On the 20th of April, Thistlewood and four of his accomplices were found guilty and condemned to death. Their trial had lasted three days, and the trial only made it more and more clear that the conspiracy had been confined to a very limited number of half-crazy creatures. On the 1st of May Thistlewood and the other four were executed. The informer Edwards, who had done so much to get up the conspiracy, was never punished, and was never even brought to trial. Some attempts were made in the House of Commons to press the Government into a prosecution of this man, and the subject, indeed, was brought forward more than once; those who pressed for the prosecution undertaking to produce ample evidence to prove his connection with the plot. The Government, however, would do nothing in the matter, and Edwards, to use a phrase of Carlyle's, "drops through the tissue of our history." It is of importance to dwell at some length on that story of the Cato Street Conspiracy. From that day to the present, what a distance we have traversed ! Not for half a century has any serious charge been made against a Ministry of actually having fomented seditions by the aid of hired agents for the mere purpose of suppressing the movements and dealing heavy punishment to their leaders, and thus striking terror among the discontented, and forcing them to believe that they had better bear their sufferings in private and in silence, than bring down the vengeance of the law by any public agitation of their wrongs. It cannot be doubted by any calm observer that the policy of Lord Liverpool and Lord Sidmouth and the Six Acts were moving agents in the creation of that force of public opinion which carried the first great Reform Bill through the English Parliament. Many years after the date of Peterloo and Cato Street and the battle of Bonnymuir, Lord John Russell, who conducted that Reform Bill through the House of Commons, spoke in a passage of singular eloquence and wisdom against the futility and the folly of endeavouring to prevent agitation by the force of stern legal repression. He showed that agitation springs from grievance; that the grievance is sometimes too strong for men to bear in silence; and he quoted from the immortal passage in "Romeo and Juliet," in which the starving apothecary is asked, "Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness, and fearest to die?" is reminded that "the world is not thy friend, nor the world's law," and is therefore bidden to "be not poor, but break it" Such, indeed, would naturally have been the spirit of every appeal addressed by each Thistlewood and, lower still, by each Edwards, to the ignorant starving men whom they got to listen to them. "The world's law is not thy friend; then be not poor, but break it." The time was fast coming when thinking men in England would recognise that the cure for crime is to be found not in the suppression, but in the extension, of popular education; and that the best strength of a good constitution is found in the fact that the poorest and humblest citizen has some share in the making of the law. The more we consider the state of the laws at the time with which we have just been dealing, the greater will be our surprise, not at the amount of discontent and disorder and even crime, which was made manifest in political life, but rather at the general forbearance of the people, the integrity and discretion of most of their leaders, and the comparative quietness with which the time of trial was got over, which connected the era of order and reform with the era of repression and disorder.
ST. Paul's Cathedral.
The popular agitation at last took the shape of a definite movement in favour of parliamentary reform. The subject had come up again and again, in a fitful sort of way, both in Parliament and outside it, and indeed it sometimes happened that leaders of the movement appeared in Parliament at a time when there were comparatively few followers outside. Something, however, was always happening to turn men's minds away from the subject. There were foreign wars; there were dynastic troubles; there were the deaths of Sovereigns from whom nothing in the direction of reform could be hoped; and the coming up of new Sovereigns from whom something was hoped for a time, until the hope became gradually doomed to extinction.
Parliament was supposed, so far at least as the House of Commons was concerned, to be in theory a representative assembly. But, even in theory, it was for a long time the representative of the Sovereign and not of the people. The idea appeared to be that the monarch should select the places which he considered qualified for the right to send members to the House of Commons. The selections were made in the most arbitrary and haphazard fashion; were frequently made according to the personal favour of the ruler; and sometimes, even when the concession seemed given fairly enough in the first instance, the changing conditions made it wholly inapplicable and unsuitable for a future generation. The King, for example, gave the right of representation to some place of considerable importance at the time. Years went on, and owing to local circumstances the population dwindled and shrank, and at length became but a mere handful of inhabitants. Yet the right to send in representatives was left to these places all the same. It seemed to have become a sort of right and title by reason of habitude, and by reason of the fact that no one was greatly interested in challenging the authority of the King to let the representation remain wherever any of his predecessors had conferred it. The anomalies in the counties were not so great, because a county population often remains very much the same from one generation to another. But in the case of towns and villages the law of change was incessantly asserting itself, and sometimes in the most fantastic manner. A town or large village had received the right of sending representatives to the House of Commons. At the time when the right was conferred the place had a considerable population; and if we concede, as no one now would dream of conceding, the right of the Sovereign to designate suitable places for representation, the claim of this particular place may seem to be fairly established. But for some reason or other the trade of the town or village fell off; the inhabitants looked for other places in which there seemed a better chance of making a decent living; and the region became almost as deserted as Goldsmith's village. In many instances the constituency, if we may call it so, disappeared so completely that only the owner of the soil remained, and he calmly continued to send in his representative to the House of 'Commons. Nobody took the trouble to oppose him. It was difficult to get up any impressive agitation about that one particular anomaly, and no definite scheme of constitutional reform had yet been put together and brought before the public.