Imagining the king's death

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IMAGINING THE KING’S DEATH Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide I793“I79d



Thomas J. Bata Library






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Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 0X2. 6dp Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide in Oxford New York Athens Auckland Bangkok Bogota Buenos Aires Calcutta Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Florence Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi Paris Sao Paulo Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto Warsaw and associated companies in Berlin Ibadan Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries Published in the United Sates by Oxford University Press Inc., New York © John Barrell 2000 The moral rights of the author have been asserted Database right Oxford University Press (maker) First published 2000 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organizations. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose the same condition on any acquirer British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Data available ISBN-0-19-811292-0 13579 10 8642 Typeset by Best-set Typesetter Ltd., Hong Kong Printed in Great Britain on acid-free paper by Biddles Ltd, Guildford and King’s Lynn

In memoriam

STEPHEN COPLEY (I954~I999) ‘The least pedestrian of scholars’


This book has been a long time coming, and I have accumulated enor¬ mous debts of gratitude which can be acknowledged but not repaid. I would like to thank the British Academy for the generous award of a two-year Readership without which I could never have embarked upon the research on which this book is based, the Leverhulme Trust for supporting this project for a further term, and the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies and the Houghton Tibrary which in 1993 awarded me a fellowship which enabled me to spend three weeks researching at Harvard University. Thanks also to Jacques Berthoud and Alastair Mmnis, Heads of Department at the Department of English and Related Studies at the University of York, for the gen¬ erous consideration they gave to my applications for study leave; to Ron Cooke, Vice-Chancellor of the University, whose magnificent and (among English Vice-Chancellors) unusually enthuasiastic support for the humanities did so much to foster the interdisciplinary study of the eighteenth century at York which was an essential condition for the writing of this book; and to the Vice-Chancellor and the Department of English at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, for inviting me to give the Sir D. Owen Evans Memorial Lectures in 1995, which gave me the opportunity to develop some of the arguments of my last chapters. I owe a great deal to the energy and interest of the staff of the numer¬ ous libraries in which my research was done: to the staff of the British Library and the Public Record Office in particular but also to those at the following institutions: Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales; Boston, Mass.: Public Library; Boston Spa: British Library; Brighton: Sussex University Library; Cambridge, England: University Library, Trinity College Wren Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, Lamont Library, Law School Library, Weidener Library; Canterbury Cathedral Library; Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland; London: University of London Library, Senate House; Leeds University: Brotherton Library; Manchester: John Rylands Library; New York: Colum¬ bia University Library, New York Public Library; Oxford: Bodleian Library; Oxfordshire County Archives; Philadelphia: American Philo¬ sophical Society, Biddle Law Library, Library Company of Philadelphia, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library; San Marino, California: the Huntington Library; Taunton Archaeological and Natural History Society; Wash-



ington DC: Library of Congress; York: Borthwick Institute; J. B. Morrell Library; King’s Manor Library; York Minster Library. I would like to thank Ginny Barker Colin Brooks, Greg Claeys, Greg Dart, Michael Davis, Pete De Bolla, Diana Donald, James Epstein, Andrew Hemingway, Tony Inglis, Elizabeth James, Mark Jenner, Paul Keen, Roger Lonsdale, Iain McCalman, Jon Mee, Mark Philp, Jane Rendall, Nick Roe, Ted Royle, and Mark Tee, all of whom supplied me with vital information at vital moments, and Helena Barrell, Rachel Bowlby, Cora Kaplan, and Jacqueline Rose, who all read and criticized chapters of this book at one stage or another of their completion. My thanks as well to the staff of Oxford University Press: to Kim Scott Walwyn, who signed up the project when neither of us had much idea what it would amount to; to Sophie Goldsworthy; to Matthew Hollis ever helpful, and ever patient with my anxieties; and to Rowena Anketell, who copy-edited the typescript with an extraordinary atten¬ tion to detail. I owe a particular debt to Greg Claeys: there would be far more footnotes to his superb eight-volume collection of political writings of the 1790s had he not supplied me with copies of original editions of all the texts included in it just when I needed them, and long prior to its publication. My greatest debt is to Harriet Guest, for much information and criticism, for continual suggestions for improvement, and for unwavering support for a project she must be delighted to see the back of. My late colleague and friend Stephen Copley sat patiently in his wheelchair and listened so often, a captive audience, to my explanations of what I thought I was doing. He agreed to allow me to dedicate the book to him on condition that I appended to it his own witty, bitter, and courageous self-description, one more accurate than his character¬ istic modesty would have allowed him to acknowledge. The bargain I take it still holds, though the book must now be dedicated not to Stephen but to his shade. Plates 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 17, 18, and 19 are reproduced by per¬ mission of the Trustees of the British Museum; Plate 8 is reproduced by permission of the National Libary of Wales; the two portraits on plate 13 are reproduced by kind permission of David Alexander. An earlier and shorter version of Chapter 1 originally appeared as Sad Stories: Louis XVI, George III, and the Language of Sentiment’, in Kevin Sharpe and Stephen Zwicker (eds.), Refiguring Revolutions: Aesthetics and Politics from the English Revolution to the Romantic Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press) 1998. A version of Chapter 15 was published as ‘Imagining the King’s Death: the Arrest of Richard Brothers’ in History Workshop Journal,



37 (1994). Some passages in Chapters 10, 11, and 12 are adapted from my essay ‘Imaginary Treason, Imaginary Law’, in The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, and Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992). J. B. Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies University of York





The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840 English Literature in History 1730-1780: An Equal, Wide Survey The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’ Poetry, Language and Politics The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (ed.) Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art 1700-1830


List of Illustrations










1. The Last Interview


2. ‘When Kings are Hurled from their Thrones’









3. Convention and Conspiracy


4. The British Convention


5. The Trial of Thomas Walker


6. Secret Committees


7. The Arming of the LCS


8. Parliament and Prejudication


9. The Trials of Watt and Downie


10. The Charge to the Grand Jury


11. The Trial of Thomas Hardy


12. The Trials of Tooke and Thelwall


13. ‘A Conspiracy without Conspirators’







14. The Pop-Gun PLot: A Tragicomedy by Thomas Upton


13. Traitor or Lunatic: The Arrest of Richard Brothers



Contents PART





16. The Treasonable Practices Act


17. King Killing


Epilogue: ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’








List of Illustrations

1. James Gillray, A Keen-Sighted. Politician Warming his Imagination, 1795. 2. Richard Newton, Treason!!!, 1798.



3. James Gillray, Louis XVI taking leave of his Wife & Family, 1793.


4. Mariano Bovi after Domenico Pellegrini, The King’s Departure from his Disconsolate Family, 1794.


5. Luigi Schiavonetti after Charles Benazech, The Last Interview between Lewis the Sixteenth and his Disconsolate Family, 1794.


6. Isaac Cruikshank, The Last Intervieiv between Louis XVI, King of France, and his Family, 1793.


7. P. W. Tomkins after Mather Brown, The Final Interview of Louis the Sixteenth, 1795.


8. After Henry Singleton, The Last Interview, from "John Gifford’, A Narrative of the Transactions relating to the unfortunate Lewis the Sixteenth, 1794.


9. Conrad Heinrich Kuchler, medal, The Last Interview, 1793; halfpenny token commemorating the acquittal of Dd. Eaton for publishing Politics for the People. 10. [Isaac Cruikshank], Reflections on the French Revolution, 1793.

71 88

11. Isaac Cruikshank, Frith the Madman Hurling Treason at the King, 1790. 12. William Dent, The Shifting Orator, 1793.

92 95

13. William Sharp after George Romney, Thomas Walker (proof), 1794; John Jones after Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Honourable Thomas Erskine, 1786.


14. Portraits from The Register of the Times, 1794: artist unknown, Thomas Hardy; after Henry Richter(P), John Richter, artist unknown, Thomas Holcroft; Ridley, probably after Henry Richter, John Thelwall.


15. Portraits from The Register of the Times: artist unknown, Stewart Kyd, Esqr'; G. Murray after Isaac Cruikshank (?), John Horne Tooke, Esqc; artists unknown, John Augustus Bonney; The Revd. Jeremiah Joyce.

3 21

16. Medals and tokens issued after the acquittals of Hardy, Tooke, and Thelwall.



List of Illustrations

17. James Gillray, The Prophet of the Hebrews,—the Prince of Peace—Conducting the jews to the Promis’d Land, 1795. 18. James Gillray, The Republican-Attack, 1795. 19. James Gillray, The Crown & Anchor Libel, burnt by the Public Hangman, 1795.


(a) General ESTC LCS n.d. n.p. SCI

Eighteenth-Century Short-Title Catalogue London Corresponding Society no date of publication no place of publication no publisher or bookseller Society for Constitutional Information

(b) Manuscript Sources BL Add. MS BM PRO PRO HO PRO KB PRO PC PRO TS

British Library Additional Manuscript British Museum Public Record Office, London Home Office Papers, PRO King’s Bench Papers, PRO Privy Council Papers, PRO Treasury Solicitor’s Papers, PRO

(c) Newspapers and Periodicals A-] AR BC C CM CR ER GM LR MC MP MPM MR O PM PP

Anti-Jacobin. Analytical Review. British Critic. Courier. Caledonian Mercury. Critical Review. English Review. Gentleman’s Magazine. London Recorder. Morning Chronicle. Morning Post. The Moral and Political Magazine of the London Corresponding Society, 2 vols. (London: John Ashley, 1796-7). Monthly Review. Oracle. Pigs’ Meat, 3 vols. (London: Thomas Spence, 1793”5)Hog’s Wash, or a Salamagundy for Swine, later Politics for the People,


Parliamentary Register.

1 vols. (London: D. I. Eaton, 1793-4).




Register of the Times. St. James’s Chronicle. True Briton. Telegraph.

(d) Other Works AV Blackstone BW


CL Claeys Coke Crosby Foster



HiA Hale Hawkins JHC PCW PH ST

The Bible in the Authorized Version. Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765-9). Burke, Edmund, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, new edn, 14 vols. (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1815-22). The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gen ed. Kathleen Coburn (London: Routledge, and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969-). Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-71). Political Writings of the 1790s, ed. Gregory Claeys, 8 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1995). Coke, Sir Edward, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (London: W. Lee and D. Pakeman, 1644). State Trials for High Treason, embellished with Portraits, 3 vols. (London: R. Crosby, 1794-5). Foster, Sir Michael, A Report of some Proceedings . . . to which are added Discourses upon a few Branches of the Crown Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1762). George, Mary Dorothy, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vols. 6 and 7 (London: British Museum, 1938, 1942). Goodwin, Albert, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democrat¬ ic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979). The History of Two Acts (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1796). Hale, Sir Matthew, The History of the Pleas of the Crown, ed. Sollom Emlyn, 2 vols. (London: F. Gyles et ah, 1736). Hawkins, William, A Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown. Book I (London: J. Walthoe and J. Walthoe, jun., 1716). Journals of the House of Commons. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. (New York: Citadel Press, 1945). The Parliamentary History of England, 36 vols. (London: R. Bagshaw, T. Longman, 1806-20). A Complete Collection of State Trials, 30 vols, ed. William Cobbett and T. B. Howells (London: Longman et al., 1816-22).

Abbreviations Thale


Mary Thale (ed.), Selections from the Papers of the London Cor¬ responding Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

NB: First Report, Second Report refer to reports of the Committee of Secrecy, 1794, of the House of Commons. The first and second reports of the Com¬ mittee of Secrecy of the House of Lords are always designated as such.

Introduction i ‘The prostitution of Language has lately, been so glaring, and notori¬ ous, that... it requires a nice discrimination, to distinguish . . . the true intent, and signification, of many Phrases, now in general use.’1 With these words, the author of A Political Dictionary for the Guinea-less Pigs introduced, in 1795, what he described as ‘A Glossary of Emphatical Words’ selected from the vocabulary of ‘Deep Will’, the then Prime Minister, William Pitt. The meanings Pitt supposedly attrib¬ uted to such words as ‘Democrat’, ‘Constitution’, ‘Jacobine’, ‘Tiberty’, ‘Equality’, were intended to conceal the manifest corruption of the Government and to discredit the intentions of those anxious to achieve a reform of parliament; the definitions offered in the Political Dic¬ tionary were a means of making the words honest again, and so of demonstrating the honesty of the reformers. A similar point had been made the previous year by the wittiest of the reforming pamphleteers, William Fox, a veteran of the campaign to abolish the slave trade. The meanings of many words employed by controversial writers, Fox argued, are deliberately left undefined, because it is in the interest of authors that they should be: controversies, he suggested, would be destroyed by ‘the fatal expedient of explanation and definition’, to the great detriment of the writing trade. The many equivocal words, however, in the vocabulary of the enemies of reform and of the French Republic were different: ‘instead of merely wasting ink’, they ‘deluge the world with blood’, and ‘spread horror, confusion, and desolation through the earth’.2 The notion that the political conflict of the period was to be regarded as a conflict, among other things, about the meanings of words, was a theme of numerous liberal or radical texts of the 1790s, from Elizabeth Inchbald’s novel Nature and Art, for example, to a report of the com¬ mittee of constitution of the London Corresponding Society, which proposed fixing the meanings of the words ‘Republican’, ‘Democrat’, ‘Aristocrat’, ‘Royalist’, ‘Loyalist’, ‘Citizen’, and ‘Subject’ as they were 1 A Political Dictionary for the Guinea-less Pigs, or a Glossary of Emphatical Words made us of by that Jewel of a Man, Deep Will (London: J. Burks et al., [1795P5 Preface . 2 William Fox, On Jacobinism (London: M. Gurney, 1794)5 l~z:> and compare Charles Pigott, Treachery no Crime (London: J. Ridgeway, 1793), 4°_3 and G-



to be used in the society’s debates and discussions.1 This last is one of several publications concerned to reappropriate the words in the vo¬ cabulary of reformers which, they claim, have been deliberately dis¬ torted by the supporters of the Government, have become ‘scare-crow words’ in what Coleridge described as ‘the Dictionary of aristocratic Prejudice’—by which, added John Thelwall, ‘the English language’ was ‘turned inside out’.4 Writing to insist that the reformers are entirely loyal to George III, a ‘Political Freethinker’ argues that When men are . . . guarded against confounding the form with the substance, the means with the end, the name with the thing, they will be less likely to be scared with the kind appellation of Republican, a word, which our good old women now use to frighten their children. This word . . . which to an enlight¬ ened head and an honest heart, was wont to convey every generous and manly sentiment, is now made to signify all that is abominable and wicked.’

