I tell you, Citizens, we mean to new-dress the Constitution, and turn it, and set a new Nap upon it.
Robespierre’s Reign of Terror spawned an evil little twin in William Pitt the Younger’s Reign of Alarm, 1792-1798 … Many lives and careers were ruined in Britain as a result of the alarmist regime Pitt set up to suppress domestic dissent while waging his disastrous wars against republican France. Liberal young writers and intellectuals whose enthusiasm for the American and French revolutions raised hopes for Parliamentary reform at home saw their prospects blasted. Over a hundred trials for treason or sedition (more than ever before or since in British history) were staged against ‘the usual suspects’ - that is, political activists. But other, informal, vigilante means were used against the ‘unusual suspects’ …: jobs lost, contracts abrogated, engagements broken off, fellowships terminated, inheritances denied, and so on and on. As in the McCarthy era in 1950s America, blacklisting and rumor-mongering did as much damage as legal repression. Dozens of ‘almost famous’ writers saw their promising careers nipped in the bud: people like Helen Maria Williams, James Montgomery, William Frend, Gilbert Wakefield, John Thelwall [pictured by Gillray, above], Joseph Priestley, Dr. Thomas Beddoes, Francis Wrangham and many others…From the blurb to a book I haven’t read yet, Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s, by Kenneth R. Johnston (2013).
The Home Secretary at the time was the Duke of Portland. This is what his biographer has to say about “Pitt’s Terror”:
The [Parliamentary Secret Committee, 1799] concluded … that there existed ‘the clearest proofs of a systematic design … to overturn the laws, constitution and government’ of Britain and Ireland … Although historians have not accepted the full extent of the committee’s arguments … the insurrectionary dangers of the later 1790s are no longer dismissed as alarmist delusions or cynical inventions. The ensuing round of repressive legislation, though offensive to liberal consciences, appeared justified to many contemporaries. Indeed, the tone of recent analysis has not turned so much upon disputes about the seriousness of the threat, as upon the individual historian’s viewpoint on the question whether the avoidance of revolution in Britain was a lamentable misfortune or a commendable triumph.From The Duke of Portland, by David Wilkinson (2003).
The coalition between Portland and Pitt certainly played a significant role in the prevention of revolution in Britain. The most serious accusation against this ministry is that unnecessarily repressive policies actually created the revolutionary danger which in turn necessitated further repression. There is some validity in this interpretation, but it hinges on the notion that gradual and progressive change was both desirable and feasible at this time. Although the British reform movement, by and large, expressed genuine abhorrence at revolutionary violence in its early stages, it nevertheless constituted a radical threat to established authority. Parliamentary reform was not a viable option under prevailing circumstances. Patriotism provided a potent line of argument that reform was a damaging distraction during wartime. Extra-parliamentary pressure could not elicit sufficient support at Westminster: the disintegration of the Whig party and the formation of the Pitt-Portland coalition made that fact patently obvious. Agitation if left unchecked must therefore have led to conflict with parliament and the crown … The mass protests of 1795 could not be ignored; and, sweeping as the provisions of the Gagging Acts undoubtedly were, they embodied an honourable objective of minimising the encroachment on civil liberties. Likewise, powers under the suspension of habeas corpus were exercised, in George III’s phrase, ‘with the greatest moderation’.