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The Radical Challenges of 1812 – 1822 Essay

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In 1812 the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Lord Liverpool then became Prime Minister; he was the fifth choice candidate and he wasn’t expected to last very long because of this. However he managed to last for almost 15 years but over the first ten years he had to face economic problems caused by the end of the war and resurgent radical groups inspired by the economic problems from the war and the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

The handling of the economic problems caused more support for the radical groups, the abolition of income tax and the introducing of the Corn Laws caused more economic difficulties but preserved the power and privileges of the elite going against public opinion at the time. Groups like the Luddities and the Spenceans were very different to ones from Pitt’s time, where parallels have been drawn; they were prepared to use violence to achieve their means. Lord Liverpool’s government took a line similar to Pitt’s repressing revolts and protests instead of introducing reforms that addressed the complaints of protestors.

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The radical groups that Lord Liverpool faced were varied in their aims and seriousness. Peterloo Massacre, Luddities, Cato Street and Spa Fields were by far the most serious for a number of reasons. In 1811 – 1812, there was a series of incidents where armed protestors stormed factories and broke up machinery. These incidents happened mainly in the North, and were called Luddities. It was explained as an economic and political phenomenon with radical and violent tendencies stemming from unemployment, wage cuts and price rises. It was serious because it damaged large amounts of machinery. However, it was local splintered action of working class labourers with no united aims, for example, some wanted their jobs back and others wanted to halt industrialisation. There for they were easily defeated by the government.

Cato Street was organised by a number of Spenceans who wanted to assassinate the cabinet as they meet at Grovesnor Square in February 1820, this would, they hoped, paralyse decision making in the capital creating chaos and confusion leading to uprisings. However a government spy called George Edwards had easily infiltrated them and acted as an agent provocateur, stirring up trouble making the threats more serious than they appeared, his information led to the arrest of the leader Arthur Thistlewood and four others as they gathered in Cato Street. This threat was dangerous to Lord Liverpool because it was the most isolated and suicidal act of defiance during this time period by extremists. However it showed that the radicals were growing more organised and more dangerous, and this was very serious.

However, the Cato Street conspirators were easily caught and once they were, they didn’t inspire further uprisings as intended, the opposite happened, Lord Liverpool used the threats from Cato Street to gain support. It was therefore one of the last radical threats of the period. Spa Fields was also organised by the Spenceans, it was part of a series of mass meetings aiming to intimidate the authorities and inspire the public top rebel against the current system by occupying the Tower of London and the Bank of England. 10’000 people turned out to hear Henry Hunt talk but the meetings were quickly dispersed when spies found out about it.

One pedestrian was killed and a member of the authorities stabbed during the dispersing of the meeting. The four leaders were arrested for treason but were acquitted. It was regarded by the authorities a serious threat because of the large support network with the Spenceans leading it who were sinister groups wanting a revolution. But beyond the 10’000 people turning out to see Henry Hunt there was no national interest and no national leaders to organise action. Peterloo Massacre was also a mass meeting on 16th August 1819, 60’000 people turned up in St. Peters Field to hear Henry Hunt campaign for universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments.

However the local magistrates were nervous about Hunt talking because he had caused riots in Manchester, spies made it worse by suggesting that armed radicals were in mass meeting. The hated Manchester Yeomanry tried to arrest Hunt but found it difficult to move him. The magistrates called in the 15th Hussars to rescue the Yeoman from the crowd. However, the crowd stampeded and 10 died, some of which from sabre cuts. The magistrate’s response to the mass meeting does suggest how serious a threat it was. The response was because mass meetings were very new and no one knew how to deal with them. The fact that it was very badly dealt with brought revolutionary ideas to the forefront of the nation’s conscience, bringing more hatred on Lord Liverpool’s government.

While some threats were very serious, other were not as serious. They could still be classed as serious but the government intervention stopped them getting serious. The Pentrich Revolution, was an attempted revolution stirred up by an agent provocateur especially W.J Richards who informed a group of workers that they could expect support from workers in Sheffield, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham and London. On 9th June 1817, Jeremiah Brandeth set out with 200 mean to march to Nottingham. When they arrived in Nottingham, they were met by troops not the thousands of supporters that they were led to believe, forty five men were tried for high treason and three were hanged. Pentrich wasn’t serious because it was easily stopped by the authorities and didn’t have much support only 200 men.

The Blanketeers were a crowd of 4000 men who march to London to present the Prince Regent with a petition calling for the repeal of the Corn Laws and the reinstatement of Habeas Corpus. The majority of the protestors were under 30, whose prospects had changed radically in the last 15 years. However, 300 started the long march to London but they were stopped by troops in their home town of Stockport. Therefore, they were not very dangerous because they didn’t get very far and only wanted to petition the Prince Regent so no revolutionary intent.

