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William Cobbett, John Thelwall, Radicalism, Racism and Slavery: A Study in Burkean Parodics

  • Marcus Wood

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  • Marcus Wood
    University of Sussex

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The cultural interface between radical reform and race in the period 1790-1820, as in any period, is contentious, a tricky terrain. [1] The English radical collective consciousness was an ideological mongrel, but one of the few constants in its evolution was a well defined sense of Nationhood, and this Nationalism/Patriotism, when it did incorporate the colonies, defined itself in contra-distinction to them. Indeed for Radicals being British meant being free, and Britannia and Liberty existed in a precise contradistinction to slavery. In this sense the radical consciousness defined the Caribbean slave as the personification of the opposite of British Liberty. [2] Such a dynamic encourages parodic positioning. And I hope to show the suffering of the slave can be constructed as a parodic version of the suffering of the white labourer and vice versa. Laws were passed in England which claimed to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and plantation slavery in 1833. The fifty years from 1780 to 1830 saw the generation of a fantastically varied set of literatures concerning slavery written by men and women and directed at every available area of the publishing market. Publishing focused on slavery appeared in the form of reports of parliamentary debates, criminal pamphlet literature, the periodical press, and daily newspapers, travel literature, the novel, lyric and epic poetry, every form of advertising outside the press, the drama, ballads and also children's literature in all its varieties. Radicals could not avoid exposure to, and the influence of, the slavery debates, and their writings on race were parodically moulded around the dominant forms of these polemics. [3]

I will focus upon the writings of two English radicals which addressed the English and French colonies in the Caribbean, and which provide very different reactions to the inheritance of the Atlantic slave trade and colonial slavery. John Thelwall and William Cobbett adopted extreme and opposed positions on these issues, but ironically and perhaps inevitably, given his sheer rhetorical power, the force which unites them in terms of the intellectual perameters of their engagement is Edmund Burke. In the final analysis both Cobbett and Thelwall operate forms of Burkean parody in their writings on race. Parody is a strangely open phenomenon and the transformations which Burke undergoes in the writings of these two very different radicals raise a number of questions relating to where parody begins and where influence and even exaggerated reiteration end.

Burke was, of course, the most influential anti-revolutionary propagandist of the first phase of the French Revolution, and his name is centrally linked with that of Tom Paine, whose phenomenally popular The Rights of Man, is basically a, frequently parodic, dialogue with Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. This dialogue has dominated discussions of Burke's influence on, and engagement with, radicalism. [4] But the impact of Burke's writings upon British radical polemic stretches far beyond both Paine and the Reflections, but not in ways which we might now anticipate. In the first half of the 1790s Burke's writings developed, with a unique vigour, the fashionable Loyalist link between French Jacobinism and revolutionary developments in the French Caribbean. He reserved his most lethal moves for developments in San Domingo. The emotionally unstable Letters on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace, the last of which Burke was compulsively working on at the time of his death, set up a series of comparisons between developments in France and revolutionary San Domingo. [5] This work assaulted events in Revolutionary France, and their colonial fallout, with a ferocity which dictated the terms in which Cobbett and Thelwall subsequently wrote about slavery and race. Cobbett swallowed Burke's positions lock stock and barrel, digesting them and then reconstituting them, at times with an horrific negrophobe vigour, into arguments focused on the exploitation of the English labour force. Thelwall passionately opposed everything Burke said, yet he set up his responses in ways which mimmic while subverting Burkean argumentative methods. [6]

Cobbett and Slavery

William Cobbett was not only the most widely read and influential popular journalist of the first three decades of the nineteenth century, but the most ingeniously post-Burkean negrophobe. [7] In 1823 William Wilberforce published An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. After its interminable delays in the 1790s the bill for the abolition of the slave trade had finally been passed in 1807. After this date there was a decline in abolition activity until interest in British slavery picked up by the early 1820s, and the drive was now on for slave emancipation in the British Colonies. On December 18 1823 Wilberforce's arguments were met with a resounding counterblast from Cobbett's Political Register. The piece included a bizarre reinvention of the story of what happened in San Domingo in the 1790's, which can best be understood as parodic fantasy growing out of previous pro-slavery rhetoric:

The French Colony of St. Domingo was, perhaps, previous to the year 1792, the brightest spot the sun saw in the whole of its course; and, perhaps, the happiest spot, too. The whole colony was a garden; its products were immense; the slaves had nothing of slavery about them except the name. They were treated, almost universally, as men treat the best of servants. The town of Cape François surpassed in riches, (in proportion to its size), in brilliancy, in gaiety, in joyousness any town or city of which we, in modern times, have any knowledge. The town and the whole colony, were the admiration of all who beheld them. To go to St. Domingo was not like going to a place of trade; it was to be lost amidst scenes of hospitality and delight.

