It was a misfortune to any man to have been born in the latter end of the last century … The flame of liberty, the light of intellect, was to be extinguished with the sword — or with slander, whose edge is sharper than the sword — Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (1825), quoted by Johnston
Dear friends and readers,
Today I finished writing a review I’ve been reading and working towards for several weeks. I didn’t mean to take such time with it, but Kenneth Johnson’s Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm & the Lost Generation of the 1790s is so good and important that I wanted to be able to place it in its scholarly as well as contemporary context — and so read other texts and reread some primary materials. This blog is not that review; rather like other blog-reviews I’ve done it’s rather a summary and commentary on details of the book intended to let readers know something of its content and to tempt them into reading it themselves. I tell the arguments and describe the lives and works covered. There’s a lot of worthwhile material here; as with other books I’ve shared on my blogs I’ll divide the blog into two parts to keep the reading from becoming too long.
Johnston tells stories of the ruined lives – ruined careers, thwarted writers, artists, politicians innumerable of the 1790s in the UK. His argument is that There was a widespread and viable reform movement shared by countless people across Great Britain, which was ruthlessly repressed, decimated — by Pitt the Younger’s establishment through violence, by manufacturing adverse opinion, by punishing people legally and socially, by trials for treason & sedition (or being a public nuisance or whatever would do) in the 1790s. He discussed people not tried for treason but penalized in common ways we are used to do (from the McCarthy era on), people in artistic and academic walks of life. Why did Charles James Fox never become Prime Minister? Was was Paine’s style not influential? Pitt’s Reign of Alarm did the job. An oligarchic and militarist foreign political world was shaped by Waterloo and treaties signed by Allies, put in place, in the UK a domestic better world put off for more than 70 years.
What Johnston’s makes book especially worthwhile are nuanced words in which he conveys the humanity, decency, genuine need for reform, the gross ruthlessness of those doing the destroying – in small things not susceptible of documentation – a new historicism indeed.
Part I: The Red Decade
Chapter 1 is called “Before and After Lives”. Johnston opens with Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age as about how England missed its inspiration, was prevented by official reactionary ruthless determination to stamp out reform of any kind, individual prejudice, and cowardice (hard term). Johnston suggests coupling the terms romantic period and age of revolution (1776-1832) as twin terms is odd. He singles out as a double defeat two sets of acts: Pitt’s Gagging Acts (1795) and Sidmouth and Castlereagh’s Six Acts (1819). In the 1790s people were asking for extension of franchise, equitable districts, frequent elections, rights of men; in 1732 Tories vote with Whigs to increase electorate by 200,000 property owning males. Foot’s joke was rarely has reform given so little to so few. Even with the suppression it remained more important what happened in Norwich, Bristol, Sheffield, Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh (periodical publications, correspondence societies, meetings, even conventions) than in Paris; nonetheless, it was not inevitable that ideas, acts of poets & others would fail while France was having its revolution; why should lurching of France’s monarchy towards a republic be a bad time?
He divides the decade of 1790s divided into four parts.
Nov 4, 1789-May 1792, Price praising French Rev to Pitt proclamation against seditious writings: Burke’s answer to Price, Paine’s to Burke, destruction of Priestley’s home
Dec 1792-Oct/Dec 1794 – active legal repression: trial conviction of Paine in abstentia; of London 12; conviction and transportation to Botany Bay of Scottish martyrs
1795: gov’t lost treason trials of 12 so re-groups, secret services modernized; protests against Pitt’s war (ruinous domestic economic effects). Gagging acts after attack on king’s coach – no public meetings of more than 50 persons (despite mass protest), no publishing criticism. Two acts, 1795 – no one can speak in public without gov’t approval if there are more than 50 present (Grenville); no publications that bring King’s gov’t into disrepute or censure.
1796-1800: mopping up operation, of radicals left standing: Wm Stone, John Thelwall … includes 1798 trial and imprisonment of Gilbert Wakefield (died of it) for libeling Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff …; 1800 a bill of indemnity protecting Pitt and his cabinet from claims
Thus was a reform movement grindingly shut down: Johnston reviews the arguments among a group of older scholars (Veitch, Thompson, Dickinson): was it large, organized or serious enough to be considered the beginning of British socialism, a failed form of proto-revolutionary activity; new voices (Barrell, Philip, McKee, McCalman, Radical Underworld) argue they they were socialist precursors.
