In 1796, the so-called "Whig Revolution" begins in England.
Whig Revolution by Eric LippsIt will eventually end in the forced abdication of England's King George III (pictured) and the installation of his son, Prince George, as a constitutional monarch with sharply limited powers, as Parliament assumes de facto supremacy.
Twenty years ago on this date, dissident American colonists assembled at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted down a proposed "declaration of independence" following the refusal of its drafter Thomas Jefferson to remove a hostile reference to the African slave trade.
The armed rebellion which had begun with the battle of Breed's Hill the previous year had quickly fallen apart after that, and King George III, determined to squash the spirit of rebellion once and for all, had slammed down a mailed fist upon the thirteen disobedient colonies.
But his harsh response, which included the creation of a red-shirted "Order Police" empowered to use any means it chose to combat alleged sedition and subversion, has not produced peace so much as sullen submission. Rebel groups of one sort or another, many receiving aid from foreign powers such as France, Spain and the Netherlands, still carry out sabotage and seek through propaganda to stir up sentiment for a second attempt at revolution. The economy of the colonies continues to stagnate, too, under policies designed to keep America dependent upon Britain for manufactured goods; only shipping, which produces the vessels needed to carry raw goods from America to Britain and finished ones back, has been allowed to flourish.
Even in England itself, dissatisfaction has grown steadily. Growing public awareness of the ways in which the colonists are being deprived of what British subjects see as basic rights guaranteed by the Magna Carta and centuries of tradition has given rise to the fear that what has been done across the water may be done in the home islands. And influential figures in commerce and politics are increasingly dissatisfied with what they see as a costly and destructive occupation. Calls for reform, however, have been ignored or defied by the king, who appears to feel that as monarch by "divine right" he need not listen to critics. In fact, he has lashed out at several of them publicly, and on May 3, 1800, had threatened to dissolve Parliament outright if it again raised the issue of his American policies.
It was this outburst which would prove to be the final straw. Meeting privately at the country home of William Pitt, a cabal which included Pitt himself, Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, along with several other lesser figures, discussed what Burke would describe in his diaries as "the direction of the country," reluctantly agreeing that King George's continued reign and the continuation of the policies he supported would prove harmful to Britain's "best interests".
Burke had emerged as a sharp critic of post-rebellion colonial policy, which he saw as siphoning British resources while interfering in the natural operation of the marketplace. Before the American rebellion, Charles Fox had denounced the taxation of the colonies without their consent, and once actual fighting erupted he had called for a negotiated settlement; the collapse of the revolt had very nearly meant the collapse as well of his political career, which it had taken him years to rebuild. Pitt, who had once been much less sympathetic to the colonies than his father, the elder William Pitt, had come to believe that the king's policies after the rebellion were all but guaranteeing another uprising at some point, this one perhaps backed by foreign powers as the first had not been.
Pitt and Fox had more personal motivations: both believed they had seen evidence that the king, who had contracted porphyria, was showing signs of mental instability. They shared that concern with their fellow conspirators, who acknowledged that if the king were indeed losing his faculties he must be removed for the good of the nation, quite apart from specific considerations of policy.
The actual coup required months of planning, during which measures were taken to line up both political and military support for the plan. The timing of the strike itself, two decades to the day after the rejection of the attempted declaration of American independence, is pure coincidence, but conspiracy theorists will insist that the plotters were working with colonial subversives - perhaps even with the hated Jefferson himself, believed to be in exile in New Orleans under Spanish protection.