« AnteriorContinuar »
and honorable men, they were designed to confer signal benefits upon their country and mankind. In a bad cause, and under the guidance of rash and mischievous leaders, they were ready instruments of tumult and sedition. The union of moral and physical force may convince, but it may also practise intimidation : arguments may give place to threats, and fiery words to deeds of lawless violence. Our history abounds with examples of the uses and perils of political agitation.
The dangers of such agitation were exemplified at this very time, in their worst form, by the Protestant associations. In 1778, the legislature having con- assoriations, ceded to the Catholics of England a small measure of indulgence, a body of Protestant zealots in Scotland associated to resist its extension to that country. So rapidly had the principle of association developed itself, that no less than eighty-five societies, or corresponding committees, were established in communication with Edinburgh. The fanaticisin of the people was appealed to by speeches, pamphlets, handbills, and sermons, until the pious fury of the populace exploded in disgraceful riots. Yet was this wretched agitation too successful. The Catholics of Scotland waived their just rights for the sake of peace; and Parliament submitted its own judgment to the arbitrament of Scottish mobs.?
This agitation next extended to England. A Protestant association was formed in London, with which
Lord George numerous local societies, committees, and clubs in Gordon, pres. various parts of the kingdom, were affiliated. Of this extensive confederation, in both countries, Lord George Gordon was elected president. The Protestants of Scotland had overawed the legislature: might not the Protestants of
1 "On ne peut se dissimuler que la liberté illimitée d'association, en matière politique, ne soit, de toutes les libertés, la dernière qu'un peuple puisse supporter Si elle ne la fait pas tomber dans l'anarchie, elle la lui fait, pour ainsi dire, toucher à chaque instant." — De Tocqueville, Démocr. i. 231.
2 Infra, p. 323.
Disorders at Westmin kter, Juno 20.
England advance their cause by intimidation? The experi-
1780, Lord George Gordon called a meeting 29th, 1780.
of the Protestant Association, at Coachmakers' Hall, where a petition to the Commons was agreed to, praying for the repeal of the late Catholie Relief Act. Lord George, in haranguing this meeting, said that, “if they meant to spend their time in mock debate and idle opposition, they might get another leader;" and declared that he would not present their petition, unless attended by 20,000 of his fellow-citizens. For that purpose, on the 2d of June, a large body of petitioners and others, distinguished by blue
cockades, assembled in St. George's Fields, whence they proceeded by different routes to Westmin
ster, and took possession of Palace Yard, before the two Houses had yet met. As the peers drove down to the meeting of their House, several were assailed and pelted. Lord Boston was dragged from his coach, and escaped with difficulty from the mob. At the House of Coinmons, the mob forced their way into the lobby and passages, up to the very door of the House itself.
They assaulted and molested many members, obliged them to wear blue cockades, and shout “no popery !” Though full notice had been given of such an irregular
assemblage, no preparations had been made for Parliameut maintaining the public peace and securing Parliainvested.
ment from intimidation. The Lords were in danger of their lives ; yet six constables only could be found to protect them. The Commons were invested ; but their doorkeepers alone resisted the intrusion of the mob. While this tumult was raging, Lord George Gordon proceeded to present the Protestant petition, and moved that it should be immediately considered in committee. Such a proposal could not be submitted to in presence of a hooting mob; and an amendment was moved to postpone the consideration of the petition till another day. A debate ensued, during which
disorders were continued in the lobby and in Palace Yard. Sometimes the House was interrupted by violent knocks at the door, and the rioters seemed on the point of bursting in. Members were preparing for defence, or to cut their way out with their swords. Meanwhile, the author of these disorders went several times into the lobby, and to the top of the gallery stairs, where he harangued the people, telling them that their petition was likely to meet with small favor, and naming the members who opposed it. Nor did he desist from this outrageous conduct, until Colonel Murray, a relative of his own, threatened him with his sword, on the entrance of the first rioter. When a division was called, the sergeant reported that he could not clear the lobby; and the proceedings of the House were suspended for a considerable time. At length, a detachment of military having arrived, the mob dispersed, the division was taken, and the House adjourned.1
The scene at Westminster had been sufficiently disgraceful: but it was merely the prelude to riots and incendiarism, by which London was desolated for a week. On the 6th, the Protestant petition was to be considered. Measures had been taken to protect the legislature from further outrage: but Lord Stormont's carriage was attacked and broken to pieces; Mr. Burke was for some time in the hands of the inob; and an attempt was made upon Lord North's official residence in Downing Street. The Commons agreed to resolutions in vindication of their privileges, and pledging themselves to consider the petition when the tumults should sub-ide.?
