Radical Sympathy: Periodical Circulation and the Peterloo Massacre
University of Huddersfield
This essay analyses representations of sympathy in radical periodicals in the immediate aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819. Recent accounts of the Regency radical press have noted that cheap journals employ a studied language of rational enlightenment in order to counter charges that they provoke unrest. I argue that these periodicals also employ a language of feeling. Through references to the suffering body, radical journals display moral outrage at the atrocity of Peterloo, but they also put the language of feeling to instrumental political use. Using sympathy as a figure for the transmission of riotous emotion within a crowd, these texts signal the physical power of the masses, but significantly, sympathy is also made a model for the processes of distribution through which these texts are diffused throughout the nation. Radical writers exploit the function of sympathy as a physiological process, through which disruption in one part of a body causes instant disruption in another. In a brief moment after Peterloo, the press becomes the circulatory medium through which both national emotional distress and political response can be co-ordinated. My analysis focuses on the often short-lived radical journals produced in the immediate aftermath of Peterloo, The Cap of Liberty, The London Alfred, The White Hat and The Democratic Recorder. I discuss these titles alongside the longer-running Hone’s Reformist Register, The Black Dwarf, The Gorgon, and The Medusa. In signalling the ephemeral and embattled nature of their existence, these journals mark the uncertain distinction between textual diffusion, emotional exchange and physical unrest at this moment of crisis.
This paper will investigate the moment of rhetorical and ethical crisis produced by the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819, and its representation in the cheap radical periodical press. In the months following Peterloo, radical magazines appropriate a language of feeling based in sentimental rhetoric, which not only exhorts the pity of readers in the face of the tragedy, but also becomes a figure for the circulation of radical texts, energies and activism beyond metropolitan radical strongholds and across the nation at large. One of the most influential and productive accounts of print circulation in the Romantic period is developed by Jon Klancher in his 1987 study The Making of English Reading Audiences 1790-1832. In his analysis of the print public sphere in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Klancher borrows the terms “circulation” and “dissemination” from Arthur Young’s Travels in France (1792) to describe the contrasting diffusion of information and ideas in England and in France. “Circulation” represents not only the physical diffusion of texts, but, Klancher notes, is “an elastic notion of an order that may be at once physiological, economic, cultural, psychological, and even textual”. Klancher’s key term is “order”. He notes: “to circulate is to follow a path, however circuitous or labyrinthine its windings, along an ordered itinerary”. But this wholesome process “must have an antagonist”, namely “dissemination”, which, Klancher notes, “takes places where there is no circulation, where there are no preformed patterns to guide the flow of language or ideals”. Dissemination does not merely enable innovation; it has a distinct political function, allowing the diffusion of “radical writing” which “constitutes the writing and reading of the ‘lower orders’”(29-36).
Klancher ‘s detailed examination of the implications of the threat of “dissemination” in the 1790s has proved vital for my discussion of the implications of the diffusion of “radical writing” in the periodical exchanges of 1819. However, it is important to note that the polarisation of “circulation” and “dissemination” serves to close off some of the most interesting implications of the diffusion of radical texts. As Paul Keen observes, in Klancher’s model, “because dissemination implies a surplus that threatens to negate the inherent value of those productive literary exchanges that enrich the minds of a nation, it can be conceived only as a series of violations” (157). I would like to offer an alternative “cultural metaphor” (to use Klancher’s term) for the diffusion of texts that might complicate this dichotomy between circulation and dissemination and help to rethink the connection between radical texts and cultural “violations”, promoting a constructive rather than a destructive conception of the diffusion of radical expression in print. The term that I suggest is sympathy.
