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III Underdogs, underclasses, underworlds



When Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan two years after the execution of Charles I, and three decades before ‘Classics’ began to emerge as the curriculum of choice for those who wanted to distinguish themselves from the working classes, he argued that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting monarch. Hobbes had studied the Athenian democracy in depth when he translated Thucydides (1628), and now argued that ancient political writings by authors such as Aristotle and Cicero foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit ‘of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers’.1 He would have been little surprised at the inspiring role played by classical civilisation, especially Athenian democratic and Roman republican history, in efforts to emancipate the British working class.

This chapter looks at the different ways in which diverse British radicals— republican revolutionaries, advocates of constitutional reform, agitators for universal suffrage, workplace organisers and freethinkers—used or were motivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans between the American and French revolutions and the collapse of the Chartist movement. The first group is the democrats of the 1790s; ‘democrats’ was their own term of self-description. The label ‘Jacobin’, meaning one sub-category of French revolutionaries, was used indiscriminately by British conservatives to indict anybody critical of the establishment and to erase the considerable differences between different radicals’ objectives and beliefs.2 The second group is the late Georgian reformers whose militancy began at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and most of whom were imprisoned by the increasingly Draconian measures taken after Peterloo in 1819 to control the press and limit radical activities. The third is the Chartists whose activities reached a climax with the agitation of the 1830s to 1850s.

Late 18th-century democrats: Paine, Gerrald, Thelwall

The most influential British revolutionary of the 18th century was Tom Paine— soldier, stay-maker, excise officer, engineer, writer—who was born in Britain the year that censorship was imposed on British theatres (1737). He died in New York, impoverished, the year that Abraham Lincoln was born (1809). When working as a journalist in the United States, Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (1776), arguing for the superiority of representational government over monarchy, was instrumental in persuading colonists to fight against rule from England. His Rights of Man (1791-1792), which defended the French revolution against Edmund Burke’s criticisms, was an ‘early working-class best-seller’ and inspired all the radicals to be discussed in this chapter.3 But he was arrested in France for opposing the mass use of the death penalty, and wrote his critique of organised Christianity, The Age of Reason (published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1802), while detained in prison in Luxembourg. Paine has usually been held to be a kneejerk opponent of the study of antiquity, but this is incorrect.4 He wrote that the majority of non-biblical ‘ancient books are works of genius; of which kind are those ascribed to Homer, to Plato, to Aristotle, to Demosthenes, to Cicero, &c.’ In fact, the works are so important that the name of the author does not particularly matter.5 The thought of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato is indispensable, insists Paine, although saying that it is vital to remember that these men were not aristocrats: they are famous on merit.6

Paine was educated at Thetford School in Norfolk. Because his Quaker father distrusted the pagan and popish associations of the ancient languages, Tom learned neither. But he also knew that real competence in ancient Greek, at least, was acquired by far fewer members of the ruling class than liked to admit it. In a jibe at British parliamentarians’ ignorance of the balance of trade, Paine said that Charles (later Earl) Grey, who was proud of his declamatory skills honed by a classical education at Eton and Cambridge, ‘may as well talk Greek to them, as make motions about the state of the nation’.7 Paine believed that learning Latin and Greek was too time-consuming to be useful in the education of most people, since there was so much other information they needed to absorb merely to make a living and function as citizens:

Learning does not consist, as the schools now make it consist, in the knowledge of languages, but in the knowledge of things to which language gives names. The Greeks were a learned people; but learning with them, did not consist in speaking Greek, any more than in a Roman’s speaking Latin.8

After all, the valuable information to be found in ancient authors could now be read in the mother tongue:

As there is now nothing new to be learned from the dead languages, all the useful books being already translated, the languages are becoming useless, and the time expended in teaching them and learning them is wasted .... The best Greek linguist, that now exists, does not understand Greek so well as a Grecian plowman did, or a Grecian milkmaid.9

But knowing enough about etymology to ask what a word originally meant in Greek was advantageous: when considering the word blasphemy, used to accuse freethinking critics of doctrinaire Christianity, he recommends consulting ‘any etymological dictionary of Greek’.10

