[1794] - Treason trials begin in London with the trial of Thomas Hardy

The treason trials of late 1794 formed part of a concerted government campaign to destroy the movement for radical reform in Britain. Concerned by the spread of radical activism in the wake of the French Revolution, William Pitt’s government arrested more than thirty leading radicals, including John Thelwall, Thomas Holcroft, John Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy and Thomas Spence. As reform organizations such as the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information enjoyed a surge in membership in the early 1790s, the government responded firstly with the sedition trials of Thomas Paine, John Frost and Daniel Isaac Eaton in 1792–3, and then with the treason trials of 1794.

On 12 May 1794 several leading radicals were arrested. Following an examination of papers seized during the arrests, the government moved to suspend habeas corpus on 23 May. As a result, the men arrested on suspicion of treason could be held without charge until the spring of 1795. Initially, the men were held in the Tower of London before being moved to Newgate Prison. After several months, a number of those arrested were formally charged with treason; they therefore faced the prospect of being hanged, drawn and quartered if convicted. Amidst considerable tension, the trial of Thomas Hardy, the secretary of the London Corresponding Society, began on 28 October. After a nine-day trial he was acquitted and released. Two further trials took place (those of John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall): both were acquitted and, as a result, all of the other cases were dismissed.

Although the release of the leaders of English radicalism was greeted by scenes of jubilation in London, the government continued to work to erode the radical movement. After stones were thrown at the king’s coach at the opening of parliament on 29 October 1795, the government responded by introducing the ‘gagging acts’ on 6 November (consisting of the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act). This body of legislation worked to place further restrictions on the movement for radical reform in Britain.

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