J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 02, 2019

Lord George Gordon’s Petition to Parliament

The engraving above shows Lord George Gordon, youngest son of the Duke of Gordon, delivering a petition to Parliament in 1780. That document came with over 400 pages of signatures, and there were other copies circulating. Estimates of the total number of people to sign Gordon's petition run as high as 120,000 Britons. In eighteenth-century society, that’s a mind-boggling number.

What did all those people want from Parliament? They asked the British government to repeal the Papists Act of 1778, which had lifted some of the legal restrictions on Roman Catholics imposed after the Glorious Revolution. Not that the new law allowed Catholics to vote or hold office in Britain, but they could now, for example, buy real estate.

One impetus for the new law was the British government’s need to recruit more Irish Catholics into the army to fight the American War. Previously men had to abjure their Catholic faith to become redcoats. After 1778, they simply had to swear allegiance to the Hanoverian king. Lord Mansfield, Britain’s Chief Justice, was one of the main proponents of this reform.

As for Gordon, he was a former Royal Navy lieutenant and Member of Parliament. In the House of Commons he had opposed Lord North’s policies toward the American colonies, but he didn’t get along with the opposition parties, either.

In 1779 Gordon formed the Protestant Association because he believed that British Catholics remained a threat who had to be suppressed. By then two of Europe’s big Catholic powers, France and Spain, had joined the Americans' war against the British Crown. Gordon and many of his supporters suspected that people in the government too sympathetic to the Catholics had brought on the war and were endangering the Empire.

Now we like to think of the American Revolution as connected to freedom of religion. Indeed, it pushed American society in that direction. Even in Massachusetts, where the Congregationalist establishment lasted until the 1830s, the war ended with a Catholic Church in Boston. Virginia adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. And we agree that’s a Good Thing, right?

But in the 1770s, the political lines were drawn differently. Gordon supported political reform within the British Empire, and he saw Catholicism as the worst form of old-fashioned despotism, so he didn’t want Catholics to get any closer to power. Meanwhile, Mansfield opposed the American rebels but was liberal toward religious minorities within the Empire.

On 2 June 1780, about 50,000 supporters of the Protestant Association gathered in St. George’s Field, an open area in South London. (Eleven years before, a rally for John Wilkes at that place had ended in bloodshed.) Many in the crowd blue cockades, the movement’s symbol. Some carried banners that read “No Popery.”

Lord George Gordon led his supporters on a march to Westminster to present their huge petition, as shown above. The crowd grew even larger as it moved through the city streets.

With his genteel status, Gordon made it into the House of Commons and presented the Protestant Association petition. Outside, thousands of people surrounded the Parliament building, roughing up some peers and vandalizing carriages.

Members of Parliament voted to dismiss the petition, 192-6. Gordon went home disappointed but not surprised. Soldiers arrived and dispersed the crowd. The government thought the crisis had passed.

TOMORROW: It hadn’t.

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