Santhonax and Polverel, [the notorious Jacobin Commissioners active in San Domingo during the most violent stages of the slave revolts] two "philanthropists", were sent out by the National Assembly of France to this scene of riches and happiness; and in about three months from the day of their arrival, the beautiful plantations were laid waste, the proprietors and their families were either butchered or driven into exile and beggary; and the light of the sun was obscured by the smoke which begun to ascend from dwellings formerly so full of every thing desirable to man. I saw thousands of these miserable exiles; and I most cordially joined them in cursing the hypocrites that had been the cause of their ruin. I saw many hundreds, and I dare say, thousands of negroe slaves, who had escaped with their masters and mistresses. Not one of them did I ever see, or ever hear of, who, though at perfect liberty to do it, attempted to quit those masters or mistresses.

And what has been the result?...The consequence as to the wretched negroes themselves. This consequence has been a series of massacres, continuing, with little intermission, for one-and thirty years and put a stop to, from time to time, only by a system of slavery ten times harder than that which existed before; and which system of slavery and that alone has prevented the complete extermination of the wretched beings to whom Santhonax and Polverel gave, what they had the infamy to call, freedom.

With this example before their eyes, will our Ministers lend their hand to any thing having a tendency towards an emancipating tendency? [8]

This diatribe reveals the essentials of how Cobbett's writing on race and slavery operate. Cobbett's tirade is retrograde, had it been published during the French Revolution it would have appeared as an extreme if orthodox piece of pro-slavery rhetoric. It reasserts in the most abandoned strokes every pat argument with which the pro-planter lobby met the events in San Domingo in 1791. His narrative provides an idyllic account of pre-slavery plantation life, fuses extreme Jacobinism and abolitionism, and sees a demonic manifestation of this fusion in the Jacobin commissioners Santhonax and Polverel. Cobbett's account also stresses the loyalty and love of the house slaves for their desolated owners. The rebel slaves are presented as motivated by a politically uninformed barbarism, and their fate is to end in a worse slavery after the revolution, while the revolution itself threatens terrible dangers for the entire British Caribbean. All these were well tried and tested pro-slavery positions, the only novelty lies in the extremity with which Cobbett's bullying exaggeration reinvents them. One thing this passage teaches is the continuing centrality of the San Domingo revolution to accounts of slavery and abolition, another is the real danger of making any simple equations between radical reform and pro-slavery sentiment in England from 1790-1820. [9]

The image of the black slave in Europe changed dramatically and irrevocably in late October 1791 when news first began to circulate that more than 100,000 slaves had risen in the great plane of North San Domingue fired hundreds of plantations and murdered thousands of whites. With a remarkable alacrity a flood of publications giving detailed accounts of the most horrific violence changed the popular perception of blacks in England. Burke, who in the 1780s had thrown the weight of his reputation behind the reform and eventual abolition of slavery and the slave trade, had to absorb developments in San Domingo. What resulted was the most rhetorically extreme reaction to the Slave Rebellion to emerge from London. Burke incorporated the slaves within an alternative mythological paradigm which he had been instrumental in developing, that of the foaming animality of Jacobin France. In the unstable world of his imaginative recreation black and white became curiously interchangeable, he operates a satiric miscegenation in which the black Jacobins are parodic representatives or white Jacobinsim, the revolutionary devil you don't know engendered by the one that you do. [10]

Some of the most fevered passages in the Letters on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace describe, with crazy elaboration, the hideous unions which the mingling of white and black revolutions engendered in Burke's distraught mind. Slave/savage and Jacobin/savage, white/Jacobin and black/Jacobin are conjoined, and through their ideological union ironically attain a charged equality in iniquity. Without law or morality these imaginative hybrids commit excesses which submerge them in a common chaos - the effluence of Burke's foaming outrage. [11]

Burke's horror reaches one of its crescendos in the First letter when he makes a Gillrayesque leap of the imagination to present the fantasy of England overrun by 'the Regicides in France'. The King and Queen are murdered, the princesses 'whose beauty and modest elegance are the ornaments of their country, and who are the leaders and patterns of the ingenuous youth of their sex' are 'put to a cruel and ignominious death' and the bankers are 'drawn out as from an hen coop for slaughter...would not [Burke demands] persecuted English loyalty cry out with an awful warning voice, and denounce rebels, traitors, regicides, and furious negro slaves, whose crimes have broke their chains?' (Burke vol. 9, pp. 254-5)

Burke then imagines havoc in our colonial possessions along the model of San Domingo:

How must we feel if the pride and flower of the English nobility and gentry, who might escape the pestilential clime and the devouring sword, should, if taken prisoners, be delivered over as rebel subjects, to be condemned as rebels as traitors, as the vilest of all criminals, by the tribunals formed of Maroon negro slaves, covered over with the blood of their masters, who were made free and organised into judges for their robberies and murders?

