Committees for Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts: Minutes 1786-90 and 1827-8. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1978.
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This volume contains the minutes of two London committees of Protestant Dissenters that sought repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts. (fn. 1) The first committee, composed primarily of London Dissenting laymen together with a select group of M.P.s, met from December 1786 to May 1790, and supported three unsuccessful repeal applications to the House of Commons. The second committee, meeting from April 1827 to December 1828, was composed of Dissenting laymen and ministers in London and succeeded where the first committee had failed. The minutes provide material for a case study of an extraparliamentary campaign; systematic and relatively complete, they explain how two early pressure groups operated internally as organisations and how they worked externally to broaden the definition of religious toleration. The documents also illustrate the action of London pressure groups on national politics and provide an early model of reform tactics that was widely used in later campaigns.
The Corporation Act of 1661 (13 Charles II, Stat. 2, c.1) and the Test Act of 1673 (25 Charles II, c.2) were among the several statutes passed after the Restoration that imposed civil and religious disabilities on non-Anglicans. (fn. 2) The Toleration Act of 1689 made public worship easier for Dissenters but did not fundamentally alter their legal status as second-class citizens. Unsuccessful attempts to repeal the sacramental test laws in 1736 and 1739 were directed by the Protestant Dissenting Deputies, an organisation of prominent London laymen of the Three Denominations of Old Dissent (Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists) formed in 1732 and dedicated to protecting and expanding the civil rights of Dissenters through legal action. It is extremely difficult to estimate accurately the effect of test laws in excluding Dissenters from offices or the number of instances where the acts of indemnity were used to gain access to offices. (fn. 3) There is little doubt, however, that as the eighteenth century progressed, Dissenters increasingly believed they had proved their loyalty to the state and were suffering from anachronistic statutes. For many Dissenters, the actual effect of the test laws became less significant than the stigma associated with them. (fn. 4)
Two important decisions, one judicial and the other legislative, affected Dissenters in the early years of George III's reign. In 1767 the House of Lords ended a twenty-five year legal battle between Dissenters and the Corporation of London by ruling against the Corporation's practice of levying fines on Dissenters who refused to serve in elected offices that required the sacramental test. (fn. 5) However, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield's declaration that Nonconformity was no longer a crime before the law did not alter the fact that the Restoration penal statutes remained in force. Except in the City, the House of Lords decision in 1767 had few practical results for Dissenters. Three years later William Blackstone gave a more realistic appraisal of their status, when he emphasised in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the penal laws against Dissenters had merely been suspended by the Toleration Act and that the fundamental illegality of Nonconformity had not changed in the succeeding eighty years. (fn. 6)
In 1772 a group of Anglican clergymen led by Theophilus Lindsey petitioned the House of Commons to eliminate subscription to the ThirtyNine Articles as a prerequisite for ordination. The rejection of the Feathers Tavern Petition, which caused several Anglicans such as Lindsey to resign their livings to become Dissenters, did not prevent London Dissenting ministers from seeking similar relief from the subscription requirement. Twice approved by the Commons, their request was denied by the House of Lords in 1772 and 1773. Success finally came at the end of the decade, when Lord North's government did not oppose a bill abolishing subscription to the Articles for Dissenting ministers. (fn. 7)
The granting of religious toleration to Dissenters was not a major issue in eighteenth-century England, the Toleration Act having given statutory recognition to the view that the enforcement of religious uniformity was impractical. But the precise nature and extent of that toleration were debatable, particularly the aspect of whether a state with an established church should impose a religious test for civil officeholders. High Church Anglicans relied on the argument advanced in 1736 by William Warburton, later Bishop of Gloucester, who defended the test laws and the churchstate relationship on the grounds of civil utility. (fn. 8) An even stronger defence of the test laws came from Blackstone, who explained that the civil magistrate 'is bound indeed to protect the established church; and, if this can be better effected by admitting none but its genuine members to offices of trust and emolument, he is certainly at liberty so to do: the disposal of offices being matter of favour and discretion'. (fn. 9) A breach in the traditional Anglican defence of the sacramental test laws occurred in the 1780s, when William Paley published his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Although agreeing with Warburton that the Church's authority was based on its utility to the state, Paley disagreed with the bishop on the question of test laws by distinguishing between two types of toleration: partial, which Dissenters had enjoyed since 1689, and complete, which they deserved but would only have when admitted 'without distinction to all the civil privileges and capacities of other citizens'. (fn. 10) Test laws could be tolerated, wrote Paley, only when rival sects were competing for establishment or when one sect advocated seditious political principles; since neither instance applied to English Dissenters, they were in his opinion entitled to complete toleration.
In addition to Paley's argument, several other considerations encouraged Dissenters to renew the repeal application late in 1786. One was the expected support of William Pitt, whose father, Lord Chatham, had, in the previous decade, spoken in favour of abolishing subscription for Dissenting ministers. Many believed that Pitt was indebted to Dissenters for their support in the 1784 general election, when he, rather than Charles James Fox, had appeared to be the proponent of reform. Furthermore, Pitt had already co-operated with Dissenters in 1785, when he met with a London delegation headed by Andrew Kippis, the eminent Presbyterian minister of the Princess Street congregation in Westminster, to discuss methods of giving legal validity to non-parochial registers of births, marriages and deaths. Another cause for optimism was the belief that throughout Europe the tide was running in favour of a broader definition of religious toleration. The expanded civil rights of Protestants in France were referred to, as were the steps taken by Emperor Joseph II to remove civil disabilities imposed on individuals for their religious opinions. (fn. 11) As far as the advocates of repeal were concerned, the theory that had supported the test laws had lost whatever validity it might have had, especially in the light of the Dissenters' record of loyalty to the state in the eighteenth century. For these reasons, Dissenters in London regarded the mid-1780s as a propitious time to rekindle the repeal agitation that had been dormant for fifty years.