Meanwhile, the outrages of the mob were encouraged by the supineness and timidity of the government and magistracy, until the whole metropolis was threatened with conflagration. The chapels of Catholic ambassadors burned, prisons broken open, the houses of magistrates and
1 Ann. Reg., 1780, 190, et seq.; Parl. Hist., xxi. 651-686; State Tr. xxi. 486.
? Parl. Hist., xxi. 661.
tion in the
statesmen destroyed; the residence of the venerable Mans. field, with his books and priceless manuscripts, reduced to ashes. Even the bank of England was threatened. The streets swarmed with drunken incendiaries. At length the
“ There shall, at least, be one magistrate in the kingdom," buen EuWdevastation was stayed by the bold decision of the king.
said he,“ who will do his duty ;” and by his command a proclamation was immediately issued, announcing that the king's officers were instructed to repress the riots ; and the military received orders to act without waiting for directions from the civil magistrate. The military were prompt in action; and the rioters were dispersed with bloodshed and slaughter."
The legality of military interference, in the absence of a Military ac
magistrate, became afterwards the subject of dis
cussion. It was laid down by Lord Mansfield, magistrate. that the insurgents having been engaged in overt acts of treason, felony, and riot, it was the duty of every subject of His Majesty, and not less of soldiers than of other citizens, to resist them. On this ground was the proclamation justified, and the action of the military pronounced to be warranted by law. His authority was accepted as conclusive. It was acknowledged that the executive, in times of tumult, must be armed with necessary powe er: but with how little discretion bad it been used ? Its timely exercise might have averted the anarchy and outrages of many days, – perhaps without bloodshed. Its tardy and violent action, at the last, had added to the evils of insurrection a sanguinary conflict with the people.?
Such was the sad issue of a distempered agitation in an unworthy cause, and conducted with intimidation and violence. The foolish and guilty leader of the movement
1 Ann. Reg., 1780, 265, et seq. Nearly three hundred lives were known to have been lost; and one hundred and seventy-three wounded persons were received into the hospitals.
2 Debates of Lords and Commons, June 19th, 1780; Parl. Hist., xxi. 690-701; Debate on Mr. Sheridan's motion (Westminster Police), March 5th, 1781; Ibid., 1305.
escaped a conviction for high treason, to die, some years later, in Newgate, a victim to the cruel administration of the law of libel ; – and many of the rioters expiated their crimes on the scaffold.
A few years later another association was formed, to forward a cause of noble philanthropy, — the abolition of the slave trade. It was almost beyond the Association,
1787. range of politics. It had no constitutional change to seek : no interest to promote: no prejudice to gratify: not even the national welfare to advance. Its clients were a despised race, in a distant clime, — an inferior type of the human family, — for whom natures of a higher mould felt repugnance rather than sympathy. Benevolence and Christian charity were its only incentives. On the other hand, the slave-trade was supported by some of the most powerful classes in the country, - merchants, shipowners, planters. Before it could be proscribed, vested interests must be overborne, ignorance enlightened, prejudices and indifference overcome, public opinion converted. And to this great work did Granville Sharpe, Wilberforce, Clarkson, and other noble spirits devote their lives. Never was cause supported by greater earnestness and activity. The organization of the society comprehended all classes and religious denominations. Evidence was collected from every source, to lay bare the cruelties and iniquity of the traffic. Illustration and argument were inexhaustible. Men of feeling and sensibility appealed, with deep emotion, to the religious feelings and benerolence of the people. If extravagance and bad taste sometimes courted ridicule; the high purpose, just sentiments, and eloquence of the leaders of this movement won respect and admiration. Tracts found their way into every house : pulpits and platforms resounded with the wrongs of the negro : petitions were multiplied : ministers and Parliament moved to inquiry and action. Such a mission was not to be boon accomplished. The cause could not be won by sudden
1 State Tr., xxii. 175-236; Ann. Reg., 1793, Chron. 3.