Other texts, most famously Charles Pigott’s Political Dictionary, posthumously published in 1795, attempt to expose the ‘true’ mean¬ ings in what he called ‘Alarmist vocabulary’ and ‘the language of Aristocracy’.6 The charge of distorting, whether wilfully or not, the meanings of words was brought against radical writers by the ‘alarmists’ and ‘aris¬ tocrats’ themselves; as Steven Blakemore has pointed out, both sides in the political conflicts of the 1790s ‘knew . . . that language and ideol¬ ogy are intimately intertwined and that whoever controls language con¬ trols not only the terms of “war” but the terms of “reality” itself’.7 The ministerial newspaper the True Briton published a brief ‘Dictionary of Words in general use among . . . reforming Philosophers’, so that its readers would find it easier to detect ‘traitors to their country’ by attending to their use of words. One opponent of Paine attributes most of the ‘confusion’ in his writing to ‘the vague application’ of a whole 3 Elizabeth Inchbald, Nature and Art, 2 vols. (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1796); the theme is well discussed by Eleanor Ty, Unsex’d Revolutionaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); The Report of the Committee of Constitution, of the London Corresponding Society (London: Thomas Spence for the LCS, n.d. [1794]), 6. 4 Coleridge, Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, in CC 1: 52; Thelwall, Rights of Nature against the Usurpations of Establishments. A Series of Letters to the People of Britain, occasioned by the receitt Effusions of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Letter the First (London: H. D. Symonds, and Norwich: J. March, 1796), 55. 5 A Political Freethinker’s Thoughts on the Present Circumstances (London: J. Parsons et al., 1795), 26, 18. Charles Pigott, A Political Dictionary: explaining the True Meaning of Words (London: D. I. Eaton, 1795), 20, 67. For a less outspoken, Foxite version of the genre, see John Pearson, Pearson’s Political Dictionary (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792). And see e.g. PCW 1: 384; The Conspiracy of Kings against the Freedom of the World (London: Deighton and Johnson, 1792), in Claeys, 3: 195, on ‘enormities’. Steven Blakemore, Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988), 2.



list of words and phrases, ‘convention, governments arising out of society, the nation in its original and in its organized character, the per¬ sonal social compact, &c.’.'s But as Olivia Smith has shown, it was espe¬ cially Paine’s use of ‘constitution’ and his suggestion that the English constitution was ‘a thing in name only’, not ‘in fact’, that revealed to his opponents his inability or wilful refusal to understand the language of politics.4 He has no ‘just idea’, writes one respondent to the Rights of Man, ‘of what the term constitution means’; ‘in what Dictionary,’ demands another, ‘has Mr. Paine looked for the term Constitution? Has he so long ceased to be an Englishman, as to have forgot our lan¬ guage?’10 Johnson’s Dictionary, Smith suggests, was a court of first and last resort where the vocabulary of radicalism could be arraigned, for there the meanings affixed to words by ‘the conservative ideology of the 1750s’ were enjoying ‘an enduring and influential life’.11 Discomforted by the meanings attributed to ‘wisdom’ and ‘equity’ by ‘the Partisans of the new Government in France’, an anonymous loyalist pamphleteer reported that he had consulted the authorities cited by Johnson and ‘was happy to discover that my acceptation of those words corresponded exactly with those of the first and greatest men this country ever produced’.12 How was it supposed that wrong meanings had come to be at¬ tributed, whether by conservatives or reformers, to the words in the vo¬ cabulary of politics? To some radical writers it was the result of a delib¬ erate conspiracy. The British Parliament, suggests Paine, ‘hold out a language which they do not believe, for the fraudulent purpose of making others believe it’.13 The vocabulary of loyalism, affirms William Fox, is ‘invented to deceive’: it is a product of that stage in the history of society ‘in which those who govern have found themselves necessi¬ tated. in some degree, to resort to artifice to obtain or maintain domin¬ ion, no longer deeming it expedient to rely totally on force’.'4 Sometimes, however, especially in the earlier, politer years of the ‘revo¬ lution debate’, when most of those involved were gentlemen or nearly so, a failure to grasp the ‘true’ meanings of words is attributed to a 8 TB, 27 Aug. 1794; Considerations on Mr Paine’s Pamphlet on the Rights of Man (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1791), 42_39 PCW 1: 278; Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language iypi-1819 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 44-6. 10 Constitutional Letters, in Answer to Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man (London: C. Riley et ah, 1792) 4- [John St John], A Letter from a Magistrate to Mr. William Rose, of Whitehall (London: J. Debrett, 1791), in Claeys, 5: 188; and see John Quincy Adams, An Answer to Pain’s Rights of Man (1793), quoted in Olivia Smith, Politics of Language, 45 n. 11 Olivia Smith, Politics of Language, 15. 12 A Letter to the Farmers and Manufacturers in Great Britain and Ireland (London: John Stockdale, 1792.), 25. 13 PCW 1: 297.

14 Fox, On jacobinism, 1-2.



failure of attention, a failure ‘to consider things accordingly as they really exist, and not as they are named’.15 Both these explanations, however, had one thing in common: conspiracy and delusion could both be represented as effects of the ‘imagination’. Following the foundation in November 1792 of John Reeves’s ‘Asso¬ ciation for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers’, reformers at Liverpool and Manchester published a brief explanation of the word ‘Equality’, to defend the reformers from the charge that they aimed at an equalization of property as well as of rights. The meaning given to ‘equality’ in the publications of the association, insisted one version of this text, was the ‘wilful perversion of a word’; and where, it asked, could this deliberate misrepresentation have originated, ‘but in the wild workings of a disordered imagin¬ ation?’1'’Jackson Barwis, on the other hand, regarded the failure of the reformers and ‘revolutionists’ to affix ‘the same words’ to ‘the same ideas’ as the result at once of ‘diabolical wickedness’ and ‘perverse fanaticism’, and of ‘the fanciful and endless imaginations of the mind’, to which ‘every moral and political word has a thousand shades of meaning’.1 If the effects of ‘imagination’ can include both purposive wilfulness and what Coleridge later called ‘streamy’ association, it may well seem that the meaning of this word too is equivocal. Raymond Williams, following Volosinov, suggested that shifts in the meanings of words may ‘indicate periods of confusion and contradic¬ tion of outcome’, and that ‘battles about the fixed character of the sign’ should be approached as themselves signs and aspects of political battles.18 This book attempts to demonstrate that just as Burke was introducing, and Wordsworth and Coleridge were on the point of intro¬ ducing, new meanings of ‘imagination’ into the language, the word itself was the object of a political conflict every bit as intense as those being fought over such large political words as ‘sovereignty’, ‘liberty’, or ‘con¬ stitution’. This conflict, however, never developed the character of a deliberate debate; it took the form, rather, of a quarrel, a series of accu[ William White, A Dissertation on Government (London: ). Ridgway, 1792), 16. 16 This text first appeared in late 1792 in Liverpool, in the form of a handbill with the title The Perverse Definition imposed on the Word Equality; it was reprinted in Manchester as Equality, and subsequently expanded into a brief pamphlet, An Explanation of the Word Equality, from one edition of which I quote. No version of the pamphlet that I have seen has details of place of publication, publisher, or date. See Thomas Walker, A Review of some of the Political Events which have occurred in Manchester (London: J. Johnson, 1794), 46 n. 17 Jackson Barwis, A Fourth Dialogue concerning Liberty (London: J. Debrett, et al., 1793), T 4—5? 5C h2" According to Claeys (7: 366m), Jacksons earlier vol., Three Dialogues concerning Liberty (1776), had been applauded by the reformist Society for Political Information. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review (London: Verso, 1979), 177; id., Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1983), 208.



sations and ripostes in which what seems to be at stake is more the own¬ ership of the word than its meaning, but in which the question of own¬ ership is inextricable from the question of meaning. Eighteenth-century ideas of the imagination tend to be studied as if they belong in some quite other universe of discourse from politics— epistemology, poetics, psychiatry; at most the imagination is seen as belonging to the political only mediately, as an effect of its first belong¬ ing somewhere else.1’And insofar as we tend to study theories of the imagination, this makes sense: no one in the period attempted to the¬ orize the imagination as a political term, as Alexander Gerard or James Beattie, for example, attempted to theorize it at the meeting point of epistemology and aesthetics. We can nevertheless get some way to understanding the word as a term in politics by studying how the faculty of imagination is described by philosophers, critics, and ‘mad-doctors’. Dugald Stewart, in his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1792), would make a careful distinction between the imagination and the association of ideas; in most earlier writers, however, the imagin¬ ation is generally agreed to be the power by which ideas of sense are ‘associated, compounded, and diversified’.It may be a form of memory, the power which re-presents to the mind ‘the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses’; but it can also combine those images ‘in a new manner, and according to a different order’: it has the ‘singular power of fabricating images, without any foundation in reality’.21 This version of ‘creative’ imagination has the power of associating a vast range of ideas into a unitary design, of inventing, often intuitively, probable designs and structures by which apparently disparate ideas might be combined, or of projecting a com¬ plete design on the basis of an incomplete set of data or sequence of ideas.22 19 The best critique of this tendency is Nigel Leask’s excellent study, The Pulitics of Imagination in Coleridge’s Critical Thought (London: Macmillan, t988). 20 John Ogilvie, Philosophical and Critical Observations on ... Composition, 2 vols. (London: G. Robinson, 1774), 1: 101-2, quoted in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), 162; see Dugald Stewart, Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1792.), 6th edn., 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818), esp. 286-8, 580-2. 21 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, t958b l6; Henry Home, Lord Karnes, Elements of Criticism (1762), nth edn., (London: B. Blake, 1839), 462. 22 Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination. A Poem. In Three Books (1744; London: R. Dodsley, 1754); Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Genius (1774b ed- Bernhard Fabian (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1966), 29-76; Abraham Tucker, The Light of Nature Pursued (j768—77), 2nd edn., 7 vols. (London: R. Faulder and T. Payne, 1805), 1: 1-32; 2: 1-25. For a general account of the theory of the creative imagination in the late 18th cent., see Abrams, Mirror and the Lamp, 161-3, and esp. James Engell, The Creative Imagination, Enlighten¬ ment to Romanticism (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1981),



These may be ideal images, like Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘central forms’, abstracted from the deformities of actual appearances by the imagin¬ ation working hand in hand with the judgement. But the inventions of the imagination may also be ‘impossible existences’, sometimes benign and pleasurable to contemplate, sometimes frightening chimeras. The imagination is prolific in such inventions, ‘multiplying objects without end’, especially when the will or judgement is asleep: ‘when our atten¬ tion is not fixed on any one thing, a state of mind called a reverie, we may observe, that our thoughts are continually changing, so that in a little time our imagination wanders to something very different from what we were thinking of just before’.23 The imagination sometimes seems to operate as if its choices were purely instinctive—Alexander Gerard compared it with a dog on the scent, bounding from idea to idea;24 but just because it appears to have an instinct but not always a mind of its own, the inventions it produces need always to be guided by the reason or judgement, or checked out afterwards against the findings of those less mercurial powers. The imagination was supposed to operate with particular freedom in the infancy of individuals and of nations, until the age when reason can ‘gain the ascendant over the portentous spectres of the imagination’. It was itself ‘a young and credulous faculty’, and growing up was largely a matter of learning to subordinate it to the judgement: ‘As we advance in life,’ wrote Ann Radcliffe, ‘imagination is obliged to relinquish a part of her sweet delirium; we are reluctantly led to truth through the paths of experience; and the objects of our fond attention are viewed with a severer eye.’25 Late eighteenth-century theories of the imagination as an associative, a creative, a synthesizing, as a completing power, always observed a limit point, where aesthetics was anxious to pass the concept over to psychiatry; for when the imagination slipped the lead of the will or judgement, often when ‘heated’ by the overwhelming power of the pas¬ sions, it became ‘disordered’, and produced elaborate structures of ideas chs. 6, 7, 12, 13. Other books I have found esp. helpful in writing this section and the next include James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 1963; Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender and Political Economy in Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Leask, Politics of Imagination; Javed Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings: fames Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalisrn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), esp. ch. 5; David Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), esp. ch. 2. 23 Home, Elements of Criticism, 118; James Beattie, Elements of Moral Science, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1790), 1: 106-7. 24 Gerard, Essay on Genius, 47. 2' Richard Hurd, ‘Letters on Chivalry &C Romance’, in The Works of Richard Hurd, D. D., 8 vols. (London: F. Cadell and W. Davies, 1811), 4: 348, 326, and see e.g. David Hartley, Observations on Man (1749), 4th edn., 3 vols., (London: J. Johnson, 1801), 1: 431; Ann Radcliffe, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789; Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994), 2.