Burke vol. 9, p. 255

This passage could easily be mistaken for a piece of Cobbett, the Cobbett of the American pamphlet period or the rabid foe of Abolition and Wilberforce nearly fifty years later. This raises two questions: the first is the extent to which Cobbett was capable of distancing himself from the Loyalist propaganda generated by the San Domingo revolution, and the second is the extent to which Cobbett was, at any point, capable of ideological development over the issue of slavery. He is a perpetual Burke mimmic. A comparison of the 1823 attack on Wilberforce quoted above with Cobbett's writings on San Domingo in the 1790s indicates how determinedly consistent he was in his racial prejudices. The 1823 diatribe is in fact an expanded reiteration of an attack which he wrote on Dr. Priestly while Cobbett was resident in America way back in 1794. Cobbett wrote Observations on Priestley's Emigration as a warning of the potentially dire effects of French Jacobinism in Europe and America. [12] Priestly is seen to have got what he deserved when his house and laboratory were attacked and destroyed and his life threatened by a Loyalist mob during the Birmingham riots. The disturbances were sparked off by Jacobin sympathisers celebrating the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. In defence of his position Cobbett moves from the Terror in Paris to a consideration of the San Domingo revolution:

The stale pretence that the league against the French has been the cause of their inhuman conduct to each other, cannot, by the most perverse sophistry, be applied to the island of St. Domingo. That fine rich colony was ruined, its superb capital and villas reduced to ashes, one half of its inhabitants massacred, and the other half reduced to beggary, before an enemy ever appeared on the coast. No: it is that system of anarchy and blood that was celebrated at Birmingham, on the 14 July 1791, that has been the cause of all this murder and devastation.

Cobbett vol. 1, p. 26

Cobbett's argument that the anarchic essence of Parisian Jacobinism can be studied in its purist form through what happened in the French colonies was taken directly from Burke. Indeed Priestley's Emigration continues by stating that Priestley should have taken warning from the numerous Loyalist political prophecies anticipating what French developments would lead to. Cobbett cites a large body of political prophecy on the topic, but the example he chooses to quote at length in support of his argument is from one of Burke's parliamentary speeches:

The French Constitution...is founded upon what is called the rights of man; but, to my conviction, it is founded on the wrongs of man; and I now hold in my hand an example of its effects on the French colonies. Domingo, Guadeloupe, and the other French islands, were rich, happy, and growing in strength and consequence, in spite of the three last distressing wars, before they heard of the new doctrine of the rights of man; but these rights were no sooner arrived at the islands than any spectator would have imagined that Pandora's box had been opened, and that hell had yawned out discord, murder, and every mischief; for anarchy, confusion and bloodshed, raged every where; it was a general summons for:

"Black spirits and white,

"Blue spirits and gray,

"Mingle, mingle, mingle,

"You that mingle may."

Cobbett vol. 1, p. 26

Burke conjoins the French revolution, and the spectre of black revolution, more crucially he twins miscegenation with Jacobin atrocity. This was also a standard pro-slavery response - consider for example the Earl of Abingdon's parliamentary assault upon the abolition/Jacobin conflation. He envisions ideological union in terms of an explicitly sexual miscegenetic rhetoric:

all being equal blacks and whites, French and English, wolves and lambs, shall all, "merry companions every one," promiscuously pig together; engendering....a new species of man as the product of this philosophy. [13]

The descent from human interbreeding to animal is a move which Cobbett frequently made himself when he came to incorporate miscegenation into his political arguments. Burke's fusions were similarly absorbed at an early stage into both pro-slavery's and Cobbett's ideological armouries, and lingered there, to be drawn upon when occasion called.

Cobbett's defence of 'the other'

Cobbett responded to abolition and the condition of the plantation slave through perameters defined exclusively by British domestic politics, and he articulated those responses through a rhetoric which, in its frequent enactment of a tone of outraged hysteria, was more dependent on Burke than any other influence. Cobbett's writings on slavery and abolition always circle around several of his favourite hobby horses: the sacred status of the British farmer, and of the land, the religious hypocrisy of the Clapham sect, and the superiority of the British labourer over any foreign rival black or white. Or to put it another way whenever he writes about slavery it is within a larger agenda set on the celebration of Nation through a mythologisation of the English labour force, and more specifically the English farm.

Plantation slavery in the Caribbean only came alive for Cobbett in these contexts, and could only be defined through his extant opinions on them. This is not surprising: the examination of the ideologically and socially unfamiliar through the familiar is a defining premise of Western colonialism and the texts it generated, it is also a basic device underlying the impulse to parody influential models. The concept of 'the other', now over-used in post-colonial studies to the point of uselessness, evolved out of the position that before anything else the imperial subject knows what s/he believe themselves to be. It is only as a consequence of this utter confidence in self definition that the various levels of problematisation, spilling out into a spurious engagement with a devolved translation of the Lacanian concept of le grand autre, have arisen within recent post-colonial studies. [14] Yet for Cobbett, and for the vast majority of English radicals, the definition of self through the anathematisation of the 'other' is a more complicated affair. The difficulty goes beyond contemporary theory which predicates the colonial 'margin' as the originatory space for the process of 'othering'. For Cobbett's radical consciousness the 'other' did not operate predominantly within the dynamics of coloniser and colonised, or empire and motherland. For popular radicalism, as for popular loyalism, the primary dynamic of 'othering' existed within Britain, in a society composed of the one and the other, the haves and the have nots. In a country which was organised along ruthless lines of class division, defined in terms of political power via the disenfranchisement of the majority of the population, 'othering' operated in ways which could suspend boundaries predicated upon nationality colour and at times even gender. Within the Cobbettian mythology of social types the labouring man, the honest farmer, or artisan was primarily defined by comparison with his contrary, the Placeman, the pensioner, the clergyman of the established church, the army officer. For Cobbett Clapham Sect philanthropy, symbolised by the figure of Wilberforce, was part and parcel of this demonology of corrupt and economically usurious social types. In Cobbett's political landscape the parasitical and chimerical Wilberforce was a far more corrupt figure than the troubled Caribbean sugar planter. But where did this leave the slave?

