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Radicalism 1760-80

English radical tradition continued after Glorious Revolution even under Whig Oligarchy. Characterised by resistance to ruling cartels and sense of liberty and freedom among the English. Radical activities increased in 1750s and 1760s but the social and economic interpretation of the rise of radicalism has been challenged by the 'Tory' school who emphasise its political roots.



Wilkes was of middle class extraction. He entered parliament in 1757. The Wilkite movement was far more than merely the character of Wilkes himself. Indeed Wilkes told George III that he was not a Wilkite. He simply provided the focus for the discontent among the middle classes of London and elsewhere providing a cause for the amorphous group of radicals to rally around.

From mid 1762 Wilkes had been carrying on a campaign against Bute in his paper the North Briton. Issue number 45 of the North Briton contained a trenchant attack on the peace treaties. To secure his trial, the ministry with the support of the Commons directed that Wilkes should be expelled from the House. Wilkes fled to exile on the continent but returned in 1768 and began his campaign to be elected to parliament. In the winter of 1767-8 Wilkes began his election campaign for the City of London. In the London election he was unsuccessful but stood for Middlesex and swept the poll. Wilkes election sparked off riots and demonstrations in Westminster, the City of London and in Southwark, these came to a head on 10 May 1768 when a crowd gathered by the prison in St George’s Fields to cheer the imprisoned Wilkes and were shot on by troops, killing a number of protesters. For this he was ejected from his seat at Middx but as often as the government expelled Wilkes the people reelected him until the government was forced to declare the candidate with the minority of votes elected.

Support for Wilkes had now spread beyond London and there were 55,000 signatures on petitions in support of his cause. The Wilkite view of the law was dominated by four main themes: accountability; the elimination of partial justice; right to trial by jury; and governing by public consent rather than by force. These were not new complaints or only held by Wilkites. Wilkites used cases for their own political ends: eg the printers cases of 1771. These centred on the right of newspapers to publish parliamentary debates.


Popular plebeian politics is seen in Wilkite images as form of disorder. This includes not only the political riot but also political debates in taverns and coffee houses where politics is portrayed as contentious and divsive


Wilkes main support came from London and the Home counties although there was sporadic support for him from all over Britain. The Wilkite movement has been described as ‘essentially a product of the metropolis’.

American War chronology



Anglo-French War


King George III signs the Proclamation of 1763 prohibiting English settlement west of the Appalachians.


The Sugar Act is passed, increasing duties on imported sugar, textiles, coffee, wines and indigo dye.


The Currency Act is passed, prohibiting the colonists from issuing paper money.


The Stamp Act imposes the first direct tax on the American colonies to be paid directly to the British Crown. The Stamp Act Congress convenes in New York City and passes a resolution calling on King George III to repeal the Act and the Acts of 1764. Violence ensues as colonists refuse to pay the tax.


The Stamp Act is repealed, but the English Parliament passes the Declaratory Act asserting the British government's absolute authority over the American colonies.


Townshend Revenue Acts are passed, taxing imported paper, tea, glass, lead and paints.


Royal Governor of Virginia dissolves the Virginia House of Burgesses in response to its official condemnation of "taxation without representation."


The Boston Massacre British soldiers open fire on a crowd of colonists who had been harassing them. Five are killed and six are wounded. That same year, the Townshend Acts are repealed and import duties are removed from all items but tea.


The Tea Act is passed maintaining the long-standing tax on imported tea. Also gives the British East India Company a virtual monopoly on tea by allowing it to bypass the tax.



The Boston Tea Party colonists, disguised as Mohawk Indians, board British ships and dump 342 containers of tea into the harbour.


Coercive Acts are passed effectively ending self-rule in Massachusetts.


The First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia in attendance are George Washington, Patrick Henry and John Hancock. Declaration of Resolves is passed, asserting rights of colonists and rejecting absolute British authority over colonies.


Britain declares Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. The New England Restraining Act is also passed, requiring the Colonies to trade only with Britain. British troops are confronted by Massachusetts militiamen and the "shot heard round the world" begins the American Revolution.


Thomas Paine writes Common Sense The Colonists secure financial backing for the Revolution from France. The 13 colonies form their own governments under the authority of the Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence is drafted and signed. After a series of defeats, Washington is victorious at the Battle of Trenton.


First American flag commissioned by Congress. Congress adopts the Articles of Confederation, establishing the first real government for the new nation.


Americans sign treaties with France, formally allying them together against Britain.


General Cornwallis surrenders to Washington's troops after the siege of Yorktown. Parliament votes to end the war and authorises the King to negotiate the peace with the Americans.


