We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Society for Constitutional Information (act. 1780–1795) was one of the most famous and most influential radical societies of the later eighteenth century. It was not a mass or popular society; most of its members were educated middle-class reformers who lived in or near London or were regular visitors to the capital. It was not an active campaigning society devoted to organizing political meetings, public discussions, or petitions for reform. Rather it saw itself as a major source of political ideas and information, which it disseminated in print across the nation in order to educate less well-informed reformers about the nature of the British constitution, the liberties of the subject, and the best way to reform the electoral system. Inspired initially by the American crisis, it was particularly active in disseminating radical political literature in the early 1780s. In decline in the later 1780s, it revived strongly in the early 1790s, inspired by the French Revolution and the rise of many popular radical societies needing political guidance and information.

The failure in the later 1770s of British policies concerning the American colonies and military reverses in the American War of Independence roused many critics of the government and of the prevailing political system. Political writers like Richard Price, James Burgh, and John Cartwright attacked government policy and advocated parliamentary reform, while such political campaigners as Christopher Wyvill and the many members of the Yorkshire Association movement began organizing petitions for economical and parliamentary reform. In April 1780, in the midst of this political ferment, fifteen active reformers, including John Cartwright, John Jebb, Capel Lofft, Thomas Brand Hollis, John Disney, Thomas Day, Richard Sheridan, and John Baynes founded the Society for Constitutional Information. Within a month the society had increased to thirty members, but, although it never deliberately sought to restrict its membership, it very rarely had more than a few dozen members. No one was explicitly excluded on the basis of social origin or economic status, but, with an annual subscription of 1 guinea and regular appeals for financial support for its many publications, the society did not recruit poor men.

The society had a president, four vice-presidents, a treasurer, and a paid secretary. Sir Cecil Wray was the first president, but this was largely an honorary position and some presidents, like Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, played very little role in the society's activities. Thomas Yeates was the first secretary, but he had to be removed in February 1784 because he had failed to manage the society's finances properly. He was replaced by the more honest and efficient Daniel Adams, a law clerk who remained its secretary until his arrest in May 1794. The Revd Edward Brigden was the treasurer of the society until 1787. The society held four general meetings per annum, but its main work of arranging the printing and the dissemination of political information was conducted by its committee of printing and correspondence, a body of twenty-one activists, elected annually, who met once a week between October and May and once a month in summer. Over the next few years this committee ordered the printing of many separate publications, in print runs from 2000 to 10,000, to be disseminated free of charge to interested individuals and organizations. The committee established links with sympathizers and correspondents across England and it used these men in the early 1780s to collect detailed information on the electoral system that was later used by Thomas Oldfield and George Tierney in their publications on the state of the representation system in 1792–3.

John Cartwright was generally regarded as the founder of the society and he produced its most important early publications. He drafted the society's First Address to the Public, which asserted that every subject should know what the constitution was, when it was safe, and when it was endangered, and which supported a full and equal representation of the people. Cartwright also produced for the society the immensely influential Declaration of those Rights of the Commonalty of Great Britain, without which they cannot be Free, a single-sheet publication that listed the general political rights of all men, irrespective of their wealth, education, or social origins: ‘they who have no voice or vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes, and to their representatives’. Cartwright went on to advocate universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments. The society had 4000 copies of the Declaration printed for distribution free of charge. Dr John Jebb was the society's most active member until his death in 1786. He missed only two of its meetings in the first two years of its existence, he sat on every committee, and he chaired most of its most important meetings.

The Society for Constitutional Information printed and disseminated some 2000 copies of the very radical Report of the Sub-Committee of Westminster (1780), the first publication to advocate what became known as the six points of parliamentary reform, which were supported by advanced radicals from this date to the Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s: universal manhood suffrage, annual general elections, equal constituencies, the secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and the payment of MPs. Capel Lofft, another leading activist, produced the society's Second Address to the Public and the State of the Facts (1782) that rehearsed the points made in the Westminster sub-committee's Report. Lofft was also assigned the task of compiling extracts from famous English political writers, including Bacon, Coke, Harrington, Milton, Sidney, Bolingbroke, Price, and Priestley, for widespread dissemination.