The 1786-90 Campaign
The nucleus of the London group known as the Committee Appointed to Conduct the Application to Parliament for the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts was the executive committee of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies. Meeting in Dr Williams's Library late in December 1786, members of this committee resolved that the test laws 'deprive the Protestant Dissenters of those civil rights to which they are equally entitled with the rest of his majesty's subjects' (2) and, therefore, ought to be repealed. Although the repeal committee's membership was soon expanded to include M.P.s and men of commercial leadership and political influence in the City (10), the Deputies continued to provide the main leaders and much of the impetus for committee activity. The most active and conspicuous member was the chairman, Edward Jeffries, a London factor, treasurer of St Thomas's hospital, a trustee of Dr Williams's, a member of the Presbyterian Board representing St Thomas's Chapel in Southwark, and chairman of the Dissenting Deputies from 1785 to 1801. Of the seventy-seven meetings recorded in the minutes, Jeffries missed only four and had the best attendance record of the eighty-three members. (fn. 12) More significant was the number of his assignments and subcommittee appointments, his total of forty-one far surpassing the next highest figures of fourteen and twelve held by Michael Dodson and Samuel Heywood. Jeffries was the individual repeatedly given responsibilities, such as to meet William Pitt, collect special campaign funds, draft resolutions and letters, canvass M.P.s and confer with Charles James Fox.
Like Jeffries, a number of prominent committee members in the late eighteenth century had achieved some worldly success as merchants, bankers, doctors or attorneys. (fn. 13) Among the Dissenting Deputies present at the December meeting, besides Jeffries, were James Bogle French, their treasurer from 1791 to 1793; Thomas Boddington, a West India merchant who succeeded French as treasurer; Stephen Lowdell, one of London's leading General Baptist laymen and a physician in St Saviour parish, Southwark; Thomas Rogers, a banker and former M.P.; and Benjamin Bond Hopkins, M.P. for Ilchester.
By expanding the membership of the committee, the Deputies hoped to facilitate the passage of the repeal bill through parliament and to add prestige to the application as well as to draw on practical experience derived from earlier extraparliamentary reform campaigns. Support of the so-called 'Dissenting interest' was a common characteristic of the new members, but being a practising Dissenter was not. Among the new appointments on 5 January 1787 were eleven members of the House of Commons, five of them Dissenters: Henry Beaufoy (Great Yarmouth), Sir Henry Hoghton (Preston), John Lee (Clitheroe), James Martin (Tewkesbury), Richard Slater Milnes (York), Sir John Sinclair (Lostwithiel), William Smith (Sudbury), Henry Thornton (Southwark), Robert Thornton (Bridgwater), Samuel Thornton (Kingston-upon-Hull) and Thomas Whit more (Bridgnorth). (fn. 14) Other new members of the committee who were not M.P.s aided the repeal campaign, often indirectly, by using their influence, by giving legal advice, or by assisting in the drafting of pamphlets. Prominent amongst such members were Sir James Esdaile, the director of a London banking firm and a former Lord Mayor of London; James Adair, a serjeant-at-law and Recorder of London from 1779 to 1789; Thomas Brand Hollis, a former M.P. and a founder of the Society for Constitutional Information; Michael Dodson, a London barrister who headed a modified repeal committee from 1790 to 1796; Samuel Shore, who had been connected with Christopher Wyvill's Yorkshire Association; and Samuel Heywood and James Watson, two future serjeants-at-law.
Committee meetings were generally held at the King's Head Tavern in the Poultry, although members on rare occasions assembled at Dr Williams's Library in Redcross Street. Jeffries almost invariably presided at the meetings, which began shortly before noon on Tuesdays. Their frequency varied, depending on the season of the year and the relative closeness of the impending repeal debate; January, February and March were the most active months, while no meetings were held from mid-June to mid-November. Attendance varied too. For example, Jeffries, French, Lowdell, Beaufoy and Rogers were rarely absent, but John Wilkes, who was appointed on 2 March 1787, attended only one meeting (24). Twentyfour members were present at a meeting on 12 March 1789, compared to only seven on 6 May of the same year. There were forty-seven London members of the committee who attended at least one meeting; country delegates, who were present at ten meetings between 16 February 1790 and 5 May 1790, numbered twenty-one.
