Tax Resistance for the Reform Act of 1832

I shared some of what I found about the Breton Association — a group that used tax resistance to combat the French king and his reactionary ministers in their power play.

, a similar battle was playing out in the United Kingdom. A “people power” movement there was responsible for the eventual success of the Reform Act of over the opposition of the House of Lords. Tax resistance was high on the agenda of the “Political Unions” that led this movement.

The following comes from John Arthur Roebuck’s History of the Whig Ministry of 1830, to the Passing of the Reform Bill ():

at length the House of Lords, disregarding… threatening indications of popular feeling, brought matters to a crisis, and forced the ministers to resign, the long-cherished and only half-suppressed popular anger and suspicion were allowed to burst forth in the most vehement demonstrations and threats. From one end of the country to the other petitions were sent to the House of Commons, praying that House to stop all supplies until the Reform Bill should be passed. The political unions everywhere began to organize their members for actual insurrection. Meetings in London were held by day and by night, at which the most violent language was employed, not by unknown or inferior persons, but by men of rank and substance.1 Not only was parliament entreated to withhold supplies, but individuals were advised to refuse the payment of taxes; associations were proposed of persons who would undertake to use no excisable articles, and a run upon the Bank of England was recommended, by immense placards posted upon every bare wall throughout London, and which couched its dangerous recommendation in these ominous words — “GO FOR GOLD, AND STOP THE DUKE.”

The anger and indignation felt and thus fiercely evinced were not confined to one class of persons, or any peculiar sect or condition. Rich and poor, noble and commoner, churchman and dissenter, grave citizens, members of both Houses of parliament, the Common Council of London, parish vestries, and immense public meetings, all employed language indicative of a serious and resolute determination to resist with arms, if necessary, the attempt of the House of Lords to reject the bill, spite of the ardent expectations of the people. The Common Council met, in accordance with a requisition to the Lord Mayor to convene a meeting, for the purpose of taking into consideration the measures necessary to be adopted in consequence of the proceedings in the House of Lords. Resolutions condemning the conduct of the House of Peers, and asserting that they who had advised the king not to create peers were enemies of their sovereign, had put to imminent hazard the stability of the throne and security of the country, were passed by acclamation; and the following yet more significant resolution received an immediate and clamorous assent.

“That, under these circumstances, this court feels it to be its duty, as a necessary means of procuring for the people of this great country an efficient reform, to petition the House of Commons to withhold the supplies until such a reform shall have been secured.”

A standing committee was also appointed of all the aldermen, and certain of the citizens, for the purpose in the present crisis, “so pregnant with danger,” of meeting from day to day to watch events, and take steps to insure the passing of the Reform Bill. These most unusual proceedings, and the extraordinary language employed by the different speakers in the Common Council and elsewhere, and vehemently cheered by the vast meetings which met upon those occasions, proved beyond the possibility of doubt that the whole mercantile and trading classes in the metropolis were prepared to adopt revolutionary measures, if such were necessary, for the attainment of the Reform Bill.2 Immense numbers of persons, who hitherto had considered the proceedings of the National Political Union in London too violent, were now, says the Times of , “at their own solicitation admitted members.” The various parishes called upon their local officers to convene public meetings; and in every meeting the proposal to refuse the payment of taxes was alluded to, and received with enthusiastic approbation. Petitions to the House of Commons, entreating that House to withhold the supplies until reform was attained, were almost universally proposed, and when proposed were invariably adopted.

The excitement in the provinces was, if possible, even more threatening than in London. Birmingham was at that time looked upon as the head-quarters of reform; and the movements of its Political Union, presided over by Mr. Thomas Attwood, were deemed of great importance both by the friends and the opponents of reform. The news that the Reform Bill was in fact defeated, and that Lord Grey had resigned, instantly excited not only the more ardent reformers of the town, who had hitherto constituted the Union, but stirred up the whole population, timid and fearless, eager and apathetic alike; and they in various ways made manifest their anger and their determination. Placards were exhibited in the windows, some of which were in these words:—

No Taxes paid here
The Reform Bill is passed.

