Wednesday, 22 May 2013

22nd May 1813: The Leeds newspapers report on a massive petition for parliamentary reform

On Saturday 22nd May 1813, the Leeds Mercury carried a letter about a local petition for parliamentary reform:

MR. Editor,—The Committee for conducting the Petition from Leeds, and its neighbourhood, praying for a reform in the Commons House of Parliament, request that you will oblige them by inserting in your next paper the following


The Committee have the pleasure to report, that by active perseverance in this best of public causes, they have been enabled to overcome difficulties that at first appeared insurmountable.—In the discharge of this patriotic duty, they have had to encounter the frowns, the insults, and even the threats, of the enemies of Reform; the most violent of whom they found amongst persons who, by various means, contrive to live upon other men's industry. Such characters can easily comprehend how a great deal of money should be received very little labour; but that much labour should be performed for no reward whatever, either in hand or in prospect, is to them a thing quite incomprehensible. From this cause, your Committee have frequently been stiled mischievous agitators; they have been told that their services were paid for by some "factious Reformer," and that their motives were selfish and abominable. To all the slander they had only to reply, and they challenged any man living to contradict them, that their Motives were Pure—their Services Voluntary, and their Labours Free and Unbought, and to express their fervent wish that all the Members of that Assembly, which it is the object of this Petition to reform, in rendering an account of their stewardship, should be able to lay their hand upon their heart and make the same honest declaration.

Your Committee have the pleasure further to state, that a number of their countrymen, amounting to 17,472, have placed their signatures to this Petition, which has for its object the overthrow of the Borough Faction, by whose pernicious influence the commerce of the country is paralized—its taxation increased—the price of all the necessaries of life advanced—and war and bloodshed continued.

It remains only for them to add, that the Petition which they this day transmit to the House of Commons, originated with the labouring classes, and by then it has been carried through, unaided by any persons above their own rank, with the exception of one individual, by whose patriotic kindness they were furnished with sheets for signatures, and to whom they beg to express their sincere obligations. To this service they have applied the labour of 120 days! and they trust that persons in other places, influenced by their example, and encouraged by their success, will promote similar Petitions—that the names of thousands, and tens of thousands of Parliamentary Reformers, will soon cover the Table of the Chapel of St. Stephen’s, and that, in the nervous language of the Apostle of Reform, "the Borough Faction will be made to bend like a broken reed," before the thunder of the public voice.

Leeds, May 14, 1813.
Two days later, the Tory Leeds Intelligencer responded in acerbic fashion, linking reform with Luddism:
"WHAT! are You not contented YET?"

See page 48, proceedings at York, Jan. 1813.

Can any man in his senses be still ignorant of the nature of that political reform which is likely to be brought about by seventeen thousand labourers? Can any man in this Riding "above the rank" of a labourer, in the teeth of recent transactions, countenance the iniquitous practice of incessantly repeating to the ignorant and unthinking, the declarations that "bad trade, taxation, the high price of the necessaries of life, and war," are all the effects of Borough influence, and other corruptions of Government, which some theoretical reform is to cure—and yet hold up his head in the presence of men of reflection and principle?

Did not one individual above the rank of a labourer appear publicly in Lancashire immediately after certain trials at Lancaster? Did not the same individual appear at Huddersfield immediately after certain trials at York, expressly to repeat these notions, and to rally the spirits of baffled reformers? ‘Tis readily enough granted that this conduct cannot be encouraged by any but the most grovelling minds, yet the countenance of these low and wicked proceedings is not confined to Labourers.

I ask again, what is the direct, natural tendency of that unqualified censure which is daily poured forth upon the measures of our country’s rulers?—If we think it no sin to "despise dominion," are we still blind to our own private and personal interest?—Do we still imagine that " ‘tis only the obnoxious shearing-frames?" only the rotten Boroughs?—Are we absolutely stupefied by [pettiso], party prejudices, and narrow calculations? where is the cool deliberation, the enlarged views, the foresight and prudence, the manly spirit, the generous candour, the religious firmness of Britons?

The gasconading strut of so many thousand names to a popular petition, is of itself contemptible enough, more especially when it is considered that dozens and scores of these names have been affixed without moving a yard, and that not one of the persons in a score, has any conception what the petitions mean. But the infamous use that is made of such petitions, to inflame the worst passions of the unguarded multitude, should be openly discountenanced by every friend to society and government.

Our whining peaceable philanthropists will soon teach these 17,000 united labourers, the vast proportion they bear to the population of the neighbourhood in which they live; the multitude of their affiliated brethren in other places; the aggregate importance in the State; their wisdom; their strength; and, of course their right to insist upon attention to their humble voice. Are we so dull as not to see the consequences?


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