Radicalism, Respectability, and the Case of the Imprisoned Politician

We are delighted to publish this guest post by John Owen Havard, Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University, whose forthcoming work includes a book on the origins of disaffected attitudes towards politics and a new project on thinking about politics, freedom, and the end of the world in writings by Byron, Hobhouse, and their circle. 

On a “dreary evening” in December 1819, John Cam Hobhouse waited for the men coming to arrest him. As the gloom crept in—London was already dark by four in the afternoon—Hobhouse shook hands somberly with his friends, some still urging him to run away to France. “I felt as if waiting for a dentist coming to take my tooth out” the aspiring politician wrote in his diary. Hobhouse remained adamant about one thing: he would not go easily. Telling a friend to inform the Sergeant at Arms where he could be found, he was insistent that he would “yield to force alone.” The magistrate must come with others, Hobhouse maintained: “I would not yield to one person.” He was stoical as he received parting embraces—emboldened, even, by the talk of appeals and getting into the papers. Yet Hobhouse was also somewhat bashful about his impending incarceration. “This night I had a sort of shyness about telling my boy Richard to take my clothes to Newgate” he recollected in his journal, written from his room at the prison.

Hobhouse had attended Cambridge University and had friends in high places. He ran for parliament the preceding year and would have a lengthy political career over the coming decades: as an M.P., Reformer, and halfway eminent Victorian. In his burgeoning success as a prominent associate of the “Radical” cause, Hobhouse walked a careful line, seeming like a man of the people while avoiding becoming identified with the violent rabble. He cannily navigated his way through imprisonment on a similar basis, maintaining the respect of his more elite friends while galvanizing popular political support. Hobhouse was that paradoxical figure: the respectable prisoner. Aside from belonging to a period of explosive political change, his case illuminates a crucial moment of transition from the early modern prison to the liberal governance of the Victorian age, casting light in particular on the evolving meaning of being jailed for white, middle-class Britons at a moment of deepening divisions in the social body.

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“John Wilkes Being Drawn Into the City By The Mob, When On His Way to Prison 1768” (Alamy Stock Photo)

Hobhouse’s arrest was hardly the first time that the contending forces of radicalism and respectability had met at the prison door. John Wilkes, populist figurehead and shameless rabble-rouser, had made his incarceration half a century earlier the stuff of international fame. After hot-footing to France as a means of avoiding arrest, Wilkes was in turn imprisoned on returning to England, amidst his own political campaigns. The pornographer, provocateur, and supposed man-of-the-people used his apparent persecution by the government to become a cause célèbre. The “massacre” of a dozen of Wilkes’s supporters outside King’s Bench Prison in 1768 fueled particular outrage (propelled by Wilkes’s own cynical manipulation of press coverage). Although Wilkes made his imprisonment a badge of honor, which he waved in the face of adoring crowds, prison not only became a rallying point for populist opposition to the government but a potent symbol for the dangers of mob violence. 1780 saw bloody anti-Catholic riots that set the streets of London aflame—including attacks on prisons and the freeing of prisoners. The French Revolution further heightened the political atmosphere, unleashing both paranoia and well-founded fears about the prospects for widespread popular rebellion.

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“The Burning and Plundering of Newgate & Setting the Felons at Liberty by the Mob [July 1780]” (Getty Images)
In 1817, the Government had suspended Habeas Corpus and rounded up radical leaders for their suspected involvement in conspiracies to overthrow the government. Hobhouse’s prosecution, for an ill-timed pamphlet attacking the government, belonged to a moment in which libel laws were weaponized by the government amidst fears of large-scale unrest. Hobhouse seized upon this moment of heated clashes to his own political advantage. Yet his arrest also betrays fascinating tensions between his efforts to capitalize upon his mistreatment while maintaining his respectability—and his diary account of being imprisoned provides a fascinating window onto this dilemma.

The arrest began with an announcement from the butler: “Some persons from the House of Commons, Sir!” Hobhouse instructed the servant to show them up. Apparently gratified, as Peter Cochran has noted, that the individual who had come to perform the arrest did not exceed him in height, he issued the “short man” with strict instructions:

“I shall not go without force – I presume you are not come alone?” – The messenger said he wished to know what force meant. “I do not mean a regiment of dragoons,” – “Of course,” said the messenger – “well then, I have two men with me below.” – I answered, “I shall not go with you – take back the warrant to the Speaker, and tell him so”. – “Sir” said the little fellow, “I cannot do that – now I have seen you I cannot quit you.” – “Very well,” said I, “then use force – I shall not go without”.