associated on accidental rather than on substantial grounds. The rela¬ tion between insanity and the imagination had been the subject of a famous dispute in the late 1750s; William Battie defining madness as ‘deluded imagination’, John Monro representing it as the effect of ‘viti¬ ated judgment’; but for our purposes, not much hangs on the disagree¬ ment, for the sign of a vitiated judgement, as Monro himself explained, is its failure to discipline the associations of ideas made by an imagina¬ tive faculty seen as of its nature wild and disorderly.2'1 Alexander Crichton opened the second volume of his Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement with a chapter on the ‘Imagination and its Diseases’ which describes the form of insanity that results from a ‘disproportion’ between the imagination, or ‘representative faculty of the mind’, and the judgement. The psychiatrist Joseph Mason Cox argues that there is a predisposition to insanity among those whose ‘imagination is kept constantly in action, and is not counterbalanced by the cultivation of other activities of the mind, or by abstract and dry studies’.27 On the other hand, as we shall see in Chapter 12, the imagin¬ ation could become atrophied by the continual attention of the mind to one particular dry or abstract study; in which case it might be doomed endlessly to repeat itself, focusing interminably and obsessively on one single design, one sequence of associations, unable to conceive of any other pattern in which they could be arranged. These diseases of the imagination, these different kinds of obsessive behaviour, were varieties of madness, the seriousness of which depended on the seriousness of the occasions when the imagination slipped its leadA "Delusive ideas’, wrote Henry Mackenzie, ‘are the motives of the greatest part of mankind, and a heated imagination the power by which their actions are incited, the world, in the eye of the philosopher, may be said to be a large madhouse.’29 We will hear echoes of most of these accounts of the imagination 26 William Battie, A Treatise on Madness (London: J. Whiston and B. White, 1758), 51 Jolln Monro, Remarks on Dr. Battie’s Treatise on Madness (London: John Clarke, 1758), 3-4, both repr. in A Treatise on Madness, ed. Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine (London: Dawsons, 1962). See Hunter’s and Macalpine’s introd., and Roy Porter, Mind-Forg’d Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), 101-2; almost everything in this book on i8th-cent. theories ot madness has been learned from following up references in Porter’s book. 27 Alexander Crichton, An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement, 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1798), z: 1-18, and esp. n, 14, 18; Joseph Mason Cox, Practical Observations on Insanity, 3rd edn. (London: E. Baldwin and Thomas Underwood, 1813), 16. „ , 28 Akenside Pleasures of Imagination, bk. 1, 11. 46 ff.; Gerard, Essay on Genius, 49 50, 65; Beattie, Elements, 116-19; Thomas Trotter, A View of the Nervous Temperament (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807), 88-9, 218. 29 Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (1771), ed. Brian Vickers (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 32.



throughout the course of this book. But precisely because they are descriptions of the imagination considered as a faculty, they are inad¬ equate to an understanding of how the word ‘imagination’ is used by writers and speakers on politics when they may have no particular theory of the imagination in mind. ‘Imagination’ and its cognates, ‘imagine’, ‘imaginary’, occur with a surprising frequency in political writing and political oratory of the late eighteenth century, and with a wide range of connotation and implication. In the next two sections of this introduction I shall attempt to compile my own political dictionary of ‘imagination’, with the aim not so much of defining it as of exem¬ plifying the variety of its uses. I have based this dictionary on the writ¬ ings of what I have called the ‘polite’ phase of the debate on the French Revolution, before the intervention of the popular radical movement in 1792 and before the war with France. The rest of the book is about the uses of ‘imagination’ in the years 1793 to 1796, in the specific context suggested by my title, so it will be helpful to have a sense of how the word could be used in political discussion immediately before the debate became more heated, and before it became mainly focused on the safety of the king himself, George III.

II The words ‘imagination’ and ‘imaginary’ had formed part of the common vocabulary of political discussion in the decades before the French Revolution. Their meanings were universally pejorative: minis¬ ters were regularly warned not to fall prey to imaginary fears; extrava¬ gant arguments in parliament were reprobated as the inventions of a too active imagination. After 1789, however, especially among writers sympathetic at least to the first phase of the Revolution, ‘imagination’ became a marked word, one which, if it carried no meanings altogether new, certainly developed a new specificity of meaning and a new degree of emphasis. This was the result, 111 the first place, of the particular char¬ acter of the text which became the rallying-cry, the ‘war-whoop’ of the anti-Gallicans, Reflections on the Revolution in Frctnce. But the unusual saliency which the word first attained in the language of politics from its repeated use in the early replies to the Reflections did not diminish as Burke’s contribution to the political debate became less important, i hroughout the 1790s the ‘imagination’ functioned as a sign by which all the apprehensions and misapprehensions of the opponents of the Revolution in France, and of reform at home, could be epitomized; at least until the invasion scare of 1798 when the alarms of loyalists, which



for years had been represented by reformers as ‘imaginary’, were much more generally allowed to have become based in reality. Burke’s Reflections was written in a language regarded by its critics as elaborately—and dangerously—figurative, and its account of the violence of 1789 appeared to Burke’s opponents to owe more to the imagination than to strict historical truth. The opposition throughout the Reflections to ‘abstract’ political theory could be taken as suggest¬ ing that the art of government was best understood by the imagination, not by reason; still more provocatively, the imagination, here and there in the text, was attributed with a positive and active role in the processes of social affiliation and the formation of political identities, a role which Burke’s opponents could understand only as proposing that government was a mode of deception. I am thinking, for example, of Burke’s invention of the ‘moral imagination’, which covers and con¬ ceals ‘the defects of our naked shivering nature’, in order ‘to raise it to dignity in our own estimation’; a notion which, whether he found it here or elsewhere, led the radical poet Robert Thompson to castigate the poor for their lack of faith in ‘the wonder-working powers of im¬ agination . ‘Can you not believe’, he demanded, ‘that your hunger, and thirst, are gratified, unless you eat and drink? Can you not believe that you are cloathed and warm, unless you are covered from the inclemency of the season?’ I am thinking too of Burke’s generosity, slightly mere¬ tricious, in describing the religious beliefs of the French peasantry not as superstitions, not as the effect of mendacious priestcraft, as British Anglicans and Dissenters alike had been taught to regard it, but as ‘the fictions of a pious imagination’; or of the extraordinary evocation of the sublimity of French culture and civilization under the ancien regime, in a 300-word sentence which finally announces, as its main clause, ‘I behold in all this something which awes and commands the imagination . 1 These uses of ‘imagination , which speak from the heart of Burke’s notion of political community, were understood by sup¬ porters of the Revolution, as he himself implied, merely as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘absurd’; by his own supporters they may not have been understood at all. The character of Burke’s imagination became a recurrent theme of reply after reply to the Reflections, where it is qualified by a 30 BW 5: 151, 293, 241; and see the not altogether ironic use of the imagination in rela¬ tion to the sublime of fraudulent financial dealings, 497. [R. Thompson], To the Public, alias ‘The Swinish Multitude’ (London: Daniel Isaac Eaton, i794)> T- Thompson was an auction¬ eer and poet, and an early and active member of the LCS, who in late 1792 fled to France to escape prosecution for his poems, and became first a bookseller, then an officer in the French army: see Thale, 28 n„ 36 n.; ST 24: 775; MPM 1: 183 (June 1796); Universal Magazine (successor to the American Universal Magazine), 1: 413.



bewildering range of epithets. It is ‘fine’ and ‘poetic’, ‘lively’ and ‘vivid’, ‘rich’ and ‘luxuriant’, ‘creative’ and ‘prolific’. It is ‘powerful’, ‘boundless’. It is ‘warm’, ‘glowing’, ‘heated’, ‘combustible’, ‘volcanic’. It is ‘debauched’, ‘libertine’, ‘ungoverned’, ‘distempered’, ‘haunted’, ‘frantic’, ‘wild’, ‘malevolent’. But the variety of these adjectives conceals a high degree of unanimity among Burke’s opponents about the nature both of his own imagination and of the imagination itself, a unanimity that stretched across the spectrum of liberal and radical opinion from Anglican to Deist, from the classical republicanism of Catharine Macaulay to the discourse of rights, from moderate and polite reformer to out-and-out vulgar democrat, from Sir Brooke Boothby to Thomas Paine, whom Boothby assaulted no less vigorously than he attacked Burke.31 In 1796 Thelwall, in the best analysis of Burke’s style I have dis¬ covered, applauded the ‘brilliancy’ of Burke’s imagination almost as much as he deplored the violence it sought to provoke.32 In the same year Coleridge expressed great admiration for Burke’s ability ‘to reason in metaphors’, and for the ‘multitude and succession of remote analo¬ gies’ by which, in the Reflections and elsewhere, Burke had ‘delighted the imagination of his readers’. But as we shall see, at other times he thought less well of Burke’s pamphlet, and even on this occasion he seems to praise the imagination on display in that text mainly to give greater authority to the charge that, in his later Letter to a Noble Lord, Burke’s imagination had run entirely out of control.33 Without excep¬ tion, however, the respondents to the Reflections in the early years of the decade who discuss Burke’s imagination represent it as on the side of sensibility, of passion even, and as hostile to reason, judgement, understanding. ‘Your pretty flights,’ Mary Wollstonecraft tells him, arise from your pampered sensibility; . . . you foster every emotion till the fumes, mounting to your brain, dispel the sober suggestions of reason. It is not. . . surprising, that when you should argue you become impassioned, and that reflection inflames your imagination, instead of enlightening your understanding.34 According to George Rous, Burke’s ‘warm imagination’ perverts his judgment’; according to Joseph Towers, the Reflections show plentiful See Boothby’s Observations on the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (London: John Stockdale, 1791). Thelwall, Rights of Nature. . . Letter the First, 92; for the analysis of Burke’s style, see esp. 11-13, 57-9. Coleridge, The Watchman, ed. Lewis Patton, in CC 2: 30—1; and see below, 372 and 655-6. 34 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (London: J. Johnson, 1790), 6, and see 131.



evidence of a ‘luxuriant imagination' but none of ‘just reasoning’." The passionate quality of the imagination displayed in the Reflections, every¬ where recognized as implicitly feminine or effeminate, came to be treated also as a symptom of intellectual and political immaturity: in sorrow more than anger Wollstonecraft reflects that ‘He who has not exercised his judgment to curb his imagination during the meridian of life, becomes, in its decline, too often the prey of childish feelings’. Joseph Priestley, four years younger than Burke, uses the privilege of old age to admonish him that ‘you are now of an age in which I should have imagined, that the powers of the imagination would have been more checked by those of reason’.'6 The repeated claim of Burke’s opponents that the argument of the Reflections is inconsequential, wayward, is also founded on the belief that he has abandoned the rationality, or the reasonableness, of his earlier, more liberal writings, in order to follow the imagination, a faculty of its nature ‘extravagant’ in the literal sense of the word. The path of reason is straight, direct; imagination leads us into error because it has a propensity to err, to wander. Thus Burke cannot distinguish between ‘the vagaries of the imagination’ and ‘the verdict of reason’; his ‘fine imagination’ leads him to ‘deviate from truth’. Rous and Capel Lofft, pretending to apologize for the lack of imaginative flourish in their answers to the Reflections, explain that they are bewildered in the ‘labyrinth’ Burke’s imagination has constructed, and being them¬ selves plain, straightforward fellows, cannot desert the duect, the ‘beaten road’of‘sober understanding’.’ From these general accounts of the workings of the imagination in 35 [George Rous], Thoughts on Government, 4th edn. (London: J. Debrett, 1790), in Claeys, 2: 8; Joseph Towers, Thoughts on the Commencement of a New Parliament (Dublin: P. Wogan et ah, 1791), 87. A further selection of examples may help indicate how ubiquitous this charge became' Burke has a ‘fine imagination’; but under the direction of imagination we are led into ‘error’ ([Catharine Macaulay], Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke (London: C. Dilly, 1790), 16). His ‘ungoverned imagination hurries him . . . into the wildest and most contradictory assertions’; he ‘abandons himself to his imagination, and to the movements of his heart. . . passion’ (Thomas Christie, Letters on the Revolution in France Volume II, Part I (London: J. Johnson, 1791), M5, and 55-6, quoting the Journal de Pans and see 8). ‘You have ungoverned imaginations’, so that ‘the modesty of reason is dazzled and confounded amid the brilliant blaze of your imagery and invention’ ([Brooke Boothby] A Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 2nd edn. (London: J. Debrett, I79I)> 74)- ^ee also Benjamin Bousfield, Observations on the Right Hon. Edmund Burke’s Pamphlet (Dublin: P. Byrne, 1791), 2; [John Courtenay], A Poetical and Philosophical Essay on the French Rev¬ olution (London; J. Ridgway, i793)> U- 105-6; Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 131, 147. 36 Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 134 and see 145; Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1791), 3rd edn. (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson for J. Johnson, Wollstonecraft, Vindication 36, and see [Macaulay], Observations, 17; [Rous], Thoughts; Capel Lofft, Remarks on the Letter of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (1790), 2nd edn. (Dublin: P. Wogan et al., 1791), in Claeys, 2: 277. See also [Boothby), Letter 74, who gives the figure