Cobbett's position makes Radicalism's imaginative construction of the masses of the slave plantations, the colonial labouring 'other', intensely problematic. The radical consciousness was forced, if only at the level of racist negation, to acknowledge the basis of its engagement with slavery as an ironic power struggle, ironic because it involved the articulation of disempowerment as a positive. The fundamental energising force behind the majority of radical writing which does introduce the subject of colonial slavery is competitive. The central concern is to prove that the labouring masses of Britain are more disadvantaged- that they suffer more and are exploited more, and are abused more fully - than any other group, including colonial slaves. In this sense the British labourer becomes a parody of the plantation slave. In Cobbett this obsession with articulating the labouring classes as a collective martyrological ideal reaches its apogee. Yet the rhetorical celebration of this essential disadvantage is achieved at a terrible price of the colonial slave populations. Throughout the whole range of Cobbett's writings which discuss slavery, white economic hardship, physical suffering and political disadvantage are in perpetual, if frequently implicit, competition with the absolute disempowerment which defines the state of the plantation slave.

It is a hard pill for us to swallow now, but examining their writings on slavery and colonialism it is quite simply evident that Cobbett, and English radicals generally, could not view the slave population as an ideal of persecuted innocence which merited the immediate implementation of those political rights which lay at the heart of radical reform. The slave population were cut off from a claim to the political rights of radicalism, and the mechanism by which this severance was achieved is a crude racism, by which Blacks are not seen as part of the class struggle, because they are not seen as human. [15]

Within Cobbett's political dialectic the slave is eliminated from the political stage through charges relating to inhuman status. This move eliminates the social suffering of slave populations as a competitive threat to the monopoly of suffering envisaged for the white labourer, a monopoly central to the theory of English radical intellectuals. The passage quoted above which Cobbett, as fledgling political journalist, selected from Burke, provides a violent introduction to the racist basis of radical political theory. Burke's immediate association of extreme Jacobinism with miscegenation, his definition of social anarchy through the idea that white people would willingly mate with black people, is not eccentric to, but central within, Cobbett's writings on race.

For Cobbett black people were quite definitely not men and brothers or women and sisters. In 1804 Cobbett is still surveying San Domingo in Burkean terms in order to defend the suffering of the English labourer: 'The state of San Domingo is as wretched and the deeds committed upon the whites as bloody, as any negro-lover could possibly wish...And it is a shame to hear men in this kingdom lamenting, or affecting to lament, the hardships and privations of the negroes when so many objects of real compassion amongst their fellow subjects seem to attract but a very little share of their attention. The negroes are a bloody minded race: they are made and marked for servitude and subjection: it is the purpose which they were obviously intended for, and every day affords us fresh proof.' [16] Cobbett's race agenda is most quintessentially Burkean in its continual projection of horror at the idea of miscegenation, and his conviction that black males libidinously desired to prey on white females, remained consistent. Cobbett's dehumanising of blacks constitutes a formula by which black people can be evicted from the possibility of competing with the European labouring classes for intellectual recognition, or at a more basic level, emotional empathy. His rhetorical disenfranchisement of blacks was articulated with a bigoted fulsomeness which suggests that the lowest common denominators of the linguistics of Western racism are depressingly transhistorical. [17]

Cobbett begins an 1804 harangue on Wilberforce's latest bill to abolish the slave trade by stating that the British public are sick of the whole debate and that 'not a few of them would consent to be deprived of the power of hearing' rather than be subjected to hearing more about it. He then shifts the discussion to consider the existence of a black population in Britain 'The importation and propagation of negroes in this country is, however, with me, a matter of much greater importance than the manner of catching them in Africa, or working them in the West-Indies', a social tendency which he sees as inevitably degrading 'the mind and character of the common people'. [18] The attack continues:

To confine myself, at present, to the Negroes...who, that has any sense or decency, can help being shocked at the familiar intercourse, which has gradually been gaining ground, and which has, at last, got a complete footing between the Negroes and the women of England? No black swain need, in this loving country, hang himself in despair. No inquiry is made whether he be a Pagan or a Christian; if he be not a downright cripple, he will, if he be so disposed, always find a woman, not merely to yield to his filthy embraces, that, amongst the notoriously polluted and abandoned part of the sex, would be less shocking, but to accompany him to the altar, to become his wife, to breed English mulattos, to stamp the mark of Cain upon her family and her country! Amongst white women, this disregard for decency, this defiance of the dictates of nature, this foul, this beastly propensity, is I say it with sorrow and with shame, peculiar to the English...Yes, though I would fain make and apology for my countrywomen, I cannot! Yes; not withstanding all the encouragement they receive from the rich, still their own conduct is foul, unnatural and detestable. [19]

We are back with Burke's paranoia, social anarchy defined by miscegenetic impulses: 'Black spirits and white / Blue spirits and gray / Mingle mingle mingle / You that mingle may'. For Cobbett the real horror here lies in his fantasy that white women find happiness and sexual fulfilment with black men out of choice. This is a crime not only against sense and decency, but more crucially against family and Nation. As for Burke, so for Cobbett, the volitional union of Black and White defines a state outside culture, and outside humanity, women who take black men operate 'outside the dictates of nature', and are animals, literally 'beastly'.

