2947. Robert Southey to Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, [written by 19 March 1817]

2947. Robert Southey to Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, [written by 19 March 1817]⁠* 

March 19th, 1817.

Feeling as I do upon the state of the country, I venture to offer for your private consideration some reflections which cannot be made publick, nor need I apologise for addressing you on the subject

The danger must be looked fairly in the face. I am of course entirely ignorant of what farther measures may be had in view for checking the course of those opinions which the Press, by every imaginable means, is at this time disseminating throughout the remotest parts of England; even among these mountains. But I am certain that the great Body of the manufacturing populace are not merely discontented with the Government, but absolutely abhor it with a deadly hatred; & that in the Metropolis this temper is so prevalent that if the fear of the Military were withdrawn, four & twenty hours would not elapse before the tri-coloured flag would be planted upon Carlton House. [1]  You have passed Laws to prevent men from tampering with the soldiers; [2]  but can such Laws be effectual? Or are they not altogether nugatory while such Manifestoes as those of Cobbett, Hone, & the Examiner, [3]  &c. are daily & weekly issued, fresh & fresh, & read aloud in every Ale House where the men are quartered, or where they meet together? Sir Wm Temple observes that when a people are generally discontented you may as well attempt to subdue pestilence by a military force, the military being as liable to one contagion as to the other. [4]  I beseech you, consider what the consequences would be if these writers, instead of abusing the soldiers, were steadily to pursue the system of flattering them, – which they have more than once begun, but have wanted temper to pursue! [5]  You must curb the Press, or it will destroy the constitution of this country.

The question is, whether it be possible to keep off Revolution till the moral & physical condition of the populace shall be so far improved that they will cease to desire one, – feeling that they have more to lose than to gain. – We must not be blind to the signs of these perilous times: The spirit of Jacobinism which influenced men in my sphere of life four & twenty years ago (myself & men like me among others) has disappeared from that Class & sunk into the Rabble; – who would have torn me to pieces for holding those opinions then; & would tear me to pieces for renouncing them now. [6]  – Concessions can only serve to hasten the catastrophe. Woe be to the garrison who hoist a white flag to an enemy that gives no quarter!

The main thing needful is to stop the seditious press. I did hope that the first measure upon the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act [7]  would have been to place the chief incendiary writers in safe custody, – a measure in which the sound part of the nation would bear you out. Doubtless it is far better to imprison them in consequence of the verdict of a jury; – but whilst prosecutions are going on against them, the mischief is going on also. If they are convicted, let their imprisonment be such as will prevent them from carrying on their Journals. But if Juries, either from fear or faction (as in Hooper’s case the other day) give their verdict in the very face of facts, [8]  I beseech you do not hesitate at using that vigour beyond the Law which the exigence requires, & which your own personal safety requires as much as the vital Interests of the country. It is in vain to dissemble the nature of the contest. It is no struggle for place & power. “Turni de vitâ et sanguine certant.” [9]  Unless these men are silenced, & unless the press is diligently watched & curbed, the spirit which now exists will be kept alive it will spread in secret, after the present alarm has subsided. Upon the next Season of dearth or commercial Embarrassment, it will break out again, – and sooner or later we shall have all the horrors of a Bellum Servile. [10]  – No means can be effectual for checking the intolerable license of the Press, but that of making transportation the punishment for its abuse.

It is of infinite importance to secure the attachment of the army; – not merely of the men whom you retain, but of those also whom in evil hour your poverty consents to disband. If the disbanded men should join the rioters there is always a possibility that their former comrades might be unwilling to act against them; & and there are moments in which the defection of a single company may decide the fate of a kingdom. – So also with the Sailors. Is it too late to give them a medal for Algiers, & even for Trafalgar? [11]  No man who wears one will ever be found in a mob against the Government which has thus distinguished him. But I would look to something more than this. –

– There is a person now in town soliciting Ministers with his plans, & regarded by them, no doubt, as a madman: - Owen of Lanark.  [12] He is insane upon some points: But if you pare off the crazy parts of his scheme, I cannot but think that much which is useful & practicable would remain; & that he is, like my old friends Drs: Bell and Clarkson, a great moral Steam-Engine, who might be put into action with wonderful effect. Is it not possible for Government to form an experimental establishment with some of its disbanded soldiers & sailors, upon a tract of waste land, aiding them till they should be fairly settled, & then giving them a life-hold interest in the ground upon an equitable rent? If the thing succeeded it might be extended: - Government would prevent men from becoming dangerous to itself, or burthensome to the community; - it would have them at its’ call in time of need; - and a new & unexceptionable source of Revenue would arise from such national lands. – I sincerely wish that Owen were encouraged to make his experiment in any parish which might be persuaded to try it.