What happened to these people? Johnston lists names of people: Death by execution or from imprisonment, itself and transportation; abscond, flight, immigration, exile; arrest and long periods of detention; financial damage and career ruination; gov’t harassment; psychological damage, physical harm; effective silencing, stopping publishing; orchestrated ridicule and libel; anonymous publication; disappearance from publication; change in topic and style; revision and erasure as juvenilia; move to conservative positions; public recantation, informing on others; direct monetary reward for informing, changing views. All his subjects have entries in the old DNB & ODNB – repressive hegemony of state ideological apparatus plays upon thoughts, ideas, actions
He wants us to appreciating the non-development of English literature – what didn’t happen – and the small mean private ways by which hegemonic control work; the endless ripple effects. If they went on to do other things, biographers, historians ignore or apologize for “youthful errors.” The materials are ambiguous and Gillray’s cartoons a good example of the difficulty of “reading” them.
He takes Amelia Alderson Opie as opening example: she moved from radical reform politics, to careful revision, to pious Quakerism – we can see the effects of repression registering on her — a full reprint of her memory of treason trials shows how fearful she was, how she identified with those accused, the unfair accusations… dangerous punishments, and her lone and lonely life at 80.
Chapter 2 is about John Thelwall (1764-1834) and Wm Goodwin (1756-1836). Thelwall is a usual suspect – against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent. Godwin had to turn to anonymity, become a non-person to survive in his later years. Thelwall arrested as one of the 12 and Godwin’s Cursory Strictures laid out argument defense counsel used. While Godwin supported Thelwall in treason trial, later he wrote arguments gaved ammunition to gov’t bills of gagging and no assembly.
Johnston reviews lightly the central points of some of Thelwall’s speeches – they are intended as speech in action. His occasional best. The absurdity of presenting superstitious practices, to send peasantry to be annihilated in a crusade to restore the fallen despotism of France. Treason now means telling the truth to the shame and confusion of ministers. Thelwall presented himself as a target – let him be prosecuted; but after the acquittal, the way he was kept from any success was through means like a petty illegal smashing of a hall, frightening others who welcomed him, beating him up – all he could get was laughter at his plight.
Godwin Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft for which modern scholars have castigated him was a form of “grief-work” based on the principle that you could understand her best by knowing how she came to have her views in Rights of Woman; what happened was the rest of the world wouldn’t listen; abuse then never let up – I wondered if the mockery of Radcliffe was part of this way of coping with anything unconventional and in her case at moments Girondist radical. As with Lilian Hellman, friends (Mackintosh) rehabilitated themselves by attacking Godwin; he experienced the pusillanimity and opportunism of his friends: Mackintosh refused to name Godwin and only when Parr did did Godwin have opportunity to refute – and he comes off well – why are you attacking me and why now? – he sees how they are attacking him because of pressure of events around them but he refuses to meet them on the low road of personal abuse and his sarcasms too subtle to reach readership – he still had the remarkable nerve to talk about the value of Napoleon’s life.
Mathus’s famous thesis meant as a refutation of Godwin type argument that would provide for more people – the only result could be more would end up starving. Mathus a man of the left, went to dissenting academies, his father friend of Rousseau, enthusiast for Condorcet and Godwin. Godwin realizes the advocates could not find a doctrine more pleasing to them. In preface to Caleb Williams Godwin writes about “the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man” – hegemonic disciplining Johnston calls it. Are we condemned to despair things will never improve? – 4 pieces of controversial prose.
Thelwall had found it impossible to speak anywhere so now Godwin to publish. Now for Godwin publishing was his means of making a living. He marries Sarah Jane Clairmont, a widow with children of her own. Godwin publishes as William Scolfield Bible Stories, these sell well, but watchdog Sarah Trimmer seeing its liberal lessons of humane behavior says it has “very pernicious tendencies.” Fleetwood and Chaucer under his name don’t sell so he brings out juvenile library under pseudonyms – some sniff out – they are “creditable,” do not “pander to prejudice,” but educational and liberal presentations of stories and subject.He was destroyed as a writer; irony that he was denied a passport to join Holcroft in Germany; forced to remain in a country that couldn’t abide him.