Burke’s writings on the Revolution, three more specific ideas emerge. The first, to be found in almost all the replies to the Reflections, repre¬ sents the text as "the mere creature of imagination’,38 and therefore as evidence of a failure on Burke’s part to observe the supposedly clear divisions between different forms of cultural and intellectual endeavour: those which are properly undertaken by the imagination, and those which must be pursued by reason, method, and laborious historical enquiry. There is something inappropriate, Macaulay suggests, as it were ungrammatical, in regarding ‘the powers of imagination as the safest grounds on which wise and good statesmen can establish or continue the happiness of societies’. ‘Had the constitution of France been new modelled’ by men like Burke, writes Wollstonecraft, by ‘lovers of ele¬ gance and beauty’, ‘the imagination would have erected a fragile tem¬ porary building, . . . and the glorious chance that now is given to human nature of attaining more virtue and happiness than has hitherto blessed our globe, might have been sacrificed to a meteor of the imagination, a bubble of passion’. Even Lofft, who admires the ‘flights of imagination’ in the Reflections, is forced to regard them as a pleasant irrelevance in a text which must be answered as a work of the intellect, not of the fancy.39 The inappropriateness of inviting the imagination to a sober and scientific discussion on questions of politics is partly a result of its ten¬ dency to catch fire. ‘You appear to me not to be sufficiently cool to enter into this serious discussion, writes Priestley. ‘Your imagination is evi¬ dently heated, and your ideas confused. The objects before you do not appear in their proper shapes and colours; and, without denying them, you lose sight of the great and leading principles on which all just gov¬ ernments are founded.’ A similar point seems to be at the heart of Woll¬ stonecraft s famous suggestion that, had Burke been a Frenchman, he would have been ‘a violent revolutionist’: his ‘imagination would have taken fire’, and would have found arguments in favour of the new con¬ stitution of France no less ingenious than those he had used against it. The flames of the imagination, by this account, are fed by passion, not by truth, which can be discovered only by ‘men of cool minds’.40 But it is also the facility’ with which ideas are associated in Burke’s a maritime turn: ‘you are driven out of your course by crowding too much sail [of imagina¬ tion] in proportion to your ballast [of reason]’. [Rous], Thoughts, 6. [Macaulay], Observations, 16; Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 112-13; Lofft, Remarks, in Claeys, 2: 277, 315; his point is primarily that these flights are appropriate to the genre of the Reflections which are written as a letter; the implication therefore is that the genre is inappro¬ priate to the subject. For a contrary account of the relation between the imagination and the letter-form, see A Vindication of the Revolution Society (London: J. Ridgway, 1792), 12. Priestlfy> Letters> 2; and see 62: ‘You have been under a . . . suspension of your reason, and . . . under the power of imagination, in your views of the principles of civil government’Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 102—3; [Macaulay], Observations, 53.



‘lively’ imagination, ‘absolved from the laws of vulgar method’, which disables him from undertaking the ‘profundity of research’, or ‘the drudgery of close reasoning’, or the ‘arduous task’ which is the ‘culti¬ vation of reason’.41 To ‘constitute a statesman’, argues David Williams, the imagination must be ‘balanced by science; by that high exalted reason which is formed by the calm and patient study of philosophy, a profound acquaintance with history, and the strict discipline of math¬ ematics’. What is at stake here is repeatedly represented as a distinction between poetry and social philosophy, a distinction which underlines the degree to which the two had become progressively divided since the time of Pope and Thomson, in terms of the different talents supposed necessary to their production and the different kinds of truth they were supposed to be capable of enunciating. In the process of this division, poetry and social philosophy had become gendered as feminine to mas¬ culine; and in the discourses of political economy and political theory, poetry had come to be represented as the easier, and therefore the less important, more superficial pursuit. The veteran though cautious reformer Christopher Wyvill, for whom Burke’s genius was ‘showy, not solid’, and his imagination ‘brilliant, though disordered’, believed that, ‘had literature been his favourite pursuit, he might have shone through many a volume, a splendid and superficial rhetorician, decked in the ornaments of a glittering eloquence, and proud of his tinsel. For philo¬ sophical research his faculties are less fit.’42 Boothby, himself a poet, came to admire the Reflections as ‘the work of a rich imagination’, but nevertheless insisted that ‘topics of such deep importance are not prop¬ erly objects of poetry and declamation’, a judgement which aligns poetry with shallow speech-making. Wollstonecraft acknowledges that ‘poetry is properly addressed to the imagination’, and that in the ‘fine phrenzy’ of the poet, ‘reason has no right to rein-in the imagination’. But the Reflections she compares with ‘artificial , with modern poetry ; ‘genuine’ poetry, she argues, ‘seldom appears, but in the infancy of civilization; for as this advances reason clips the wing of fancy—the youth becomes a man’.43 The imagination, by this account, is inappro¬ priate not only to political science, not only to the mature masculine intellect, but to modernity itself. The supposed connection of the imagination with the irrational, with feelings and passions, gives rise to a second idea of the effects of the imagination in the Reflections, that it has a dangeious habit, feminine 41 Short Observations on the Right Hon. Edmund Burke's Reflections (London: G. Kearsley, 1790), 10; James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae (London: G. G. and J. Robinson 1791), p. vii; Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 132, 67, and see 3, 19; [Macaulay], Observations, 9 42 Wyvill, quoted in Public Characters of i8oy (London: Richard Phillips, 1807), 360-1. 43 [David Williams], Letters to a Young Prince, by an Old Statesman, 5th edn. (London: H. D. Simmons, 1790), 9; Boothby, Observations, 178; Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 60-2.



or effeminate, of leaping the uncertain boundary between sensibility and sensuality. This notion attributes to Burke’s imagination a propensity to be ‘dazzled’ by images of gaudy splendour, and it is this, as much as his hostility to innovation (or even his desire for a pension) which is taken to account for his slavish loyalty to kings and to the Established Church.44 In Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, the idea develops into a sophisticated comparison between the erotic aesthetics of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry and the erotic politics of the Reflections. Both texts, by her reading, reveal the same ‘debauched’, ‘libertine imagin¬ ation’, apparent for example in a prurient fascination with rich cloth¬ ing, evoked in order to be imagined as removed: ‘the decent drapery of life . . . furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination ... to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature . . . rudely torn off’.45 By most of his contemporary critics, however, and sometimes by Wollstonecraft too, the propensity of Burke’s imagination to be dazzled is read as the sensuality of the jackdaw, or of a female or feminized window-shopper, rather than of the libertine. It restlessly seeks out the glitter, it worships the sparkle that veil or distract from the ‘deformity’ of the ancien regime, a deformity it therefore misrepresents, according to Arthur O’Connor, as ‘of the first order of beauty’. And it is this propensity which ensures that Burke’s imagination, confronted with the sufferings of those that regime oppressed and of those responsible for the oppres¬ sion, ‘pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird’. Only the suffer¬ ings of royalty, claims Macaulay, are ‘calculated to draw forth all the energies of his imagination’.46 Itself easily dazzled, Burke’s imagination, and the gaudy images it reflects or generates, are themselves dazzling; as Wyvill put it, ‘brilliant’, ‘glittering’, ‘tinsel’. ‘You have ungoverned imaginations,’ complains Boothby; ‘the modesty of reason is dazzled and confounded amid the brilliant blaze of your imagery and invention’; we are in danger, claims Macaulay, of being ‘blinded with the splendour of dazzling images’.47 See e.g. Priestley, Letters, 6o, 70, on Burke’s as ‘dazzled with the fascinating idea of the majesty of the church ; his imagination is struck with a splendid church establishment’. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 107, 114: BW 5: 151; the meanings of Burke’s language here are a running theme through James K. Chandler’s Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the^ Poetry and Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984). [Arthur O’Connor], The Measures of Ministry to prevent a Revolution, 3rd edn. (London: D. I. Eaton, 1794), 21; and see e.g. Strictures on the Letter of the Right Hon. Mr. Burke (London: H. Gardner, 1791), 96 ff., on Burke’s adoration of the ‘glitter’ and ‘tinsel’ that make Marie Antoinette shine; and Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 116, 118, on the ‘gaudy trappings’ of the Church, ‘the fascinating pomp of ceremonial grandeur’; PCW 1: 260; [Macaulay] Observations, 26. ’ [Boothby], Letter, 74; [Macaulay], Observations, 39; and see Vindication, 11—12: ‘the mind is so dazzled, as to make it impossible to attend to exact coherence and agreement of the allusions, which we would require in any other composition’; Christie, Letters, 6-7, on how Burke’s ‘gaudy ornaments’, because dissociated from wisdom and truth, fail to ‘dazzle’.



And for most of Burke’s critics, this dazzling effect of Burke’s imagin¬ ation is not the accidental result, as Boothby charitably believes, of his figurative style, but something deliberate, something he intends. His ‘torrent of shining sentences’, complains Wollstonecraft, is ‘calculated’ to ‘dazzle the reader’; ‘groundless assertions,’ writes Pigott, ‘dressed in all the splendid imagery of language; the most brilliant allusions, cal¬ culated to dazzle the senses, to confound and perplex the judgment, are the general resources on which Mr. Burke rests his attack’; ‘who does not perceive,’ asks the anonymous author of the Strictures on the Letter of the Right Hon. Mr. Burke, ‘that this oratory is nothing more than the skill of playing on the ignorance of mankind, and, when duped, to lead them captive, right or wrong . . .; that it is the rattle-snake in society, and fascinates to catch its prey’.48 But it is the stern classical republicanism of Catharine Macaulay that is best equipped to make explicit a charge that is implicit in almost all Burke’s other critics: that his imagination, itself corrupted by sensuality, dazzled by luxury, is in turn determined to effeminate his readers and to corrupt their virtue by inviting them to indulge a meretricious pleasure in ‘the ornaments of stile’, and so making them slaves to the ‘fascinating charms of elo¬ quence’. If the ancien regime in Britain and France alike relies upon ‘the imposing glare of external magnificence’ to dazzle and so to awe the subject into submission, so does Burke’s apology for that regime: his figures are intended to ‘captivate the imagination’ and to enslave the will.49 The supposed irrationality of the imaginative faculty is responsible for a third notion about Burke’s imagination, that it is easily terrified, that it is the dupe and prey of horrors, spectres, phantoms which it has itself conjured up. ‘The Modern Whigs have coined the term Alarmist,’ wrote one defender of those against whom this charge was directed, ‘to describe One whose understanding is for ever disturbed by visions of imaginary public danger, One, who labours to instill into the minds of the People the same vain terrors which infest his own.”11 The tendency of the imagination to invent ‘imaginary dangers’ came to be represented as the characteristic of those who came to be described as alarmists in politics: in the Reflections the dangers that threatened the security of Britain were made to appear more novel, more terrifying than any that preceded them, and in response the accusation that these dangers are the fictions of a ‘heated’, ‘haunted’, ‘distempered’ imagination became 4S Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 147; Charles Pigott, Strictures on the New Political Tenets of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (London: James Ridgway, 179 t), 25-6; my emphasis in both quotations; Strictures on the Letter, 28. 49 [Macaulay], Observations, 5, 55, 53. 50 The Alarmist. No. 1 (London: J. Owen, 1796), P- vi.