John Thelwall and radical solidarity

James Walvin first put forward the view that abolition, from its first rise to attention as a mass movement in 1788, exerted a decided influence on the development of popular radicalism in Britain. [20] This view has now been heavily qualified, both by Walvin and others. Scholars, with Patricia Hollis at their head, have argued that radicals became increasingly suspicious of organised abolitionism in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Popular radical demagogues and journalists including Henry Hunt and Henry Hetherington, as well as Cobbett, singled out the ant-slavery movement, and Wilberforce in particular, because of its increasing connection with emergent bourgeois political economy, and because of its strong links with a type of establishment Evangelicalism which the radicals had come to associate with a support for the policing and political repression of the poor. There was particular fury over the way in which prominent abolitionists such as Brougham contributed to, and supported, the Poor Law. [21] Hollis argues that the chartists got to the stage of regarding the violent disruption of anti slavery meetings as an act of radical solidarity and class consciousness. [22]

It has become something of a commonplace to claim common political roots for both Chartism and abolition in the general pronouncements of English radicals in the late eighteenth century. [23] The idea of an early link between reform and abolition is still supported yet it is very unclear to what extent this ever went beyond the general enthusiasm for abolition which increasingly swept the country in the 1782-1791 period. Perhaps even more fascinating, though almost completely unresearched, is the possibility that extreme English revolutionary radicals were influenced by the experience and political theory of blacks who had been involved in slave insurrections in the Caribbean and then ended up among the London proletariat. [24] Granville Sharp (never a straightforward contributor to the mainstream reform campaign of 1790-94), Major Cartwright and Thomas Hardy all made pronouncements on the abstract equality of black and white, on their common experience in labour exploitation, and on their common requirements for reform, although all of them seem to have stopped short of advocating combined and violent political collaboration between Caribbean slave an English labourer. [25]

But it is noticeable that these statements, which have become a virtual litany for historians attempting to establish connections between radicalism and slavery, were nearly all in the form of private correspondence or reported speech in later biographical sources Also while they are thin on the ground in the period 1788-92 they appear to all but disappear during the later 1790s, and on into the first two decades of the nineteenth. Racism and negrophobia in England were standard and deeply rooted, it took great intellectual stamina to detect them let alone resist them and a general support for the abolition of the slave trade during the heady days of early abolition furore did not provide the basis for the serious integration of the two movements when the going got tough after the San Domingo uprising and the declaration of war with France. While Cobbett's extreme negrophobia extended even into abstract contemplation of the black and it is a grave mistake to assume that radicals shared an understanding of the minutiae of abolitionist politics, or that they even had an instinctive sympathy with the physical realities of suffering black slaves. Sharp and Hardy were, it appears, unusual among white radicals, and come to that abolitionists, in having close personal and intellectual contacts with black freed slaves, and political activists in Britain. Equiano was instrumental in helping Hardy forge links with abolitionists and members of the Corresponding society in Sheffield. [26]

Yet how deep do the connections between radicals and abolition really go? From mid 1795 until the end of the century there appear to be no radical publications, apart from Thelwall's Tribune, which attempt detailed comparison between the aims and exploited status of the poor white labourer in England and the black slave in the Caribbean. The theory, generally subscribed to by radicals, that many of the poor in England were worse off than the majority of slaves in the Caribbean was a difficult one for radicals to square with a commitment to abolition. This line was, after all, a classic planter argument in defence of the paternalistic and benevolent basis of plantation slavery. The comparison of the British labourer and the plantation slave soon became a commonplace in basic broadside and print expressions of the suffering of the poor, and by the mid-1790s it was not exclusive to the planter lobby. The slave became necessary for the definition of the suffering labourer: you could not define the one without the other, a kind of parodic osmosis leaves the two poles of suffering in an uneasy equilibrium. The print satirist Richard Newton produced a classic expression of this simplified notion in his Justice and Humanity at Home where Wilberforce comments upon seeing an English labourer beaten. 'I and my tribe must look abroad for acts of cruelty and oppression. This is so near home it is beneath our notice. My duty to my maker teaches me thus to act'. This line had become a commonplace in parliamentary debates and it was this which inspired Thelwall, as late as 1795, to confront the paradox which it posed for British radicalism and to produce one of the most trenchant pleas for the ideological unification of abolition and reform theory.

