Monday, 9 October 2017

Henry Hunt and Napoleon: "the first of men, the most wonderful man that ever existed!".


Henry Hunt, radical leader (1773-1835)

Henry Hunt, or "Orator" Hunt as he was known, was the most famous and the most feared of the radical campaigners for universal suffrage in the years after Waterloo. A gentleman farmer from the South of England, he was an unlikely leader of the unrepresented working class. Hunt had been a Loyalist in the early years of the revolutionary wars, and had joined the local yeomanry, but like his fellow reformer William Corbett had become radicalised by the long war, which he saw as being exploited by a corrupt class of placemen, contractors, sycophants and stock-jobbers. (1)

In 1812 Hunt campaigned for Parliament in Bristol with the slogan "Hunt and peace", and asserted that "we have been at War against liberty for the last 20 years." (2) Troops were called in to restore order, which Hunt saw as a sign that the country was nearing military despotism. Hunt's campaign was supported by Cobbett who argued in a letter to the electors that the Government should accept the offers of peace proposed by the Emperor of France. (3)

Like Hazlitt and a number of Whigs and Radicals, Hunt welcomed the return of Napoleon from Elba in 1815 and was totally opposed to the resumption of war : "the most unjust repression." (4) Hunt believed that the power of choosing a sovereign in France as in England ultimately lay with the people, and that it was totally wrong for foreign powers to try to restore the unpopular Bourbons.

Seeing it as a war against liberty, Hunt was like many radicals and some Whigs, not disposed to celebrate Waterloo as a great British victory.

The mind quite sickens at the recital of such a horrid slaughter of human beings, for the sole purpose of gratifying the malignant passions of a few tyrants, who had sworn to annihilate the very spirit as well as the substance of liberty. (5)

In his memoirs he emphasised that Napoleon's forces were greatly outnumbered, and that his defeat was due solely to the late arrival of Prussian troops under Bulow and Blucher.

Not surprisingly Hunt was among the many critics of the decision to exile Napoleon on St. Helena, and was scathing about the failure of the more reform-minded Whigs to speak out against this. He later described the bill legalising Napoleon's imprisonment as "a hateful and foul blot upon the statute book of England".(6)

Hunt's pre-eminent position among the radical leaders after the war was cemented by his acceptance of the invitation to chair mass meetings organised by the Spencereans at Spa Fields in November and again in December 1816. The Spencereans had revolutionary roots and aspirations far removed from those of Hunt, and like Thomas Paine had hoped that Napoleon would invade and promote a revolution in England.

In January 1819 Hunt was invited by radical leaders to Manchester. In the course of his stay he attended the theatre, and a number of red coated officers temporarily ejected him from his box during the singing of the national anthem, amidst a cacophony of "Hunt and Liberty" from the gallery, and patriotic calls from the more expensive seats. (7) This visit marked the beginning of a long association with the radicals in the north of England which lasted until his death.

The Spencereans also invited Hunt to chair the meeting at Smithfield in July 1819, originally planned to be on the anniversary of the French Revolution. At this meeting the resolutions were seconded by a northern radical leader, Rev Harrison, a dissenting minister from Stockport.(8)

The following month Hunt was in Manchester again for the meeting at St Peter's Fields, almost immediately known as the Peterloo Massacre. Accused of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the Government, Hunt and four others were in 1820 convicted on a lesser charge of "seditious intent", for which he was imprisoned for 30 months, a year longer than any of the others convicted with him. This harsh sentence and the abnormally severe conditions under which he was held in Ilchester gaol was a reflection of the fear he instilled in the ruling classes.

Hunt was in prison when he heard of the death of Napoleon, to which he responded forcefully in a letter to his supporters.



Memorial to Henry Hunt that used to stand in Ancoats, Manchester

In later years Hunt served as the M.P. for Preston (1830-33), and opposed the 1832 Reform Bill, which fell far short of the universal suffrage for which he and the post-war radicals had campaigned. After his death a memorial was erected in the grounds of Rev. Scholefield's chapel in Ancoats. The Chartist leader Fergus O'Connor was present at the laying of the foundation stone, which significantly took place on August 16th 1842, the anniversary of Peterloo. (9) The monument fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1888, but in 1908 a bronze portrait medallion of him was unveiled in Manchester's Reform Club, the home of the Liberal elite in the city. On the demise of this club in the 1980's the plaque was apparently moved to the local Museum of Science and Industry, where it is no longer on display.


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1. Belchem 'Orator'Hunt, Henry Hunt and English Working Class Radicalism, Oxford 1985. p. 3
2. Belchem p. 42
3. "The terms offered by the Emperor of France are fair; they are, indeed, such as I never expected to see obtained at the close of a negociation; they would, if accepted of, leave us in possession of all our conquests, of all the Islands in the West Indies; of the exclusive fishery of Newfoundland; of the Cape of Good Hope and the French Settlements in Senegal; of the French and Dutch Settlements in the East Indies; of the Isles of France and Bourbon; in short, they would leave us in possession of about 40 millions of conquered people, while France herself would not possess above 17 or 18 millions of conquered people. And, which is never to be forgotten, they would leave in our hands, the island of Malta itself, which, as you well know, was the avowed object of the war. - Cobbett 3rd Letter to the Independent Electors of Bristol, 11 August 1812 , reproduced in Hunt vol 3.
4. Belchem p. 46
5. Hunt Memoirs Vol 3.
6. Belchem p. 47
7. Belchem p. 109.
8. There were 19 resolutions in all. The final resolution condemned the British Government's treatment of Napoleon, another resolution supported the removal of disabilities on Roman Catholics. The Rev. Harrison said he thought that the resolutions should be adopted by every county, town, village and hamlet in the country. Each resolution was apparently greeted with great applause, although there were a few dissents to the resolution on removing disabilities on Roman Catholics. The Rev. Harrison was arrested at the end of the meeting for remarks he had made at a previous meeting in Stockport, for which he was later convicted and imprisoned, along with another radical leader Sir Charles Wolseley. Manchester Observer , July 31, 1819.
9. Katrina Navickas Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 , (Manchester University Press, 2016), p.192

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