correspondingly more frequent and more contemptuous.’1 The picture of France which emerges in Burke’s Reflections, wrote James Mackin¬ tosh, is one which ‘his fancy has peopled only with plots, assassinations, and massacres, all the brood of dire chimeras which are the offspring of a prolific imagination, goaded by an ardent and deluded sensibility’. Robert Hall, apparently with Mackintosh’s pamphlet open on his desk, concurred: Burke’s ‘imagination is, in truth, only too prolific; a world of itself, where he dwells in the midst of chimerical alarms, is the dupe of his own enchantments, and starts, like Prospero, at the spectres of his own creation’.’” The alarmism of Burke is frequently described as the effect of a ‘wild’, ‘distempered’, ‘disordered’, ‘deranged’, or ‘diseased’ imagination, with the apparent implication that he was suf¬ fering from a temporary madness or infatuation when he wrote the Reflections. The relationship between alarmism and the imagination could also, however, be represented in quite different terms: Burke’s alarmism could be seen as the effect of an imagination which was not so much easily terrified as deliberately malign. When Burke implied, in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, that the Revolution Society had been plotting the subversion of the constitution, a member of that society denounced his ‘malevolent imagination’, which could transmute the most innocent word or action ‘into the blackest crime’, and which seems close to the ‘scheming insanity’ identified by the psychiatrist Dr Thomas Arnold, and which manifested itself in ‘political, ambitious, heroical’ and various other kinds of ‘scheming’.53 ‘If we dare to rejoice,’ wrote Hall, ‘at the emancipation of a great people from thraldom, it must be at the peril of the foulest imputations that imagination can invent, or malignity apply.”4 Or Burke’s alarmism, according to Wyvill, might not be actuated by the imagination at all, but a calculated cunning. Appar¬ ently free himself of all imaginary fears, he deliberately set out to disturb or terrify the imagination of the public at large by inventing fictitious threats to the national security; to dress up a train of horrible phantoms, to affright his Readers; and having thus subdued their terrifyed imaginations, he would find it no very difficult I riestley, Letters, z, 99; Pigott, Strictures, 51; and see [Williams], Letters to a Young Prince, 127: violences . . . which never existed, except in his own imagination’. ~'2 Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae v; Robert Hall, An Apology for the Freedom of the Press (1793), edn. of 1821, in The Miscellaneous Works and Remains of the Rev. Robert Hall (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846), 196. BW 6: 82-4; Vindication, 49; Thomas Arnold, Observations on the Nature, Kinds, Causes, and Prevention of Insanity and Lunacy, or Madness, 2 vols. (London: G. Robinson and T. Cadell, 1782-6), 1: 216, quoted in Christopher Reid, ‘Burke, the Regency Crisis, and the “Antagonist World of Madness’”, Eighteenth-Century Life, 16 (May 1992) so-w 54 Hall, Miscellaneous Works, 227.



task to confound in their apprehension peaceful Reformation, with hostile Revolution . . . the fears, the rage, and all the holy antipathies of our Zealots were increased to an extravagant degree; the most odious and chimerical sus¬ picions were widely spread and received with implicit credulity/'

When in 1792 the alarm started by Burke began to develop into the fear that Britain too was in danger of revolution, the relationship between alarmism and the imagination was used to describe those like John Reeves, founder of the Loyalist Associations, and Archibald Macdonald, the Attorney-General, who together presided over the early phase of Pitt’s ‘White Terror’. ‘Saucer-eyed phantoms of Sedition,’ wrote Vicesimus Knox of this period, ‘began to flit through disturbed imagin¬ ations.”6 The suggestion that the alarmism originally instigated by the Reflections is a form of insanity, the effect of a ‘diseased’, even a ‘crazed’ imagination/ became, as we shall see, more or less routine. And both accounts of alarmism, as panic-stricken and as coldly malevolent, persist throughout the 1790s; thus the same alarm, as in the case of the pre¬ tended London ‘insurrection’ of 1792, used to justify the construction of barracks at the Tower of London and the embodying of the militia, could be attributed by one commentator to a ‘fiendish’, by another to a ‘deluded’ imagination.58 One version could describe the king’s minis¬ ters, deliberately ‘keeping the people in gross ignorance, stopping their eyes, mouth, and ears, and winding their imaginations in the obscurity of political mysteries’, another could describe the credulous king himself during the supposed ‘insurrection’, when Imagination led him to think, that the Tower of London was attacked by a French army; and this made it necessary to fortify it. Imagination planted the Tree of Liberty in the borough of London, and this made it necessary to imbody the militia . . . though the powers of imagination are great, none but fools would wage war against visions.59 55 Wyvill, A Defence of Dr. Price and the Reformers of England (London: J. Johnson et al., 1792), 77-8. 56 Vicesimus Knox, A Narrative of Some Transactions relative to a Sermon, 2nd edn. (London: C. Dilly, 1793), 23. 57 Political Freethinker’s Thoughts, 27. 58 MC, 7 Dec. 1792.; and PH 31: 1124, where Fox declares that the insurrection ‘never had any existence except in the imagination of the deluders and the fears of the deluded’. See also e.g. [Ann Jebb], Two Penny-Worth of Truth for a Penny, 2nd edn. (London: ‘for the Book¬ sellers’, 1793), 4. The supposed ‘insurrection’ occurred in Dec. 1792, when it was even briefly represented by ministerial newspapers that the Tower of London had been occupied by French insurgents. No such insurrection occurred, but the alarm was used to justify the bringing of troops to London and the arguably illegal embodying of the militia of ten counties; and by these and other measures it was announced that the insurrection had been frustrated. See Lucyle Werkmeister, A Newspaper History of England, 1792-1793 (Lincoln, Nebr.: Univer¬ sity of Nebraska Press, 1967), 138-44, 235-6, and Clive Emsley, ‘The London “Insurrection” of 1792: Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy?’, in Journal of British Studies 17/2 (Spring 1978), 66-86. 59 John Butler, The Political Fugitive (New York: the author, 1794), 48, 7Z-

Introduction One account of alarmism could be used to pity or ridicule the evidently sincere and apparently continuous panic that between 1792 and 1796 afflicted William Windham, for example (‘the armed progeny’, so Thelwal! described him, of Burke’s ‘prolific brain’); the other to denounce the cold and supposedly malign scheming of Pitt.60 Or, finally, these accounts of alarmism could both be advanced together: it might be characterized at once by an imagination easily inflamed, and by a deliberate intention to inflame the imaginations of others. This was what Paine had suggested when he dismissed Burke’s images of the violence that had attended the early months of the revolution as ‘the tragic paint¬ ings by which Mr. Burke has outraged his own imagination, and seeks to work upon that of his readers’.61 A version of this contrast seems to be the point of James Gillray’s 179 5 caricature of the Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville, A Keen-Sighted Politician Warming his Imagination (see Pi. 1). Grenville, the Foreign Secretary in the Government of William Pitt, stands with his famously huge bottom turned to a roaring fire while studying a pamphlet entitled, with a nudge and a wink, ‘The Funda¬ mental Principles of Government’. He is preparing to address the House of Lords, where, the suggestion is, he will speak not with his mouth but his arse. There is a hint of deliberation as well as pleasure in Grenville’s attitude—as if his alarmism is something less than spontaneous—but there is also I take it an implied contrast between the warm Grenville and the cold Pitt, who had, according to Coleridge, no imagination at all, and who famously had no bottom. He was ‘Mr Bottomless Pitt’; ‘Fain would I bow me down and kiss thy hinder parts’, says the slave Mustapha, in a satire of Pitt’s supposed ‘oriental’ despotism, ‘but thy hinder parts are wanting’.62

Thelwall, Rights of Nature... Letter the First, 15. Hazlitt, expanding on Thomas Holcroft’s A Letter to the Right Honourable William Windham (London: H. D. Symonds, 1795)5 distinguishes between ‘such men as Pitt and Dundas, who were actuated almost entirely by interest and ambition, and . . . Burke and Windham, who were actuated almost entirely by imagination, system, and reasoning’: see ‘The Life of Thomas Holcroft’, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, (ed. P. P. Howe,) 21 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1930-4), 3: 158. For Windham, see also e.g. Sheridan’s speech of Mar. 1793 on his own motion for an inquiry into the existence of seditious practices, PH 30. 528 ff., and for Windham and Burke, see Brother Burke to Brother Wyndham. A New Song, for the New Year. Air—Lord Chesterfield’s, O Brother Sandy (no publication details [1795?]). 61 PCW 1: 258. James Gillray, A Keen-Sighted Politician Warming his Imagination (London: H. Humphrey, 13 June 1795) (George, 8659); Coleridge, Essays on his Times, ed. David Erdman), in CC 3, vol. 1: 224 and 221. For ‘Mr. Bottomless Pitt’, see the broadside A New Tragedy, entitled Another Campaign ([London 1795D1 ist pub., Tg, 16 July 1795. The phrase refers of course to Pitts natural home (in hell); to his lack of any ideological baggage, and hence of sound principles (‘bottom’); to his inscrutability and talent for political intrigue (‘Deep Will’); to his capacity for alcohol; to his extravagance in pursuing the war (throwing money into a bottomless pit); but also, more literally, to his physique. For Mustapha, see Mustapha’s Adoration of the Sublime Sultan Pittander Omnipotent. Part 1 (London: G. Riebau, [1795]).



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powered’ by the ‘vast, tremendous, unformed spectre’ of the revolution, ‘vitiated’ and ‘perverted’ by republican pageantry.lS1 If the hints in the Reflections towards a positive function for the im¬ agination were greeted with derision by his opponents, they were received by his defenders with a silence that was almost universal; and where Burke’s supporters do attempt to follow him in attributing value to the operations of the imagination, they do so in terms which suggest that they had no notion of what Burke had been attempting. A particu¬ larly intriguing example occurs in the anonymous Letter to Mr. Pain, which attempts to reaffirm an argument in the Reflections which had been singled out by Wollstonecraft for one of her sharpest attacks on Burke’s use of ‘imagination’. Burke, as so often, is accusing the makers of the new French constitution of misusing the opportunity provided by their in any case unnecessary revolution, by attempting to fashion a con¬ stitution from first principles instead of from precedent and the example of history. ‘If the last generations of your country,’ he writes, appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired.s2

In this sentence ‘imagination seems to be what enables us to see simi¬ larity in difference, to find ourselves in others, and therefore to perform those acts of sympathetic identification which for Burke are essential to a sense of the historical continuity of the nation and to a more than merely contractual notion of social affiliation. None of this impressed Wollstonecraft, who treats this passage as an especially contemptible example of Burke’s inability to observe the dis¬ tinction between art and government. It was absurd, she suggested, to ‘depreciate the National Assembly, for applying to then understanding rather than to their imagination, when they met to settle the newly acquired liberty of the state on a solid foundation’. Had Burke’s advice been offered to a history-painter, rather than to the framers of a con¬ stitution, she would have admired and echoed it: study, you might have said, the noble models of antiquity, till your imagination is inflamed; and, rising above the vulgar practice of the hour, you may imitate without copying those great originals. Wollstonecraft s praise is intended to be fatal: what is good advice to a painter is the worst advice to offer a politician. But she presses on to deliver hei coup de grace, in settling a constitution that involved the happiness of millions ... it was, perhaps, necessary to have a higher model in view than the imagined 81 BW 8: 23, 82, 172.

82 BW 5: 82-3.



virtues of their forefathers’. The task of the National Assembly, she acknowledges, required to be based ‘on the foundation of experience’; but the ‘inherited experience’ of the French could serve the assembly only as a warning, not as an example to be followed.83 The anonymous author, however, of A Letter to Mr. Pain, was inspired rather than admonished by the insinuation that Burke would rather entrust the design of constitutions to painters than to the members of the National Assembly. As if to refute Paine’s claim that Burke could not ‘produce the English Constitution’, that it had no ‘visible form’,S4 he offers to visualize it on our behalf. ‘For my part’, he enthuses, I have ever considered the British Constitution as an historical painting of prodi¬ gious beauty and magnitude, executed by the most eminent masters, in which the progress of civilization from the date of the Magna Charta to that of the Bill of Rights may be seen at one view; nor does it require any extraordinary effort of the imagination to personify and represent to itself this vast and won¬ derful assemblage of laws, manners, and customs, on which the whole fabric of society has been constructed, and happily brought to perfection.—The mind dwells with pleasure on the fictions it creates, while reason, an accomplice in the cheat, shapes them into form, and deceives the judgement into a belief of their existence.85

What I find intriguing about this passage is its inability, even unwill¬ ingness, to arrive at a conception of the imagination which is adequate to the sublime function it asks it to fulfil. It cannot escape the notion that to allow us to identify with, to find ourselves in its objects, the imagination must represent them as personifications, therefore as fictions. The imagination is allowed neither the power nor the inde¬ pendence attributed to it by Burke. It is invited, reassuringly, to make no ‘extraordinary effort’, nor to operate except in tandem with ‘reason’, which it makes an accessory to its own deceiving and deceitful desire to cheat the judgement. Whatever form of knowledge this ‘imagination’ offers, it is evidently not a form of truth. I can find no defender of Burke or opponent of Paine who could produce a positive use of imagination which did not call attention to those very aspects of the word which made it so difficult to use in polit¬ ical discourse except pejoratively. There is a remark by Boothby, in a pamphlet criticizing Paine but not therefore adhering to Burke, to the efrect that Human imagination, upon which all our happiness must ” Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 93-5 (her emphasis).