Sympathy is a ubiquitous term in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies, but it is often interpreted either as an index of the poetic imagination, or of social cohesion. However, sympathy was also understood at this period to have more disruptive implications, arising from its use in physiology. In the highly contested political landscape of 1818 and 1819, this physiological understanding of sympathy acquires distinct political significance. Eaton Stanard Barrett notes in the Quarterly Review of July 1818 that:
The term sympathy has two significations. In a physiological sense it is used to denote the fact, that the disorder of one organ produces disorder in the functions of certain other parts of the system . . . In its application to the moral part of our constitution, [sympathy] denotes that law of our nature by which we share in the feelings that agitate the bosoms of our fellow creatures.
As Stanard Barrett’s statement illustrates, in the Romantic period, sympathy becomes explicitly associated not just with moral and emotional identification and social cohesion, but with more dynamic processes of transmission, in particular the transmission of “disorder”. Both of Stanard Barrett’s definitions of sympathy acquire distinct political connotations in the polemical battles of the periodical press in 1819. These two functions of sympathy even become associated with the function of the press itself. In this essay I explore the appropriation of sympathy in the “twopenny trash” radical press during 1819. These papers exploit sympathy’s dual significance at this moment. Sympathy is both an index of fellow-feeling, and a physiological phenomenon, through which disruption in one part of a body causes disruption in another. Through the use of a language of sympathy, I argue, the cheap radical press finds a means of representing the collective action of the “lower orders”, and crucially, of presenting such action in a positive light.
The practices of the cheap radical press in the years following the end of the Napoleonic wars demonstrate a marked distinction between understandings of sympathy in the Romantic period and earlier eighteenth-century accounts of its function. Sympathy was of course a fundamental element of Scottish moral philosophical models of social cohesion, in the words of Lord Kames, the “great cement of human society” (17). And yet, accounts of sympathy by David Hume in particular demonstrate an awareness that sympathy is also the medium of a range of emotions. Hume for example notes: “no quality of human nature is more remarkable… than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from . . . our own” (316). The pervasive operation of sympathetic transmission shares important characteristics with the kinds of physiological diffusion described above by Stanard Barrett. Moral philosophical accounts of sympathy as a cohesive social force are thus shadowed by more disruptive operations of sympathy as a medium of disorder. These disruptive qualities are latent in accounts of sympathy throughout the second half of the eighteenth-century. However, the political implications of such models of sympathy as a medium of transmission do not become apparent until after the French Revolution, when even reformers struggle to find a positive application for sympathetic transmission, due to its uncontrolled and unruly nature. For example, William Godwin in Political Justice condemns the “brute and unintelligent sympathy” that stimulates collective behaviour and negates the effects of reason (146). But in contrast to these earlier accounts of the disruptive political effects of sympathy, the practices of the cheap radical press of the post-war years attempt the rehabilitation of sympathetic communication. In these texts, sympathy becomes a figure for the transmission of emotions and ideas within a crowd, but it is also made a model for the processes through which information is diffused throughout the nation. In contrast to Klancher’s radical dissemination, sympathetic transmission cannot be dismissed as a purely pathological process, because, like circulation, it is a physiological force through which the body retains a healthy equilibrium.
1819 was a year of enormous unrest in England. During spring and summer, demonstrations of up to 20,000 people were held in the industrial towns of the midlands and north of England, and in July, the terms of the government’s 1817 Gagging Acts expired. This legislation had targeted political expression in print, and its demise enabled the wide circulation of cheap radical weekly papers. As Paul Keen and Kevin Gilmartin have demonstrated, the cheap radical newspapers which sprang up at this moment could, to an unprecedented extent, claim the “purpose” of “embodying the opinion of the people” who were disenfranchised from “legitimate” political processes, and of catalysing and co-ordinating extraparliamentary political expression through public meetings (Keen ed. 6: 276, 1: xiv; Gilmartin 68). Just as importantly, they could claim to enable the education of this readership through their circulation of political information, realising William Hone’s claim on February 17, 1817 that “improvements are now proposed invariably by means of the press; and thanks to that mighty engine of life and energy; they are proposed to the whole community at once” (Keen ed. 1: 56). Klancher notes that the editors of weekly radical papers “confront their readers as collectives . . . The radical text was not meant to form a singular bond between reader and writer, but to bind one reader to another as audience ” (100). Despite Gilmartin’s sound diagnosis of the “radical egotism” of figures like William Cobbett and Richard Carlile (40-41), I want to emphasise the cheap radical weekly papers’ rhetorical construction of a collective identity in its readership. The language of the cheap radical press rings with expressions of unity, and solidarity. It does not claim to offer disinterested analysis of collective political action, but situates itself as a constituent part of that collective. The language of sympathy proves a vital means of articulating and describing these collective bonds.
