John Britton 1771-1857: Politics, Protest and Class

In chapter IV of Britton’s autobiography he goes into great detail about the government and the role of the government in society. Britton believed that the government had too much power and was too involved in public affairs and wrote the following,’The momentous French Revolution, of 1789, unhinged and disorganized the whole of the civilized world. Everybody talked, or wrote, about politics and governments, freedom and slavery, as if those subjects had been the study of his life. Intemperate, passionate, and dogmatic declamation were of course more prevalent than cool and rational argument. Hence angry feelings were often excited, and violent animosities and antagonism provoked. England was divided into two hostile parties, — The Jacobins and Anti- Jacobins; the former rapidly increasing in number and physical force, although the latter possessed great dominion, and often employed it most tyrannically. Under the ministry of Mr. Pitt, aided by the strong party feeling of King George the Third, and a Tory Parliament, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and certain Acts of Parliament, popularly known as ” Gagging Bills” were passed, in order to curb and punish the powerful advocates of free discussion and republicanism, by suppressing “mob-meetings,” by seizing the property and papers of parties suspected of treason and sedition, and by committing such individuals to prison without trial. Hence societies were formed in the metropolis and most of the large towns of the kingdom, and vast numbers of the people enrolled themselves to oppose and harass the Ministry by every possible means. One of these, the ‘Corresponding Society’,” gradually but rapidly grew to a great bulk, and presented a powerful and formidable league against the Government. Demonstrations of the extent and unity of these associations were occasionally made in the fields, at White Conduit-House, and Copenhagen House, and by large processions to the Houses of Parliament. In their endeavours to suppress these proceedings, the Government, amongst other means, resorted to a system of employing spies and informers — a class the most infamous and debased of our species and previously but little known in England: many of the alleged traitors were tried and subjected to arbitrary and cruel treatment by judges and law-officers; and, although several were acquitted some were transported and others executed. Among the most conspicuous of those who were prosecuted, were the distinguished democrats, John Home Tooke, John Thelwall, Thomas Hardy, William Godwin, and Thomas Holcroft, who were unfairly stigmatized by the Attorney-General as the “acquitted felons.”

Although this is a long quote I decided to write it out in its entirety due it’s incredible relevancy and significance to the modern day. Britton was not only an exceptionally bright and talented man but he was also incredibly brave. Britton spoke out against the government in an era when such activities could and as we can see from the above quote did result in executions. We live in a time now of great uncertainty where people can often be fearful to speak out against the many injustices going on in the world like what Britton experienced but even when faced with the possibility of death Britton wasn’t afraid to condemn the tyrannical government which had silenced those who went against it. Britton seems to be the modern-day equivalent of anti-establishment and anti-government involvement. It is also important to note that Britton learnt and spoke out against the government during debates, in essence the recreational debates aided the formation of his beliefs on the government.

Britton by today’s standard would be labelled as a liberal and historian George Kitson Clark in his book ‘The Making of Victorian England’ backs this claim up. Kitson wrote the following in said book, ‘But even outside the House of Commons the acceptance of liberal principles did not in the third quarter of the century always carry with it an urgent desire for drastic change. Probably at the time that time most intelligent and educated men held beliefs which may have been called liberal, beliefs in the right to freedom, the virtue of mutual toleration and in the effective powers of reason and common sense.’From this quote, we can see that all the characteristics Kitson implies are of a liberal person are all characteristics of Britton such as being educated and believing in freedom and using reason and common sense.


  • Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
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  • Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
  • Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
  • page 95
  • Clark, George. The Making of Victorian England, Routledge; New Ed edition (11 Jan. 1965)


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