84 PCW 1: 279. fetter, pp. vi-vii; for another account of the constitution as an old-master painting, appar¬ ently borrowing from this, see [Robert Hawker], An Appeal to the People of England (n p • 1794), 21-2.



ultimately depend, is strangely capricious; it laughs at reason, and despises calculation’.86 He may be intending to declare that human hap¬ piness is an interior state which cannot be guaranteed by external arrangements, but as it stands the remark appears to invite the aban¬ donment of any attempt to propose political solutions to unhappiness, whether by proposing reforms or opposing them. Another of Paine’s opponents attempted to rehabilitate the imagination by contrasting Paine with Shakespeare: according to the author of Remarks on Mr. Paine’s Pamphlet, ‘the dramatist, . . . sketching from himself, drew mankind as they ought to be, not as they are’, while Paine, ‘dictated by the sullen spirit of a discontented leveller’, and with a pencil dipped in his own heart’s gall, transfuses its poison to his canvas, and stains the human picture in harsh outline, and gloomy shade; it represents mankind not as they are, not as they ought to be, not as they ever can be; it sinks from the realities of life, as it descends into the depth of speculative possibility, . . . imagination, that sweet speculatist),] operates aversely to its nature by a process of coarse refinement; its flights are from our dignity, and it abstracts man to debase himd

In this passage, ‘imagination’ is principally conceived of as an abstract¬ ing power, which, properly used, idealizes its objects by generalizing them, in the manner of Reynolds’s doctrine of central forms; used un¬ naturally, it will abstract not the best but the worst of human nature, and produce something more akin to caricature than to the beau ideal. But the problem here too is that the author cannot persuade himself that the results of imagination, even when it operates according to its nature, are forms of truth. The imagination as Burke proposed it is evi¬ dently diminished by being described as a ‘sweet speculatist’, and has no chance of persuading us of the value of its creations in a debate in which, on the loyalist side—and even in this very passage-speculation’ is another name for ‘wild’ and ‘visionary theory, and is sunk far below, and morally below, the real. Outside the Reflections, the only example I am aware of, in loyalist writings of the 1790s, of ‘imagination’ being invited to perform a pol¬ itical function which is positive and yet does not depend on its power to delude, is a single intriguing remark by the ultra-loyalist Reeves. In his notorious Thoughts on the English Government of 1795, a text we will examine at greater length later in this book, Reeves came surptisingly close to Paine in suggesting that the ‘fancied Constitution’ of England was indefinable, non-existent, the figment of a Whig imagination.88 But 86 87 88

Boothby, Observations, z6y. Remarks on Mr Paine’s Pamphlet (Dublin: P. Byrne, 1791), 15[Reeves], Thoughts on the English Government (London: J. Owen, 1795b 5 5-



in one of the most provocative passages in a thoroughly provocative text, he contrasted the doctrine of the ‘divine indefeasible Right of Kings'— itself, he was careful to insist, a mere ‘fancy’—with the Whig constitu¬ tion, arguing that whereas the former attempted to raise the imagination to something above us, which might soothe and elevate the senses; the latter opens to us no space wherein the imagination can exercise itself, but the very gulph of Democracy, there to toil and turmoil, without hope of rest or consolation.89

It is not altogether clear here whether the doctrine of indefeasible right elevates the imagination by the sublimity with which it invests the king, or by inviting the subject to identify with the king as a higher, yet still fellow human being, or both. Especially if it means the latter, this remark seems to anticipate the Romantic conservatism of late Coleridge; his argument, for example (though for Coleridge this would be true only of limited monarchies), that ‘The Subject who kneels in homage before a rightful king, as the Symbol and acknowledged Representative of the Unity of the Nation . . . [recognizes] in the Symbol of the Nation simul¬ taneously an image—of his very Self. . . , becomes a King’.90 The seed planted in the Reflections, neglected by its author, casually watered by Reeves in a text which, as we shall see, was criticized by loyalist and radical alike not least for the ‘imagination’ it displayed, took decades to germinate. The infrequency with which, among the followers of Burke, the im¬ agination is invited to perform any positive function; the unease with which it fulfils such a function when invited to do so; the fact that loyalist writers other than Burke are, like the advocates of reform, entirely at home only with the pejorative meanings of the term; all this seems to confirm that, for all sides in the Revolution debate of the early 1790s, a clear division of knowledge was operating between the dis¬ courses of poetry and of politics. To argue grammatically involved appropriating to one’s own side the word imagination, for to claim that one had the best title to use it was a means of disowning the thing, the imagination itself, and of proclaiming that one’s own thoughts and actions were entirely uninfluenced by this dangerous faculty. But if the quarrel over the right to apply the word ‘imagination’ had been fought out entirely as a logomachia, entirely in pamphlets and speeches, the reformers and, in Parliament, the Foxite Whigs would have won hands down. Though the accusation of false consciousness, of error, of super¬ stition, of primitivism, evoked by the word was hurled back and forth [Reeves], Thoughts, 47. Notebook 5 5, fo. 9r', quoted in D. P. Calleo, Coleridge and the Idea of the Modern State (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966), 80-1.



like a javelin between reformers and their opponents, the reformers * probably had the easier target. The association of imagination with the ‘infancy’ of nations meant that it was easy for both sides to make the charge of imagining stick in the breast of the other; but the further asso¬ ciations with alarmism, with superstition, with the (empty) symbolism of the state, gave greater point to the weapon in the hands of liberals and reformers. The almost entirely pejorative meanings attributed to ‘imagination’ in their political vocabulary no doubt encouraged the more radical among them to believe, at least for a few years after 1789, that once the unreformed constitution of Britain had been exposed as entirely imaginary it would be easy to wish it away, to replace it with ‘irresistible’ truth, with something supposedly more substantial, more securely anchored in the nature of things.4' By the end of 1792, however, with the emergence of the Loyalist Associations and the beginning of prosecutions for seditious libel and seditious words, it became apparent that the loyalist imagination could cling tenaciously to the institutions it was supposed to have invented, and that imaginary institutions were sustained by a power far from imaginary.

IV The mid-i790s saw a new kind of political crisis in British politics, in which the Government of William Pitt was fighting a war on two fronts, against a republican enemy abroad and a small but highly organized network of popular radical societies at home. Convinced, or claiming to be, that the popular movement for parliamentary reform was in fact a revolutionary, republican movement, on 12 May 1794 the Govern¬ ment began arresting and interrogating the leaders of the two leading radical societies in London, the more polite Society for Constitutional Information and the more popular London Corresponding Society. Three days later the authorities in Scotland discovered a plot to seize Edinburgh Castle, an act which, it was later claimed, would have been the signal for a concerted insurrection in Scotland, Ireland, and England. Determined to break once and for all the reform movement, the Government decided to try those it had arrested for high treason. The English statute of treasons of 1351, 2.5 Edward III, ~ under which the prisoners were charged, had become the law in Scotland, also, after the Act of Union. It specified seven different offences which amounted 91 On the radical belief that truth would be invincible over the errors of the ancien regime in Britain, see esp. J. Anne Hone, For the Cause of Truth: Radicalism in London 1796-1821 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). 92 25 Edward III, c. 2.



to high treason, but the one which especially concerns us—the one invoked in all the English and Scottish treason trials of 1794—is the* first. It is treason, says the statute, ‘when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king’. What did this strange clause mean? and what could or might it be taken to mean in 1794? The meaning of ‘compass’, as used in the statute, occurs in no other context except when the word is implicitly borrowed from the statute itself; the meaning of ‘imagine’ was one which the word had retained in only one other context, where, however, as we shall see, it was not securely understood. This meaning of ‘imagine’ had entered the English language from the original law French of the 1351 statute—‘quant home fait compasser 011 imaginer la mort nostre seignior le roy’.93 25 Edward III was generally agreed to be a ‘declaratory’ statute, which is to say that it had not been introduced to define high treason as it were de novo, but simply to declare, as Blackstone put it, ‘what the common law is and ever hath been’ on the ques¬ tion of treason, so as to remove disputes about the matter.94 But in 1794 and 1795 the word ‘imagine’, as used in the statute, became inextrica¬ bly involved in a dispute about ‘the fixed character of the sign’. How did this happen? What effects did it produce? The verbs ‘compass or imagine’ in 25 Edward III seem both to mean ‘design’, or ‘intend’, and since at least the second half of the seventeenth century indictments for this species of high treason had taken to includ¬ ing such words as ‘contrive’, ‘devise’, ‘purpose’, ‘design’, or ‘intend’, alongside ‘compass or imagine’, apparently indicating that the words of the statute were by then thought to be in need of a gloss. But of the four writers who by the 1790s were established as the leading authorities on the law of treason, only Matthew Hale had offered to explain them, remarking that ‘they refer to the purpose or design of the mind or will’. Edward Coke had made no comment at all about their meaning, but it may well be that when he was writing, in the early seventeenth century, the words were generally understood. William Hawkins in 1716 had offered to answer the question, ‘What is the Import of the Words, Compass or imagine the King’s Death’, but in the event had not done so; and the most recent authority, Michael Foster, writing in 1762, had passed over the phrase in silence.’’ Of other reputable commentators, Thomas Wood, writing in 1722, offers no gloss; Blackstone explains that the words ‘compass’ and ‘imagine’ are ‘synonymous terms’, but regards 93 Coke, 1. Blackstone, 1: 86; Blackstone’s account of this act as ‘declaratory’ is questioned by Jeremy Bentham: see 4 Comment on the Commentaries, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (London: Athlone Press, 1977), 133. >s Hale, 1: 107; Hawkins, 35.



the first as the one in need of a gloss: ‘the word compass signifying the purpose or design of the mind or will, and not, as in common speech, the carrying such design to effect’.96 Earl Temple and Robert Chambers, the latter writing with the help of Samuel Johnson, did attempt to gloss the words, and to distinguish a shade of difference between them. ‘It is treason,’ wrote Temple in 1763, ‘to compass or imagine (as it is called) or, in plain English, to contrive or intend the death of the King.’ ’ ‘To compass,’ wrote Chambers a few years later, seems to imply something of action, and to imagine nothing more than purpose or contrivance. Thus if two or more persons meet to consult for the destruc¬ tion of the king, they are properly said in legal language to compass and imagine his death; to form the design is to imagine it, to meet for the adjustment of that 90

design is to compass it.

Presumably because ‘legal language’ was so much their native lan¬ guage, none of these writers appears to have been struck by what was becoming in the late seventeenth century, and in the late eighteenth cer¬ tainly had become, the strangeness of using ‘imagine’ in the purposive sense of ‘intend’, even ‘design’, at a time when almost every usage of ‘imagine’ and ‘imagination’ seemed to stress the spontaneous, even the involuntary nature of imagining. By the 1760s, however, other writers on the law were beginning to gloss these puzzling words, and even to raise an eyebrow at their continued survival—especially the survival of ‘imagine’—in the law of treason. Daines Barrington believed that the words meant, respectively, ‘concern oneself in’, and ‘plot’; but suggested, with ‘great deference’ to the venerable wording of the statute, that ‘the word imagine is not sufficiently explicit, and is likewise too figurative to be made use of in describing this the most capital of all criminal offences’. In 1771 William Eden, later Lord Auckland, believed that the ‘harsh application’ of ‘imagine’ to mean ‘devise’ had originated, he pre¬ sumes ‘inadvertently’, in 25 Edward III, perhaps as a result of misheaiing machinari as imaginary he adds that ‘the pruriency of a figurative imagination ought not to be indulged in the composition of penal laws, poetical license in the description of crimes leads to sanguinary conse¬ quences’." The advocate Robert Cullen, defending David Downie of 96 Thomas Wood, An Institute of the Laws of England {172.x), 8th edn. (London: Henry Lintot et ah, 1754), Blackstone, 4: 78. 97 Lord Temple, ‘Extract from a Letter to the Secretaries of State, on the

seizure of papers ,

dated r9 May 1763, repr. in [John Almon], Biographical, Literary, and Political Anecdotes, 3 vols. (London: T. N. Longman and L. B. Seeley, 1797k 3: i8998 Sir Robert Chambers, A Course of Lectures on the English Law, ed. Thomas M. Curley, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 356. 99 |Daines Barrington], Observations upon the Statutes, Chiefly the more Ancient, 2nd edn. (London: S. Baker and W. Sandby, 1766), 221-2 and 222n.; |William Eden], Principles of Penal Law (London: B. White, 1771), 107, 108; Alexander L.uders also believed imaginan



Edinburgh in 1794 for his part in the supposed plot to seize the castle, remarked that the statute was written in the French language, and the words are ‘compaser 011 ymaginer la mort nostre seigneur le roy.’ It is perhaps singular . . . that the life of every British subject prosecuted by the crown for high treason should continue to depend upon the critical construction of two obsolete French words.100

By the eighteenth century ‘imagine’ retained its purposive sense of ‘design’, ‘devise’, ‘intend’ only in the King James Bible, where accord¬ ing to James Hastings the word always means ‘to design, to plot, to intend to perform evil against’.101 But long before the 1790s that bib¬ lical meaning was thoroughly insecure: thus eighteenth-century com¬ mentators are in frequent silent disagreement, with each other and themselves, as to whether the ‘vain’ and ‘evil’ imaginations repeatedly rebuked in the Old Testament are wicked and futile conspiracies against the Almighty, inclinations to idolatry, or simply ill-natured thoughts and involuntary fancies. I will try to exemplify this point as briefly as pos¬ sible, confining my examples to a few remarks selected from a couple of commentators only. We could begin with Hosea 7: 15, ‘they do imagine mischief against me’. Matthew Henry, commenting on this text at the beginning of the eighteenth century, explains that ‘the designing of mischief is doing it, in God’s account. Compassing and imagining the death of the king is treason by our law. Those that imagine an evil thing, though it prove a vain thing . . . will he reckoned with for the imagin¬ ation.’ But William Lowth, commenting a few decades later on the same text, interprets the verse thus: ‘they are continually devising some new idolatrous Invention, whereby they may dishonour me’—where the slip¬ page is very apparent between ‘imagine’ meaning ‘devise’, and ‘imagine’ meaning produce a representation’. Here is Henry again, on Deuteronomy 31: 21, ‘I know their imagination which they go about’: ‘God knew very well that there were in their hearts . . . gross conceits of the deity, . . . inclinations to idolatry’. Towth, commenting on Zechariah 7: 10 (‘let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart ), emphasizes the legal meaning of the word: ‘Do not employ your Thought in devising Mischief against others, in order to put it into was a corruption of machinari: see his ‘Considerations on the Law of High Treason, in the Article of Levying War’, in Tracts on Various Subjects in the Law and History of England 2 vols. (Bath: R. Cruttweil, 1810), 1: 139.