The minutes make clear that one of the major assumptions underlying the committee's actions was their belief that a carefully constructed argument could change opinion in their favour. Whether in their manifesto entitled The Case of the Protestant Dissenters, in the legal opinions they sought, in Samuel Heywood's widely circulated pamphlet on the right of Dissenters to full toleration, (fn. 15) in conversations with M.P.s, or in their Address to the People written in the wake of their third defeat, the committee was convinced that they were seeking 'nothing but what is just and reasonable to be asked and what is safe and honourable to be granted' (61). The key to getting that message accepted seemed to be through endless repetition, both written and oral, in the metropolis as well as in the provinces, since men were presumed to be rational individuals capable of supporting repeal once the arguments favouring it were made known. Although the effect of the committee's printed statements and the responses to them cannot be measured precisely, little doubt exists about their quantity. In his catalogue of the publications on repeal, John Disney, a London minister, listed ninety-six titles for 1790 alone (a number of which were hostile to repeal). (fn. 16)
Another prominent theme in the minutes is the frequent attention given by Londoners to non-metropolitan Dissenters. Country Dissenters were kept informed of proceedings by circular letters and pamphlets, and repeated attempts were made to involve them more closely in the campaign. This interest in country Dissent accelerated during the three-year campaign. At first, most of the effort went into improving communications with 'gentlemen in the country' (17) and to distributing nearly seven hundred copies of the Case to selected individuals in such places as Worcester, Newcastle, Bristol, Liverpool, York, Manchester and Nottingham (19). Prior to the second application to parliament, several country Dissenters were made permanent members of the committee (65) and were asked to attend meetings whenever they were in London. One subcommittee worked at gathering the addresses of all the Dissenting congregations in England and Wales, and another used the results to circulate more books and pamphlets (65, 68). Country Dissenters were also urged to use their 'conversation, correspondence and influence to the utmost of their power' (65) to elicit the support of M.P.s during the next repeal debate. After the 1789 defeat, Dissenters throughout the country were asked to form provincial committees, and in 1790 country delegates appeared regularly at meetings of the repeal committee in London. Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many provincial committees existed, the minutes contain a number of references to county associations and district committees in such widespread areas as Wiltshire, Norfolk, Monmouthshire and Cornwall (e.g. 98). Several provincial newspapers, including the Leeds Mercury, the Newcastle Courant and the Norwich Mercury, refer to committees of Dissenters in Suffolk and Norwich and to regional associations in the northern counties, the West Riding of Yorkshire and the Midland District. (fn. 17) One of the London committee's last acts was to establish a permanent standing committee composed of forty-two country delegates and twenty-one London delegates to pursue the repeal movement after 1790 (122-4). Under the chairmanship of Michael Dodson, this committee met occasionally and issued pro-repeal statements before disbanding in 1796, but it accomplished little because of the strong tide running against reform during the national struggle against France.
In its varied membership, Jeffries' committee brought together people associated with Wilkes, Wyvill and the Society for Constitutional Information; it also contained Pittite and Foxite reformers, members of the Revolu tion Society and the Whig Club, and persons later to join the Friends of the People. (fn. 18) Furthermore, the seventeen M.P.s who were members of the committee were associated with a broad range of political opinions and, as a group, did not adhere to normal political divisions in the House of Commons. Despite this diversity of experience and viewpoint, the committee was able to avoid paralyzing conflicts, largely because of its unity of purpose.
The minutes reveal a deliberate attempt by the London Dissenters who directed the campaign to avoid the militant posture of earlier London reform activity. Although seeking public support through certain traditional extraparliamentary methods, such as distributing tracts and collecting addresses to parliament, the leaders of the campaign did not want to project the type of radical image associated with John Wilkes and such leaders of the Society for Constitutional Information as John Cartwright and Capel Lofft. Large public demonstrations in particular were eschewed in a campaign directed by moderates committed to persuading opinion and M.P.s through unobtrusive lobbying and carefully reasoned, dispassionate pamphlet propaganda. When a more strident group of London Dissenters, including Richard Price, suggested in November 1789 a public meeting of metropolitan Dissenters to express their support for repeal, Jeffries quietly thwarted the proposal by declaring his committee unauthorised to sanction such an event (97-9). Apprehension lest the meeting be taken over by radical elements, probably caused in part by the memory of the Wilkite crowds, the Gordon Riots and Price's recent controversial statements commemorating the Glorious Revolution, must have influenced Jeffries' decision. (fn. 19)
Although no easy method exists for establishing a relationship between a member's reputed approach to reform tactics and his influence on the repeal committee, there are indications in the minutes that point to domination by the moderates. Judging by subcommittee and delegation appointments, the influence of committee members associated with certain types of earlier metropolitan reform activity was comparatively small. Thomas Brand Hollis, a person highly active in the Society for Constitutional Information, rarely missed a meeting but received only three subcommittee assignments. James Adair, although personally in favour of only moderate reform, had earlier been associated with the Wilkes agitation and by the late 1780s was closely identified with the Portland-Fox connection; he did not attend his first committee meeting until January 1790, and his name appears infrequently in the minutes. In 1788, four of the five officers of the Society for Constitutional Information were members of the repeal committee, but not one was a leader in the campaign. This deliberate emphasis on moderation made the repeal movement resemble county movements like Wyvill's and humanitarian reforms like slave trade abolition more than radical metropolitan campaigns. (fn. 20)
The repeal and slave trade abolition campaigns shared much in common. Both relied in the late eighteenth century on similar extraparliamentary tactics to mobilise public opinion, on local committees to arouse support in the provinces, and on a London committee to direct overall strategy. Yet there were significant differences. Although a number of repeal committee members supported abolition, the reverse was not always true. James Martin, William Smith and Joshua Grigby, for instance, were members of Jeffries' committee who also joined the Abolition Committee. Furthermore, Martin, Smith, Richard Milnes, Samuel Thornton and Henry Thornton were among those on Jeffries' committee who divided for repeal in 1787 and 1789 and later for abolition in 1791 and 1796. The broad-based abolitionist ranks, however, included a number of Anglicans, evangelicals and Quakers, who, for different reasons, opposed relief for Dissenters. William Wilberforce, the most famous abolitionist leader, does not appear in the 1787 and 1789 minority lists and argued against repeal in the 1790 parliamentary debate. (fn. 21)
The rarity of eighteenth-century division lists adds to the significance of the 1787 and 1789 minorities entered in the minutes (60, 90). The lists can be analysed separately and in relation to the other extant divisions on reform issues. Ninety-two names appear on the first list and 101 on the second; altogether there is a combined total of 136 members of the Commons cited in the two lists. The 1789 list, unlike the earlier one, also cites each member's constituency. (fn. 22)
Several interesting points are revealed in these lists, besides the political composition of the minorities. For instance, of the seventeen M.P.s who were members of the repeal committee, only ten appeared on both lists, two (Scott and S. Smith) on only one and five (Lee, Sinclair, R. Thornton, Whitmore and Wilkes) on neither list. Three of the four M.P.s for the City of London supported repeal on both occasions (Sir Watkin Lewes, N. Newnham and J. Sawbridge) and the other member once (Brook Watson), despite the negative position adopted by the Court of Common Council. (fn. 23) Regarding M.P.s in greater London and outlying areas, support for repeal was mixed. The Quintuple Alliance, composed in the early 1780s of reformers from London, Westminster, Southwark, Middlesex and Surrey, comprised an area with twenty-two M.P.s; only five of those (three being M.P.s for the City of London) voted for repeal on both occasions, five once and twelve not at all.