Paine’s irreverence towards classical antiquity scandalised some of his contemporaries and has ever since been misunderstood by scholars who only read his most famous writings. He pokes fun at the British parliament’s hackneyed allusions, in references to the outbreak of the American war, to Julius Caesar having passed the Rubicon." Paine saw Classics as inherently atavistic. He thought that it prevented living generations from conceiving a better future, and thinking how it might be achieved. He was puzzled that the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome, in comparison with all other periods of history, were so lauded and emulated. He considered that this attitude prevented his contemporaries from seeing what they had themselves achieved: ‘I have no notion’, he affirmed, ‘of yielding the palm of the United States to any Grecians or Romans that were ever born’; great progress had been made already, and in pouring praise on

the wisdom, civil governments, and sense of honour of the states of Greece and Rome, mankind have lived to very little purpose, if, at this period of the world, they must go two or three thousand years back for actual lessons and examples. We do great injustice to ourselves by placing them in such a superior line.12

He also thought that excessive respect for the ancient aesthetic sensibility was daft: for Paine, the only things more beautiful than the Wearmouth iron bridge he had designed were women.13

But he was convinced that a grasp of human history, including the markedly political history and developed secular ethics of ancient Greece and Rome, were essential to modern democrats’ understanding of the past. This enabled them to apprehend the extent of their own potential agency. In a dialogue modelled on Lucian, he resurrects the ghost of General Richard Montgomery to remind the reader of Plutarch’s heroes:

it is in a commonwealth only that you can expect to find every man a patriot or a hero—Aristides—Epaminondas—Pericles—Scipio—Camillus—and a thousand other illustrious Grecian and Roman heroes, would never have astonished the world with their names had they lived under royal government.14

‘The Grecians and Romans were strongly possessed of the spirit of liberty but not the principle, for at the time that they were determined not to be slaves themselves, they employed their power to enslave the rest of mankind’.15 Another encounter showing the influence of both Lucian and Swift with a dead general, Alexander the Great, which Paine wrote under the pseudonym ‘Esop’, satirises the powerful as pathetic parasites on society; in Hades, Alexander exhibits ‘a most contemptible figure of the downfall of tyrant greatness’.16

Comparing ancient civilisations with the contemporary world could be beneficial in thinking through their different attitudes to war and empire:

The principal and almost only remaining enemy, it now has to encounter, is prejudice; for it is evidently the interest of mankind to agree and make the best of life. The world has undergone its divisions of empire, the several boundaries of which are known and settled. The idea of conquering countries, like the Greeks and Romans, does not now exist; and experience has exploded the notion of going to war for the sake of profit. In short, the objects for war are exceedingly diminished, and there is now left scarcely any thing to quarrel about, but what arises from that demon of society, prejudice, and the consequent sullenness and untractableness of the temper.17

Ancient conquerors who enjoy praise caused damage:

The Alexanders and Caesars of antiquity have left behind them their monuments of destruction, and are remembered with hatred; whilst those more exalted characters, who first taught society and science, are blest with the gratitude of every age and country. Of more use was one philosopher, though a heathen to the world, than all the heathen conquerors that ever existed.18

Like Confucius and Jesus, the Greek philosophers needed to be read, because they recommended benevolent moral systems.19

Paine never said that learning about the ancient world was anything but constructive. He thought that ancient Greeks and Romans provided useful com-parands, provided that they were not held up as examples to emulate or invested with any special status or authority. They were just another set of humans, albeit very interesting ones, in another set of socio-economic circumstances. Paine was informed about ancient history and philosophy. In Rights of Man he quotes the rousing statement of Archimedes (whom, as an engineer, he much admired), saying that it can equally be applied to Reason and Liberty: if we had ‘a place to stand upon, we might raise the world’.20 He appreciated Solon’s recommendation that ‘the least injury done to the meanest individual was considered as an insult to the whole Constitution’.21 In his rhetoric against colonialism and tyranny, Paine’s love of ancient literature provides him with images: what else was the status of colonial America to its British masters than Hector, cruelly tied to ‘the chariotwheels of Achilles’?22 He recommends that comparison with antiquity was a fundamentally useful endeavour. He suggested that any revolutionary new republic should institute ‘a society for enquiring into the ancient state of the world and the state of ancient history, so far as history is connected with systems of religion ancient and modern’.23

