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Minorca the terror of scurvy and the enormous armies of Crillon, there occurred in the year 1780 a disgraceful riot in London, which, at a moment of the gravest national danger, weakened the position of the British government with the nations of Europe where neither the outbreak nor its treatment were understood.
One of the complaints of the American colonists had been that liberty to exercise their own religion and live under their own laws had been granted to the Roman Catholics of conquered Canada. The same intolerance of theological liberty was common to the Protestants of Britain, the difference between the two cases being that the Canadians only asked that the laws under which they had always lived should be still left to them under British dominion, while the Roman Catholics in Britain sought relief from laws passed in former times for political reasons, laws for which there was not, nor had ever been, any justification. By 11-12 William III. any Popish priest exercising any part of his function in Great Britain, keeping a school or educating youth, was liable to perpetual imprisonment, nor could a Roman Catholic possess estates unless he took such oaths or subscribed such declaration as by his religion he could not do. This Bill, says Bishop Burnet, was brought in by party faction in the hope that the court rejecting the Bill, its rejection could then be urged against the court. Not being opposed, he says, the authors added further severities to it, in the belief that the Lords would throw it out, which they did not do. Such foolish Acts often remain on the Statute Book because they are not put into operation. This was especially the case under a liberal-minded king such as George III. Granting a pardon to a Catholic priest who had been convicted of celebrating Mass in Surrey he writes to North, “God forbid, my Lord, that religious difference in opinion should sanction persecution or admit of one man in my realms suffering unjustly." (Letters to Lord North.)
In 1778, on the motion of Sir George Savile, an act was passed for the limited repeal of these acts in England, but it being proposed, in 1779, to pass a similar bill for Scotland, violent mobs burnt chapels and houses and committed a variety of outrages there, until the Lord Provost of Edinburgh gave promise that there should be no repeal. Having been success
ful in Scotland, mob law spread to England, and under the leadership of Lord George Gordon, a young man aged twenty-nine, the third son of Cosmo Duke of Gordon, the attempt was made to override the legislature at Westminster and alter the law. The Protestant Association was formed to support this movement, and soon half the rogues and thieves in the kingdom were enrolled among its members. In January 1780, Lord George Gordon obtained an audience of the King and read him a pamphlet on Ireland until it was dusk when the King stopped him by saying that he would read the rest if Lord George would leave it. Then there was a great meeting for a petition in Westminster Hall, Charles Fox in the chair, who harangued the mob in the Hall, and was exceedingly severe on the King and the present reign and declared loudly for annual Parliaments (Walpole). John Wesley printed a letter in the London Chronicle against the toleration of Popery. The tendency was all towards bringing religious differences into politics to bolster up weak arguments. It is certain, says Walpole, of a rising of Presbyterians against Catholics in Ireland, “that in the northern parts many of the Cromwellian stamp remained among the Dissenters who had all along favoured the Americans."
In June the disorder came to a head. On June 2, Lord George, at the head of an enormous mob of his association, which he had assembled in St. George's Fields, Southwark, came to the House of Commons to present a petition which he urged should be considered. It was negatived by 192 to 6. On their way the mob insulted many of the peers, some of whom were dragged from their coaches and injured. In the House, General Conway, Colonel Murray and others scolded and threatened Lord George, while he denounced to the mob from the doors and windows of the House the members who had spoken against them. When the Guards and Light Horse were called out the mob was dispersed, but when night fell they began to destroy chapels and to burn and loot houses.
Until June 7, London was practically at the mercy of the mob who burnt and plundered chapels and houses as they pleased, burning prisons and releasing the prisoners, and looting the distilleries, the magistrates taking no action to prevent the rioting
It must be remembered in judging the conduct of the magis
trates and officials that at this time there were no police to keep order, the safety of persons and property depending on the military. The magistrates were unwilling to act, especially in favour of the unpopular Papist for fear that they should be prosecuted for ordering the soldiers to fire on the people. As an example of the conditions occasioned by a such state of affairs, when in 1772 the Princess Royal died, the mob at the funeral stripped the black cloth from the platform to the Abbey before half the procession had passed, and the soldiers on guard, fearful of losing their share, began to help themselves. (Dr. Doran.)
The mob twice tried to force the Bank of England, they burnt Newgate, the Fleet, the King's Bench, and Marshalsea prisons, and released the prisoners, attacked Sir George Savile's house, assaulted Lord Sandwich, burnt the houses of the Justices, and destroyed Lord Mansfield's house and burnt his very valuable library. Dr. Johnson, going to see the smoking ruins of Newgate, reports, “As I went by, the Protestants were plundering the Sessions House at the old Bailey. There was not, I believe, a hundred ; but they did their work at leisure in full security without sentinels, without trepidation, as men lawfully employed in full day.” When the mob destroyed Lord Mansfield's house, a file of foot soldiers looked on. They had not been ordered to fire.