Others stated, “No taxes paid here in money, and no goods bought, distrained for taxes.” And, as was the case in London, immense numbers of persons to whom political agitation was disagreeable, and who therefore had hitherto abstained from taking part in it, now joined the Political Union.3 Catholic priests and grave Quakers ostentatiously enrolled their names in the books of the Union, stating that they did so, in order to preserve the peace, for anarchy and confusion, they asserted, were certain, unless the Reform Bill were instantly carried. Deputies from the surrounding towns came hurriedly to Birmingham, as a centre, in order to concert measures “in this dangerous crisis.” A meeting was held, a petition was proposed and adopted, and a deputation immediately selected to carry the petition express to London. The petition, among other angry and violent expressions, contained this very plain and threatening announcement, which when it was read to the excited crowd, whose petition it purported to be, was received, says the newspaper of the day, with a tremendous burst of cheering which lasted several minutes. “That your petitioners find it declared in the bill of rights, that the people of England may have arms for their defence, suitable to their condition, and as allowed by law; and your petitioners apprehend that this great right will be put in force generally, and that the whole of the people of England will think it necessary to have arms for their defence, in order that they may be prepared for any circumstances that may arise.4

A petition which more plainly stated the intentions of its framers actually to have recourse to arms, was probably never presented to the House of Commons.

The delegates from Birmingham, who brought this petition express to London, were next day present at various public meetings held in the metropolis. Their presence excited still more the enthusiasm of the people, who now seemed to vie with each other in the employment of fierce and threatening language, and in proposing means by which the House of Lords might be coerced into a sense of the danger which clearly impended over the very order to which they belonged.

Among the more remarkable of the public meetings held in the metropolis was that of Southwark, which attracted especial attention, because of the attendance of the member for Southwark, Mr. W. Brougham, who evidently intended that the world should believe that he spoke on behalf, and in the name of his brother, the Lord Chancellor. The language he employed, indeed, proved the jealous nature of the times, being as it was, anxiously directed to answering imputations upon the fidelity of the Chancellor to his party and the cause of reform. This vindication would not have been attempted, had not the imputation obtained some credence. “A report has been very prevalent,” said the learned gentleman, “that the Lord Chancellor is to continue in office, and form part of government, but not Earl Grey’s government. This report I have authority to contradict. My brother will ever continue to support the cause of the people by every means within his power; and with no other cause will he identify himself. Something has been said,” he added, “about the people not paying taxes, and a resolution to that effect would be highly illegal. People might individually refuse, without rendering themselves amenable to the law. Now this is an affair easily arranged. If a tax-gatherer calls upon me, and asks me to settle his little bill for taxes, I may say to him in reply — I have got a little bill of my own, Sir, which I should like to have settled by the gentlemen down in Westminster, who owe it me, and unless that little bill of mine be satisfactorily settled, you must never expect me to settle yours.” Again, reverting to his brother, he said, “Before I conclude, I beg to state to this meeting, that my brother, the Lord Chancellor, is at this moment in better health than ever — he is in good fighting order, as the sham reformers will discover to their cost.” (This announcement was received, says the report, with thunders of applause.) “He will prove a sharp thorn in their sides — he will never desert the cause of the people.”