The committee's annual reports clearly illustrate the way in which members viewed and interpreted each defeat. In the 1787 report (50-5), the committee described their actions and stated with characteristic optimism their belief that the friends of religious liberty during the parliamentary debate 'had clearly the advantage in point of reason and argument'. The expectation throughout is one of inevitable success: 'A claim which stands upon such high grounds of natural right and political wisdom cannot fail in the end to dispel every degree of apprehension and jealousy and to triumph over all opposition'.
The second report (88-90) stressed the committee's attempt to improve communications with and enlist the support of country Dissenters. In their analysis of the division, the committee interpreted the small majority against them (twenty votes, 124-104) as a sure indication of a promising future, particularly since the pro-repeal speeches had 'increased the numbers of our friends and relaxed the efforts of our opponents'. Because of 'the ensuing general election', the names of the M.P.s who had divided in favour of repeal in May 1789 were printed and circulated with the second report. There was no acknowledgement that the small turnout against repeal might have been caused by the time of year, May being late in the session and a time when many members had left London after frequent attendances during the Regency crisis a few months earlier.
The 1790 report (139-40) is interesting both for its detailed explanation of why the committee suffered a third defeat and for the reasons it omits. Pitt is singled out as the principal villain for having employed the parliamentary tactic of a Call of the House to ensure a large attendance. (fn. 24) The report also attributed the overwhelming defeat to three causes: first, the spread of 'church in danger' reports by the enemies of repeal; secondly, the adverse reaction to the Dissenters 'testing' parliamentary candidates in the approaching general election by asking if they had previously divided for repeal (fn. 25) and, thirdly, the growing apprehension over events in France, particularly the National Assembly's abolition of tithes and the confiscation of church property. Considering such 'inauspicious circumstances' and the steps taken 'to prejudice the minds of the members of the House of Commons', the unfavourable division, wrote the authors of the report, should not have been surprising. They concluded, however, on their usual positive note, referring to the friends they had won by openly discussing repeal, to the fact that the debate 'had excited no fresh enmity to us' and to the eventual success of the newly created standing committee.
Nowhere in the three reports was any reference made to the Crown's influence in the defeat of the repeal motions. George III's adamant opposition, based largely on his interpretation of the coronation oath, was stated explicitly in letters to William Pitt. In 1787 the king described repeal as 'destructive ... to any solidity in Government' and said that granting toleration to Dissenters 'has encouraged them now to want power'. (fn. 26) Following the 1790 division, he again wrote Pitt, 'I shall hope Parliament will not be again troubled with this most improper business'. (fn. 27)
The French National Assembly's attack on church property, combined with the pro-French remarks made by Richard Price and the Rational Dissenters, drove the final nails in the repeal campaign's coffin and partially explains why a motion that failed by only twenty votes in May 1789 was defeated by 189 less than a year later. Defenders of England's national church were particularly alarmed by developments in France and, subsequently, turned out in large numbers to oppose repeal. In the repeal debate on 2 March 1790, Charles James Fox admitted that 'innovations were said to be dangerous at all times, but particularly so now by the situation of affairs in France'. (fn. 28) Edmund Burke was even more specific, calling the destruction of the French church 'peculiarly shameful and scandalous' and condemning Dissenting ministers for 'recommending the same sort of robbery and plunder of the wealth of the church as had happened in France, where some men were weak enough to imagine a happy revolution had taken place'. (fn. 29) Would not the adoption of Dissenting principles, he argued, lead to 'the plunder of the wealth and revenues ... of our church, as it had done in the case of the church of France'? (fn. 30) The effect of Burke's rhetoric was to establish in the minds of most M.P.s a sequential connection between the destruction of the French church, repeal of the test laws, and the eventual collapse of England's national church.
Other causes of the committee's defeat not mentioned in the third report included Burke's eloquent attack on the natural rights plank in the Dis senters' argument for repeal and Pitt's convincing articulation of the intimate and interdependent relationship of church and state. One could also conclude that a repeal motion lacking government support would have had difficulty in passing the Commons, particularly after the beginning of the French Revolution. Compounding the political difficulties was the distress among conservative members of the Opposition caused by Fox's leadership in the 1790 motion. Furthermore, Jeffries' committee failed to dissociate repeal from the radical tradition and forward-looking ideology of earlier metropolitan reform campaigns. The leaders of Dissent repeatedly emphasised the backward-looking nature of the reform they sought. They asked for the restoration of their rights of full citizenship but were considered extremists for wanting to alter what many thought to be the inviolable bonds uniting the civil and ecclesiastical branches of the constitution.