The King meanwhile was alert to protect the Queen's house, ready at any moment of the day or night to head his troops and charge the rioters. If he had been as autocratic as he is represented by historians, he would have done so. As it was, he called a special meeting of the Privy Council, all, though in opposition, being summoned, and put to them a question as to the amount of provocation which, in the eyes of the law, would justify a magistrate in ordering the military to fire on a riotous assembly. The Council hesitating to give their advice, he decided to act without it. Supported by Wedderburn and Mansfield he sent orders to Lord Amherst, the Commanderin-Chief, to employ the military without any authority from the magistrates. On this order being given, Lord Portland and Lord Rockingham left the Council. The riots ceased at once on the action of the soldiery. The soldiers shot and arrested many, and numbers drank themselves to death in the gatters with the gin looted from distilleries. A hundred and thirty-five were tried, of whom twenty-nine were hanged. Of these, two were young women, seventeen were under eighteen years of age, and three were not quite fifteen. By common consent no further enquiry was made.
The trial of Lord George Gordon for high treason is worth noticing, as showing the honesty and impartiality of English criminal trials as compared with continental procedure. The judges were Lord Mansfield, who had had his house and library burnt, Willes, Ashurst and Buller. Many times in the course of the case the witnesses for the prosecution were checked and questioned by the judges and the jury. On orders given by Gordon, the exact words were called for, the numbers of the rioters, the words used in the lobbies of the House of Commons. Summing up, Lord Mansfield impartially justified law against force. It is totally immaterial, he says, whether the law that the multitude by force wants to change be a good or a bad law; it is the force that tends to make the alteration that constitutes the crime. It is flattering religious zeal, fanaticism and enthusiasm in the minds of the deluded multitudes, which in the history of the world have ever been the cause of infinite mischief, national ruin and injustice. But he tells the jury, if you are of the opinion on the evidence that the scale hangs doubtful between them, then it should hang upon the favourable side. Gordon was acquitted.
General Conway proposed to move for the repeal of the laws for the relief of Catholics, but the House had adjourned. When it reassembled, the Duke of Grafton and the Bishop of Peterborough declared strongly against the toleration of Popery.
THE NEW RULERS OF EUROPE
i. Charles III. of Spain, 1759–1788.—Two different tendencies of thought were at this time very strongly affecting the political life of Europe. So long as the Papacy stood as an Imperial power over the various societies of the Christian peoples, the
movement towards the unity of smaller units under a central authority was slow and uncertain. But when Europe broke up after the Reformation into a number of States, which acknowledged no Imperial leader, the unifying influence which had been in action for a long time towards strengthening the central authority, acquired great force. Such a tendency involved the abolition of local privileges, the depression of local authority, tradition and custom, the destruction of all the inequalities which, encouraging local patriotism, were opposed to the acknowledgment of federal authority.
The movement, as it gathered force, acted in several ways : it led to a great increase of royal authority, to a tendency toward absolute rule, as the king replaced by justice, often arbitrarily exercised, the evil usages of the weaker rulers. The excellent effect of the exercise of central power, both in internal affairs and in the organization of external war, made the simplicity of absolute rule popular even in evil hands, hiding for a long time the loss of free institutions which accompanied it.
But it opened out another aspect of life, though there is no reason to suppose that the rulers who made use of the instinct saw the tendency. The decay of local privilege meant equality as a social and political aim. As the centralizing movement grew stronger, there arose an equally powerful instinct among the people levelled under the common head for greater freedom from the oppression of privilege. The two streams, like the waters of the Rhine and the Aare, flow for some distance in the same channel without mixing, until they join in turbid revolution at the close of the eighteenth century.
They would probably have continued to blend peacefully much longer but for the example set by the theories of the men of Massachusetts and the evil characters of some of the rulers. If you ask why in such conditions men lay quiet under the rule of such men as Louis XV. or Frederick II., the answer is, that men are always very slow to put their sufferings to the test of force : life is so short, and in all so sad, that they wait and suffer in the hope that when the despot dies there will be opportunity for peaceful change, for betterment without struggle, for an appeal to and pressure on the new ruler. After the middle of the eighteenth century their hopes would appear to be justified. The new theories, permeating in Europe and