I want to focus on Thelwall here, because in many ways he acts as such an intriguing counter-foil to Cobbett, and because his originality as a political thinker on the issues of race, slavery, nationalism and the West India trade monopolies have not been recognised. It is only with the recent publication of Gregory Claeys' excellent The Politics of English Jacobinism the Writings of John Thelwall that it is possible to gain an overview of the remarkable range of his thought and style. Claeys argues convincingly that Thelwall was the most significant public orator and political theoretician during the initial burst of London mass radicalism which centred around the London Corresponding Society in the early 1790s. As Claeys rightly stresses the inordinate interest in the life and writings of Paine has tended to drown out Thelwall's centrality both as a rhetorician of popular radicalism, as a political and economic theorist of property, and as a radical activist. (Claeys pp. xiii-liv) While Claeys' work ensures Thelwall's reintegration into the centre of 1790s radical publication and theory one area which continues to remain eccentric, when noticed at all, is his remarkable position over the questions of slavery and race. To an extraordinary degree Thelwall appears to have stood out against the negrophobe orthodoxies of English radicalism, which as we have seen are represented in their most sustained and extreme forms by Cobbett. Thelwall is in fact deeply attractive in his wide ranging humanitarianism. Unlike the majority of radicals engaged in grass roots activism he was not a political pragmatist over questions of race and empire, but remained a profound idealist. The Thelwall who emerges from the great speeches and open letters of the mid 1790s is a figure who hated all social and political injustice with an intensity and uncompromising absolutism that put him, as a disciple of Godwin's Political Justice, next to Shelley, and nowhere near Cobbett.

Thelwall's engagement with slavery is varied and frequently astonishingly bold. The first extended treatment of slavery in his recorded political oratory consists of bizarre anecdote 'related by Citizen Thelwall, at the Capel Court Society' in which he turned the tables on Cobbettian style denigration of the slave's capacity to suffer. [27] In this piece Thelwall sets up a parallel between the multiple tortures and eventual execution of a West Indian slave and the killing of a cockerel, who exists within Thelwall's political fable as a thinly disguised representation of King George III. The relevant passage is worth quoting at some length because it is unique in the boldness of its comparative base - the pairing of slave torture and regicide:

We have been told, Citizen Chairman! by a learned orator...that the love of life must certainly have the strongest influence on the actions of mankind...He has told [a] melancholy tale of a poor tortured slave in the West Indies...This poor kidnapped negro, we are told, (for there are pressgangs to make men slaves of labour as well as slaves of war) having had his hands and feet chopped off, by order of this tyrant masters, on account of some seditious attempt to regain his freedom, was afterwards put into a large frying pan over the fire, that he might expiate, by his tortures, that impious love of liberty which he had the audacity to entertain. In the midst of his torments, we are told, that one of his companions, more compassionate than the rest, rushed towards him, and, aiming a blow with his cudgel, would have dashed out his brains, had not the poor mutilated wretch conceived (such is the curious reasoning that is offered to us by the tame advocates of life without liberty) that the tortures of the frying pan were preferable to instant death, and therefore lifted his poor bleeding stumps, with sudden terror, and broke the force of the blow. Now if this magnanimous advocate for the frying pan of despotism, had happened to have reflected a little on the physical laws of the animal frame, he would have known that this motion of the arms was merely involuntary, and that neither love, nor fear, nor liberty, nor any other preference of the judgement, had anything at all to do with it - it being natural to all animals, after they have been long used to perform certain actions in consequence of any particular stimulus, applied either to the sight or any other of the senses, to continue those actions, by mere mechanical impulse, whenever the usual objects are presented, without ever reflecting what it is that they are doing...I had a very fine majestic kind of animal, a game cock: a haughty and sanguinary tyrant, nursed in blood and slaughter from his infancy - fond of foreign wars and domestic rebellions, into which he would sometimes drive his subjects, by his oppressive obstinacy, in hopes that he might increase his power and glory by their suppression...So I believe, if guillotines had been in fashion I should have certainly guillotined him...However, I managed the business very well; for I caught Mr. Tyrant by the head and dragging him immediately to the block with a heavy knife in my hand separated his neck at a blow: and what will surprise you very much, when his fine trappings were stripped off, I found he was no better than a common tame scratch-dung-hill pullet: no, nor half so good, for he was tough, and oily, and rank with the pollutions of his luxurious vices. But that which it is particularly my duty to dwell upon, as applicable to the story of the poor mutilated negro, is the continuance of the habitual muscular motion after (by means of the loss of his head) he was no longer capable of knowing what he was about. In short, having been long in the habit of flying up, and striking with his spurs, and cuffing about with his arms - or his wings, if you please (for anatomists can tell you, that arms are only wings without feathers and wings are nothing but feathered arms) he still continued the same hostile kind of action, bouncing, and flapping, and spurring and scuffling about, till the muscular energy (as they call it) was exhausted.

The comparison is unique, and quite difficult to interpret, but a satiric tour de force which uses parody at a whole series of levels. Most obviously the parable of the cock parodies Burke's increasingly extreme fantasies eulogising the merits of tradition, monarchy and inherited aristocracy. The comic climax operates both a Burkean and Painite parodics. The revelation that the apparently powerful and beautiful bird is in reality nothing more than a dung hill pullet, develops out of one of Paine's most celebrated aphorisms concerning Burkean monarchophilia. When Paine stated that in relating to the fate of the French Royal Family with such sentimental extremity Burke 'pitied the plumage but forgot the dying Bird', he opened the door for Thelwall's fabular parody. Here the monarch is transformed from plumed beauty to both dead and dying bird, but the dead bird is revealed, beneath its plumage to be well beneath the calibre of the average plebeian corpse. Thelwall's bizarre comparison goes even further than this, however, when he compares the dying bird to the body of the tortured dying slave. Thelwall initially flirts dangerously with pro-slave rhetoric which animalises the slave, and his account of slave torture has a tone of amused brutality which is disturbing, while also, in the use of the frying pan imagery, approaching cannibalistic metaphor. It is, however, only as the passage progresses to its grotesque and fantastic conclusion that we see the satiric justification for this racist mimicry. The reality of torture and execution are seen to operate an horrific levelling system in which instinct and reflexology conjoin not only slave and animal, but Western royalty as well. Thelwall's final point is that there is nothing which separates the suffering humanity of Louis XVI from that of the anonymous slave. Pain and cruelty do not discriminate in terms of race or social station.

