How close did Britain come to revolution between 1815 and 1821
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Britain was not close to revolution, anytime during the period of time 1815 to 1821. Certain British people were revolutionary with revolutionary intentions but were unable to inspire enough of the population to cause major threat to the government and monarchy.
The conditions in which the British were living did not give cause for revolution. A number of the working class were unemployed and generally angry, but nothing compared to the situation in France prior to the French revolution. The public was not on the verge of starvation, the majority of the British people were not unemployed although some were and not enough revolutionary people were gathered together at any one point – mass migration to Paris. If any significant number of the British public during this period were motivated enough for change, it was economical and not political motivation.
The government had tight control over the actions of the public and at times when they felt necessary, drew up legislation to weaken public rights and was able to justify their actions as a response to the actions of the public. At all times the government prevented revolutionary ideas spread throughout Britain to uncontrollable levels, by different forms of repression.
‘The popular movements never became revolutionary and the revolutionary movements never became popular.’ Thomas and Holt.
After any event considered potentially revolutionary during 1815 – 1821, the government passed legislation with intentions of preventing revolutionary occurrences happening again, so if an event was unsuccessful because of lack of support, the government made sure it could not be organised again with enough support the second time round. As soon as any person tried to be influential or expressed their opinions, the government condemned it and followed up their actions with forms of repression. The public had very limited rights to free speech. Repression from the government prevented the British public from reaching anywhere near a revolutionary level.
The Luddites were a group of people opposed to the government, although were potentially a threat, I would not consider them revolutionary. The Luddites were hand-loomers made unemployed due to industrialisation. To express their anger and discontent with the government they rioted and caused violence in the streets. The Luddites never benefited from their riots but the government did. The government sent magistrate spies amongst the crowds to insight violence so that the government could class the Luddites as revolutionary and had justification for repression.
The government resolved the problems caused by the Luddites by public hangings, this acted as a deterrent and there was a decline in Luddism. The Luddites were not a revolutionary threat to Britain as they were economically motivated and not politically. They were unemployed because of industrialisation and could barely afford bread because of the corn laws and other goods because of the repeal of income tax, they wanted jobs and money not a new government. ‘There is no evidence whatever of any political motives on the part of the Luddites’ Samuel Whittbread.
In 1816 the Spa Field Riots took place. The group of people behind the incident were the Spenceans, I would consider them revolutionary. Arthur Thistlewood, the leader of the Spenceans wanted to overthrow the government he organised three meetings in London at which Henry Hunt was the speaker. A significant crowd attended to hear Hunt speak about parliamentary reform but the meeting turned into a riot and the crowd started looting. The crowd was not politically motivated even though the Speneans were and so reached no nearer to revolution as there was significant lack of support.
The government used this incident to pass legislation, the Seditious Meeting Act, preventing meetings of more than 50 persons and the temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act these later became known as the gagging acts. All that was gained from the Spa Field Riots was that the government could justifiably use harsh forms of repression. ‘strong ale and the prospect of loot rather than strong words and the prospect of liberty’. John Plowright.
A few years later, in 1819 Hunt organised another meeting at which he was to speak about parliamentary reform at St Peter’s field in Manchester. He applied for permission from the government – The Seditious Meeting Act – which was granted, essentially still leaving the government in control. The crowd was peaceful and not revolutionary to begin with but the government was prepared for the smallest hint of revolutionary action. As soon as the crowd appeared organised, linked together to barrier the yeomanry, the present military forces were ordered to violently hack down the crowd eliminating any chance of revolution.
The crowd had no intention of causing trouble in the first place and when trouble arrived, the government had total control in preventing it becoming revolutionary. The main speakers were arrested along with newspaper reporters so that their story could not be spread throughout the country and insight revolution amongst the people. Carlile, who escaped being arrested and released his story in the newspaper was later imprisoned, all the radicals have been silenced, or those still free know what punishment will be coming.
In 1817 600 unemployed weavers marched from Manchester to London in groups of 10. Each man carried a blanket as a sign of peaceful petition. This group of men known as the Blanketeers, were anti violence and definitely not revolutionary, they presented no evidence of being politically motivated, but simply wanted jobs to buy food for themselves and their families. ‘we will let them see it is not riot and disturbance we want’. They did not manage to march very far before the government sent troops down to disperse the marchers.
Another group of economically motivated men were involved in the Derbyshire rising. 300 men armed with guns, pikes and spears tried to siege Nottingham castle. They can be classed as revolutionary, but only because magistrate spies were manipulating the men and prepared them for a violent event. They were unsuccessful and broken up almost immediately by the army, this failed since the other promised quarrymen and stocking makers did not show, again demonstrating a crucial lack of mass support throughout the country.
The Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820 was potentially the closest that Britain came to revolution during the period of 1815 -1821. As retaliation for the ‘massacre’ at Peterloo, the Spenceans plotted to kill leading government ministers – Castlereagh and Sidmouth. Arthur Thistlewood rented a house on Cato Street to start a riot at a dinner. One of the Spencens’ meeting was infiltrated by a government spy George Edwards, and so the government was ready and prepared even before the riot started. The whole incident was so easily repressed, proving that Briatin was not close to revolution even amongst the most revolutionary of people at the time.
Although most of the country hated the Prince Regent, they did not want to overthrow the monarchy and so supported his wife Queen Caroline. The whole affair involving Liverpool’s consent to divorce George IV from Caroline resulted in the public rioting, this was easily solved by Liverpool changing his mind and Caroline conveniently died a month after George was crowned, the whole affair ceased to exist.
The point at which the country was potentially closest to revolution the period post war, before any repressive legislation was passed. The government were concerned that Britain would face revolution as was happening in France. Before the Game Laws, the Corn Laws and the repeal of income tax the public had most chance of revolution without repressive laws preventing them, but ironically had little cause for revolution until these laws were passed and the unemployed could barely afford bread. This new legislation helped farmers and conservatives from the upper middle class and upper classes as part of the new protectionism policy. Those not helped but economically damaged, the demobilised soldiers, unemployed and the working classes were mostly angry and bitter, not revolutionary.
At no point during 1815 – 1821 was the country at the point of revolution, government repression was too tight and could so easily draw up legislation when felt necessary. The majority of opposition towards the government was from economic motivation, those that were politically opposed suffered from lack of organisation and support in numbers, prohibiting Britain to reach a revolutionary threat to its government and monarchy. ‘The government through their actions put a watertight blanket over radical activities’, Marlowe.