The 1827-8 Campaign
The fifteen years prior to the formation of the United Committee in 1827 were marked by several changes in the legal status of Dissenters and by periodic calls for a renewal of the repeal movement. An important victory occurred in 1811, when a major campaign was directed against Lord Sidmouth's Bill that would have sharply curtailed the registration of Dissenting ministers. In 1812 Lord Liverpool's government agreed to a bill (52 George III, c.155) that broadened the terms of religious toleration by repealing the Five Mile Act, altering the Conventicle Act and facilitating the registration of ministers; a year later the benefits of the Toleration Act of 1689 were officially extended to Unitarians. In 1817 a resolution passed at the annual meeting of the Dissenting Deputies indicated a revival of interest in repealing the Test and Corporation Acts. That interest continued into the 1820s and culminated in a decision reached by the committee of Deputies on 9 April 1827 to invite various Dissenting organisations to cooperate with them in a joint repeal effort. (fn. 31) Invitations were sent to the Protestant Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty, the Unitarian Association, the General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers, the Society of Friends, the Wesleyan Methodist Conference, the Presbytery of the Scotch Church, and the Presbytery of Seceders; the first meeting of the United Committee was held at the King's Head Tavern on 20 April 1827 (143).
The Catholic question, which was not settled until the year after repeal, was a major political issue in the 1820s that directly affected the fate of the repeal campaign. Unlike the 1780s, when Dissenters had dominated the movement for civil equality, the United Committee encountered a quite different situation in which Catholic relief was of paramount importance. Many ardent defenders of the Protestant constitution could not support repeal because of the stimulus that it would give to proponents of the more dreaded matter, Catholic emancipation; success in either cause would in their estimation fatally weaken the principle of religious exclusion and the union between church and state. A number of Whigs favoured repeal, particularly in 1827, but discovered that the path to political power with George Canning that year was only open to those willing to assign Catholic relief higher priority. (fn. 32) Also, some supporters of emancipation were willing to support repeal, but only after victory on the issue they considered more important; their fear was that anti-Catholic Dissenters would openly oppose emancipation if repeal came first. Restraining anti-Catholic sentiments, especially within evangelical Dissent, posed a delicate problem for the United Committee, whose leaders recognised that emancipation would no doubt enhance their own chance of success.
Further comparisons of the United Committee with its eighteenthcentury predecessor reveal similarities and contrasts. Meetings were again held in the King's Head Tavern in the Poultry. Jeffries' committee, primarily because of the addition of country delegates, was larger in total membership; the United Committee's average attendance was slightly higher and, in comparison, the membership was established earlier in the campaign and the turnover of members was smaller. (fn. 33) Although both committees had members from each of the three traditional branches of Dissent (Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists), the United Committee seemed more denominationally conscious, with careful consideration being given to balancing the various components of Dissent; this balance included Unitarians, who had not been formally represented in the 1780s. Jeffries' committee had been enlarged by adding M.P.s and men active in the commercial world; the United Committee attempted to expand by drawing in more denominational groups. Several organisations, including the Society of Friends, the Wesleyan Methodist Conference and the Presbytery of the Scotch Church, declined invitations to join the United Committee, and the Protestant Society did not send delegates until January 1828, after it had become clear that the repeal campaign would be fought without reference to Catholic emancipation, an issue strongly opposed by the Protestant Society. Another distinction was that the United Committee was composed entirely of Dissenters. Furthermore, ministers, who had been excluded in the 1780s (with the exception of country delegates), were active members of the United Committee. Among the most prominent were James Baldwin Brown, John Humphrys and Robert Winter, Independents; Robert Aspland, a Unitarian; and Francis Augustus Cox and William Newman, Baptists.
Aspland, the pastor of the Gravel Pit Congregation in Hackney, was particularly important on account of his influence in various branches of Dissent. Although an avowed Unitarian and associated with the traditions of rational Dissent, he was also a charter member of the Protestant Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty, an organisation noted for its evangelical persuasion. Aspland sat on a number of publication subcommittees, drafted statements and petitions, and in December 1827 was appointed editor of the Test Act Reporter, which appeared monthly throughout the repeal campaign. In this periodical, Aspland printed histories of the test laws, parliamentary debates concerning repeal, petitions and resolutions from various organisations supporting repeal, and selected proceedings of the United Committee. (fn. 34)
Although ministers were present and active, laymen again dominated the United Committee in terms of membership and, considering William Smith's significant role, in terms of leadership too. In numbers alone, laymen were in the majority because the Dissenting Deputies' executive committee with twenty-one members formed the nucleus of the United Committee and because many denominational organisations chose laymen as their delegates. The Unitarian Association, for example, was initially represented exclusively by laymen, such as John Bowring, subsequently an M.P., John Christie, a merchant, and Edgar Taylor, a solicitor. As in the 1780s, there were laymen on the United Committee, who enjoyed success in careers that had traditionally attracted Dissenters, including barristers, solicitors, authors, merchants, manufacturers, bankers and stockbrokers. Three members of the committee, William Smith, Henry Waymouth and Thomas Wilson, also belonged to the first council that governed the newly established University of London.