My account of the political implications of emotions in the Romantic period shares important elements with recent critical accounts of emotion and of the press. Andrew Stauffer’s analysis of the discursive operation of anger in the political public sphere in the moments after the French Revolution has proved helpful, but I differ from Stauffer in that my interest in sympathy lies not in its emotional content, but in its function as a medium for a range of emotions and ideas, as demonstrated here, from anger to pity, to calls for enlightenment. I thus align my account of sympathy as a medium with recent accounts of the Regency radical press. My analysisis deeply indebted to fine accounts by Gilmartin and Keen, though as I hope to demonstrate, I differ from them in some important respects. Both commentators stress that the radical press reacts to charges of incendiarism by employing a studied language of rational enlightenment (Keen ed. 1: xii; Gilmartin 21-22). In contrast, I wish to show that these texts deliberately adopted a rhetorical stance which exploited the varied implications of a language of feeling, in particular a language of sympathetic communication. There is plenty of evidence for Keen and Gilmartin’s claims: for example on January 16, 1819 John Wade announces in the Gorgon:
It cannot now be said our writings inflame the passions of the ‘lower orders,’ and excite tumult and disorder. There is now no such thing in England as a ‘mob’. That English brute is civilised and subdued.
Mob violence has become obsolete, Wade argues, because the “omnipotent power of a Free Press” proves a far more effective tool of pressure (Keen ed. 3: 279). By advocating reason as the means to social and political amelioration these writers deny the association of “twopenny trash” with the mob. As representative voices of the “lower orders”, they testify that the crowd is no longer an inarticulate threatening mass, but a rational and principled entity. The press even functions as an antidote to the mob, Richard Carlile claims on March 24, 1820, because, “the extensive circulation of political pamphlets, and a frequent assemblage in public meetings, is calculated to evaporate those feelings which . . . burst forth with arms in their hands” (2: 469). But Carlile’s allusion to the sudden eruption of armed violence is significant. He refers to the Peterloo Massacre, the catastrophic event which transforms the terms of the debate over collective political expression and the radical press. Peterloo makes explicit the limitations of appeals to enlightenment, and demonstrates the vital significance for these texts of a language of sympathetic communication.
On August 16, 1819, the “united” people suffered the pre-emptive violence of the authorities. On that day 60,000 people assembled at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester to hear the speeches of “Orator” Henry Hunt. The crowd were attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry, supported by Waterloo veterans, the Fifteenth Regiment of the British Hussars (Chandler 16). Eleven civilians were killed and over two hundred injured in what became known, in the outrage that followed, as the Peterloo Massacre. The events of August 16 brought significant changes in the representation of the people in political debate, in the relationship between the crowd and the press, and in the varied political applications of collective feeling. At least six new cheap weekly magazines were founded in direct response to Peterloo: Richard Carlile’s Republican, James Griffin’s Cap of Liberty, The Briton, The London Alfred, The White Hat and The Democratic Recorder. These periodicals will be the focus of my account, along with longer-running radical titles William Hone’s Reformist Register, T. J. Wooler’s Black Dwarf, John Wade’s Gorgon, and Thomas Davison’s Medusa. Though many of these publications were short-lived, they massively expanded the “internal variety” of the radical press (Keen ed. 1: xvi). I want to focus on the effect of Peterloo on the political rhetoric employed in these publications. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, the appeal to abstract reason lost much of its polemical purchase. The Yeomanry’s sabres had marked the bodies of reformers with absolute evidence of the evils of the present system, and in the press response that follows, the rights of the people are urged in defiantly physical terms. And to an unprecedented extent in post-war agitation, an emotional language of sympathy as an index of benevolence often characterises reformist rhetoric.
