Britain’s Radical Reformers Boycott Taxed Goods

The “Radical Reformers” were groups that were pressing for democratic reforms in England — things like universal male suffrage and secret ballots. They had a largely middle-class, reform-based bent, in contrast to more radical and working-class groups that were also operating at this time.

But in , even the moderates were feeling pretty radical. The military had charged a reform demonstration in Manchester in , killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. It was the Tienanmien Square massacre of its time, and like Tienanmien, it was the beginning, not the end, of the crackdown on democratic reform.

But the radicals weren’t going down without a fight. Below I’m going to reproduce some excerpts from a report on a meeting of Radical Reformers in Carlisle that was held on , as described in the Carlisle Patriot. These show that tax resistance was one of the ways the Radicals were planning to escalate the conflict:

A hand-bill was issued a few days previous, announcing the meeting, and stating its object to be the coming to a resolution of abstaining as much as possible from exciseable articles, in order that, by circumscribing the revenue, the governing powers might be deprived of the means of oppressing the people, and withholding from them their just rights.

…[P]arties of radicals marched into Carlisle… [and] commenced their march through some of the principal streets… to the music of drums and fifes…

[Among the placards they carried was] A board to which were appended, a tea-kettle, a coffee-pot, a snuff-box, a tobacco-box, a broken wine glass, two short old black pipes, a quart and a pint pot, and a broken ale glass. These were all empty and turned up-side-down, as indicative of uselessness, now that the radicals are determined to abstain from taxed commodities.

The Chairman… stated that this meeting was held… to induce all friends of radical reform to abstain from using certain exciseable articles, until the people had obtained the desired radical reform in the British House of Commons. (Cheering.)

Mr. M‘Kenzie, a pressman in the Carlisle Journal Office, then commenced an address which he had in the poll of his hat, ready written. … Were the enormous sums raised by taxation employed only in measures of necessity, the people would bear their privations with philosophical firmness. But when they see vice revelling in the wages of corruption, they cannot tamely submit to their sufferings. What do you think of last year’s taxation, amounting to the sum of 58 millions, a sum ten times as great as when the present king ascended the throne — besides the many millions of debt hanging as a millstone about the necks of the people? To support this system almost every article of consumption is taxed beyond endurance. Tea pays a duty of 100 per cent. Salt, which every poor man must use, and which is indispensable to health, is taxed 3000 per cent. — 30s. upon every shilling’s worth that comes out of the pit. (Shame, shame.) Those are only a few of the means resorted to to uphold the present system. But the people must stand firm, and be true to themselves, and put their foes under their feet (cheers); they must put the pandemonium or corruption and oppression to the route; and to do this the more effectually they must withhold the taxes, by refusing to consume articles on which high duties are placed. To effect this, meetings have been held throughout the country, at which all have unanimously agreed to use as little as possible of such things as tea, tobacco, spirits, wine, &c.; in consequence, the duties of the last quarter fell a long way behind those of the corresponding quarter last year, itself a failing one. A string of resolutions will be submitted to you, the same in substance as was lately agreed to by 40,000 of your countrymen at a recent meeting in the North. They have boldly come forward, and are determined to stand by the resolutions, to shew themselves worthy descendants of [Robert the] Bruce and [William] Wallace. Now, gentlemen, will you not do the same? (Yes! yes!) Will you not as firmly abide by the resolutions? (We will!) Every one that refuses to do this, is unworthy to be the countryman of [John] Hampden, [Algernon] Sydney, and [William] Russell. (Bravo, and cheers.) We must make a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together. (Bravo.) We must manfully drag the monster corruption into day, and put a final period to all our miseries. (Loud cheering.)

Mr. [James] Weems now stepped forward. … Let all present abstain from the use of exciseable articles, in order to keep the revenue down, for no pay no soldier, therefore the people must withhold the means, and thus pull down the present abominable system — and it shall come down! a few months only will finish the job! (Loud cheering.) He would now retire in order to permit the reading of the resolutions, which done, he designed to make a few remarks upon them.

