The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815

By J. E. Cookson | Go to book overview

7 The Problem of Order

ONE most interesting aspect of the problem of order in Britain during the Age of Revolution is the enormous gap between the threat of revolution as imagined by government and ruling groups and the innocuousness of physical force protest in the actual event. Violent disorder, for the most part, remained localized, limited in its aims, and easily subdued, if necessary, by a reliable military. Outside Ireland insurrectionary activity was carried on by small, highly vulnerable groups who were mainly protected from government counter-action by their own very limited organization and by the tenuousness of the links they maintained across the country. Even the Luddite outbreaks, famously dubbed 'quasi-insurrectionary' by E. P. Thompson, drew on military reserves less than the figure of 12,000 troops stationed in the 'disturbed districts' has been made to imply; for the normal wartime garrison of the area covering Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the Midlands was around 7,000 troops, in fact was 7,421 men on the eve of the troubles in March 1811 and had been as high as 8,437 men in February 1810.1 Yet conservatives and the authorities remained transfixed by the French revolution and the apparent ease with which the old order had been overthrown. They were unable to free themselves from the belief that behind any popular opposition there lurked a dangerously subversive, secret radicalism whose fanaticism was matched only by the volatility of the materials it was dealing with. The main instrument of revolution was seen to be the crowd, created by clever manipulation of popular discontents and the means of proliferating protest and violence. Worse, the French revolution produced the spectre of the armed populace joined and strengthened by a suborned soldiery. It is not emphasized nearly enough that governments felt increasingly anxious about the arms and military skill which popular oppositions might command. The conservative reaction to the revolution needs to be understood not least as a response to the fact that the loyalty of the army could no longer be taken for granted and that the armed crowd was the all too likely concomitant of the armed nation.

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1
In Jan. 1807, for example, 1,789 cavalry and 5,370 infantry were stationed in the North-West, Yorkshire, and Inland military districts. Distribution of troops in districts, 1 Jan. 1807 , Dropmore MSS, BL Add. MS 59287, fos. 93-6. F. O. Darvall, Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England ( London, 1934), 1, 258-60, originated the statement that the army needed to put down the Luddites was larger than that sent to Portugal under Wellesley in 1809.

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The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • List of Maps ix
  • Abbreviations x
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Addition of Mass 16
  • 2 - The French Encirclement 38
  • 3 - The Rise and Fall of the Volunteers 66
  • 4 - The Manpower Ceiling 95
  • 5 - Scotland's Fame 126
  • 6 - Ireland's Fate 153
  • 7 - The Problem of Order 182
  • 8 - Armed Nationalism 209
  • 9 - The Legacy of the Armed Nation 246
  • Bibliography 264
  • Index 281
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