The political outrage of Peterloo is generated by the marks of violence on the bodies of the people. On August 25, 1819 the London Alfred asserts:
The Manchester Magistrates… have fleshed the swords of their young trained bands in the bodies of Britons… [They] should have thought of the consequence of spilling one drop of citizen’s blood. A soldier’s blood is not of the same political value.
Keen ed. 6: 145-46
The identity of these agents of violence becomes unimportant, as magistrates and yeomanry converge into one vindictive entity. But the object of their attack changes the terms of debate after Peterloo. In the wake of such physical outrages, it seems pointless to argue for the abstracted rights of the people. Instead, just as the “citizen’s blood” acquires explicit “political value”, so do the ties of humanity which have been sundered by the authorities. “Had the military only attacked robust men” the London Alfred notes, “much less infamy would have been their lot. But it is notorious, that . . . the women seemed to be the special objects of the rage of those bastard soldiers” (149). Though the propriety of the people’s behaviour still carries immense polemical weight in the months after Peterloo, appeals to rational deliberation alter to become increasingly urgent appeals to the language of benevolence and humanity, and to the cohesive effects of sympathetic communication.
However, even before the outrage of Peterloo, celebrations of the enlightening effect of the press in these periodicals are often shadowed by allusions to less cerebral communication. When describing their activities, radicals exploit the varied implications of the metaphor of physiological diffusion. On August 7, 1819 Davison’s Medusa notes:
It must be animating to every mind which has any feeling for the general welfare and happiness of the human race, to observe the diffusion of knowledge, more particularly political knowledge, which has so rapidly extended its light amongst what is ignorantly called ‘THE LOWER ORDERS’, and ramified to every corner of the kingdom; because in that knowledge is contained a certain antidote to the much longer existence of tyranny.
Keen ed. 5: 201
“Political knowledge” is a “certain antidote” to “tyranny”, but the terms in which Davison describes the process compromise his triumphal rationalist rhetoric. He appeals to the “feeling” as well as the “thinking” mind. Thus though Davison begins by arguing for the enlightenment of the people, his account of the spread of “knowledge” is energised by its correlation with physiological processes of diffusion, the implicit threat of the physical presence of the ‘lower orders’, and the vagaries of emotional affect. The multiple implications of Davison’s account emphasise a common feature in the radical newspapers’ representations of their audience. Often the account of a readership as a mutually-supportive collective will shift into the image of an audience as a physical crowd of people assembled as at a political meeting. As mass meetings became more and more common, and more and more subject to the suspicion of the authorities during the summer of 1819, radical texts can no longer blithely claim that the English mob is “no more”. Rather, the connection between radical text and crowd becomes an ambivalent relationship, which can be a hindrance to radicals’ claims to enlightenment, but which can also be exploited through the language of sympathy.
In the co-ordinated mass meetings that took place across the midlands and north of England during the summer of 1819, the rhetoric of the speakers is calculated to emphasise the good order of the collective. But in less formal gatherings, the unruly implications of collective action become clearer. On September 19, 1819 the Examiner newspaper approvingly notes of the crowd that cheers Henry Hunt through London on September 13: “the order and decorum observable in this immense multitude evinced a firm determination to preserve order at all events”. However, when the crowd engages with the newspaper press, this “decorum” is immediately unsettled. The crowd gives “loud shouts at Mr Wooler’s office in Sun-street, and groans as deep at the Mansion-house and the New Times office” (606). This connection between crowd and radical text is often evoked by the conservative press to condemn and dismiss agitation for reform, and yet the connection proves peculiarly hard to police. Describing Hunt’s procession through Manchester on August 9, 1819, the ministerial newspaper The Courier notes on August 11:
When the procession reached Market-street . . . the multitude had so much accumulated, that it literally covered the whole space as far as the eye could see, and appeared like a raging inundation hemmed in by opposing banks . . . [At] the shop of Wroe, the printer of the Manchester Observer, in that part of Market-street which has been called ‘Sedition-corner’ . . . Medusas, Gorgons, Black Dwarfs, and all the monstrous progeny begotten by disaffection upon ignorance, are heaped on the table or in the windows, with hideous profusion.
