John Thelwall and the idea of democracy

by Geoffrey Bindman
John Thelwall (1764-1834), was a friend of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and one of the most radical political activists of his day. That radicalism was stimulated by his knowledge of English history and wide reading in philosophy and literature. He claimed to have been inspired by the prominent campaigner for political reform, Horne Tooke, whom he met in 1790, when Thelwall was already 26 years old, but it is clear that his political education had started much earlier. We know of his regular attendance at the debating clubs which flourished in his youth in London, particularly at the ‘Society for Free Debate’, which met at the Coachmakers’ Hall until it was closed by Pitt’s bully boys. Thelwall also spent three and a half years, between the ages of 18 and 22,  articled to an attorney in the Temple. His legal training alerted him to the great constitutional struggles of the past. Certainly it gave him a highly sceptical view of the profession. “Lawyers,” he said later in life, “have spread more devastation through the moral world than the Goths and Vandals who overthrew the Roman Empire”.

In the debates at Coachmakers’ Hall, Thelwall developed strong support for democratic reform, though he explained that he came to this view only by degrees, after careful study. He spoke eloquently against the slave trade. He spoke out for freedom of speech. He was energised by what was happening in France, not, according to his wife’s biography, by the triumph of an enraged populace over a military despotism, but by what he saw as an unprecedented attempt to form a government based on principles of reason and humanity.“Not upon expedients,” as  he put it, “but upon digested principles”.  Here we see an early attachment to human rights, before the concept achieved widespread usage. Thelwall contrasted an idealistic approach with the corruption of the British government and of the electoral process itself. He became active in  a bitter conflict in the parliamentary election for the Westminster constituency. This was one of the few in which there was real popular participation. All those who paid the parish rates had the vote. Elsewhere, elections were in ‘rotten boroughs’ where a single landowner cast the only votes. In growing industrial cities like Birmingham there were no elections at all. At Westminster in 1790 a deal was done between Whigs and Tories which would have made the election a sham, eliminating any democratic choice. Horne Tooke’s outrage led him to stand as a candidate. Thelwall met him and fell under his spell, describing him as “the first man of capacious and highly cultivated mind with whom he had ever been intimate.” Thelwall became his assistant in the election campaign and “modelled his style on Tooke who, while advocating lawful peaceful methods, used violent, emotive, rhetoric”.

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and for Thelwall, one of its most important features was the limits it placed on the autocratic power of the monarchy, though for many centuries successive monarchs fought to retain supremacy and cement their power.  The law of treason was formalised in the Statute of Treasons of 1351, which stated that the cardinal offence was “compassing or imagining the death of the King”. In the following centuries many prosecutions were brought for treason against those who sought to challenge or usurp the authority of the Crown. As time went on, the definition of treason was subtly stretched. For example, advocating constitutional change was considered indirect or ‘constructive’ treason. Even Charles 1st, paradoxically, was executed for high treason in 1649.

From about 1780, organisations began to be established to urge political reform. The aim was to expand the suffrage and increase the frequency of elections. The Society of Constitutional Information was formed in that year, and a London Revolutionary Society was formed in 1788 to commemorate the centenary of the Bill of Rights of 1689. These stirrings of discontent made little impact on Parliament itself. In 1785, William Pitt himself  had introduced a motion for reform which had been rejected almost without debate. In 1792, by which time the French revolution had caused consternation among the ruling elite, the London Corresponding Society was founded by Thomas Hardy, a Piccadilly shoemaker. This was arguably the first working-class political organisation. Thelwall became an early member and soon achieved prominence by his powerful oratory and charismatic energy. Pitt and his colleagues in government  perceived Thelwall, Hardy, Horne Tooke and the others as a threat. They saw them – to quote a commentator – as “wretches, vagabonds, and evil-minded men who were inflaming the minds of the ignorant, secretly providing them with arms, seditiously plotting to destroy the government of king, Lords and Commons in order to replace the constitution with French anarchy.”