Part II: Forces of Public Opinion
Chapter 3 is titled Dr Phlogiston and is the story of Joseph Priestley (1733-1844). Everyone shocked, tut-tuts at destruction of home and lab of Priestley in Birmingham 1791 July; 5 day riot of king and country mob, more than 30 houses destroyed. Planned event from the start -– in effect an assassination attempt. He was at the time a famous scientist, discovered oxygen, nitrous oxide & 5 other elemental gases; a friend of Franklin, competitor to Lavoisier; also public intellectual – wrote 30 volumes. He was a dissenter; not popular because he’d speak his mind (so too Thomas Beddoes and Gilbert Wakefield). Spoke & wrote on behalf of American revolution. Identified Phlogiston, gaseous element produced by fire.
Johnston tells the history of the slowly evolving riot and its aftermath, showing it was gov’t encouraged, led, endorsed until it changed to proto-revolutionary and then only a few scapegoats punished. Attacked were 1) people at dinner 2) dissenters; 3) intellectuals and rich men. Riot against supposed revolutionaries, then Papist dissenters (!) and then on town’s economic and punitive elite. Priestly did preach a sermon of forgiveness, condescending and ironic, and much disliked by literature classes.
Riots enabled officials to bring Birmingham by customs and actions back into conservative fold. Birmingham independents and unitarians no longer found in positions of authority or publicly acting – how an alarmed reaction can be carefully orchestrated to end in Tory and Anglican party becoming strong. 1794 Priestley sees it is over for him in the UK and emigrates to the US where he refuses public position and carries on as private citizen; his sons join him; Cobbett ridiculed Priestley’s loss, later on he too found refuge in the US. Priestley rightly did not feel safe until Jefferson was elected.
Chapter 4, The Radical Moravian: James Montgomery (1771-1854). Born of Irish parents, in Scotland, his parents went to West Indies as missionaries when he was 8; precocious, wrote poetry, hired as counting house clerk by Joseph Gales in Sheffield; on staff of reform newspaper Register.
Sheffield was a radical place, base for societies and periodicals. There were riots in 1792, Montgomery writes essays on behalf of reform, religious poetry against war. When his employer was hounded out of England to Philadelphia where he founded a press; as the new editor in chief, Montgomery twice arrested: once for reprinting poem re-interpreted as offending. Sheffield Register now called Iris; he is arrested for reporting a troop behavior during a “riot”; 6 months, fined; had a bad time in prison, wrote poetry which shows his outlook and ill health; when he was released, his health was impaired. He goes on to write a series of periodical essays; 1795 The Whisperer or Hints and Speculations: these manifest the twisted kind of prose one writes when trying to say something and hide it at the same time; The Art of Shortening Life, and a 4 volume novel he destroyed. In his later years he devoted himself to good works, religious poetry, against slavery, on behalf of chimney sweeps. He writes a poem against Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland; Byron preferred Montgomery’s Wanderer of Switzerland to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads; the public agreed and bought it; he is respected and liked by Southey. Montgomery’s radicalism was not accidental but cut off.
Part III: Keeping the University and Church Safe from Reform
Chapter 5: Friend of Jesus, friend of the devil: William Frend (1757-1841). Frend was drafted into army in American revolution; in 1775 he went to Cambridge, and began to agitate against Test Acts and exam system (these were sacrosant, they were the way egalitarianism was prevented, they kept these positions in the hands of an interlocking few coteries. Topics he debated debated included the rights of subjects to resist tyranny. Surprisingly perhaps Frend was successful in this milieu at first; he moves to teach poor children of the parish and mathematics for real. When he intensified his Hebrew studies, he no longer believed in the Trinity, and as an idealist began towork for a unitarian church to emerge.
Johnston claims thus Frend was surprised when the response to his arguments was to take away his teaching; he himself gave up two of his parishes as matter of conscience. He also wrote 3 works, each time widening his audience: Thoughts on .. Religious tests, to Rev. HHCoulthurst; then to Inhabitants of Cambridge and finally to Members of church of England. He was expelled; he could not understand why a constitutional critique and his goal of improving Christian knowledge no good.