Despite its impressive efforts in the early 1780s to educate the public, the society was always a small organization on the brink of financial crisis and it failed to co-operate effectively with other reformers. It did seek to enlist new members and its membership rose to a total of 169 by the end of May 1783, with the recruitment of reforming peers—including Richmond, Charles Stanhope, third Earl Stanhope, Charles Howard, earl of Surrey (later eleventh duke of Norfolk), Edward Smith Stanley, twelfth earl of Derby, and Thomas Howard, third earl of Effingham (1747–1791)—leading London radicals such as James Townsend, John Sawbridge, Brass Crosby, William Russell, and Frederick Bull (1715–1784), and some twenty MPs. Few of these members attended meetings regularly, however, and many failed to pay their subscriptions on time or at all. It proved hard to secure special financial support for specific publications and the society was always on the brink of financial ruin. This was made worse by the financial incompetence of the secretary, Thomas Yeates, before his removal from office. These financial difficulties were compounded when the society became involved in an expensive court case. In 1783 the society distributed many copies of A Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant, written by William Jones; this advocated universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments. When William Shipley, the dean of St Asaph, disseminated a Welsh translation he was privately prosecuted for seditious libel. Thomas Erskine volunteered his services as a defence lawyer and the society raised funds for the defence. The case dragged on from September 1783 to August 1784. Although a legal technicality meant that no punishment was meted out, the expenses of the defence were a serious drain on the society's precarious finances.

The influence of the Society for Constitutional Information was also weakened by its political arrogance and naïvety. Its leading members were convinced that they alone understood the causes of the prevailing crisis and were advocating the only effective remedies. They believed that if they kept disseminating their ideas, then they would prevail. Their advanced ideas on religious freedom and on the franchise alarmed those moderate reformers who did not wish to move so far or so fast. Christopher Wyvill and many in the Association Movement, for example, were not prepared to support such a radical agenda. The society fell out with leading politicians of liberal opinions. Charles James Fox was condemned for apostasy when he formed a coalition with Lord North in 1782–3 and the society refused to endorse him during the celebrated Westminster election case in 1784. His rival, William Pitt the younger, was criticized in 1783 and 1785 for advancing moderate measures of parliamentary reform that fell far short of what the Society for Constitutional Information was advocating. When the sense of political crisis abated in the later 1780s, the society lost members and became less active and effective. Many meetings transacted no business and the society's publication programme was cut back sharply. Major Cartwright and Capel Lofft largely retreated from their active roles in the society and John Jebb's death on 2 March 1786 removed the most committed member of the society. The surviving members still supported a number of different causes, including the abolition of the slave trade, religious toleration, Scottish burgh reform, the rights of juries in libel trials, and prison reform, but they did so at a reduced level of activity and commitment. Twenty-six members of the society celebrated the centenary of the passing of the English Bill of Rights in December 1789, but it was not until the early 1790s, after the French Revolution had inspired many new popular radical societies to advocate extensive radical reform, that the society once again became a major source of political ideas and information for those who wished to pursue parliamentary reform.

John Horne Tooke, the former Wilkite radical, had joined the Society for Constitutional Information in July 1781, but it was about a decade later that he became particularly active in the society, and he proved to be its dominant personality in its last years. In March and April 1790 he encouraged the society to work with the Revolution Society in backing Henry Flood's moderate motion for parliamentary reform in the House of Commons. On 14 July 1790 Horne Tooke and other members of the Society for Constitutional Information joined hundreds of other reformers at the Crown and Anchor tavern to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille and there they proposed the toast to ‘the majesty of the people’. But the society transacted little business in late 1790 and early 1791 until popular radicalism burst upon the scene. In March 1791 the society praised the first volume of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and helped to disseminate his ideas, while carefully disavowing his republican principles. In 1792 the society distributed hundreds of copies of the second volume, but it decided to reject Paine's offer of £1000 from the proceeds of the sales of his work. It was not, however, until the appearance of the London Corresponding Society and similar popular radical societies in such provincial towns as Norwich, Sheffield, and Manchester that the Society for Constitutional Information came to the fore in the campaign for reform. The society never recruited a large membership like many of these popular societies, though it did enlist the support of such radicals as Joel Barlow, Thomas Cooper, Thomas Holcroft, Joseph Towers, and Stewart Kyd. Its principal role, however, was in providing a political education for these societies and in advising them on how to draw up their rules and regulations. Horne Tooke was virtually the mentor of Thomas Hardy, the first secretary of the London Corresponding Society.

