3370. [Robert Southey] to the Editor of the Cumberland Pacquet, [before 26 October 1819]

3370. [Robert Southey] to the Editor of the Cumberland Pacquet, [before 26 October 1819]⁠* 


– A hand bill, [1]  addressed to the Inhabitants of Whitehaven, having been distributed in this town, which charges a certain LOYAL ADDRESS [2]  with gross want of constitutional knowledge, and with wilful perversions of truth, I persuade myself that you will not think a small space in your paper misemployed in examining the charge.

The author of the hand bill admits the allegation that “it is the direct and undisguised object of those demagogues, by whom the multitude are misled, to bring about a REVOLUTION by force.” This he allows may be true; “still,” he says, “there is no evidence to shew that such persons are numerous; or that any great portion of the community has any such designs; and this may be fairly presumed from the peace and good order by which their meetings have been distinguished.

Now, Sir, when the writer in this sentence appeals to facts, his assertions are false, and when he pretends to reason, his reasoning is deceitful. The evidence that such persons are numerous, – so numerous that they may well excite a reasonable fear in men of firm minds, – is to be found in all the public journals. If, according to the concurrent testimony of those journals, the Radicals muster in bodies of from five thousand to fifty or fourscore thousand! at the summons of Dr. Watson, Mr. Hunt, or an invisible Committee of Two Hundred, [3]  – the man who denies them to be numerous, must either know very little of what he is saying, or care very little for truth.

But the innocence of their intentions “may fairly be presumed from the peace and good order by which their meetings have been distinguished.” Upon this part of the sentence it might suffice to remind the reader of Spa Fields, and the Gunsmiths Shops, and of Brandreth’s attempted insurrection; [4]  but it involves, also, a very dangerous delusion which might impose upon well-meaning persons, and is, therefore, far more mischievous than a falsehood which the recollection of public and notorious events must enable them immediately to detect.

Peace and good order are fair words; but they may be foully misapplied. When men upon any ordinary public occasion meet in large bodies, conduct themselves orderly, and disperse peaceably, all is well, and as it should be; such peace and order indicate a natural and healthy state of public feeling. But when multitudes, whose numbers are estimated by tens of thousands, collect upon so extraordinary a business as that of deliberating upon a change in the Constitution of the country, nothing short of Revolution; when they come with black flags and bloody daggers for their banners, and with Universal Suffrage or Death, for their motto; [5]  armed with staves or bludgeons, advancing in rank and file, with military step, and marching and wheeling at the word of command, with the precision of disciplined soldiers, the peace and good order with which such meetings are conducted, while such purposes and resolutions are proclaimed, are proofs not of peaceable and innocent intentions but of the most desperate and perilous designs, of a planned and prepared Rebellion.

Secondly, The hand bill says it is not true that the multitude have ever been taught to believe that the administration of public affairs ought to be taken from persons who are qualified by their education and station in life, and whose stake in the country is a pledge for their good intentions, and transferred to the ignorant and needy, who are necessarily incompetent, and who have nothing to lose.” – In reply to this round denial, I affirm that the statement which it contradicts, is strictly and literally true. The Radical Orators have repeatedly declared, that the people of property of either party, have abused the legislative authority with which they have hitherto been entrusted, and therefore, that it must be taken from them. This is the revolutionary doctrine; and the revolutionary practices of all ages has been in strict conformity to it.

Thirdly. – the hand bill says “it is a false, gratuitous, and libellous assertion, that County Meetings tend to encourage wicked and desperate men in their rebellious purposes.” What are the words of the Address? “We must express our sorrow that any persons of rank and respectability should be induced to take measures which obviously tend to encourage wicked and desperate men in their rebellious purposes.” He must be a very impudent man, who can assert that this sentence expresses or implies any condemnation of County meetings in general, and they must be very foolish ones who can believe him. But let any man of common honesty, and common sense, ask himself the question. Whether it is or is not encouraging the Radicals, if Resolutions are passed by persons of rank and respectability, which certainly imply, this they do not assert, that the Reformers at Manchester, when they assembled with sticks and staves, in military order, and with black flags, bearing a bloody dagger and the inscription of Universal Suffrage or Death, were at that time simply exercising the most invaluable and most unquestionable right of the people? Let him ask himself, whether the Radicals are or are not encouraged by seeing men of rank and respectability subscribe for the Sufferers at Manchester; as if these persons had suffered under some calamity which had fallen upon them unforeseen and inevitable, and as if they had not been forewarned by the Magistrates of the danger of assembling at that time and place. The very use of the word sufferers, in this case, prejudges the question; for it assumes the misconduct of the Magistrates and the innocence and legality of the meeting.