^ z4: I231 Cullen attributes this criticism to ‘an ingenious writer’ whose identity I have been unable to discover. 1,11 James Hastings, A Dictionary of the Bible (1899), 5 vols. (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1904), 2: 453-4 (article Imagine, Imagination’): ‘The verb to “imagine” has always in AV the obsolete meaning of purpose, scheme, contrive . . . Imagination has always the sense of evil purpose, contrivance.’



Execution, when Opportunity serves’; but Henry offers instead: ‘Do not project it; do not wish it; nay do not so much as please yourself with the fancy of it’, which seems to try for size almost every possible meaning of ‘imagine’.102 Indeed, the use of ‘imagine’ and ‘imagination’ in the Bible, which might have been expected to lend the legal meaning of the words a degree of stability, probably contributed to their destabilization, by sup¬ plying lawyers with such ready-made oratorical phrases as ‘wicked imaginations’ and ‘evil imaginations’, whose meaning in the Bible was imperfectly understood. As we shall see, the Crown lawyers in trials for high treason in the 1790s frequently use such phrases to attribute a dark and Gothic cast of mind to those they are prosecuting. They speak of the ‘wicked imaginations’ in the heart of the traitor, the ‘desperate im¬ agination’ of the supposed revolutionary, and may well have been taken to be accusing the defendants not of intending the king’s death, but merely of imagining it in the weak sense, by an association of ideas, however involuntary.101 And it was the ease with which ‘imagine’, meaning ‘intend’, could be confused with this ‘weak’ or ‘familiar’ sense of the word, ‘picture in the mind’, which made it possible for the legal meaning of the word to become confused, whether deliberately or inad¬ vertently, with the more specific notions and connotations of ‘imagin¬ ation’ discussed earlier in this introduction. To understand how this happened, however, we need to know something more about the law of treason. The treason of compassing or imagining the king’s death is, as the great liberal advocate Thomas Erskine explained in 1794, ‘a complete . . . anomaly’ in English law, for the crime is ‘wholly seated’, as he puts it, ‘in unconsummated intention’. So completely did it take the will for the deed that ‘a man cannot be indicted’, as Erskine pointed out, ‘for killing the king’, but only for intending his death, and the same punishment was to be exacted independently of whether or not the king died as a result of such an intention, and independently indeed of whether any actual attempt had been made on his life; the law, wrote Foster, ‘considereth the wicked imagination of the Heart in the same Degree of Guilt as if carried into actual Execution’.1"4 At the trial of the 102 Matthew Henry, An Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1708-10), 9 vols. (London: James Nisbet, 1864); William Lowth, A Commentary upon the Larger and Lesser

Prophets (1714-25), 4th edn. (London: D. Midwinter et al., 1739). Of other commentaries or translations I have consulted, only those by George Horne (A Commentary on the Book

of Psalms (1771), 4th edn., 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1790)), Symon Patrick (The Book of Psalms paraphras’d (1680), 2nd edn. (London: L. Meredith, 1691)), and Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate (A New Version of the Psalms of David (1696; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1819)) seem consistently to give a purposive sense to 'imagine’ and 'imagination’.


ST 24: 133, 209, 271.

104 ST 24: 896; Foster, 195.



regicides, as post-Restoration commentators on the law of treason never tired of pointing out, the man who cut off Charles’s head was accused only of compassing and imagining his death, and his actual delivery of the fatal stroke was judicially cognizable only insofar as it was an act which manifested his prior intention to do what he then did."1’ Because ‘compassing or imagining’ are internal acts of the mind, secrets of the heart known only to God, an intention to kill the king could attract a charge of treason only when it was manifested in some overt act, or, in the words of the statute, ‘open deed’; by a statute of William III,106 an overt act of high treason had to be confirmed by two witnesses; if two overt acts were alleged in the indictment, one witness to each was sufficient. These acts need not be direct attempts on the king’s life, and indeed in indictments for high treason they very rarely were. To buy a weapon with the intention of killing a private citizen is neither murder nor attempted murder, but to buy a weapon with the intention of killing the king is every bit as much evidence of treason as firing a bullet through his heart would be. To communicate in writing an intention to kill the king could be alleged as an overt act of treason, but some author¬ ities believed that to speak of such an intention could not, because, as Blackstone explained, ‘there can be nothing more equivocal and ambiguous than words’, which ‘may be spoken in heat, without any [real] intention, or be mistaken, perverted, or mis-remembered by the hearers’.10 Others argued against this position; they might make an exception for ‘loose words’, but not for words spoken in the further¬ ance of a treasonable conspiracy for which the evidence was derived only from those words; some argued that spoken words could be given in evidence in order to educe the tendency of some other act alleged as an overt act of treason. The most strenuous opponent of this less lenient view was the Scots jurist John Erskine, who argued that ‘because, in common speech, words, and acts or deeds, are opposed to one another’, they ‘ought not to be explained into each other, so as to infer the sever¬ est penalties’.108 ‘Every one,’ wrote Henry Dagge in 1772, ‘must conceive the absurd¬ ity of making it Treason to imagine the death of the king, unless the intention be shown by some open or overt act.’109 The fact that trea¬ sonable imaginings had to be manifested in overt acts, and the general See e.g. Hawkins, 35; Foster, 194; East, Edward Hyde, A Treatise of the Pleas of the

Crown, 2 vols. (London: J. Butterworth, 1803), 1: 58. 106 7 William 3. c. 3. Blackstone, 4: 80; see also Coke, 14; Hale, 1: in—2. Hawkins, 38-41; Foster, 200-7; this is probably what Wood intends to say also

(■Institute, 360); John Erskine, An Institute of the Law of Scotland, 3rd edn., 2 vols. (Edin¬ burgh: Bell & Bradfute, 1793), 2: 759. 109 [Henry Dagge], Considerations on Criminal Law (London: T. Cadell, 1772), 318.



agreement that to speak of an intention to kill the king not ‘advisedly’ but ‘loosely’ could not be alleged as an overt act, were the main secur¬ ities by which lawyers believed the meaning of ‘imagine’ in 25 Edward III was protected from confusion with the familiar meaning, ‘picture in the mind’. Blackstone remarks in shocked amusement that ‘the tyrant Dionysius is recorded to have executed a subject, barely for dreaming that he had killed him; which was held for a sufficient proof, that he had thought thereof in his waking hours’; this was truly to make it high treason to picture the king’s death in the mind.1"1 So was the statute of Henry VIII,111 repealed after his death, by which, as John Reeves records, ‘words expressive of a wish were made treason’; or as Dagge put it, ‘it was made High Treason to wish, or desire, or to imagine the death of the king, queen, or their heir apparent’; this, he pointed out, ‘could not but be attended with inconvenience to the king himself, as it was to Hen. VIII. whose physicians, it is said, were afraid to declare him in danger, lest they should incur the penalty of Treason’.112 There was also an Act of Mary which had briefly made it high treason to pray that ‘God would shorten the queen’s days, or take her out of the way’;111 however convinced Mary may have been of the efficacy of prayer, to Anglican lawyers of the late eighteenth century this act was bound to be seen as expressing a superstitious fear of what was merely imagined. Statutes like these, which made it high treason to imagine the king s death in the weak sense, were ‘enough to make men shudder’, said John Anstruther, prosecuting Downie in 1794. They were recalled by eighteenth-century lawyers in a tone so horrified as apparently to ensure that the clause against compassing or imagining could be interpreted as describing only express, unequivocal intentions. If it were not so mteipreted, remarked Dagge, ‘imagine’ in the statute would be an impos¬ sibly ‘loose and ambiguous expression’."4 But was the clause understood as these lawyers insisted it should be? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that its original meaning, supposing it to have been secure at least in the reign of Edward III, had by the late eighteenth century been both remembered and forgot¬ ten. As we shall see, the tendency of the word ‘imagine’ to suggest that it was high treason simply to conjure up in one s mind an image of the king’s death was discussed and deplored at length by Jeremy Bentham in 1795. According to the senses of the words in ‘common 110 Blackstone, 4: 79. 111 26 Henry VIII, c. 13. 1,2 Ibid.; JohnReeves, History of the English Law, 2nd edn., 4 vols. (Dublin: Luke White, 1787) 4- 274; [Dagge], Considerations, 318, and see The Manual of Liberty: or Testimonies in Behalf of' the ‘Rights of Mankind (London: H. D. Symonds, 1795), 165 (quoting Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, pt. 2, bk. 12, ch. 10). m 1 and 2 Philip and Mary c. 9; see Reeves, History, 4: 489114 ST 24: 167; [Dagge], Considerations, 318.



speech’, the most obvious meaning which a non-lawyer in the 1790s could have attributed to the expression ho compass or imagine the king’s death’ would have been ‘to bring about the king’s death, or to picture it in the mind’; so that, as one anonymous pamphleteer of 1795 believed, it was high treason to imagine the king’s death ‘only in thought’.115 To lawyers of course the legal meaning of ‘imagine’ was clear enough, at least in theory; the difficulty was to preserve that meaning in actual usage, in arguments in court and in learned discus¬ sions of the law. As we shall see, at the trial of Robert Watt, the leading counsel for the prosecution defined a traitor as ‘he who intends, he into whose im¬ agination it enters, he who conceives the design of destroying the sov¬ ereign’; for the crime, he argues, with casual ambiguity, is ‘in the imagination’ of the person, where the phrase ‘is in’ means ‘consists in’ or ‘is located in’, according to which of these definitions of a traitor you find most agreeable.116 The influential Scottish jurist David Hume explained that, by the words ‘compassing and imagining’, it was not ‘the killing of the King that is alone made treason, but even ... to enter¬ tain the purpose, or conceive the design, of aiming so fatal a blow at the tranquillity of the kingdom’; which seems to mean that it is treason not only to intend the king’s death, but to think about intending it. A reporter on the Tondon trials of 1794 remarked that an overt act ‘must be an act determined or executed for the specific purpose of compass¬ ing the death of the King . . . the design or “wicked imagination of the heart” must be obviously, and not constructively, tending to the atro¬ cious purpose of compassing or imagining the death of the King’.117 Unless one can purpose a purpose, both uses of ‘compassing’ here can only mean ‘bringing about’, and ‘imagining’ must mean something other than intending. In 1793 an anonymous barrister wrote a treatise on high treason and seditious libel, apparently to advise the members of loyal¬ ist associations on the law; at one point he discusses what constitutes ‘a sufficient overt act, to justify an imagination of compassing the king’s death ."81 have no idea what he meant: perhaps here ‘imagination’ here means ‘design’ and ‘compassing’ means realizing that design; or perhaps the prosecution is supposed to be merely imagining that the defendant has compassed the king’s death, until that imagination can be ‘justified’, can be shown to be based on the evidence of fact. See below, 583.

116 See below, 269-70.

11 David Hume, Commentaries on the Law of Scotland, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1797), 2: 409; Crosby, 1: 4. A Tieatise upon the Law and Proceedings in Cases of High Treason (London: the author 1793), 25 (my emphasis).



