3rd June 1793. Triumph for Human Rights.
Today June 1793 saw the publication of James Gillray’s cartoon which portrayed William Pitt at the Helm of the Ship Constitution, between the rock (Scylla) of Democracy with a Liberty Cap on its summit, and the whirlpool (Charybdis) of arbitrary power in the shape of an inverted crown, looking to a distant Haven of Liberty.
This cartoon came out within the context of the effect of the French Revolution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror on British politics in the 1790s, and the repressive actions that ensued.
The Government was increasingly fearful when the English Jacobins and London Corresponding Societies in April 1794 organized meetings on the Green at Chalk Farm, London.
The Government moved, suspended Habeus Corpus, arrested those involved, including leaders Thomas Holcroft, Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall.
The resultant trial under Lord Chief Justice Eyre, before a Grand Jury in October 1794, saw the prosecution case aiming to prove ‘Constructive Treason’ hoping to show any behaviour as treasonous. building on the 14thc statute of Edward III where High Treason could be ‘any overt act showing to ‘compass the or imagine the death of the king.'(1)
Eyre argued that any attempt to overthrow the government and the monarchy must be, ‘to design such horrible Ruin and Devastation who no king could survive.’
However it was soon realized that a statute of the Middle Ages might be a little out of tune for the Age of Enlightenment, even though the punishment, if convicted, could be medieval.
Then William Godwin arrived on the scene. He had joined the Revolutionist Club, was a gradualist anarchist, not a revolutionary, egalitarian and utilitarian and regarded by the radicals, which also included members of the aristocracy such as the Whig, Charles 3rd Earl Stanhope, as their intellectual leader.(2)
Godwin in response to the treason trials wrote his influential pamphlet, Cursory Strictures in order to ‘Destroy Extravagant Charges of Constructive Treason’.
This was to receive so much popular support, it resulted in the English Jacobins being acquitted, and a victory for Human Rights, which is still a live issue today.
What the trials did evoke were examples of the genre, ‘Trial Literature’, concerning famous trials of the time, one being Thomas Hardy’s account of his trial, ’accurately taken as shorthand’, and from which, know doubt, he made some money.
The aftermath of the French Revolution was repression in Britain, and Shelley’s 1820 Essay, Defence of Poetry, which saw the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and the Vessel of State being driven between anarchy and despotism.
Things don’t change!
(1) The case came before the Jury on 2nd October 1794.
(2) The Earl Stanhope FRS (3.8.1753-15.12.1816), was chairman of the Revolutionary Society founded in honour of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, had sympathies with the French Revolution.
Ref: Andrew McCann, Enquiry concerning political justice. Literary Encyclopedia 2001.
Ref: books.google.co.uk/Lord Chief Justice and Constructive Treason.