The following resolutions were then read by Mr. Liddell, bootmaker:–

  1. That this meeting views with grief and sorrow an accumulated load of poverty, starvation, and wretchedness, heaped on this once happy land; and that this state of suffering is not confined to one class of society, but extends less or more over all (except those who live on taxation); that this misery is the result of an enormous load of taxation imposed upon the people by those who style themselves their rulers, but who have only plundered the defenceless people of their all, to render themselves despotic and rule by the law of the sword.
  2. That the ruling faction could not have carried on their iniquitous measures, had it not been for the ignorance of the people, because tyranny ceases to exist the moment man is enlightened, therefore it is the duty of every man to procure useful information respecting his sacred rights and liberties, that as a man he may defend them against every encroachment, from whatever quarter it may come, for which important purpose men should associate in small numbers for their mutual instruction and improvement, that thus a race of enlightened men may arise who shall demand their rights as men, in a tone that will make tyranny tremble and hide its guilty head.
  3. That the people have, in a great measure, themselves to blame for their sufferings, because they have inconsiderately wasted much of their money in the consumption of exciseable articles, whereby they have kept themselves in poverty and ignorance, to the support of despots, who keep a large standing army in time of peace to prevent the people from obtaining their constitutional rights, all which is a direct violation of the Great Charters of British Liberty.
  4. That the exciseable articles particularly referred to, are tea, which pays a duty of cent. per cent. or just one half, consequently, every five ounces of tea consumed by any family, pays a soldier a day’s wages to prevent the people obtaining their rights and liberties; tobacco and snuff pay threpence an ounce, so that five ounces of these articles pay a soldier a day’s wages; spiritous liquors pay 11s. per gallon, or better than fourpence per noggin, consequently, every four noggins [approximately a pint] that a man drinks, he not only abuses his own constitution, impairs his finances, benumbs his understanding, and paralizes all the noble faculties of his soul, but pays a hireling soldier to keep him in subjection to a cruel and merciless task-master. Ale, which pays duties equal to spirits, may be viewed in the same light, as being equally destructive to the morals, the finances, and tends to the support of tyranny.
  5. That every Radical Reformer should put on a firm resolution to abstain from the use of the above articles until he obtain a radical reform in the House of Commons. The happiest results may be expected from this line of conduct; he will always be in a sound state of mind and body, he will improve his mind by reading and reflection, and afford to his radical brethren good evidence that he is earnestly desirous to promote radical reform, and that to obtain this important end he can sacrifice his own propensities. And lastly, that which is of infinite importance to the good cause, he will keep out of the pockets of the borough-monger faction a great part of that revenue on which they depend to support themselves in their usurped authority.
  6. That as Radical Reformers are generally oppressed and injured by those who oppose their constitutional claims, it is indispensably necessary that they endeavour to assist and support each other in their respective trades, callings, or professions, and that they should deal as much as they possibly can with each other, thus aiding, assisting, and encouraging one another in the good and great cause of universal freedom.
  7. That although the faction in power may trump up green bag plots [referring, apparently, to a case in which the government planted agents provocateurs in Radical meetings to promote violent acts which were then used as justification for extra-legal crackdowns, much as is commonly done by the U.S. government today — Here’s a pamphlet by Radical Reformer Henry Hunt on “The Green Bag Plot.”], in order to form a pretext for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, and may obtain such suspension and under its operation may send many innocent men to jail, harass and plague men infinitely better than themselves, yet they cannot thereby pay that enormous load of debt they have contracted, neither can they compel the Reformers to pay the interest thereof by compelling them to swallow their abominable exciseable articles, therefore, Reformers may comfort themselves with the idea that the debt and all its consequences hang over the heads of the borough-mongers notwithstanding indemnity or suspension bills.
  8. [and so forth]

Mr. Weems again came forward… The [third] resolution informs us, that the people have themselves to blame for their sufferings. This is in a great measure true, because they have tamely given their money in the support of a hireling army, backed by which, their oppressors have been enabled to grind them to the earth. But this day, let us give them good earnest that we will do so no more; let them see that our eyes are opened; that in future we mean to be more circumspect; and prevent the borough faction from oppressing us, by keeping our money for our own use; — and probably we shall want it, too, to provide for our own defence (very loud cheering), because by that thing called magna charta, every one has a right to have arms, and should have them. (Cries of, And we will have them!) And I hope on that day no cowards will be found (cheers), but that all will be ready to spend the last drop of their blood in handing down our rights. (Loud cheers). — The next resolution informs us of various exciseable articles from which our oppressors derive their greatest support. Many of these cannot be done without; but such as can be done without, should be given up. Spirits, for instance, which injure not the pocket alone; they destroy the constitution and paralize the soul. By giving up these silly articles, we afford evidence that we are hearty in the cause, and are willing to sacrifice our appetites for the general good. If we cannot suffer in a trifle, how are we to stand in the field of battle? (cheers.) We shall be liable to run away. (True, true.) If we wish to afford evidence that we shall stand firm in the day of battle, we must take for our example, Sydney, Hampden, Bruce, and Wallace. (Applause.) — The next resolution, that every radical reformer put on a firm determination to abstain from these exciseable articles, I have no doubt all will acquiesce in. … Do the resolutions meet with your approbation? (Yes!) If so, signify the same by three cheers. — (Loud Cheering.)

After the dispersal of the meeting, the Lady-Radicals proceeded, in a body, to the house of one of the sisterhood, in Shaddongate, where they enjoyed a comfortable cup of either mint tea, or acorn coffee.

As the evening advanced, some of the leading radicals forgot their morning-vows of abstinence, and were not backward in their potations at different public houses. The “exciseable articles” agreed so ill with one of the most conspicuous of the leading men, that in bouncing about, just by way of practising the true liberty of the subject, he broke 20s. worth of glass, — thus adding we know not how much to the resources of the enemy!

At one point the Reformers raised a toast to “Cobler Jem, who is a noble example to all reformers.” A footnote explained that:

This said Cobler Jem is a well-known character in Carlisle, and was in the habit of consuming eighteen-pence or two shillings worth of snuff weekly. This quantum he has taken for 50 years (we are within the mark), which, at 1s. 6d. per week, to say nothing of interest, amounts to the round sum of £195! Add to this, that his wife has snuffed nearly the same quantity! Yet, wonderful to tell! — but what cannot the principles of radical reform effect? — Cobler Jem and his lady have thrown away their snuff-boxes!!!

From the Morning Post:


Mail advices from Kingston, Jamaica, dated , state that at a meeting on a resolution in the sense of “no taxation without representation” was adopted. If the demands of the colony for representative government were refused it was resolved that passive resistance should be offered, and that the Government should be left to collect the taxes at the point of the bayonet. Several speakers at the meeting inveighed strongly against the present state of government in Jamaica.