This description plays havoc with distributions of agency in the interaction between crowd and text. The Courier presents a model of coercion “begotten by disaffection upon ignorance”, but it is not clear who, if anyone, holds rhetorical or physical control in this scene. The combined effect of the “inundation” of the crowd, and the “profusion” of texts threatens to override any attempt at regulation. As we will see, the uncontrolled energies of the crowd therefore offer a powerful figure for the diffusion of political information and activism across the nation.
In the wake of Peterloo the radical press exploits this connection in order to articulate the positive political implications of popular collective action, by advocating the combined power of the diffusion of knowledge through the press, the ties of benevolent feeling, and the threat of physical force. After the outrage of Peterloo it appears useless to deny the collective “feelings” of the people. These feelings constitute both the political right of the people and the potential means of obtaining that right. Writing of the necessity of political reform, Hone declares: “Could it ever be obtained without the people? Without that awful physical strength, in union with a general enlightened sentiment, that cannot be despised? . . . It [is] through feeling that the great and saving truth of REFORM must be taught” (Keen ed. 1: 153; Wilson 168). Even Wade, a utilitarian, litters the pages of the Gorgon with appeals to the “popular feeling”, “the general feeling” and “the feelings of our readers”, and he concludes a gloomy analysis of political events by declaring, ‘the hearts of the people are with US. We ask no more’” (Keen ed. 3: 51, 63). The radical press thus finds powerful utility in the language of sentiment. As Hone’s comment demonstrates, however, it is often coupled with the “awful physical strength” of the populace.
The political significance of the language of sentiment is heightened in the autumn of 1819. The “unfeeling” behaviour of the government in failing to condemn the actions of the Manchester Yeomanry is a repeated trope, but appeals to the language of feeling have rhetorical implications beyond moral censure of the authorities. For James Griffin’s Cap of Liberty, the support for the authorities articulated by the Courier and other conservative publications evince a heartlessness that sets them apart from the nation as a whole. Griffin notes on September 8, 1819: “To the honour of your brother Journalists, be it spoken, they have, almost to a man, reprobated, in the strongest terms, the atrocities of this disgraceful day. Their language bespeaks true patriotism and genuine British feeling – it vibrates in unison with chords of sensibility from one extremity of the realm to the other” (Keen ed. 4: 30). But this is not a pure appeal for pity in the face of tragedy. In this startling image, Griffin combines the transmission of outraged emotion and of political information. Both are described using a physiological analogy: “chords of sensibility” vibrate “in unison”, communicating “genuine British feeling”, and uniting the body politic in moral outrage and physical consent. Wooler seizes on the same potent synthesis of the diverse implications of this language in The Black Dwarf, when he notes that “the spark of patriotism runs with electric swiftness from pulse to pulse, until the whole mass vibrates in unison” (3: 165). In the aftermath of Peterloo, “sensibility” is reimagined in the radical press as the medium of solidarity and resistance.