William Smith was the only individual who belonged to both repeal committees. Chairman of the United Committee, he, like Edward Jeffries before him, preferred a cautious approach to reform. Although a practitioner of extraparliamentary tactics, he wanted a campaign that stressed parliamentary manoeuvre by men of social prominence and political influence more than widespread popular agitation. (fn. 35) The campaign was fortunate in having such a leader, as no other Dissenter in the 1820s could match Smith's prestige and political experience. He used these gifts to full advantage in meetings with Lord John Russell, Robert Peel and the Marquess of Lansdowne, in drafting resolutions, in speeches in the House of Commons, and in his work in the publications subcommittee (e.g. 228, 245, 248). Since his arrival at Westminster in 1784, he had become a veteran of many parliamentary battles for social and humanitarian reform, and his reputation as holding moderate views on political reform enhanced his effectiveness as the leading spokesman in the repeal campaign. Smith, better than any other member of the committee, was able to gain the attention of Robert Peel, to unite temporarily evangelical and rational Dissenters despite the Catholic issue, and to preserve the campaign's moderate tone.
William Smith was the only M.P. with formal membership of the United Committee. Matthew Wood, alderman and M.P. for London, represented a special case. Although not technically a member, he did serve on a subcommittee (172) and used his influence to support repeal in the Court of Common Council and in parliament. Robert Waithman and William Thompson, also London M.P.s and aldermen, used their influence similarly, although they were not members of the committee.
The secretary of the committee in the 1820s can be identified, but some doubt exists as to his identity during the previous campaign. On 11 May 1787, the committee resolved that the treasurer, James Bogle French, 'do pay Mr. Cotton, secretary to this committee, £60 on account of his bill' (57). This reference to the secretary, the only one by name in the first set of repeal minutes, was probably to Thomas Cotton, who served as secretary to the Dissenting Deputies from 1767 to 1788, when he was succeeded by Bayes Cotton, the secretary until 1795. The same change probably took place in the secretaryship of the committee in 1788, although the minutes are silent on the subject. Four decades later, Robert Winter, an Independent layman who resided at 16 Bedford Row, was similarly secretary to the repeal committee and to the Dissenting Deputies. Not to be confused with the Independent minister of the same name, Winter played an important role in the deliberations of the United Committee (e.g. 220-1, 224, 250-3, 259-60). Winter's book of 'Out Letters' has survived (Guildhall Library MS. 3085) in which he recorded not only letters but copies of sample petitions, the names and addresses of most committee members and his estimate of the number of Dissenting ministers in England and Wales (1,499). In his minutes he also included Benjamin Hanbury's highly detailed calculation of how many Dissenters could be found in England and Wales. Hanbury's total for England alone was three million, 'or a fourth of the whole population of England exclusive of Catholics and Jews' (226).
Information concerning the finances of both campaigns is somewhat scanty. Recognising that their regular sources of income were insufficient, the Dissenting Deputies were asked early in 1790 to solicit contributions from their congregations, and Jeffries was named treasurer for this special subscription; he was also asked to seek financial aid from friends who, though not Dissenters themselves, supported repeal (116). The only specific response to this solicitation recorded in the minutes was on 5 May 1790, when John Yerbury presented a donation of £56 14s from the Salters' Hall congregation (133). In the later set of minutes, Robert Winter listed £3,000 as the total cost of the 1827-8 campaign (274) and £1,053 15s 11d as the cost of the celebration banquet held in June at Freemasons' Hall. According to one author, the Deputies contributed £2,000 to the expenses of the campaign and the Protestant Society £1,000. (fn. 36)
Although both campaigns had an extraparliamentary aspect, the second paid far more attention to inundating both houses of parliament with petitions for repeal, a tactic which prompted in retaliation several petitions against repeal. The committee circulated throughout Great Britain sample petitions composed for Dissenters and Anglicans, both laymen and ministers, to be submitted to parliament (207-9). Numerous petitions were received in a short period of time. In 1827, communities deluged the House of Commons with 1,114 petitions in favour of repeal. The following year, the Commons received 1,362 pro-repeal petitions and only twentyeight against the measure. (fn. 37)
There was no diminution in the 1820s of the repeal committee's zeal for circulating pamphlets and broadsides in support of the Dissenters' cause. The first subcommittee appointed during the 1827-8 campaign was charged with supervising publications and within one week had selected ten periodicals in which to publish Edgar Taylor's seventeen-page pamphlet entitled The Statement of the Case of the Protestant Dissenters under the Corporation and Test Acts (151). Taylor's Case was similar, although the argument was more fully developed, to the Case circulated as a broadside by Jeffries' committee. Taylor traced the history of the test laws, describing them as a 'transitory necessity' of 'almost accidental origin' that 'arose from a singular concurrence of circumstances'. (fn. 38) His case for their repeal was stated in familiar terms: history had proved the loyalty of Dissenters, who in this time of 'national tranquility' were claiming their right to full religious liberty; the indemnity acts could not benefit conscientious Dissenters but only those willing to sacrifice principles; the state would benefit from repeal; and the established church, which was not protected from unscrupulous persons by the test laws, would after repeal no longer be forced to profane the holy sacrament by using it for secular ends. (fn. 39) Taylor's Case was also sent to newspapers (165) and to 'all the Protestant Dissenting ministers in and about London' and 'in central places' (152) throughout England and Wales for distribution. On 11 June 1827, the committee resolved that 5,000 additional copies be printed for general circulation, and three days later Winter 'reported that 10,000 copies of the Statement of the Case had been sent to the editor of the Edinburgh Review "to be stitched into the numbers of those works now publishing".' (173) In addition to co-operating with Robert Aspland in editing the Test Act Reporter, the publications subcommittee also distributed repeal petitions among M.P.s, drafted letters and resolutions, circulated parliamentary debates on repeal, and organised the celebration banquet once the bill had passed both houses of parliament (e.g. 212, 218, 228, 266).