It is at this point that the struggle for democracy confronts the claim of the monarch and parliamentary leaders to absolute authority.  Thelwall and his colleagues now found themselves at the centre of that debate, with their very lives at stake.

Remember that all they had done was to campaign for peaceful change, to be debated in a national convention, so that the people could choose their rulers. No one seriously threatened to kill the king. By charging them with high treason, the government raised the stakes. Those convicted could be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Unsurprisingly, the government thought it was on solid ground. When the judge, Sir James Eyre, invited to Grand Jury to indict Thelwall and his co-accused, this brought forth a powerful response from William Godwin, whose defence of the right to freedom of expression was widely published and may have influenced the jury to reject Eyre’s opinion and find the accused not guilty.

In effect the jury which acquitted Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall saved Britain from a legal regime in which democratic debate and the free expression of political opinion was permanently stifled. Thelwall played a vital role in achieving this result. Though he spurned the legal profession, he  understood the root of the problem better than the lawyers and judges. It is his biggest contribution to democracy.

After his acquittal, Thelwall did not give up the fight. The government had been humiliated by the acquittal and would have been delighted to find a pretext for locking up the Corresponding Society leaders again. Before the verdict the society’s membership had gone down from about 800 to a third of that number, but after the acquittals membership rose by up to 200 recruits a week until it reached a peak of about 3000. Thelwall was extremely active after his release – he gave public lectures and speeches and published them in his periodical Tribune. Then in October there was a dramatic development. It was the day of the state opening of Parliament. As a result of the war with France, food prices had soared and there was near famine   There were rumours that the King was going to announce increased taxation to pay for the war. Crowds gathered and stones were thrown at the King’s coach, breaking one or two windows but not harming any of the occupants. This was the government’s excuse for a crackdown. New legislation was introduced – the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill –  to restrict publications advocating reform and ban public  meetings in opposition to the government.

But Thelwall clearly did not want to repeat his experience in the criminal courts. Though for some time he continued to give lectures throughout the country, he disguised their political topicality by choosing subjects from Roman history. Eventually he made his peace with the legal system by abandoning political campaigning, retiring to a smallholding in Wales and devoting his intellectual energy to poetry and elocution. In 1795, it should be noted, he was still only 31 years old.

While Thelwall’s greatest practical contribution to democracy remains the defeat of Pitt’s quest for absolutism in the treason trials, his contribution to democratic  reform was broader. In his speeches and writings, he constantly attacked the violations of civil liberties and human rights which resulted from the government’s efforts to protect its power… Thelwall continually attacked arbitrary detention, the activities of government spies and informers, and all restrictions on freedom of expression.  Yet Thelwall never had formal political power and could only promote change by the force of his oratory and his writings.

Sadly we  know less of Thelwall in the 40 years of his life after the treason trial. That period covered a further long period of government repression after the Napoleonic wars, culminating in the Peterloo massacre of1819. And yet apart from the continuing influence of his writings and his personal example, Thelwall’s impact on future events was slight. In the 1820s he became the owner and main writer of a newspaper, the Champion, which covered contemporary politics, but he seems to have been much more interested in poetry and literature. “For poetry”, he says of himself in the preface to his collection of extracts from the Champion,  “was the first passion of his soul.”

Thelwall’s battle for the rights of man and woman was an important episode in the long development of human rights law in Britain and internationally. The challenges to human rights may differ in detail in each generation but the same themes recur, especially the fundamental conflict between government and governed. In that struggle we have much to learn from John Thelwall.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC is a fellow and former trustee of the Wordsworth Trust. The Bindman collection of Romantic literature is one of the treasures of the collection, and Bindman talks are given at Grasmere every year. Geoffrey founded the Bindmans law firSir-Geoffrey-Bindmam in 1974, and throughout his long and distinguished legal career, has specialised in civil liberty and human rights issues.