While Paine was in France, the London Corresponding Society, the largest radical organisation in Britain, was under attack. Joseph Gerrald, a West Indian of Irish descent, was one of two members, together with the secretary of the Society of the Friends of the People, arrested in Edinburgh in 1792 on a charge of Sedition. When Gerrald appeared in court in March 1794, he refused to answer the charges but advocated political reform, while dressed ‘in French revolutionary style, with unpowdered hair, hanging loosely behind—his neck bare’ in imitation of ancient Roman republicans.24 He was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Australia, where he met a tragic and premature death.2’ Shortly before he was deported, he wrote to thank Gilbert Wakefield, the most radical Greek scholar of the day, for his unwavering support during the trial, quoting the ancient Greek proverb ‘oye Oecov dXsouat |iuXot, dAeouct 8e XsTtia’, meaning that the tyrants in power may not see their punishment coming, but that it will come in time.26 In the same year, the assistant counsel for the defence, Felix Vaughan, defended Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society, against the charge of treason. Twenty years earlier, Gerrald had performed the part of Oedipus in a Greek-language production at Stanmore School, ‘with an unfaltering eloquence and moving pathos that excited general admiration’.27

For Gerrald and Vaughan were both classicists, former pupils of the charismatic headmaster, Dr. Samuel Parr, dubbed ‘the Whig Dr Johnson’, during his time at Stanmore School; they had followed him there when Parr’s sympathy with John Wilkes’ campaign to get the rotten boroughs abolished and the franchise extended cost him the headmastership of Harrow.28 Parr’s sympathy for the victims of repressive policies remained unwavering, and he had danced round the ‘Tree of Liberty’ following the fall of the Bastille. For British radicals, the French revolution was initially a beacon heralding democratic reform, lower taxes, lower food prices and the humbling of an arrogant ruling class.29 But Parr, like Paine, stopped short of endorsing what he saw as ‘the cruel execution of the unhappy prince’ in France.30 He had urged caution on the wayward Gerrald (whom he had reluctantly expelled from Stanmore for some ‘extreme’ indiscretion).31 But that Gerrald remained a favourite to the end is demonstrated by Parr’s efforts on his behalf, the financial support he offered him personally (which Gerrald failed to receive),32 and finally by his commitment to the education of Gerrald’s son following his father’s death. Godwin was so affected by his friend Gerrald’s fate after having visited him in prison that he rewrote the ending of his own Oedipal novel Caleb Williams (1794), because its pessimistic ending was too close to Gerrald’s own end.33

The man responsible for popularising Godwin’s ideas about human benevolence, and the capacity of reason to remake society, was orator, elocutionist, political writer and poet, John Thelwall (see above pp. 23-4). Thelwall was himself tried and acquitted on a charge of high treason in late 1794. Like Paine, he had left school in his early teens. But Thelwall did not become a public radical until his late 20s. The son of a London silk-merchant, he was apprenticed to a tailor, but unsuccessfully, since he was a dreamy youth and constantly reading. Then he was articled to an attorney in the Inner Temple, but became radicalised when required to serve writs on desperately poor people.34 ‘Lawyers’, he later said, had ‘spread more moral devastation through the world than the Goths and Vandals, who overthrew the Roman Empire’.35 He became Literary Editor of the Biographical and Imperial Magazine and joined the London Corresponding Society. It took determined self-education (including in Latin), practising oratory at debating societies, the French revolution, a hatred for Edmund Burke and being befriended by John Horne Tooke, who stood trial alongside him, to turn Thelwall into a man perceived as a menace to the establishment.31’ He was over 30 when he emerged in the mid-1790s as the chief, strategist and orator of the LCS.37

Like Gerrald, Thelwall even looked like a Roman republican. At the time of the French revolution, some rebels threw away their wigs and powder and some cropped their hair close to their heads. During the scandal surrounding the sensational trial, both supporters and enemies of the alleged traitors produced popular songs and broadsides. One poem sympathetic to Thelwall commented on his appearance: ‘Each Brutus, each Cato, were none of them fops/But all to a man wore republican crops’.38 A new tax on hair powder introduced in 1795 meant that natural hair colour meant a man was either poor or sympathetic to the poor; informers even used the unpowdered hairstyle of a friend of Thelwall called Tom Poole, a Somerset tanner, as evidence of his revolutionary views.39