The sense of the press as an agent which can unite the moral and physical strength of the people is illustrated in an “Appeal to the Prince Regent” in November 1819, devised at “a numerous Meeting of Non-represented persons”, at Finsbury Market Place, and reprinted in at least three radical weekly magazines, the Briton, the Cap of Liberty and the London Alfred (Keen ed. 4: 149-52, 347-51; 6: 235-40). The “Appeal” is a striking combination of the varied points of political leverage that a language of feeling can apply. It points to the need for benevolent sympathy, but also alludes to the power of the diffusion of information through the press, and the consequent physical threat if this “Appeal” is ignored:
The distress and misery . . . to which the most useful, and the most industrious parts of the community are reduced . . . the keen and appalling sympathies of Parents, Children, and Friends, in beholding the deplorable privations and horrors of each other’s condition . . . . the universality of distress in all parts of the United Kingdom . . . every day cry aloud for instant relief to stay the flood of misery from overwhelming society in one common scene of confusion, anarchy and despair; and pleads for us in . . . praying that you will let the solemn Appeal we now make sink deep into your heart; - nor let any impression of sympathy which it may create, flee from you like a summer cloud, but . . . meditate on the high duties of a Prince, humanely to investigate into the condition of a People, who have liberally bestowed upon you every profusion.
Keen ed. 4: 149
This ‘Appeal’ illustrates the fluidity of the boundaries between the language of feeling and the language of threat. Though it echoes addresses made by the London Corresponding Society to government in 1795, these earlier examples entirely avoid the striking language of sentiment employed here (Davis ed. 72-74, 94-96). In the indignant aftermath of Peterloo, appeals to humanity slip very readily into allusions to force.
The mutually-sustaining power of the language of feeling and that of threat is illustrated in a short-lived innovation favoured by extreme radicals in autumn 1819 (McCalman 135). By October 1819, it became clear that the government were preparing a means of suppressing public meetings and the press altogether. For voices like the Cap of Liberty, the only way of meeting this challenge would be to “convene an instantaneous assemblage of the People throughout the kingdom, at which Resolutions should be entered into indicative of their intention to resort to arms, if the House of Commons persisted in their attacks upon the People” (Keen ed. 4: 135). This statement contains an unusually frank reference to violence, but its rhetorical effectiveness lies in Griffin’s conception of “an instantaneous assemblage of the People”. The plan for “simultaneous meetings” marked the height of the radical imperative to present a nationwide protest, to expand the constituency of the public meeting, from thousands, to “assembled millions” (Keen ed. 6: 227). This tactic carries with it an literal threat of physical violence, as TheDemocratic Recorder notes in its single issue of October 2, 1819: “3 or 4 millions of persons assembled to demand their Freedom, must not be trifled with, for although they petition for their rights, let it be remembered; they have the power to take possession of them when they will” (Keen ed. 6: 244). However, the polemical power of this tactic seems to lie less in explicit threat than in the symbolic weight of the image of a people united against their governors.
The image of a physical assembly of millions finds application in a wide range of contexts during the closing months of 1819. At Hunt’s trial following Peterloo, the prosecutor builds his case on the mere assertion that “if all the individuals in this island were to assemble in some vast plain, to take into their own hand the contemplation of such measure as would . . . produce a total alteration of system, the people would then resume the powers with which they had invested their functionaries, and government be dissolved” (Hunt 4). Speculative though this may sound, in adopting the tactic of simultaneous meetings, radicals attempt to utilise this visionary appeal to the nation as one physical mass, bound by bonds of collective purpose. To gain a sense of solidarity, it is not necessary that participants see and feel the presence of their colleagues, so long as they are able to conceive the unity of support for their cause. Griffin notes in the Cap of Liberty, “Ere any thing beneficial can result from their effort, their motto must be, from one end of the kingdom to the other – ‘Be united and be free’” (Keen ed. 4: 159). As in his editorial of 8 September, Griffin presents the nation as one feeling body. The collective impulse which allows the “chords of sensibility” to vibrate “in unison” across the nation enables participants at simultaneous meetings to act as one with their distant companions.
