The officers in command of the troops, and the troops themselves, were, of course, entirely innocent of any desire to massacre anybody. In almost every case in the modern history of England in which the soldiers have come into collision with the populace and a calamity has been the result, the calamity has not been caused by any wanton action on the part of the soldiers or by those immediately in command of them, but by some confusion and blundering on the part of those who represented the civil authorities. In this case the magistrates undoubtedly blundered. They blundered in their notion of arresting the leaders of the crowd at the moment and on the spot, and they blundered also in the measures which they took to have the arrests accomplished. But it does not appear that they had any set desire to bring about a collision between the military force and the peaceful citizens assembled at the meeting. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the meeting was perfectly peaceful, orderly, and legitimate. In our days, when a portion of Hyde Park has been specially set aside for the purpose of Sunday meetings in the open air, no question could arise such as that which bewildered the brains of the Manchester magistrates; but it must be remembered that at that time the law was in a very different condition. It was the opinion of some great lawyers that the men who got up the meeting were liable to be tried on a charge of high treason. Hunt and some of his comrades were in fact put upon trial on just such a charge. Lord Eldon, who, with all his faults, was undoubtedly a great lawyer, was himself of opinion that the charge of high treason could be maintained according to law, and that also if it could be maintained according to evidence, then, but not otherwise, the magistrates were quite justified in acting as they did; for Lord Eldon distinctly laid it down that numbers constituted force, and force terror, and terror illegality. Now nothing can be more clear than this declaration, and this declaration, this construction of the law, is what makes the Peterloo meeting an epoch in English modern history. Any large public meeting whatever held in the open air with the object of bringing about a reform in any part of the constitution was an act of high treason, because numbers constituted force, and force terror, and terror illegality. It is very likely that Lord Eldon was literally correct in his application of the existing law; but the law was never heard of in such interpretation after the days of the Peterloo meeting.
The indictment against Hunt and his companions for an act of high treason broke down; the judges would not have it, and it had to be given up. The prisoners were then put upon their trial for a disturbance of the public peace, and were sentenced to various periods of imprisonment : Hunt himself spent some two years in gaol, to atone for his offence as a disturber of the public peace. The conduct of the magistrates received the formal approval of the Government, although Lord Eldon himself, in a letter which has since been published, declared that the magistrates would have been to blame if the holding of the meeting could not be shown to be an act of high treason. The important fact for the modern reader is that, according to Lord Eldon's reading of the law, any public meeting whatever which assembled in large numbers would be guilty of an act of high treason; and that even in Lord Eldon's time that interpretation was not upheld by those who had to lay down the law. Had Lord Eldon's declaration prevailed, the right of public meeting might have been denied for years and years, and any large assemblage to demand a reform of any law would be liable to forcible dispersion at the command of a civil magistrate. That position was not maintained - it thoroughly broke down; and therefore an opening was made for peaceful popular agitation, such as it might not have had for years if it had not been for the disturbance at Peterloo. Thus the poor muddle-headed magistrates who issued the order for the bringing up of the troops did more to help on the coming agitation for reform than the eloquence of Orator Hunt could ever have accomplished. It is a somewhat interesting historical fact, that on the scene of the Peterloo meeting was afterwards erected the great Free Trade Hall of Manchester, the Free Trade Hall which Richard Cobden and John Bright used as the theatre for so many a peaceful agitation, and from the platform of which nothing seditious or anarchical, or even revolutionary, was ever given forth. Thus, to adopt the words of Shakespeare, did the "whirligig of time bring about the revenges" of the Peterloo meeting.
We have thought it well to tell this story of Peterloo at some length, because of the fact that it marks the close of one part of the nineteenth century's story and the opening of another part. The calamity was, of course, in itself to be deeply lamented. But many a greater calamity has happened by accident at a public gathering, and has left behind it nothing for posterity to ponder seriously over. The fall of a platform or a gallery, the panic caused by an alarm of fire, has often had its list of killed and wounded far longer than that which belongs to the massacre of Peterloo. But nothing came, or was to come, so far as the outer public were concerned, from the results of such an accident. They carried with them no national lesson; they marked no historical crisis; they made no monument to a dead past. The Peterloo calamity was in a great measure itself an accident. But for the confusion in the minds of the magistrates, nothing might have come of it, and the next public meeting, and the next and next for many long years, might have been liable to the same interruption, the same dispersion, and the same shedding of blood. The Peterloo calamity, although in itself, to a certain extent, only an accident, yet differed from other such accidents as those we have just mentioned in the fact that it brought about a new reading of the law for practical application to the business of life in England. Of course there have been meetings prevented and meetings suppressed since that time; and, as we shall find in going on with this story, it has been left in the power of the authorities, in certain parts of the kingdom, to prohibit absolutely the holding of a public meeting in a certain place and under particular circumstances. But when such official acts are allowed and authorised, it is only where the operations of the ordinary law are supposed to be for the time suspended. England gained by the results of the Peterloo meeting the certainty that where the ordinary law still prevailed peaceful men may assemble in any number of thousands to make peaceful demands for constitutional reform, and no one shall gainsay their right of public demonstration and of free speech.