The Treaty of Paris is signed to end the war

British North Atlantic Empire in the mid-18th century consisted of 8 island colonies in Atlantic and Caribbean, Newfoundland & Nova Scotia, and 13 provinces on Eastern seaboard of America with population of 1.25 million whites and 0.25 million blacks.

Economically, 13 provinces were self-sustaining and able to export surpluses to Britain. Eg New England had navigation, shipping fishing industries; New Hampshire ship building; Pennsylvania iron and metal products; Maryland & Virginia tobacco; South Carolina rice and indigo. Populations of provinces had doubled over last 30 years.

Administrative control was divided among several departments: Secretary of State took charge of military affairs; Treasury collected royal and imperial revenues; Board of Trade was general supervisory department and record office; Privy Council received petitions, heard appeals from colonial courts, approved commissions etc. Colonial assemblies carried out much routine domestic business. Relationship between these assemblies and parliament was inconsistent and unclear.

Origins of American Revolution came with Anglo-French war of 1754-63. The 1763 peace ensured that the French gave up all claims to territory on the American mainland and Britain agreed to no expansion beyond the Appalachians. Results: 1) removed competing claims from other European powers BUT reduced colonists dependence on Britain for security; 2) Problem of competing colonial currencies: each province had its own currency; 3) issue of fighting a war thousands of miles from central powerbase and more importantly funding it. During the war the government used policy of incentive reimbursing colonies in relation to supply raised and supplying arms & ammunition if colonies provided men and housed them; 4) colonial assemblies used emergency to win further powers and used tactic of threatening to withhold supply to ensure these were granted; 5) provoked contentions over trade: British enforced legislation to stop trade with French by using navy, customs and general writs or “writs of assistance” to search warehouses and appropriate goods.

Grenville government sought to address two points: government of territories and provision of funds from colonies. Used Stamp Act of 1765 as indirect taxation on documents (including transactions of land, newspapers, licences etc) to raise money. Hoped to raise £60,000 to be used within America. Opposition to Act came from most substantial section of American community: planters, lawyers, merchants, printer-publishers. In October 1765 “Stamp Act Congress” in New York petitioned King & parliament arguing that parliament had no authority to raise taxes.

Rockingham government was conciliatory. Repealed Stamp Act but passed Declaratory Act which confirmed British right to ‘make laws and statutes of sufficient force’. Events of 1765-6 assured 1) ascendancy in colonial politics of champions of colonial rights 2) a common identity between provinces emerged 3) discussion of colonial rights would be pursued.

Chatham replaced Rockingham and Townshend as Chancellor introduced Revenue Act of 1767 which put duties on tea, glass, paint, paper and lead. Established American Board of Customs at Boston. Was both passive and violent resistance to these measures in colonies and in 1770 legislation was repealed apart from duty on tea. However, resistance continued. In 1770 5 people were killed by military in Boston Massacre. December 1773 Boston Tea Party occurred when 3 shiploads of tea were dumped in Boston Harbour after attempt by British to import surplus stocks of tea from East India. British government responded with a series of coercive acts.

1774 activity spread beyond Boston. September congress of old colonies met in Philadelphia to support Massachussets and defy the coercive acts. Adopted declaration of rights which stated that as Americans could not be represented in Parliament their own assemblies must hold full powers of legislation in domestic matters. Revolutionary committees sprang up everywhere organising for military conflict and thus armed resistance looked inevitable. In Britain, Lord North put forward conciliatory propositions which agreed to forgo principle of taxing colonies if they would undertake to raise the revenues themselves – this was rejected by colonists as Britain would still decide amount and extent of taxation. Burke argued that an empire was an aggregate of states under one common head in which subordinate parts had extensive local privileges and immunities. He declared the real issue was: ‘not whether you have a right to render your people miserable; but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.’ Burke was not supported by many in the House.

War begins in Massachussets after skirmish between military and colonists. By March 1776 Americans forced British withdrawal from Boston, by the summer British administration is replaced everywhere by ad hoc provincial governments. 4th July Declaration of Independence signed. Jefferson re-states the Lockean theory of political association on which the Americans rested their case: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Peace was eventually negotiated in 1783.

Consequences of War:

    1) An important event in radical politics and encouraged the case for parliamentary reform.

    2) Was a re-thinking of Empire.

    3) Arguments around the war fed into developments in political ideology.

    4) War influenced crisis in Ireland.


    Were the eighteenth century reform and agitation movements really radical? Radical opinion from at least 1780 endorsed the principle of the sovereignty of the people and the derivation of political power from the populace. Even those without the vote were represented by the social and economic superiors it was argued. People were now involved in the political debate and had to be addressed by politicians. But in some ways they were innately conservative movements concerned with the restoration as they saw it of a mythical balance of power that had existed after 1688. The 'mob' played a peripheral role in the disquiet of the period and often took to the streets for reasons other than political ones.