Though some simultaneous meetings did taken place on November 1 and 15, 1819 they were severely affected by divisions amongst radical leaders, and quickly declared to be a failure (Belchem 16-17; Hone 39-40; Chandler 19-20; McCalman 136-37). But despite the embarrassment of this puncturing of the rhetoric of solidarity, practical failure did not mean absolute failure for this tactic. T. M. Parsinnen argues that as an unrealised “myth”, the threat of unlimited simultaneous meetings remained always immanent, and thus unaffected by logistical failure or by repression (531). The union of the press and public assemblies in the plan for simultaneous meetings threatened to actualise the bonds of emotion and political principle, which could unite the populace. This “mythic” threat was certainly enough to alarm the conservative press, in particular the Quarterly Review, which in January 1820 notes the unprecedented nature of such proceedings:
The volunteer statesmen of [earlier generations] were not acquainted with the modern method of calling together large deliberative crowds, as a sort of outer parliaments, having no other object than publicly to take into consideration affairs of state, and to record the result of their deliberation in propositions or resolutions . . . published purely as authorized expressions of popular opinion. Such a plan of proceeding would, to our ancestors, have been unintelligible.
As a result of their unprecedented nature, as Leigh Hunt notes in the Examiner, simultaneous meetings are not illegal under existing legislation. Hunt urges that this remain the case:
If all England could assemble and hear a man make an address to his countrymen, it has a right to form one gigantic multitude. We allow that great multitudes present an aspect of alarming physical power; but . . . have not the Governors alarming physical power in their hands? . . . It is a part of the very essence of the British Constitution, that the people should have a . . . conscious ability to oppose the aspect of their own physical power to those who would overawe them with theirs.
However, the government’s response to the fully constitutional, yet “alarming physical power”, of this national movement was to change the legal status of the multitude.
As the Times reported on December 3, 1819, proposing new legislation to the House of Commons, the Solicitor General declared that “the measures which the house was called upon to counteract formed a combined system, and could only be counteracted by another system equally combined in its nature”. The Six Acts, a raft of measures introduced to meet the “combined” threat of mass meetings and the press, was passed at the close of 1819. This legislation destroyed the concept of the “twopenny trash” by charging a four penny duty on weekly newspapers; it also outlawed public meetings, and confined political activity within the limits of individual parishes (Chandler 42-43; Mori 103). Any possibility of the simultaneous manifestation of radical activity across the nation was gone. As Gilmartin notes, this measure was specifically “designed to impede the development of a national political consciousness outside parliament, and to interfere with the totalising logic of a radical critique of system” (52). Radical appeals to the model of a nation unified by “chords of sensibility” therefore seem obsolete in the wake of the Six Acts. The agitation in support of Queen Caroline in the summer and autumn of 1820 showed the effectiveness of collective protest (Chandler 22), but if sympathy was appealed to here, it was as a response to a wronged individual, expressed according to a privatised model, rather than the collective solidarity demonstrated in the preceding months.
I want to argue, however, that the echoes of models of sympathy that inform radical rhetoric, especially in the wake of Peterloo, did cause real consternation for conservative commentators. The significance of sympathy as a unifying force added powerful weight to radicals’ sense of constructing a collective movement, but even at the level of rhetorical expression, the varied applications of sympathy prove disruptive to those who would subdue oppositional energies. On August 19, 1819, just days after Peterloo, the Courier attempts to rebut accusations of heartlessness on the part of the authorities, and to reclaim the language of feeling for its own cause:
The peaceable and well disposed, the constituted civil authorities of the realm, are to be aspersed, while the infatuated and daring agitators whose wild and seditious schemes have placed the country in jeopardy, are to be held up as the martyrs of military execution. Shame upon the cold hearts and quibbling heads, that cannot for a moment silence their petty animosities, nor catch one spark of that manly, generous feeling, which would throw a veil over the excesses, even, (if such had been committed), of men acting from the noble enthusiasm of real patriotism and undebauched loyalty. May not virtue and honour have their venal transgressions, in the eyes of these liberals? Or are they prepared to make a display of their factious benevolence and their wily candour, only when it is their task to palliate the intemperate violence of the mob?