At this point, Frend went to Germany and spends time with like-minded men, including Priestley’s son, Wm; in Belgium he is closer to events in France. Meanwhile at Cambridge Isaac Milner, Tory politican type takes over; they go after 5 faculty including Frend & 2 friends. The work prosecuted was his Peace and Union – a pamphlet arguing for compromise between republicans and anti-republicans and reform is pretending these things are acceptable. It’s the short appendices that matter: one where he imagines himself the women whose ¼ of salary suspended to pay for war that does them no good; the other remarkable argument that execution of Louis XVI none of UK’s business: they had cut a king’s head off for treason legally too. Startling. Some of the accusations were vague; he protested, his protests werer overridden; the existence of unproven alarm was grounds for prosecution; he is declared guilty and thrown out of university.
Frend then went to live in London and became member of LCS, wrote pamphlet on scarcity of bread and how to provide instead of gathering money for French aristocratic emigres. This is time of Thelwall’s speeches, exposure of exorbitant prices from war, monopoly. Frend would not disobey 1795 acts, though, and spent the rest of life teaching. His new career for money was a job working for actuarial assurance. He was befriended by Lord Byron’s wife, and continued to support good causes, against flogging, in support of reform bill 1832 and published Plan of Universal Education – tax income of Church of England to pay for it (forget that).
Chapter 6: No Laughing Matter: Thomas Beddoes, Sr (1760-1808). Beddoes was mentor to Humphry Davy, professor of chemistry, a forward-looking doctor of medicine who understood how it occurs and is shaped by its social context; he came from a politically liberal commercial family in Shropshire, was admitted to Pembroke, Oxford; studied on his own German, French, Italian; 1790s he wrote translations and reviews in the Monthly Review. 1792 A Letter to a Lady the way to reach the poor is to give them text to read that concerns them for real– private circulation. Prolonged geological researches in Wales; handbill against funding clergy escaping from French revolution – a kind spy system afoot ferrets it out – why he is not offered a salaried post. He was forced out of chemistry lectureship at Oxford; in Bristol later in decade his Pneumatic Institute suffered from conservative attacks. ODBN is misleading and sarcastic.By 1794 Beddoes needed help for this Pneumatic Institute for experiments with nitrous oxide, a therapy for TB; and did receive money from Wedgewood, help from Watt & Georgiana Spencer, Duchess. He was sufficiently well known to consider emigration of the sort envisaged by Coleridge and Southey (active with Coleridge in public meetings). Beddoes is an easy target by 1797-98; changes name of his institute, Preventative Medicine for Sick and Drooping Poor; then Hygiea addressing middle class in their style. He became a standard butt; died at 48 and his work lost to society for another 40 years
His 5 pamphlets exposed interwined issues of war, peace, political policies, economic scarcities and health of poor: A word in defense of the bills of rights; What would be the harm of a speedy peace?. He could not understand how people do nothing and wrote On means of relieving presence scarcity: this would be a system of soup kitchens. His Essay on Public merits of Mr Pitt was published by Joseph Johnson – how badly handled was the war; how much “human misery passes under medical inspection;” lastly, Alternatives Compared; or what shall the rich do to be safe?. These contained a remarkable series of questions that are utterly relevant to day: how far am I secure against false alarms, frauds, violence; do circumstances which I can control threaten deprivation of accommodation and necessities of life; unjust laws encroach on freedom. He makes it plain that real politics are quite mad if you were considering most people’s welfare; Pitt’s design to attack French revolution has made the crisis.
Part 4: Other Voices, Other Places: The suspect gender.
A prologue where he suggests women who worked for reform or revolution as writers had it much worse: Wollstonecraft chief target and then whip as a name; and he goes over the destruction of careers of Anna Barbauld (her 1811 poem), Mary Robinson (he emphasizes her later writing and crippled state), Charlotte Smith (her originality marginalized) and Mary Hays (mocked by men and friends).
Chapter 7: Our Paris Correspondent: Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827). Williams led a remarkable life: he praises her in career terms: see her contacts, see how her “consort” Stone was a successful businessman. How many people survive being imprisoned by Robespierre and Napoleon? She is the best example yet of an interrupted misunderstood career partly because she carried on (with Stone by her side which Johnston does not sufficiently acknowledge). Johnston shows how Williams was an “up and coming star” of the 1780s, how her Letters Written in France record the changes, first hope and principles of the French revolution, then dismay at turns it took, then horror at reaction and reactions to reactions, nevering loses sight of the root causes of the terror. This is intertwined with history of her life and her strengths as a writer.
