men, in or oldest soldiers, in every regiment which xxxx distinguished itself in the two late assaults [9]  should have their discharge with full pay for life, – or an increase of pay if they chose to serve on. Do not think that these things are inefficacious or beneath the notice of statesmen. Why is it that poets move the hearts of men, but because they understand the feelings of men, & it is by their feelings that they may best be governed. Look at the agitators, they address themselves to the passions of the mob; & who does not perceive with what tremendous effect!

I wish you would read this to Gifford & to Herries, because I am sure that these cheap & easy measures would go far toward winning the affection of the soldiers at these perilous times. Other topics I shall speak of elsewhere. – the establishment of a paro system of parochial education, & the necessity of colonial schemes as opening an issue in the distempered body politic. This is <will be> for the Quarterly. [10]  Vigorous measures I trust in God will be taken while the feelings of the sound class are alive in a state to favour them. Were I minister I would prosecute Lord Ossulston for his speech at the dinner, [11]  & teach him & his friends that the privilege of exciting rebellion does not extend beyond the walls of St Stephens. [12]  In this state of feeling any jury nor decidedly Jacobinical, would find agai him guilty. And were I a member of Parliament whenever Burdett rose I would clear the gallery. He should not speak to the people, & if he wrote to them it would be at his peril. To this pitch in my judgement things are come. This murder, tho xx committed probably by a madman, has been made the act & deed of the populace. Shocking as this appears, so it is! & so it must be considered. With timely vigour, the innocent blood which has been shed may prove an xx accepted sacrifice & save us, – otherwise it is but the opening of the flood gates.

I thought of poor Herries as soon as I could think of any thing. – The loss which the country has sustained I xxx scarcely dare to contemplate. There seems nothing to look to but the Wellesleys, [13]  with Canning, Huskisson for Chanc. of the Exc. [14]  – & in all likelihood Sir James Mackintosh, who is sure to take the strongest side, – tho xxxx he may now afford to be honest, & his talents will make him a powerful supporter to any party. [15]  Yet in this train there seems to follow a long catalogue of dangers. Catholic concessions, & next by aid of all the admitted enemies of the Church, the sale of tythes, to supply the necessities of the Government, – a measure which will be as certainly popular as it will be ultimately ruinous to the Church & most fatal to the country. There will be a glorious war to console us, – but under such circumstances I shall look to that war with the painful thought that its success <we> may be repaid for our service to the Spaniards by finding a refu an asylum in Spain when England will have lost all that our fathers purchased for us so dearly!

God bless you


Tell G. I shall be ready for him with the French Biography – which will be a sketch of the Revolution with <introducing> an examination of our own state as tending toward the same gulph. [16]  – Would to God it were not so well timed! – What has past seems like a dream to me – a sort of night mare that overlays & oppresses my faculties thoughts & feelings.

Friday. The Courier speaks of Abbot as Ch. of the Exchequer. [17]  If the ministry do not feel themselves so weak as to call in the Wellesleys I should think Vansittart [18]  a more likely man. Would the Grand Parleur [19]  take the situation? has he tongue enough? – if he has I know where he may find head. [20] 


* Address: To/ G. C. Bedford Esqr/ Exchequer/ Westminster
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [illegible]
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 24. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 334–338 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey’s proposed article did not appear in the Courier. BACK

[2] The Prime Minister Spencer Perceval had been shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812. His assassin was John Bellingham (1770–1812; DNB), a merchant with a grudge against the government. BACK

[3] In 1809, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827; DNB) had been forced to resign as commander-in-chief of the British army in the wake of allegations that he had profited from office trafficking. After a lengthy investigation, the charges were found to be unproven. It had, however, become apparent that his former mistress Mary Anne Clarke (c. 1776–1852; DNB) had received money from individuals keen for her to use her influence with the Duke, and that the Duke himself had known of her actions. For Southey’s account, Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 109–301. BACK

[4] ‘Do I then think that England is in danger of revolution? If the manufacturing system continues to be extended, increasing as it necessarily does increase the number, the misery, and the depravity of the poor, I believe that revolution inevitably must come, and in its most fearful shape’, Letters from England, 3 vols (London, 1807), III, p. 133. BACK

[5] i.e. a slave war. BACK

[6] Part-time home defence forces that had been greatly expanded in 1803 when invasion from France seemed a real possibility. BACK

[7] An underground revolutionary society that existed 1796–1802. BACK

[8] Burdett had consistently pressed for the abolition of flogging in the army since 1808. BACK

[9] The capture of the towns of Ciudad Rodrigo on 19 January 1812 and Badajoz on 6 April 1812. BACK

[10] Issues covered in Southey’s review of Patrick Colquhoun (1745–1820; DNB), Propositions for Ameliorating the Condition of the Poor: and For Improving the Moral Habits, and Increasing the Comforts of the Labouring People (1812), in the Quarterly Review, 8 (December 1812), 319–356. BACK

[11] Charles Augustus Bennet, Lord Ossulston (1776–1859), Whig politician and heir to the Earldom of Tankerville. At this time he was MP for Knaresborough (1806–1818). Southey was exercised by his speech at a City of London dinner in favour of parliamentary reform on 9 May 1812. BACK

[12] St Stephen’s Chapel, in the Palace of Westminster, was the meeting-place of the House of Commons. BACK

[14] The politician William Huskisson (1770–1830; DNB) did not become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had been Secretary to the Treasury 1807–1809 but was at this time out of office. BACK

[15] On his return to Britain from India in 1811, the writer and politician Sir James Mackintosh (1765–1832; DNB) had been courted by Perceval and the Tories. He was elected to Parliament in 1813 as MP for Nairn and became a leading spokesman for the Whigs. BACK

[16] A review of Biographie Moderne: Lives of Remarkable Characters who have Distinguished themselves from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Present Time (1811), Quarterly Review, 7 (June 1812), 412–438. BACK

[17] Southey had misread an item in the Courier, 14 May 1812. This had noted that there was ‘no foundation’ for the report that Abbot had been offered the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. BACK

[18] Nicholas Vansittart, 1st Baron Bexley (1766–1851; DNB), Chancellor of the Exchequer 1812–1823. BACK

[19] i.e. Abbot, the ‘Great Speaker’. BACK

[20] Tell G. … head: written at top of fol 1 r. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)