As the Courier discovers, when used to describe collective action, the language of feeling conjures other varied and unsettling features of sympathetic communication. As a result, the Courier makes a bewildering array of claims here, evoking sympathy as a catalyst of “wild and seditious schemes”, as an index of pity and martyrdom, as a corrective to cold-hearted political innovation, as the “spark” of “real patriotism” and “noble enthusiasm” which nevertheless has the potential to escalate into “excesses”, as a principle of suspect, perhaps universal “benevolence” and lastly as a trigger for the “violence of the mob”. Its apportioning of agency and blame is equally scattered. The radicals are first “infatuated”, then “cold heart[ed]” then “wily”, at times implicated in “intemperate violence” and at others distinguished from it. The authorities switch from being “peaceable and well disposed” to committing justified “excesses”. The reader is asked to accept that the “spark of manly feeling”, though incendiary when applied to the mob, censors excess in the authorities.
The Courier’s tortured rhetoric stands as a salutary example of the broader questions at stake here. When described in terms that call to mind sympathy’s varied applications, the actions of any collective, be it the mob or the military, are essentially interchangeable, and thus resistant to regulation. For many representatives of the periodical press, even those with strong reformist allegiances, it is tremendously difficult to present the crowd in a positive light, because collective action always seem to disseminate beyond the control of authority. But by embracing and exploiting the vagaries of collective action, some radical texts do succeed, however briefly, in utilising the strengths of the crowd for their own cause, by exploiting the varied implications of collective sympathy. In contrast to earlier characterisations of the press in terms of enlightenment, the radical press in 1819 celebrates its function as a medium of both rational information and emotional energies, and it is the skilful appropriation of a language of sympathy which enables the press to claim this dual function. Through its association with sympathetic processes, the press can be characterised as an agent of both the moral and physical strength of the people. The radical press challenges essentialist models of the “mobbish” behaviour of collectives by presenting itself as the rational representative voice of the collective, but at the same time, it exploits collective sympathy’s resistance to definition and control to assert the potential threat to authority in both physical gatherings of reformers and the virtual collectives enabled by the circulation of texts. Most importantly, the models of periodical circulation described in these texts enable the characterisation in the cheap radical press of the nation as one body, unified by collective, sympathetic bonds of purpose. The power of such solidarity is demonstrated by the draconian response of the government’s Six Acts. The susceptibility of radical activity to legal repression demonstrates that this victory is necessarily partial, contingent and unstable. But for a brief moment the cheap radical press had demonstrated that sympathy could be claimed not only as the transmitter of emotion within a physical collective, but as a much broader medium of political information and bonds of solidarity through the nation at large.
Mary Fairclough is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield, UK. She completed her PhD in 2008 at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York, and held a Government of Canada Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Carleton University, Ottawa, from 2009 to 2010. Her research interests lie at the intersection between sentimental discourse, science and popular politics in the Romantic period, in particular the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, John Thelwall, Thomas De Quincey and William Hazlitt. Her monograph The Romantic Crowd: Sympathy, Controversy and Print Culture is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press’s Studies in Romanticism series in 2012.
This description was used as a term of abuse by the conservative press, but reclaimed as a badge of honour by William Cobbett and frequently recurs in the cheap radical press. See The Courier 3 December 1816; The White Hat 30 October 1817, 47.
See for example Robert Whytt’s physiological analysis of sympathy in his “Observations”, 583; also the Annual Register article of 1766 “On the Great and Extensive Powers of Sympathy over the Human Frame”,
For more on these debates, see Fairclough, The Sympathy of Popular Opinion.
Stauffer at times reads anger as disabling sympathetic exchange (32). In contrast I characterise sympathy as a medium for angry feelings, amongst other emotions.
See Hone’s Reformist Register, 11 October 1817 (Keen, ed. 2:, 117).
The Courier reprints the Times report of the same day.
“On the Great and Extensive Powers of Sympathy over the Human Frame.” The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, for the Year 1765. London: J. Dodsley, 1766. 80-83. Print.
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