They both showed that the working classes were not prepared to be silenced about matters that concerned themselves for example unemployment and industrialisation. It showed that the ‘political nation was being enlarged’ (Eric Evans). The last mass protest of the period was the Queen Caroline affair which came just after the Cato Street Conspiracy as most of the radical activity had died down. In 1820, George III dies and was succeed by George IV who lived apart from his wife Queen Caroline. Queen Caroline returned from Britain to claim her right as queen but matters became complicated when Caroline died in 1821. The authorities intended that her coffin be taken through the back streets of London and taken home to Italy by sea. But huge number took to streets in protest causing the coffin to be taken through the main streets of London.

I showed how unpopular George IV and Lord Liverpool was but it was the last big protest of the time period because during the 1820’s the economy revives and the radical threat dies down. Overall, the radical groups were not a serious threat. While they appeared to be a serious threat using violence to protest against machinery, for example the Luddities, or aimed to use violence like Spa Fields they were easily stopped by the authorities on the information of the spies who tried to provoke them to more serious action. The threats from groups were not united behind a leader or aims, most groups wanted political change or some were protesting about machines not a revolution which would have constituted a real threat. This lack of unity weakened them. This was in contrast to the strength and unity of Lord Liverpool, who was determined to clamp down on unrest.

The reaction of Lord Liverpool towards the radical threats wasn’t popular at times. The use of spies and agents provocateurs to infiltrate and destroy threats was used widely, most noted at Cato Street and the Blanketeers. The use of soldiers war widespread, the Luddities were stopped because of a large force stationed in each area affected by Luddism. Over 12,000 soldiers were stationed in the north. Although this use of force was key in stopping Luddism, it must be noted that the loss of life during some attacks helped too. The magistrates were also used to keep law and order. They were essential for Lord Liverpool. They were given more powers under the Six Acts 1819. However at Peterloo, it showed that they were not brilliant at keeping law and order. The massacre caused public opinion away despite Lord Liverpool’s support. This support caused the government to be increasingly unpopular but he had too support them otherwise law and order would fall down.

Lord Liverpool not only used spies, magistrates and soldiers he used legislation. The first act that he passed was the suspension of Habeas Corpus. This meant that any political prisoner could be held without trial, this was seen as a massive breach of personal liberties. However it only lasted 10 months and only 44 people were arrested and 37 detained therefore it was a deterrent against further radical threats. The Seditious Meetings Act made the unauthorized meetings of 50 or more illegal to stop the mass meetings of Spa Fields and Peterloo. However it had a time limit on it, it was allowed to lapse in 1818. . After Peterloo and Pentrich, the government brought in the Six Acts 1819. The Seditious Meetings Prevention Act gave powers to restrict public meetings in an attempt to combat Peterloo; it gave more powers to the magistrates and was seen as supporting the magistrates.

Both the Seizure of Arms Act which gave local magistrates the right to search and seize arms and the Training Prevention Act which banned all unauthorized paramilitary drilling and training were largely ineffective and deemed useless. The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act allowed local magistrates to conduct searches for and to seize blasphemous and seditious publications; this was to prevent the rise of more revolutionary press however this piece of legislation was not rigorously enforced so wasn’t effective. The Newspaper and Stamp Duty Act introduced a 4p stamp duty on newspapers in an attempt to ensure that the price of radical newspapers were beyond the means of most working classes to prevent the working classes from learning about other ideas and rebelling.

However the act restricted the freedom of legitimate press. Radical publications simply went underground so was ineffective. Lastly, the Misdemeanors Act simplified and speeded up procedures for bringing cases of treason to trial. The Six Acts on paper seem quite harsh, however very few were sentenced under them. N. Gash says, about the Six Acts, ‘… never fully enforced’ meaning that not enough people were prosecuted under it and that the authorities didn’t want to either.

However J. Marlow says ‘… a virtual watertight blanket over the radical activities’ meaning that the Six Acts stopped or reduced the threat of the radical groups meaning that they were never a threat to government. However, the Six Acts were a virtual blanket over radical groups activities meaning that they never had to be fully enforced because the acts deterred people. It was a symbolic measure rather than an intended measure to punish and repress people

Overall the most important reason why Lord Liverpool survived the radical challenges was because of the weakness of the radical challenges themselves; they were localised affairs with no national support. Had they united then Lord Liverpool probably wouldn’t have survived. That lack of unity meant that Lord Liverpool could stop the threats one by one. While the weakness of radical threats was the most important, Lord Liverpool’s use of spies and legislation is also important but the legislation only came after the last of the most serious threats, it was a deterrent more than an active solution to root out the radicals and by then the economy was reviving and the root of all radicalism at the time was to do with economic distress.

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