Society of the Friends of the People

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The Society of the Friends of the People (full title The Society of the Friends of the People, Associated for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform) was formed in Great Britain by Whigs at the end of the 18th century as part of a Radical Movement seeking political reform that would widen electoral enfranchisement at a time when only a wealthy minority had the vote. The Society in England was aristocratic and exclusive, in contrast to the Friends of the People in Scotland who increasingly drew on a wider membership, before government clampdowns at the onset of the Napoleonic Wars ended the Societies.


Although the Glorious Revolution had increased parliamentary power with a constitutional monarchy and the union of the parliaments had brought England and Scotland together, towards the end of the 18th century the monarch still had considerable influence over Parliament which itself was dominated by the English aristocracy and by patronage. Candidates for the House of Commons stood as Whigs or Tories, but once elected formed shifting coalitions of interests rather than splitting along party lines. At general elections the vote was restricted to property owners, in constituencies which were out of date and did not reflect the growing importance of manufacturing towns or shifts of population, so that in many rotten boroughs seats could be bought or were controlled by rich landowners, while major cities remained unrepresented. Radicals and more moderate Reformers called for reform of the system.

The American Revolutionary War ended in humiliating defeat of a policy which King George III had fervently advocated, and in March 1782 the King was forced to appoint an administration led by his opponents which sought to curb Royal patronage. In November 1783 he took his opportunity and used his influence in the House of Lords to defeat a Bill to reform the British East India Company, dismissed the government and appointed William Pitt the Younger as his Prime Minister. Pitt had previously called for Parliament to begin to reform itself, but he did not press for long for reforms the King did not like. Proposals Pitt made in April 1785 to redistribute seats from the "rotten boroughs" to London and the counties were defeated in the House of Commons by 248 votes to 174.

The French Revolution in 1789 was welcomed by many in Britain with hopes for a mutual interest in Liberty and peace. The King recognised the hand of justice in limitation of the powers of the French king, who had lately assisted the American rebels. The Whig club of Dundee described it as "the triumph of liberty and reason over despotism, ignorance and superstition." Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man encouraged mass support for democratic reform and numerous reform Societies were formed across Britain, starting with the London Corresponding Society which was founded by artisans and working men on 25 January 1792.

Friends of the People in England[edit]

In April 1792 The Society of the Friends of the People, Associated for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform was formed by a group of advanced young Whigs on the initiative of Lord Lauderdale, Charles Grey and Philip Francis. Charles Grey was the leading figure and he stressed that the organisation would not engage in activities that would promote public disturbances.

The membership included 3 Whig Peers and 28 Whig Members of Parliaments, one being Richard Sheridan. Charles James Fox was not a member, and it is argued 1 that the society excluded him to separate themselves from the Whig party, with their only goal being the elimination of corrupt election practices. Fox stated that he did not wish to discourage the enthusiasts pressing for "more equal representation of the people in Parliament" and voted for Grey's motion in Parliament which was defeated by 284 votes to 41 in May 1793.

It has been stated that by November 1792 87 branches of the organisation had been formed. Another interpretation 1 is that when Fox made a speech in Parliament associating the Friends of the People with proposals for Constitutional change, the original goal of the organization was delegitimized and radical groups calling themselves the Friends of the People sprang up around the country. In any event much of the wider membership was seen as quite radical and some of their activities caused leading parliamentary reformers concern.

The Friends of the People caused divisions inside the Whigs. On 4 June 1792 John Cartwright (a Friends of the People member) made a speech praising Thomas Paine's book, The Rights of Man. Four Whig MPs resigned from the Whig group in parliament.

Friends of the People in Scotland[edit]

In Scotland The Friends of the People Society in Edinburgh was founded in July 1792 with lower subscription rates than the English Society, attracting a wider membership which made it more like the London Corresponding Society. It soon had imitators in towns and villages throughout Scotland.[1]

The rank and file were usually described as "shopkeepers and artisans", and included most prominently weavers as well as tailors, cobblers, brewers, bakers, tanners, butchers and hairdressers. The membership generally did not include general labourers, agricultural workers, colliers, spinners, foundrymen, masons and the like. The government feared such wider support and outbreaks of rioting in many places in the summer and autumn of 1792 were officially attributed to "an almost universal spirit of reform and opposition to the established government and legal administrators which has wonderfully diffused through the manufacturing towns", but most of the riots were due to other grievances such as an unpopular turnpike, the Corn laws and the Enclosures. Radical demonstrations were evident, not just in the larger towns such as Perth and Dundee but also in smaller towns such as Auchtermuchty, at each of which a "Tree of Liberty" was erected[2] and there were cries of "Liberty and Equality", but the Friends of the People unhesitatingly condemned these disturbances and threatened to expel from their membership anyone joining the rioters.

Between December 1792 and October 1793 held three "general conventions" of the Societies, the last being open to English delegates. Each convention and its aftermath increasingly frightened the upper middle classes away from the reform movement.

The first convention in December 1792 was well patronised by some of the Edinburgh Advocates, by Lord Daer and by Lieutenant Colonel Dalrymple of Fordell, and given literary backing by the Member of Parliament for Inverness, Colonel Macleod. The effective leader at the radical faction at this convention was the eloquent Glasgow lawyer Thomas Muir who was subsequently sentenced by Lord Braxfield after a travesty of a trial to fourteen years transportation to the convict settlement at Botany Bay, Australia. In the second convention a similar rôle was played by the Unitarian minister Thomas Fyshe Palmer from Dundee who suffered a similar fate.[3] The third convention was totally deserted by the lawyers, attended by Lord Daer for a few days only, and publicly renounced by Colonel Macleod.

The third "general convention" in October 1793 was held in Edinburgh and called a British Convention, with delegates from some of the English corresponding societies attending. The leaders of the convention were Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot, representatives from the London Corresponding Society. The convention issued a manifesto demanding universal male suffrage with annual elections and expressing their support for the principles of the French Revolution. The convention was then broken up by the authorities and a number of men were arrested and tried for sedition, with Gerrald and Margarot being sentenced to fourteen years transportation along with Muir.

Government persecution of reformers[edit]

The political climate had changed as initial hopes of peace with France gave way to the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, and the government continued to persecute those who sought reform.

The London Corresponding Society defied the government by supporting the Scots at an open-air meeting at Chalk Farm in April 1794. On 2 May thirteen of them were arrested for High treason and sent to the Tower of London, including figures such as Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall. With the aid of the Whig lawyer Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron Erskine in their defence they were all acquitted.

The Whig group continued to try and reform the electoral system through Parliament but met with a continued lack of success. The Prime Minister William Pitt argued that reform would give encouragement to those who sought to emulate the French Revolution. In 1794 a large proportion of the Whigs defaulted to Pitt, leaving Fox to lead one of the weakest Oppositions in Parliamentary history. Realising that they had little chance of success the leaders of the society wound down the Friends of the People and radical activity became the preserve of secret organisations such as the United Irishmen and the United Scotsmen.


  1. ^ Lynch, Michael (1992). Scotland: A New History. Pimlico. p. 389. ISBN 0-7126-9893-0. 
  2. ^ Lynch, 1992, op cit
  3. ^ "Palmer, Thomas Fyshe (1747 - 1802)". Australian Dictionary of Biograph Online. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 

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