The Society for Constitutional Information became the chief channel of communication between the various popular societies in Britain and also between them and the French revolutionaries. In late November 1792 two of its members, Joel Barlow and John Frost, delivered the society's fraternal greetings to the French Jacobins and its support for the French National Convention. It also offered the French more practical support by funding the supply of several thousand pairs of shoes for French soldiers resisting the invading armies of Austria and Prussia. Such actions alarmed Pitt's government, which was increasingly concerned by the revolutionary violence in France and the growing threat of war between France and Britain. There was a growing belief in government and parliament that the Society for Constitutional Information was at the centre of a radical conspiracy to subvert the British constitution. These fears were understandable in the heated political atmosphere of the day, but they were not really justified. Horne Tooke, the dominant voice in the society, believed strongly in the need for parliamentary reform, but he never sought to destroy the balanced constitution of king, Lords, and Commons, and he never advocated violent revolution. The society's address in December 1792 disclaimed ‘the idea of wishing to effect a change in the present system of things, by violence and public commotion’ (Veitch, 279). Nevertheless, in the political climate of 1793–4 the society acted in such a fashion that it played into the hands of the alarmed government and fearful parliamentary majority.

Horne Tooke was never personally committed to the calling of a convention of radical delegates, but, after he had left the chair, the society did agree to send two delegates, Henry Redhead Yorke and Charles Sinclair, to the British convention to be held in Edinburgh in October–November 1793. There were insufficient funds to meet Yorke's expenses so Joseph Gerrald served as a delegate of both the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information. When leading members of the convention were arrested, prosecuted for sedition, and sentenced to be transported to Botany Bay, the society protested at the severity of the punishment and passed defiant resolutions at its meeting on 17 January 1794. With Gerrald succeeding Horne Tooke in the chair, the society went on to declare ‘their firm and undaunted resolution to oppose tyranny by the same means by which it is exercised’ (Goodwin, 308). In defiant mood the society agreed in March and April to support another convention of radicals. On 2 May, with over 300 members, allies, and sympathizers in attendance at its annual dinner, the society protested once more against the government's repressive policies and punctuated its proceedings with French revolutionary songs and such toasts as ‘the rights of man’, ‘the armies contending for liberty’ and ‘the persecuted patriots of England’ (ibid., 320).

This proved to be the last major meeting of the Society for Constitutional Information. On 12 May Daniel Adams, secretary to the society, was arrested and all the society's minute books and papers were seized (they are now in the National Archives). Adams was never brought to trial, but he was a witness in the trial of Horne Tooke for treason. Horne Tooke was arrested on 16 May 1794, but not brought to trial until 17–22 November. Like Thomas Hardy, he was acquitted, amid much celebration and relief. During the trial he denied that he was either a democrat or a republican. Defiant and resourceful, he showed moral courage, but the society never really recovered from the seizure of its papers, its declining membership, and its shaky finances. The other arrested members of the society were not brought to trial, but they and Horne Tooke lost all heart for the fight in the existing climate and retreated from active politics for a time. The society did not rally in 1795 to the extent that the London Corresponding Society did, but it did oppose the passing of the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act early that year when it printed the Report of the Constitutional Society upon the Treason and Sedition Bills. It was its last official act.

Other members of the Society for Constitutional Information included: Thomas Bentley; Charles Dilly; Richard Fitzpatrick; Jeremiah Joyce; James Innes-Ker, fifth duke of Roxburghe; Sir James Mawbey; James Parkinson; John Richter; John Towill Rutt; Richard Sharp; Granville Sharp; Sir John Sinclair, first baronet; William Smith; and Thomas Walker.

H. T. Dickinson

Sources  

Declaration of those rights of the commonalty of Great Britain, without which they cannot be free (1780) · An address to the public, from the Society for Constitutional Information (1780) · A second address to the public from the Society for Constitutional Information (1782) · Tracts published and distributed gratis by the Society for Constitutional Information (1783) · State trials, vols. 24–5 · Cobbett, Parl. hist., 31.475–97, 573–4, 688–879, 886–903 [[‘The reports of the committee of secrecy of the House of Commons and the House of Lords’]] · The life and correspondence of Major Cartwright, ed. F. D. Cartwright, 2 vols. (1826); repr. (1969) · C. Bewley and D. Bewley, Gentleman radical: a life of John Horne Tooke, 1736–1812 (1998) · E. C. Black, The Association (1963) · C. B. Cone, The English Jacobins: reformers in late eighteenth-century England (1968) · A. Goodwin, The friends of liberty: the English democratic movement in the age of the French Revolution (1979) · A. Page, John Jebb and the Enlightenment origins of British radicalism (2003) · G. S. Veitch, The genesis of parliamentary reform (1913); repr. (1965)

Archives  

TNA: PRO, minute books and papers, TS 11/961/3057, 962/3508, 1133/1, 952/3496