V Ther saugh I first the derke ymagining Of Felonye, and al the compassyng; . . . The tresoun of the modrynge in the bedde . . .11 “ So what? Is the instability I am pointing to, in a single word in a single statute, of any significance at all to the history of law and politics in the 1790s? Does it have any effect upon what was or could be thought? Or have I remained, for all my immersion in the political and legal writings of the 1790s, an unregenerate literary critic, concerned only to squeeze texts until they yield a drop or two of inconsequential ambiguity? Take away the word ‘inconsequential’, and my answer to the last question is a qualified yes; I have not thought of myself, while writing this book, as a political or cultural historian, but as a historian of literature who reads the details of texts, whether poems, trials, or par¬ liamentary debates, as literary critics do. But my answer to the first two questions is yes as well; and I can begin to explain why by pointing out that the discourse of law, then as now, gathered much of its authority from the antiquity of its terms. The language of law, as Peter Goodrich in particular has pointed out, represents itself as univocal, a language apart, proof against the ceaseless changes of meaning, insulated from the uncontrollable ambiguities that characterize other languages, its vocabulary immunized against infection.1'11 But as we have seen, by the 1790s ‘imagine’ and ‘imagination’ were keys which turned the locks of a number of different discourses, and under pressure from a host of other meanings of ‘imagination’, in the familiar sense of ‘picturing in the mind’, in the discourses of aesthetics and of psychiatry, in contro¬ versial political writings, the fence protecting the legal meaning of ‘imagine’ was broken down, and the word lost all definition, a victim of the instability that is always liable to occur whenever such a poly¬ valent term is required to function as a term of art. To leave it there, however, would be to represent those charged with the responsibility of describing the crime of imagining the king’s death as themselves the victims of the uncontrollably porous nature of all sup¬ posedly ‘closed’ discourses. Partly that seems to be what happened; partly, however, the instability of ‘imagine’ seems to have been the result of the deliberate inflection of its legal meaning with all those meanings 119 Chaucer, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, II. 1995-6, 2-001, in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F Robinson, znd edn. (Tondon: Oxford University Press, 1957). 120 Peter Goodrich, Legal Discourse: Studies in Linguistics, Rhetoric and Legal Analysis (London: Macmillan, 1987), 176-8.



supposed to lie outside the discourse of law. Legal terms, Goodrich has written, far from being expressly bound by any extra-linguistic content or denotative meaning, . . . are connotative and symbolic: they lend themselves to an obfus¬ cating, rhetorical or symbolic usage, to figurative and analogical manipulations within which their actual meaning or referent is obscure. ... It offers its authorised users the greatest possible scope or power of judgment, of relexicalisation and of assimilation ... of other languages and vocabularies.121

The generosity with which the word ‘imagine’ lent itself to ‘figurative and analogical manipulations’ invited and facilitated a confusion about the nature of the crime of imagining the king’s death, a confusion which was differently exploited by prosecuting and defending counsel. My attempt in this book to examine the struggle for ownership of the word ‘imagination’ is mainly focused on the question of how this happened; how the extra-legal connotations of the word ‘imagine’ could be exploited by the enemies of the reform movement so as to loosen the notion of what it meant to ‘devise’ or ‘intend’ the king’s death; and how, in turn, the accusation of ‘imagining the king’s death’ could in one way or another be retorted against the accusers by a similar exploitation of the extra-legal meanings of the word. We can begin, however, to examine those questions by glancing at some of the history of the treason of ‘compassing and imagining the king’s death’. Quoting the passage from ‘The Knight’s Tale’ that stands at the head of this section, Alexander Luders, one of the best commentators on the law of treason, pointed out that Chaucer, who was contemporary with the statute, applies the phrase ‘to Felony, not to Treason’; and, as Coke and others explain, the clause in 25 Edward III had been borrowed from the ancient law by which to compass and imagine the death of any subject, and to manifest that intention by an overt act, was regarded as felonious homicide, whether or not the intended victim was killed.122 The cases cited by Coke in which this law could be discovered are all of attempted murder, and the overt acts are assaults with deadly weapons; so that it might be reasonable to suppose that the Parliament which passed 25 Edward III had meant the clause against compassing and imagining to refer either to an assault on the king, or, less strictly, to a deliberate design to kill him, whether or not it went so far as to involve an actual attempt upon his life. By the eighteenth century, however, those charged with this species of treason were very rarely sup¬ posed to have intended a direct attempt on the king’s life. As Foster pointed out, the clause against compassing and imagining had by Q Goodrich, Legal Discourse, 179-80, and see generally 158-Z04. Luders, Tracts, 138-9; Coke, 5.




judicial interpretation been extended to include ‘Overt-Acts of less Malignity, and having a more remote Tendency to his Destruction All authorities on high treason agreed that to attempt to depose the king was in effect to compass and imagine his death, for a king once deposed could not be expected to survive; so was an attempt to restrain or imprison him, for, as Foster and others repeat, ‘experience hath shewn that between the Prison and the Graves of Princes the distance is very small’.124 It is nevertheless instructive to trace out the terms in which different authorities discussed this extension of the meaning of the clause. The only overt acts, other than direct assaults or open designs on the life of the king, which Coke believed could be alleged as evidence of compassing and imagining his death, were manifest intentions to depose or imprison him. For Hale, however, the clause had a more general application, and covered any overt act that ‘must induce’ the death of the king. Hawkins extends the application of the clause still further, by defining overt acts of compassing and imagining the king’s death to include ‘such as shew a Design as cannot be executed without the apparent Peril thereof’; and according to Foster these acts include ‘every thing Wilfully and Deliberately done or attempted, whereby his life may be endangered’.125 We begin with manifest designs to do some¬ thing by which the king’s life will inevitably be endangered; and by a series of minute changes of emphasis we end with manifest designs to do anything at all which may threaten the king s life. In the treason of imagining as defined in 25 Edward III, the intention is the whole crime; in Foster’s definition, however, the locus of the guilty intention has shifted: the question is no longer whether a defendant intended to endanger the king, but whether he intended to perform an action by which (whether he intended it or not) the king’s life may have been endangered. Or consider the question of what was supposed to be meant by the ‘death’ which it was treason to imagine. Discussing one of the other species of high treason defined in 25 Edward III, counterfeiting the coin of the realm, Dagge objected that this was an entirely figurative treason, by which ‘the King’s real person is confounded with his effigies imprest on his coin; and to counterfeit the type of Majesty, is held as criminal as to lift the sword against the living Monarch . It was an objection, however, that would equally be made in relation to the clause of com¬ passing or imagining, at least as it would come to be interpreted in the 1790s, on the basis, in part, of a remark made by Coke and repeated by Hale. Coke declared that under the treason of compassing and 123 Foster, 203. 124 Ibid., 196. 125 Coke, 6; Hale, 1: 109; Hawkins, 35; Foster, 195. 126 [Dagge], Considerations, 297-8.



imagining could be included the overt act of conspiring to restrain the king by force with the intention of making him yield to certain demands; not because (as he might have argued) this was an act which was very likely to lead to his death, but because to do such a thing ‘is to make the King a subject, and to dispoyle him of his kingly office of royall government’.1- As we shall see, this doctrine would come to be inter¬ preted as a claim that any challenge to the king’s authority, or majesty, was a threat to the existence of his ‘political body’, and so amounted to imagining his death, whether or not those charged with the imagin¬ ing had any design at all on his natural body. When this interpretation of Coke and Hale came to be advanced in 1794, it would seem to fulfil Eden’s prophetic warning about the ‘sanguinary consequences’ that may follow from the use of ‘a figurative imagination’ in the construction of laws. In the 1790s this progressive loosening of what was supposed to have been intended by the Parliament of Edward III as the treason of im¬ agining the king’s death would be justified by some loyalists as proper and necessary responses to what had become over the centuries a defect in the law. The statute had been framed at a time, it would be argued, when it made complete sense to identify the survival of the constitution with the survival of the king. The law therefore took no account of what came to be known as ‘modern treasons’, and had to be extended by construction to catch those who, though with no direct designs on the person of the king, had designs against the constitution which, if suc¬ cessful, would arguably be far more dangerous to the safety of the state than the assassination of a king would be. Equally, however, this exten¬ sion of the statute by construction would be deplored, by radical and liberal writers and, in Parliament, by the Foxite Whigs, as part of a long and deliberate policy on the part of the executive to represent oppos¬ ition to the Government for the time being as opposition to the king, and so to represent as high treason actions that could be represented as such only figuratively or analogically, only by confusing the king’s actual body with his political body, his head with his hat, that ‘metaphor, shown at the Tower for sixpence or a shilling’.128 They were, in short, ‘imaginary treasons’. To desci die constiuctive treasons as ‘imaginary’ was, or was supposed to be, a particularly pointed charge. For the statute itself appeared to contain an express warning against the invention of treasons by l_

Coke, 12; Hale, 1: 109.

- PCW 1: 283. For a parallel instance of confusion, see Henry Norwynne’s puzzlement on discovering his uncle the dean without his wig; which was the object of reverence5 which should he bow to? (Inchbald, Nature and Art, 1: 73).



construction, stating that if any case of supposed treason, not specified in the statute, should come before the judges, they should refer it to parliament to determine whether it was treason or not. In the spirit of this provision, both Coke and Hale had explicitly warned against the invention of treasons by the use of "wit’, the faculty which, in the seventeenth century, performed many of the functions ascribed in the 1790s to the imagination. As Coke pointed out, an alleged traitor, according to 25 Edward III, must be ‘provably’ demonstrated to have performed an overt act of compassing or imagining; his treasonable intention was to be made out ‘not upon conjecturall pre¬ sumptions, or inferences, or straines of wit, but upon good and sufficient proof’. Hale was even more specific, arguing that it was exceptionally dangerous ‘to depart from the letter of the statute, and to multiply and inhanse crimes into treason by ambiguous and general words’, and to make treasons ‘by construction and analogy where the letter of the law has not done it’. For, he argued, ‘such a method admits of no limits or bounds, but runs as far as the wit and invention of accusers, and the odiousness and detestation of persons accused will carry men’.129 The opposition here between the ‘letter’, the literal meaning of the statute, and the figurative ‘invention’ of treasons, by means of ‘wit’, could not be more precise, and this passage would frequently be used to argue that ‘modern’ treasons were ‘imaginary’ treasons. Thus the liberal Morning Chronicle, in advance of the 1794 trials, complained of the proliferation of prosecutions for crimes ‘which imagination or interest can generate, and which hate or malice can heighten at pleasure’.130 In and after the London trials of 1794, this point was made time and time again, and made particularly sharp by the presence of the word ‘imagine’ in 25 Edward III. It is as if, once the indictment has released the word into the courtroom, a subject has to be found for it. Someone has been imagining treason. The defendant, by pleading not guilty, insists that it is not him; who else then can it be but his accusers? who on the basis of actions that import no apparent intention to kill the king have conjured up an imaginary scene of regicide. This retort is rein¬ forced, as we shall see, by an important trial early in 1794, not for high treason but for seditious libel; where the defendant, accused of pub¬ lishing a paper which ‘imagines’ the king’s death in the weak sense, replies that no such image ever entered his imagination, and that he is now on trial only because the king’s death obsesses the imagination of his accusers. These arguments seek to repel the charge of imagining as 129 Coke, iz; Hale, 1: 86-7.

30 MC, 19 Sept. 1794-



intending with a countercharge of imagining as picturing in the mind; they then usher into the court, and into the newspaper and pamphlet commentary on the trials, the various meanings of ‘imagine’ and ‘im¬ agination’ we encountered in writings on aesthetics and psychiatry and in the pamphlet attacks on Burke’s Reflections. The imagination of the prosecution is under the sway of passion, not of reason; it is wildly as¬ sociating ideas without end; it is inventing ‘impossible existences’, it is disordered, deranged. The English law is boasted to be ‘the perfection of reason’; surely then it is inappropriate, ungrammatical, to allow its application to be dictated by the imagination? The imagination that framed the charges is identical with the imagination that has manifested itself in the loyalist alarm; either it is inflamed by imaginary fears, terrified by phantoms of its own creation, or it is foul and malevolent, coolly imagining the death of those it has falsely accused of imagining the king’s death. In the prolific imagination of the popular radical movement and the parliamentary Opposition, arguments like these could be multiplied without end. There is the suggestion that the Government, whether hysterically or maliciously, has lost all grip on the difference between mere insults to the king and threats to his life: the point was made frequently, as we shall see, by ‘Peter Pindar’, John Wolcot; most economically by Richard Newton, the most economical of cari¬ caturists, in the print Treason!!! of 1798 (see Pi. 2), which perhaps reveals its full meaning only when- juxtaposed with Gillray’s image of Grenville s imagination. John Bull points his own generously rotund imagination at the king’s picture and farts; Pitt accuses him of treason it can only be the treason of imagining the king’s death, presumably by asphyxiation. Bottomless or not, it is evidently Pitt who is doing the imagining.131 Or consider the claim that the spread of republicanism in Europe is a direct result of the determination of Pitt’s alarmist ministry to restore the Bourbons; as Thomas Erskine put it, ‘railing here at home against republican theorists, who never existed but in their own imaginations’, they are ‘the practical founders of republics all over Europe, which existed at first in their own imagination also, but which they have since substantially realised by their works’.132 There is the argument that any accusation of imagining the king s death is self-validating, for it forces us to imagine it, whether we intend it or not. There is the suspicion that the 1,1 Richard Newton

Treason!!! (London: Newton, 19 Mar. 1798) (George, 9188); see Caricature in the iyc,os (Manchester

David Alexander, Richard Newton and English Manchester University Press, 1998), 51-3.

Thomas Erskine, A View of the Causes and Consequences of the Present War with France, 18th edn. (London: J. Debrett, 1797), 115.






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