Yet Thelwall's originality in satirising Burke in the context of race and labour was not restricted to the ironic pairing of slave and royalty. Thelwall's Tribune frequently included discussions of, and references to, slavery in the colonies, which were completely original, if uninfluential, in their committed recognition of the equalities between exploited British labour forces and those of the plantations. For example he articulates a passionate and radically anti-racist assault on the destructive capacity of nationalist fictions within Britain by referring to the brotherhood that unites English, Scottish and Irish: 'Citizens, I speak not from national feelings, I wish to triumph over all nationality: and with me, indeed there is now no such national distinction between Irishmen, Scotchmen and Englishmen.' (Claeys p. 237) As he continues to attack the rejection of Catholic emancipation in Ireland and of British military coercion he illustrates his abhorrence of nationalisms through reference to the recent rise of abolition: 'The light of reason has gone abroad, humanity has warmed the breast of man; and we have found (strange indeed that we should have been so long in making the discovery!) that even the sooty African is our brother: that even the poor "whip-galled slave" in the West Indies, deserves our commiseration: and, this being the case, do you suppose we can be blind to this still more evident truth, that English, Scotch and Irish, are one and the same -'. (Clayes p. 242)

With great sophistication he also attempted an alignment of black and white within the exploitative dynamics of proto-capitalist trade monopolies. In an article in The Tribune in October 1795 Thelwall developed an argument which grew out of Adam Smith's strictures on the inefficiency of West Indian trade monopolies, but which gave Smith an extreme and quirky radical spin. Thelwall develops the economic position into a moral one arguing in his title for a 'Connection between Parliamentary Corruption and Commercial Monopoly'. Thelwall goes on to make the astonishin claim that 'at present (although the open barter only appears in the infamous African slave-trade) almost all the inhabitants of the universe are rendered as it were, the saleable commodities of a few engrossers and monopolists.' (Claeys p. 286) This is to see the West, and nascent Global capitalism in the form of West and East India monopolies, as constituting a system of economic enslavement for black and white alike. In complete opposition to Cobbett, Thelwall was appalled at the British West India expedition, sent out to invade San Domingo and to save the West India Islands for British monopolists in the mid 1790s. He saw the British military force as the sacrifice of white youths in the cause of perpetuating the slave trade 'Thousands of our British youth are annually sacrificed by the yellow pestilence (that high priestess to the Moloc of West Indian avarice) for the perpetuity of the African slave trade'. (Claeys p. 391) Uniquely among the radicals Thelwall isolates the British military disaster in San Domingo, where fifteen thousand troops died of the yellow fever within two years, and which was to take an eventual toll of 100,000 casualties, as a war fought to protect the slave trade within an international monopolist context.

It is however in his brilliant and furious reply to the extremities of Burke's Letters on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace, that Thelwall in 1796 first elaborated a detailed connection between the suffering of the labouring classes in Britain and of the slaves in the colonies. [28] Thelwall launches a general attack on the Burkean defence of privilege and tradition. Thelwall isolates Burke's argument that only the privileged orders can formulate the political Opinion which will guide the management of the nation. He then moves on to isolate Burke's theory of social trusteeship, namely that it is the duty of the privileged orders to protect those suffering within the lower orders, both in the domestic and imperial spheres. Thelwall is a superb close reader, and moves in on the minutiae of Burke's language. When Burke sets out what he sees as the necessary basis to the relationship of the governors to the governed he uses the phrase 'the rest, [of the English population] when feeble, are the objects of protection'. For Thelwall this is a crucial slip, the word 'objects' allows Thelwall to set up a direct comparison between the ways in which the slave populations are seen by the West India monopolists, and the manner in which the labouring poor in Britain are seen by the governing classes. The processes of commodification which we earlier saw Thelwall reading implicitly within the processing of humanity by monopolies, are now developed into the more frightening territory of objectification. Thelwall's assault upon Burkean objectification of the labourer revolves around a complicated set of parallels between English labourer, West Indian slave, medieval serf and domestic beast of burden:

