ABSTRACT

Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt’s ceremonial return to the capital a month after the Peterloo Massacre might be seen as the high-water mark of popular constitutionalism, the staging of large but orderly open-air assemblies to press for universal manhood suffrage as an ancient constitutional right, in the tumultuous post-Napoleonic era. In pursuit of this strategy Hunt had already drawn large working-class London crowds at the Spa Fields meetings of 1816-17 and at Smithfield in July 1819 (see plate 5) before the ‘tremendous moral and propaganda victory’ (Belchem 1985:5) of Peterloo elicited more broadly based sympathetic interest. This report on a remarkable piece of street-theatre appeared in a London daily newspaper displaying the slogan of popular constitutionalism on its masthead (‘the Cause for which Hampden fell in the field and Sydney died on the scaffold’). It puts the vast crowd, momentarily unified in mood and purpose, centre-stage, heightening the drama of mass expectancy and participation with a breathless style of running commentary, especially in the first portion published on the day itself. However, the mood of optimistic unity was short-lived. The Six Acts, drastically curtailing constitutional freedoms, were passed two months later. Hunt, having fallen out with most other radical leaders, including those referred to in this report, James Watson and Arthur Thistlewood, and having utterly failed to bring the perpetrators of the massacre ‘to condign punishment’, was himself jailed for seditious assembly. Watson, too, was in jail by the end of the year and Thistlewood executed in 1820 as a Cato Street conspirator.