One striking contrast between the two campaigns concerns the position taken by the Corporation of London. On 25 February 1790, the Court of Common Council convened a special meeting in Guildhall to debate the repeal motion soon to be argued before the Commons. Despite a lengthy speech by Joshua Toulmin defending the propriety of repeal, the Common Council passed three anti-repeal resolutions by a substantial majority. Advanced by James Syms, these resolutions referred to the Court's duty of protecting the Church of England, described the test laws as essential bulwarks of the constitution, and expressed gratitude to those M.P.s who had already twice divided against repeal. (fn. 40) Syms's resolutions echoed the sentiments of 'an alarmist sermon' preached two weeks earlier by the Lord Mayor's chaplain to the aldermen and sheriffs of the City. (fn. 41) Twentyseven years later, at another special meeting, the Court of Common Council reversed its position, passing by a large majority resolutions in favour of repeal, and petitioning both houses of parliament to repeal the test laws. Samuel Favell, who was also a member of the United Committee, was the principal spokesman for repeal. On 9 May 1827, his resolutions were seconded by Walter Peacock and supported in speeches by Thomas Pewtress, who joined William Smith's committee the following year, and by Apsley Pellat, who later served as chairman of the Dissenting Deputies. On 24 January 1828, the Court again passed Favell's resolutions and sent them as a petition to the Commons and to the Lords. (fn. 42)
One of the most controversial aspects of the repeal debate in both houses of parliament concerned Sir Thomas Acland's proposal to substitute a declaration by officeholders for the sacramental test. The declaration (245), which some critics viewed as simply another religious test, sought to protect the established church and was staunchly opposed when it first came to the committee's attention early in March 1828 (230). Throughout that month, the committee made various attempts to circumvent the proposal, but eventually acquiesced and accepted a modified declaration, (fn. 43) upon the advice of Lord John Russell and Robert Peel, as a necessary compromise in order to placate Lord Eldon and make the repeal bill acceptable to the House of Lords (240, 243). Hardly had the declaration been reluctantly accepted by the committee, however, than the Corporation of London intervened to pose an additional problem.
Grateful as they were for the Corporation's support for the repeal bill, the committee was less than enthusiastic over a special request made by the Corporation after the bill passed the Commons and reached the Lords. On 3 April 1828, the Court of Common Council resolved that the repeal bill 'be referred to the Committee for General Purposes, for them to consider of a proper Clause or Clauses to be inserted in the said Bill, so far as regards the Members of the Corporation, and to do therein as they may be advised'. (fn. 44) For the next several weeks, Robert Winter met frequently with the City Solicitor, Recorder, Common Serjeant, and Remembrancer to discuss two clauses advanced by the City. The first clause (255) specified where and when the Lord Mayor, aldermen and sheriffs would make the proposed declaration; the second, and more controversial clause, stated that any individual elected to corporate office who did not make the declaration 'shall not, by reason of such neglect or refusal, be exempted or discharged from any fine or penalty imposed or to be imposed by any bylaw, custom or usage of any such corporation for not taking upon him or them or not serving any such office' (255).
Lord Holland, the principal sponsor of the repeal bill in the upper house, consented to advance the City's first clause but advised against the second. Reassured by Winter that Dissenters would not attempt to evade any fines implied by the second clause (259), City officials agreed to Holland's recommendation. On 1 May 1828, however, Winter read a letter in which Holland stated, 'I suspect there will be more difficulty about the City clause than I foresaw' (267). Faced with technical objections to the clause by the Solicitor General and with probable delays to the bill's passage, the committee acquiesced in Holland's recommendation (267) that the most expeditious course would be to drop the City's proposals altogether. Dissatisfied with this decision, City officials asked London M.P.s to revive the clause during some future discussion of the bill's amendments, but the opportunity never came. (fn. 45) Two months after the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, the Court of Common Council enjoined the Committee for General Purposes to continue seeking ways to protect Court members who, once elected to offices, jeopardised their positions by refusing to make the declaration. The Committee's report in November recommended specific procedures for making the declaration but did not offer any suggestions about how to evade the requirement. (fn. 46)
Only one reference to Roman Catholics appeared in the 1786-90 minutes, compared to numerous references in 1828. When stating the reasons for renewing the repeal application in 1790, Jeffries' committee referred to 'the most free and liberal toleration' offered by 'our Catholic neighbours', in contrast to the 'intolerance and persecution' characteristic of England's established church (105). (fn. 47) The major issue regarding Catholics for Smith's committee was whether or not to join with them in a joint campaign against all civil disabilities imposed for religious reasons. Lord John Russell, learning of such a proposal from a newspaper article, strongly advised against a joint campaign; the committee concurred with Russell and consistently rejected overtures from the British Catholic Association. An embarrassing situation arose for Smith's committee in late January 1828, when a story appeared in the New Times and in the Courier reporting that Dissenters were seeking the support of Catholics on the subject of legislative relief from the test laws. Winter asked, without success, for the editors of the two papers to print retractions of the erroneous story, and the committee reconfirmed their belief in the political expediency of separate campaigns (220-1). (fn. 48)
Unlike Jeffries' committee, whose members often sought legal advice from outside their organisation, Smith's group relied primarily on the legal expertise of Christopher Richmond of Middle Temple, who joined the committee as a delegate from the Unitarian Association in June 1827. Referred to in a letter by Lord Holland as 'counsel to the committee' (251), Richmond drafted the repeal bill and its several revisions, added appropriate clauses, and gave legal opinions on indemnity acts and the implications of the controversial declaration proposed by Acland (228, 239, 248, 252).