[Burke] Having assigned the exclusive privilege of opinion to the favoured four hundred thousand - a mixed herd of nobles and gentles, placemen, pensioners and court-expectants, of bankers and merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, parsons and physicians, warehousemen and shop-keepers, pimps and king's messengers, fiddlers and auctioneers, with the included "twenty thousand" petticoat allies - ladies to the court, and ladies of the town! having secured this motley group (the favoured progeny of Means and Leisure) in the exclusive, and unquestioned enjoyment of the rights of information and discussion, he proceeds to observe, that "the rest, when feeble, are the objects of protection!" - Objects of protection! so are my lady's lap dog, and the Negro slave. It is easy to determine, which, of the two, polished sensibility will shelter with the most anxious care! - Ye murky walls and foul, straw-littered floors of the plantation hospital! -Ye full-crammed, noxious workhouses of Britain - vile dens of tyrannic penury and putrescence! speak - Ye roofs and floors of wretchedness! speak ye (for that part of nature which should be loud and eloquent is spell-bound in panic apathy) - What is the protection which the feeble labourer, or the sick Negro finds? and then refer, for comparison, to the down pillow of yon pampered, snarling cur; or the commodious chambers of the canine palace at Goodwood.

Clayes p. 406

What Thelwall is telling us is that this one substitution of Burke's, whereby nine tenths of the population of Britain have been described not as people but as objects, is an act of imaginative enslavement which indicates the corrupt totalitarianism underlying Burke's defence of privilege and tradition. Thelwall continues to elaborate the implications of Burkean objectification of the labour force by developing a series of set piece warnings in which the British population emerge first as white slaves:

But foul befall the government, that considers the great mass of the people as brute machines; mere instruments of physical force; deprived of all power, and destitute of the right of information; and doomed like the dray-horse, or the musquet, to perform mechanically whatever task of drudgery, or murder a few "counsellors and deliberators" may command!...Such my fellow citizens is the language of pensioned indolence. Nine out of ten of the human race (it will anon be nineteen out of twenty) are born to be beasts of burthen to the remaining tithe: to be hewers of wood, and drawers of water'.

From this position Thelwall goes on to make the crucial move of constructing white physical force revolutionaries as white-slave revolutionaries whose cultural agency is defined in terms of their equivalence to the revolutionaries of Paris and the rebellious slaves of San Domingo. Thelwall warns that extreme forms of exploitative coercion can lead the masses into a madness of suffering, and that this madness of suffering has been witnessed both in Paris and in San Domingo.

What makes this rhetoric peculiarly potent is the way Thelwall treads a line here. His polemical daring lies in his proximity to the rhetoric of panic utilised by the loyalist press, and most famously Burke, to demonise both the atrocities of the Parisian Terror and those carried out on the great plain of the North during the early stages of the San Domingo slave uprising. But for Thelwall these acts, though terrible, are simply a proof of the suffering of the victims, and should be held out not as a proof that black slaves and Jacobin Frenchmen are blood crazed animals, but as a proof that extreme abuse leads to social anarchy. Thelwall absorbs the rhetoric of the right into an ingenious radical, and essentially parodic, reform agenda, and in so doing pulls the rug out from under Burke's feet:

In vain do you shudder at the cannibals of Paris - in vain do ye colour, with exaggerated horrors, the "tribunals of Maroon and Negro slaves, covered wit the blood of their masters"; if, obstinately vicious, instead of being warned, ye are irritated by the example.

I deplore, as ye do, the "robberies and murders", committed by these poor wretches - the blind instruments of instinctive vengeance. But I cannot, like you, forget by whom those lessons of murderous rapacity were taught. I cannot forget, that slavery itself is robbery and murder; and that the master who falls by the bondsman's hand is the victim of his own barbarity...Had the Maroons and negroes never been most wickedly enslaved, their masters had never been murdered. Had the chains of France been less galling, they had never fallen so heavy on the heads of the French oppressors. To avoid their fate, let governors avoid their crimes. To render sanguinary revolution impossible let them yield to temperate reforms. To avert a dreaded vengeance, let the provocations of injustice be instantly removed; and the padlock from the mouth of an injured people, be transferred to the lips of pensioned indolence!

Claeys pp. 407-9

But by this stage Thelwall was fighting a lost cause. The identification of white workers with black slaves as equally the victims of an unreformed and corrupt English political system, was not as appealing a position to the popular imagination in the mid 1790s as it was in 1788 or even most of 1791. As we have seen the image of the slave had been irrevocably altered by events in San Domingo in 1791. For Cobbett, and the negrophobe alliance within English radicalism, there was no need to look further than the polemical inheritance of the early 1790s to write blacks out of the debate over political rights. Blacks were increasingly figured in terms of a potentially dangerous diversion, they came to represent an emotional vacuum. White suffering upon the killing floors of the factory system not only equalises, but obliterates, any obligation to think through the inheritance of slavery for the white working man or woman. If this statement, as I believe it does, holds true for British attitudes towards slavery and race in the late twentieth century then it is a statement which cuts through gender and class distinctions. Recent work by race and post-colonial theorists points up the frequent parallels in Victorian literatures between European industrial pauper masses (and particularly factory child labour) and slaves or colonised blacks. Yet what is not emphasised, particularly within the context of working class race dialectic, is that the slave and the factory worker do not occupy a common rhetorical ground. [29] Within the Cobbettian radical tradition the parallel operates to stress an absolute difference founded in race(ist) distinction, rather than similarity, and this difference becomes pronounced in the representation of violence. [30]

Appendices