* Endorsement: Memorandum submitted to Ld Liverpool by Robert Southey Esq
MS: Southey’s original MS is untraced; the text is from a copy in an unidentified hand in Lord Liverpool’s papers, British Library, Add MS 38367. TR; 4p
Previously published: C.D. Yonge, The Life and Administration of Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool, K.G., 3 vols (London, 1838), II, pp. 298–299 [in part].
Dating note: The letter survives only as a copy in an unidentified hand and the date ‘March 19th 1817’ may have been supplied by the transcriber. Southey’s original letter might well have been written earlier, possibly prompted by Robert Owen’s visit to Keswick in early February 1817; see also the similarities of phrasing in Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend, 16 February 1817, Letter 2921. BACK

[1] The London home of the Prince Regent. A tricoloured flag of red, white and green horizontal stripes, inspired by the French revolutionary flag, had been much in evidence at the Spa Fields meeting on 2 December 1816; a group of revolutionaries had broken away from the main meeting and attempted to march on the Bank of England and Tower of London. BACK

[2] The Seduction of Soldiers Act (1817). BACK

[3] The radical weekly paper, the Examiner, edited by Leigh Hunt from 1808–1821. BACK

[4] Sir William Temple (1628–1699; DNB), ‘An essay on the original and nature of government’, The Works of Sir William Temple, 4 vols (London, 1757), I, pp. 29–57 (p. 45): ‘the humour of the people runs insensibly among the very soldiers, so as it seems much alike to keep off by guards a general infection, or an universal sedition: for the distemper in both kinds is contagious, and seizes upon the defenders themselves.’ BACK

[5] For instance, radicals particularly objected to flogging in the Army: Cobbett had served two years in prison in 1810–1812 for writing against the flogging of some militiamen at Ely. BACK

[6] Southey had first made this point in Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 229. BACK

[7] Parliament voted to suspend habeas corpus on 28 February 1817, with effect from 4 March. This allowed imprisonment without trial; the suspension was not lifted until 31 January 1818. BACK

[8] John Hooper (dates unknown), one of the leaders of the attempted revolution following the Spa Fields meeting on 2 December 1816, had been charged with four others on 20 January 1817 with stealing over £200 of firearms during the insurrection on 2 December, in order to arm the revolutionaries. He and three of his co-defendants were acquitted by the jury. Hooper was then immediately re-arrested and charged with High Treason, though his trial was not proceeded with once his co-defendant, James Watson (1766–1838; DNB), was acquitted in June 1817. BACK

[9] Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 BC), Aeneid, Book 12, line 765; ‘for the life and blood of Turnus they strive’ i.e. the government is engaged in a war to the death. BACK

[10] A ‘servile war’; i.e. a war between the classes of society. BACK

[11] Two naval actions: the bombardment of Algiers by an Anglo-Dutch fleet, 27 August 1816, and the British victory at Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. Veterans of Trafalgar were presented with an unofficial medal, paid for by the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728–1809; DNB). There was no general issue of medals for participation in the action at Algiers. BACK

[12] Robert Owen (1771–1858; DNB), manager and owner of the mills and model community at New Lanark in Scotland 1799–1825. Owen embodied his ideas about settling the poor in agricultural communities in his Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor (1817). Owen had discussed these matters with Southey when he visited Keswick in August 1816 and early February 1817. BACK

People mentioned

Bell, Andrew (1753–1832) (mentioned 1 time)
Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846) (mentioned 1 time)
Cobbett, William (1763–1835) (mentioned 1 time)
Hone, William (1780–1842) (mentioned 1 time)