  1. Lord Milton, now Lord Fitzwilliam, openly advised the people to refuse the payment of taxes. Mr. Duncombe, member for Hertford, joined the Political Union of London, and took part in their discussions. “When the tax-gatherer called on Lord Milton last week, he requested that the tax-gatherer would call again, because he was not certain that circumstances might not arise which would oblige him to resist their payment. Does the noble lord admit the truth of this statement? Lord Milton: Yes, certainly.” — Mirror of Parliament, , p. 2456.
  2. The king was always anxious about and eager to know the feelings of the merchants and traders in the City; and doubtless the ministers, who well knew this feeling, made the most of these demonstrations, perhaps in no slight degree contributed to make the demonstrations themselves.
  3. A declaration to the following effect was signed in a few hours by five hundred persons—among the most respectable of the inhabitants:—

    We, the undersigned inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Birmingham, who have hitherto refrained from joining the Birmingham Political Union, deem it our duty to our country, at this awful crisis, to come forward and join that body, for the purpose of promoting the further union, order and determination of all classes in support of the common cause of parliamentary reform.

  4. Similar proceedings occurred in Manchester, and a deputation was sent to London with their petition. “The Manchester petition was the very first which was presented praying the House of Commons to stop the supplies until reform and a redress of grievances were obtained. — See Personal Recollections of Manchester, by A. Prentice, in which an amusing account is given of the journey to London by the deputation charged with the petition, p. 409, et seq.

This comes from The Annual Register of :

[The Political Unions] took into their consideration, whether it would be proper to commit a crime by combining to refuse payment of taxes; and being satisfied that the adoption of a formal resolution to that effect would expose them to the danger of an indictment, they confined themselves to an understood arrangement to do it as individuals, supporting each other by mutual encouragement. A meeting which styled itself a meeting of the inhabitants of Westminster, assured the king, that unless their advice were complied with, “tumult, anarchy, and confusion will overspread the land, and will cease only with the utter extinction of the privileged orders.” At this meeting, one of the speakers, by way of showing the impossibility of forming a government, said, “To the waverers, who pretend to be friends of reform, we will present buttoned pockets; but for the absolutes, or military rulers, we will prepare our powder, and melt our lead.” The National Political Union resolved to present a petition, praying that, till the bill passed, no supplies should be allowed to go into the hands of the lords of the Treasury, but should be paid over to commissioners named by the House of Commons; and this was specifically recommended to them on the ground, that it was taken from “that admirable resolution adopted by the House of Commons in : “while another patriot assured them the question was, whether the King’s government was to be brought into disgrace and peril, not paralleled except by the execution of Charles and the deposition of James.” — “The time for resistance is come,” exclaimed another orator; “the taxes are in the course of collecting. Will the people say to the tax-gatherer, what I said to him, ‘until the reform bill is a law one penny of my money you shall not touch?’ They may carry us into the Exchequer; let them sell our goods, and we will pay them a commission for it; but we will replevin, and appeal to a jury of our countrymen. Then we will try the question, and see what twelve Englishmen will say to a brother contending for his rights. The House of Commons has declared itself not to be the representative of the people, and the people ought not to pay taxes imposed by an illegal authority.” The common council of the city of London resolved, “that whoever may have advised his Majesty to withhold from his ministers the means of ensuring the success of the reform bill have proved themselves the enemies of their sovereign, and have put to imminent hazard the stability of the throne, and the tranquillity and security of the country; and that under these circumstances, this court feels it to be its duty, as a necessary means of procuring for the people of this great country an efficient reform, to petition the Commons’ House of parliament to withhold the supplies, until such a reform shall have been secured.”

And this last brief bit comes from Henry Jephson’s The Platform: Its Rise and Progress ():

[At a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union, o]ne of the speakers, referring to the eventuality of the Lords refusing to pass the Bill, said: “Failing all other constitutional means of obtaining the success of the reform measure, he solemnly declared that he would be the first man to refuse the payment of taxes, except by a levy on his goods” (tremendous cheering). “I now call upon all who hear me, and are prepared to join me in this step, to hold up their hands.” (An immense forest of hands was immediately elevated, accompanied by vehement cheering.)

“Extraordinary was the excitement which this great meeting created throughout the country. Nothing of the sort had been witnessed in England before. Friends and foes were alike astonished at the peaceful, orderly, and unanimous conduct of its proceedings.”