The complicated political situation in 1827-8 had a major effect on the repeal application. At the moment the United Committee was beginning to form, delicate negotiations were determining what type of ministry would come to power in the wake of Lord Liverpool's unexpected illness and resignation. By April 1827, it was clear that George Canning would form a government with the aid of a Whig alliance. After several meetings, including one on 22 May that was attended by a sizeable number of Whig peers and M.P.s (167), the United Committee accepted Lord Holland's advice and agreed on 28 May to postpone their application (168), thereby choosing to defer to Canning's wishes on Catholic relief rather than embarrass the Whigs by asking them to insist on repeal as the issue demanding earliest attention. This decision to postpone the application was opposed by the Unitarian Association and the Protestant Society, and Lord John Russell referred to the diversity of opinion within Dissenting ranks when withdrawing his repeal motion in the Commons on 7 June. (fn. 49)
By the beginning of 1828, the political situation had changed significantly, and the United Committee was active again. Canning had died the previous August, Viscount Goderich's brief ministry had ended in January, and the Duke of Wellington had come into office at the head of a coalition government with Robert Peel at the Home Office. According to Lord Ellenborough, Lord Privy Seal, the government decided at a cabinet meeting on 25 February to oppose Lord John Russell's repeal motion on the grounds that the test laws were 'no practical inconvenience'. (fn. 50) Consequently, Peel, William Huskisson and Viscount Palmerston voiced their objections in the Commons debate the following evening. Confronted, however, with a majority division of 237-193 in favour of Russell's motion early in the morning of 27 February, Peel's opposition began to wane. In his lengthy correspondence on the subject of the test laws with Dr Charles Lloyd, Bishop of Oxford and formerly his Oxford tutor, Peel revealed a position that combined practical politics with his concern for the church's security. On 20 March 1828, one month after the crucial division on Russell's motion, Peel wrote that numerous factors influenced his decision on how to vote on specific issues: 'One of those considerations and a most material one is the prospect of being victorious or being beaten.' Later in the same letter, he added, 'I do not think that it is therefore possible to contend from the abstract position that the true test—or one of the essential tests of an Established Church—is the superior privilege as to civil rights of its members.' (fn. 51) In his adamant opposition to the repeal bill in the House of Lords, Lord Eldon contended that nothing had essentially changed since nearly forty years earlier, when parliament had overwhelmingly defeated the Dissenters' request. In his memoirs, Peel pointedly acknowledged 'that something had occurred since the period referred to by Lord Eldon, which it would not have been wise to exclude from the consideration, namely, that the majority of 187 which voted against the Bill in the year 1790 had been converted in 1828 into a majority of 44 in its favour'. This change was 'decisive evidence', Peel wrote, 'of a change in public opinion'. (fn. 52)
Both repeal committees contributed significantly to the change in public opinion noted by Peel. Among the first organisations to employ a wide variety of extraparliamentary tactics, such as petitions, addresses, pamphlets, lobbying and regional associations, the committees succeeded in the delicate area of prodding public opinion without antagonising it. This achievement was due largely to Jeffries' and Smith's insistence on maintaining a moderate approach to reform and avoiding an unduly aggressive position. Above all, the leaders of the campaign recognised the importance of quietly but firmly communicating their point of view to members of parliament. (fn. 53) Historical conditions, such as the increasing awareness in the 1820s that certain religious tests for civil offices might be removed without dire consequences for the state, no doubt benefited Dissenters. By relying on moderate tactics, however, the committees made a positive contribution by choosing precisely the tactics best suited to the times. Moderation was the key, in terms of effectively mobilising public opinion, assuring that M.P.s would at least listen to their case, calming the fears of people who dreaded the idea of change, and keeping unity within Dissenting ranks. Above all, it made Dissenters appear basically safe in the eyes of the political nation. This carefully managed approach remains the single most important factor in analysing the success of the repeal campaign.
The minutes of Edward Jeffries' committee (1786-90) are here printed in extenso. Those parts of the United Committee minutes not printed in the Test Act Reporter are also here printed in full. (Robert Aspland frequently referred to these portions of committee proceedings and communications as 'of too private and confidential a nature to be made public', e.g. TAR 450.) Those portions of the United Committee minutes that appeared in the TAR are summarised and printed in smaller type. Spelling and capitalisation have normally been modernised and some adjustments to punctuation have been made. Minor scribal errors have been silently corrected. The index contains entries for people, places and subjects.
I wish to thank the American Philosophical Society and the Virginia Military Institute for research grants that enabled me to prepare this volume and the Protestant Dissenting Deputies for permission to publish the minutes. I would also like to thank Donald Ginter for his encouragement, J. R. Dinwiddy and J. M. Collinge for commenting upon the Introduction, and Rosemary Taylor, Katherine Swift and Clyde Binfield for suggestions on biographical sources. The understanding and patience of my wife, Helen, are especially remembered.
Lexington, Virginia September 1977
Thomas W. Davis