The second half of the 18th century saw a flowering of ideas concerning popular rights. In the 1760s, many of these concern John Wilkes MP. In the 45th issue of The North Briton he published an attack on King George III and his Government. He took issue with a speech by the king in which he had praised the Treaty of Paris, which had concluded the Seven Years' War.
Wilkes was charged with seditious libel and imprisoned. He was arrested on a general warrant: a document detailing the crime but not the name of the suspected criminal. Wilkes challenged the general warrant and eventually won his case. These events launched the cries of "Wilkes and Liberty!" and other popular slogans for free speech as a resistance to illegitimate power.
Wilkes eventually fled to France but returned in 1768, becoming Member of Parliament for Middlesex in the election that year. After a spell in prison and a series of expulsions and re-elections, Wilkes returned to popular campaigning arguing for the freedom for parliamentary debates to be reported and in favour of parliamentary reform.
Wilkes' popularity can be accounted for in several ways. Firstly, 49 people were arrested on the same general warrant as him including a number of printers and people who worked for them. It was a short step from here to further arrests within the wider population. Secondly, standards of living were falling. This was reflected in an increase in the number of stoppages or strikes and in attacks on machinery. One such example was the attacks on buildings and machinery at Blackburn, Bolton, Chorley, Wigan and Preston in 1779. It was felt by much of the workforce that the machinery interfered with levels of wages and prices.
This period was not characterised by mobilisation of numbers or successes in promoting rights. Rather, the period re-introduced popular rights as an identifiable aspiration. Parliament was pressurised enough to bring in a number of (unsuccessful) bills for reform. Pressure came from publications such as Major Cartwright's Take Your Choice (1776), which argued for manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, annual elections and equal electoral districts, and petitions from the 'Association Movement' of the late 1770s and early 1780s. However The British authorities' attitudes to reform were to harden with the advent of the French Revolution in 1789.
It was in the aftermath of the French Revolution that ideas of political 'rights' - that participation in the political process should be extended beyond the preserve of an elite - gained a popularity not seen since the mid-17th century. Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791-92) is perhaps the most well known expression of this idea with sales estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
His publications became a touchstone for the members of the various corresponding and similar societies which grew up across the country in the 1790s in such places as Derby, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Perth, Norwich, Nottingham and Sheffield. These societies discussed economic and social problems but with very much a political agenda; most if not all dedicated to a campaign for political rights. As a testament to the strength and accessibility of his ideas, his works were published and republished long after his death.
With Britain at war with France from 1793, radical ideas and organisations were suppressed. In 1793 and 1794 first Scottish, and then English radicals were arrested and tried, the Scottish radicals being convicted. Along with the political clampdown, the Government faced the Royal Naval mutinies in 1797 and increased trade union activity. In quick succession the Government passed legislation against 'unlawful oaths' (naval mutineers had made such oaths to each other in 1797), corresponding societies and finally 'combinations' or trade unions.
Regardless of the legislation, government had to contend with the revolutionary activities of the United Irishmen and United Englishmen as well as a now more shadowy trade union movement, which was showing itself to be organised and confident enough to increase its attacks on machinery. The closing years of the French Wars saw a concerted increase in industrial tensions and machine breaking, in particular the Luddite disturbances across Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Leicester.
Although there is still some disagreement over the precise nature of Luddism, it seems clear that part of the objective was to retain some control over the work process and to maintain or improve standards of living. Read more in our exhibition Power, Politics and Protest, or look at Ned Lud's proclamation..
Some partial gains were made in terms of rights during this period. In 1802 the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act became the first of the 19th century 'factory acts'. These set out maximum working hours, environmental conditions, provision of clothing and rudimentary education for apprentices in cotton and woollen mills. However it would be a mistake to chart history by legislation: the Act did not establish any means of enforcement and its importance was really the principle of intervention that it established, not the 'rights' it conferred. A similar caveat should be placed on the 1807 Abolition of Slave Trade Act that outlawed the Atlantic slave trade after a lengthy campaign. Early activists, such as Thomas Clarkson and George Fox, argued that making the slave trade activities of British ships illegal was the only way to end the enslavement of Africans and, in 1787, the campaigners came together to form the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The 1807 Act did not stop the British slave trade immediately, and the bill itself was not welcome in some quarters.
Slave traders in danger of being captured by the Royal Navy faced a fine based on the number of slaves they were caught with; consequently, illegal traders sought to reduce their fines by ordering slaves to be cast into the ocean. This does not negate the 1807 Act; this was an important milestone that rationally opened the door to those who argued for further legislation to outlaw slavery itself. You can learn more in our Black Presence exhibition or look at the Slavery section of our website.
The second half of the 18th century is also associated with two relatively common areas of friction: the price of foodstuffs, and the enclosure of common lands. 'Food Riots' were common in the 1750s, 1760s, 1770s and 1790s to around 1801. Some historians have described those who took part in food riots as protecting their rights within a 'moral economy'. These ideas also informed opposition to the continued reduction and removal of the common rights of the small farmer and landless workers. Piecemeal enclosure ensured that opposition to the loss of rights was fragmented although there were various enclosure riots at places such as Charnwood Forest (1748-51), West Haddon (1765), Sheffield (1791), and Burton on Trent (1771-72). Such events fed the democratic ideals of Thomas Paine and later movements such as the Chartists.
In Scotland the position was different. The highland and lowland clearances - the forced removal of tenants from the land mixed with changes to land use - resulted in disturbances in 1792, 1813 and later in 1820-21. The 'Highland way of life' began to break down with the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. Highlanders were not to meet in public or bear arms. Even wearing tartan and teaching Gaelic were illegal under the 1747 Act of Proscription (repealed in 1782). The clearances took place mainly between the 1770s and 1850s although some evictions continued in the second half of the 19th century.