Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

London Corresponding Society

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Formation  January 1792
Headquarters  London
London Corresponding Society
Purpose  Radical parliamentary reform
Key people  Thomas Hardy, Joseph Gerrald, Maurice Margarot, Edward Despard

The London Corresponding Society was a Radical organization based in London, England, with a membership consisting primarily of artisans, tradesmen, and shopkeepers. At its peak, the society boasted roughly 3,000 dues-paying members who shared the goal of reforming the British political system. Formed in 1792 by Thomas Hardy, the society's key mission was to ensure universal suffrage for British men and annual parliaments. Due to the perceived French revolutionary influence on the society and its calls for radical political change, the government of William Pitt the Younger, fearing upheaval bitterly opposed it, accusing it on two occasions of plotting to assassinate the King, and putting its key leaders on trial in 1794 for treason. However, due to the transparent falsity of the government’s claims, those leaders, including Hardy, John Thelwall, and John Horne Tooke, were all acquitted. After exerting "undue influence" on the European political climate in the last decade of the 18th century, the LCS and other organizations like it were outlawed by a 1799 Parliamentary Act, and efforts to maintain an underground organization were stymied by their outlaw status and financial troubles and mismanagement. 

Contents

Early influences and foundation

The European Enlightenment, American independence, and later the French Revolution reinvigorated interest in the concepts of republicanism, popular sovereignty, and self-representation in late 18th century Britain, spurring the creation of various politically motivated organizations and societies, most prominently the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI). The pamphlets published by the SCI, the increasingly popular Rights of Man by political thinker Thomas Paine, and the abundance of other political tracts inspired a shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, to found the LCS in January 1792 as a society including "all descriptions and classes of men" to carry out a "radical reform of parliament." Morever, Hardy quickly realized that the general public needed to be educated on the subject of their political rights, and the LCS's secondary aim became to provide cheap, accessible publications and open meetings to the masses. Hardy was quickly joined by founding members John Frost, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Other prominent members included Francis Place, Edward Marcus Despard, and Olaudah Equiano. The LCS also had branches in Manchester, Norwich, Sheffield, and Stockport, Scotland, and Ireland. Irish rebels, such as Despard, became the early left wing of the London Corresponding Society.

Organizational structure

From the beginning, the LCS was viewed with suspicion by the British government, and was infiltrated by spies on the government payroll. In addition to domestic subversion, the state authorities feared the entrance of foreign spies into Britain to such an extent that they created the Aliens Act of 1793 in order to screen all foreigners entering the country. When applying for admission, prospective immigrants were required to verify their names, ranks, occupations, and addresses. Those who did not comply were arrested. To encourage discussion and a sense of community in such a context of mutual suspicion, and to thus discourage spying, the society was divided into 79 "divisions" which were further divided into "tithings" of ten members who lived near each other throughout the London area. Each division met twice a week to conduct business and discuss historical and political texts. In contrast to some of its contemporaries, the organization as a whole provided a sense of present action, allowing all citizens to participate in open debate, and providing democratic elections to elect members to leadership positions such as  tithing-man, divisional secretary, sub-delegate, or delegate. 

Membership

Members were mostly small independent craftsmen, people whose jobs were secure even when their politics were unpopular, and who were thus less vulnerable to threats and intimidation. Three hundred and forty-seven listed members included:

  • forty-three shoemakers
  • twenty-seven weavers
  • twenty-four tailors
  • nineteen in the watch trade (specifically, two watch case makers, a watch face painter, a watch spring maker, ten watchmakers, a clock case maker and four clock makers)
  • two mathematical instrument makers
  • At the height of its popularity, the Society had over 3,500 members, each of whom paid a penny a week. Many of the leading members were Deists, who opposed organized religion on the grounds that nature and reason provided the necessary and sufficient means to experience God.

    Key activities, 1792–1795

    The first prominent public action of the LCS was the November 29, 1792 publication of the pamphlet "Address of the London Corresponding Society to the other Societies of Great Britain, united for obtaining a Reform in Parliament", stating their aims while clarifying a position of non-violent reform through "moral force." This was just one of a series of over 80 similar tracts calling for reform as the LCS gained followers and popularity. By mid–1794, the LCS had gained enough traction to call for a convention of similar reform societies. In response, due to an inexplicable and unsubstantiated fear of a violent French Revolution-style rebellion, some leaders of the LCS, including Hardy, were arrested and charged with treason as part of the 1794 Treason Trials. Despite claims that the LCS was plotting to depose or assassinate the King and members of Parliament, the government's arguments were so unsubstantiated that juries acquitted LCS organizers Hardy, John Thelwall, and John Horne Tooke. The LCS’s popularity only continued to grow until the government, increasingly uneasy, passed the Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act in 1795, which, while short of outright banning reform societies, made it increasingly difficult to conduct large meetings. While the LCS continued to publish works and function in some capacity for the next three years, the effect of these acts was destabilizing and the society gradually lost traction and fell apart due to disorganization and the radicalization of some of its members. A final Parliamentary Act of 1799 "for the more effectual suppression of societies established for seditious and treasonable Purposes; and for better preventing treasonable and seditious practices", which referenced the LCS by name (among others), banned reform societies altogether, disbanding the LCS as an entity for all intents and purposes.

    Government response

    Due to the ongoing French Revolution and subsequent exodus of French émigrés to Britain, the administration of William Pitt the Younger feared a "Jacobin uprising" aimed to overthrow Parliament and the King, and the widespread reach of the LCS and its pamphlets threatened a populist insurrection similar to what had been seen in France. What was most troubling about the LCS and societies like it were that they carefully operated within the law, meaning there was no legitimate reason for government interference in their activities. This tense climate resulted in infiltration of the LCS and other societies by government spies. These spies encouraged more radical societies to engage in potentially seditious activities, allowing the administration to paint them all as insurrectionists. As a result, the government was able to prosecute LCS members both for sedition and for their involvement with other societies potentially engaged in illegal activities. Ultimately, however, the LCS's popularity forced the government to rely on legislation to prevent the spread of the reform movement.

    Legacy

    The LCS influenced the reform movements of the early 19th century, particularly Chartism, which in turn contributed to the 19th century Reform Bills. The 1832 Reform Act in particular contained many of the reforms called for by the LCS.

    References

    London Corresponding Society Wikipedia


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