The infamous trials of the early 1790s prompted, in 1795, more Draconian new legislation against sedition and treason in both written and spoken form. This forbade the airing of political complaints in front of groups of more than 50 persons. In response, Thelwall took to the Classics, which he read in translation (for this, like Keats, he was derided by his reviewers) but in depth and extensively.40 In The Rights of Nature against the Usurpations of Establishments (1796), directed against Burke, he imagines the aristocracy and its henchmen as tyrannical figures of Jupiter, brandishing thunderbolts to scare the British people, and as pouring forth toxic prose ‘crowned with Corinthian capitals’ and ‘hung with antique trophies of renown’, which must nevertheless perish: ‘They are Augean stables that must be cleansed’.41 He describes the deleterious effects of the 411 bce coup at Athens and how principled democrats and Socrates sought to maintain the spirit of liberty.42 He likens Burke’s historiography of constitutions to the fanciful notions of Polybius (then a historian held in low regard).43 He cites Dionysius of Halicarnassus, praising the original Roman Republic both for being founded by ‘throngs of emigrants and refugees’ and for choosing their governors by universal suffrage’.44 He uses Tacitus and the helots of Sparta when discussing the horrors undergone by slaves in the West Indies.45

He went on a tour to lecture on Roman History, especially ‘the abuses of monarchy and aristocracy in ancient Rome. This hoisted the banner of civic virtue once again while avoiding overt sedition’,46 although he sometimes used a direct comparison, for example between Burke and Appius Claudius, both ardent advocates of the rights of the aristocracy.47 More often, the parallel was implied: he said that it was always the infighting between men at the top of the social tree, like Augustus and Mark Antony, which inflicted war on the rest of humanity.48

The censorship of public speech was stringent: ‘Locke, Sydney, and Harrington are put to silence, and Barlow, Paine and Callendar it may be almost High Treason to consult’, let alone discuss publicly. But ‘Socrates and Plato, Tully and Demosthenes, may be eloquent in the same cause’.4"' Thelwall gave about 20 such lectures, before, in 1796, editing the 17th-century Republican Walter Moyle’s Essay on the Constitution and Government of the Roman State, giving it the new and provocative title Democracy Vindicated (even though Moyle had been no democrat); Thelwall billed himself on the title page as a ‘Lecturer in Classical History’.50 His next series of lectures offered a far more radical view of the Roman Republic than had Moyle; they were idealistic and utopian in tone. The strength of the ancient Greek republics was that every single man participated in both labour and profit.51 But all known societies—the polished Athenian, the austere Spartan, the voluptuous Roman and the Germanic barbarian—have divided their people into classes, to toil and fight.52

Thelwall took these lectures round the provinces, but his opponents ensured that he was received with hostility by crowds persuaded that he was an enemy of the people. At Yarmouth, his copies of Plutarch’s Lives and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s Roman Antiquities were seized, torn to pieces or carried off as trophies.53 He retired from politics in 1798, to re-emerge as a successful teacher of elocution later. He had saved enough money by 1818 to buy a journal, the Champion, which called (by then rather moderately) for parliamentary reform, but his political influence was effectively over before the beginning of the 19th century.

Thelwall was also a writer of poetry and prose narrative, three volumes of which were published as The Peripatetic in 1793, and more subsequently. In his later life, his radicalism was expressed on the level ofsexualised poetry (his second marriage was to a teenager thirty-five years his junior) rather than of democratic agitation. Unpublished verses discovered by Judith Thompson in a manuscript of Thelwall’s poetry in Derby Local Studies Library included not only steamy imitations of love poetry by Ovid, Anacreon and Catullus, but ‘A Subject for Euripides’ (‘a transparently-oedipal, blank-verse gothic narrative about an older woman who miraculously keeps her youthful looks long past her prime’),54 and ‘Sappho’, in which Thelwall deploys the female poet as a cross-dressed avatar of his younger self.’5

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