Most effective is learning about those who first distanced and then attacked her (from Piozzi to Seward to Boswell). We see the meanness of Laetitia Hawkins; how others used Williams to forward themselves, “Twill then be infamy to seem your friend” is the motto here (Pope, Rape of Lock, 132) What is valuable here is how he quotes Williams to great effect making the reader want to read her. Her texts include an unflinching horrifying scene of massacres by mass drowning. He goes over her poetry too.
Chapter 8 takes us to Suspect Nations: Let Irish men remain sulky, grave, prudent and watchful, William Drennan (1754-1820).
Again a prologue: how the Continental congress terrified authorities: it showed people organizing and finding a voice without having official state-sanctioned offices! Without any law allowing or controlling them – this was enough to call it treason – they looked and acted like legislative body, would gain respect,so the five leaders were arrested, convicted and transported to Australia 1792-94 (these were called the Scottish Martyrs). Mass demonstrations were quelled. The gov’s went after effective writers too: Joseph Gerrard, son of Irish planter in West Indies, educated under Samuel Parr, worked in Philadelphia with Tom Paine; Welsh people intimidated (David William; Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg); William Orr hung in 1797 – administered oaths to members of United Irishmen, wrote in Northern Star – charges totally trumped up and shown to be by satire showing emptiness by rev James Porter also hung, June 1798
William Drennan follow the trajectory of politician-into-poet. The Drennan Letters (culled from 1400 and published Belfast 1931, ed. D.A Chart) survived and contain detailed information about daily events in Ireland, 1776-1807. As a talented literary person he took brunt of attack, wrote to sister, brother-in-law, mother. After he was tried for sedition, June 26, 1794, he withdrew from active politics, where his metier public or open letter, ended an obstetrician. He had written a series of letters on behalf of reform: Of Orellana, an Irish Helot, likening helots to native Irish population, as a fellow Helot haranguing, rolling climaxes with Paine like language. Drennan argued for volunteer rather than constitutional convention (object is constitutional), quietly sought to establish a secret society (favored at the time – think of the Masons) – goal was independence for Ireland, republicanism, united Irishmen his idea. His writing was too; the United Irishmen was declared illegal as an organization and he arrested for sedition. Johnston quotes Drennan in published papers and letters. Informer was Wm Carey but he testified on his behalf and judge told jury to return a guilty verdict for the good of the tranquillity of Ireland, they said Not Guilty. When Wolfe Tone indicted for treason, that ended much overt political activity and writing.
He lost friends when he did not come forward,plus his inheritance, his family & friends suffered humiliations. He married a rich wife, met William Roscoe of Liverpool, and founded a non-denominational academy in effort to free education, edited Belfast Monthly. His poems project a lyricism of loss. His later poetry shows him an “aristocratical Democrat:” he is for republic, not a particular religious group; looked on in 1798 horrified at Irish masses cut down by English and Protestant allies.
To sum up this first half of the book, his opening section embodies the idea of book through Opie in old age, and two eloquent victims showing how one does not realize one can be destroyed by others means: Thelwall’s eloquence gives us central argumetns; Godwin exposes motivations for what was done to him by others. Thelwall destroyed in ways he could not foresee, Godwin betrayed and silenced; Johnston presents their thoughts to show their value and their works. Part 2 explains what is hegemonic control with Priestley and Montgomery as examples of what this means. We see this today through what is allowable on TV and how reporters do not tell the full story of an event, distort evidence to please the government and powerful who hire them. Part 3 is about keeping patronage in close-knit network; both Beddoes and Frend are destroyed university types: it’s a kind of ambiguous indirect destruction – and Beddoes still misrepresented, Frend not done justice to.
Part 4 allows us to see through the career Helen Maria Williams carried on with an achievement can be ignored as well as a picture of English views of revolution over its phases. Suspect nations include Scots, Welsh, Ireland – Johnston exposes real questions, real reasons these people were destroyed, imprisoned, silenced, intimidated (Porter’s anonymous articles on Orr who was executed) – in Johnston’s article he is showing how these people were not nationalists – that is somewhat lost sight of here – finding all sorts of individuals shows how wide spread these ideas – underlying is belief it’s continual repression that keeps better world from coming forth – that with power and arms and money you need only destroy leaders, frighten people, and then hegemonic control for mass – belief that change comes from individuals is central to this book.
I suddenly remembered Ann Radcliffe’s silence: was it more than her nervous nature? the liberal reform ideas underlying her book, especially open in her travel book. At any rate she becomes one of the women others.