“The people have a right to meet,” says the hand bill. Unquestionably they have, – for all lawful purposes. This may be illustrated by an example from English History which every school boy will understand. Guy Faux [6]  and his associates had a right to have a vault under the House of Lords, they had a right to deposit any part of their property there; as many barrels, for instance as they pleased, and to cover the barrels with faggots. Moreover, Guy Faux had an undoubted right to go out of his vault when he pleased – at any time or season, whether the King and the Peers of the Realm were assembled in the Chamber above, or not. And he had a right to carry a dark lanthorn into the aforesaid vault. – But the Ministers of that day exercised the right of enquiring what those barrels contained, and what use was to be made of the candle? – and they saved the King and the Nobles from the Gunpowder Plot.

After all, the great question at issue is not whether the best means were resorted to for carrying the warrant against Mr. Hunt into effect at Manchester and dissolving that meeting; but whether the Laws, as they now exist, do not allow a discretionary power to Magistrates for dissolving any numerous assembly, from which they may apprehend danger to persons or property, before that assembly breaks out into open riot and disorder; and whether meetings, constituted as the one at Manchester is by all parties admitted to have been, can be allowed to take place wherever, and as often as the parties themselves chuse, without endangering not the tranquillity and safety alone, – but the very existence of the Country. This is the question at issue, – and the course of investigation in which it is now placed will soon decide it. [7] 



* MS: MS has not survived; text is taken from the version published in the Cumberland Pacquet
Previously published: Cumberland Pacquet, 26 October 1819, signed ‘A.B.’. Reprinted Westmorland Gazette, 6 November 1819. BACK

[1] Unidentified. BACK

[2] Following the ‘Peterloo’ Massacre of 16 August 1819, Whigs in Cumberland organised a County Meeting on 13 October 1819 to protest at the local authorities’ actions and send an Address to the Prince Regent. Southey drew up a conservative response – an Address to the Prince Regent denouncing the radicals and calling for curbs on the press. The Address was circulated by Lord Lonsdale and a copy was leaked to the Morning Chronicle, 23 October 1819. However, the Chronicle correctly reported that ‘several of the most respectable of the LOWTHER party have refused to sign the Loyal Address, and cry out against it as ultra’. The Address was not proceeded with, and government supporters in Cumberland produced a more moderate document. BACK

[3] James Watson (c. 1766–1838; DNB), leading figure in the attempt to storm the Bank of England and the Tower of London following the Spa Fields meeting on 2 December 1816; Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773–1835; DNB), radical, a speaker at the meeting at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester on 16 August 1819; and the ‘Committee of Two Hundred’, an organisation of London radicals that instigated many of the popular protests following the deaths of at least eleven people when the local authorities broke up the Manchester meeting. BACK

[4] The attempted revolution following the Spa Fields meeting on 2 December 1816 had included a raid on a gunsmith’s shop; Jeremiah Brandreth (1790–1817; DNB) was one of the leaders of the ‘Pentrich Revolution’ in Derbyshire on 9–10 June 1817, an armed insurrection largely instigated by a government spy. BACK

[5] The banners at the St Peter’s Field meeting at Manchester on 16 August 1819 were much commented on by conservatives. Here Southey paraphrases the Manchester magistrate, James Norris’s (c. 1774–1838), speech committing Hunt to trial for conspiracy on 27 August 1819, which condemned ‘the black flag, the bloody dagger, the words equal representation, or death’ on the crowd’s banners. BACK

[6] Guido (Guy) Fawkes (1670–1606; DNB), leading figure in the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605. BACK

[7] Hunt and eight others were convicted of sedition at York Assizes in March 1820; all legal proceedings against members of the Yeomanry who broke up the meeting at St Peter’s Field failed. BACK