Hobhouse continued to declare several times more (after the appearance of “two tall fellows”) that he would not go without force. “I am not going to shoot you” Hobhouse stated, prompting the man to respond “you are too much of a gentleman I am sure” (he noted in his diary that the exchange “made us both laugh”). “Well then, Sir, you are my prisoner,” the man informed his quarry, “and saying so,” Hobhouse recalled, “laid his hand gently on my arm. I made a bow.” His insistence upon only giving way to force had given way to farce. But Hobhouse had also succeeded in orchestrating a most civilized arrest. No force had actually been used; no supplication had been made. He had remained a perfect “gentleman” throughout.

Arrived at Newgate prison, his “body was delivered over”—appeals to habeas corpus became central to his statements in court, as his play on “body” here may register—and the prison governor “said he was sorry to see me come.” After tea and conversation with the governor (Hobhouse did not have dinner but ate a mouthful of bread and cheese) he was shown to a “good bedroom.” He struck a deal to pay ten guineas a week for his lodging, coals not covered, but including a cook. During the first full day of his imprisonment, he had a large number of visitors: at least six close friends and family members coupled with many dozens more (leaving the keeper of the prison “rather gruff” as the door continued to revolve). Hobhouse, like Wilkes, was determined to continue a vigorous political career while jailed. As a first measure, he wrote a short letter to his political campaign manager with an account of what he tendentiously termed his “violent arrest” (and “desiring him to insert it in the papers”).

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Portrait of John Cam Hobhouse by Adam Buck (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The “whole city were alive upon the gross injustice of the proceeding” his campaign manager subsequently informed him—and the same went for elsewhere in the country. The Examiner reproduced a letter from Liverpool, in which the inhabitants of that city expressed “indignation and regret” at the misuse of power whereby the House of Commons had “subjected [Hobhouse] to forcible arrest.” Hobhouse expressed his appreciation in a public letter: “Gentlemen,” he addressed these men whose names were “dear to freedom”: his was an “easy martyrdom” without severe privation. But in the end it made little difference whether he was “a slave within the walls or without the walls of prison” if the current national restraint and “mental bondage” continued. Hobhouse was nonetheless well-advised to limit his identification with more extreme radical elements (at a moment when plans had apparently been forged, for example, to capture the city of Manchester and to release prisoners from the New Bailey prison). Wilkes had been a shape-shifting figure, symptomatic of inchoate political energies: mingling together with the crowd, until he disavowed them. Hobhouse kept himself at a more carefully managed distance. And at a moment of sharpening class lines, his experiences show, the prison was not a leveler, but a place at which social distinctions persisted—and were even reinforced and clarified.

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Hobhouse at the hustings (Alamy Stock Photo)

Hobhouse acquired at least some glimpses of how the other prisoners lived. He watched as “twenty-five convicts came clanking down the long passage” and “pushed into a caravan, which was to take them to Sheerness” (where they would face transportation). Some were “convicts just escaped hanging” he noted, “others who had stolen to prevent starving,” but all were “doomed to the same punishment.” He witnessed a man executed for the “indecent” crimes associated with homosexuality—an experience that chilled him, not least in how quickly this ultimate punishment came to appear normal. Hobhouse’s experiences in prison presumably informed his own involvement, years later, in the cause of prison reform (although at the time he had heard trailblazing reformer Elizabeth Fry badmouthed as an “old whore” and “inveterate thief.”) His concern with respectability, from his insistence to his friend Lord Byron that he was not the kind of radical that didn’t wear a hat to his “shyness” about being imprisoned in the eyes of his son, similarly looks ahead to the Victorian age, in its newly categorical sense of distance form his lower-class contemporaries. At the same time, these concerns with respectability took shape around a much older concern that lodged Hobhouse’s case in a much deeper past: the need to affirm the innate freedom of the Englishman (or at least, of the respectable higher class Englishman). His bravado about only yielding to “force” invoked a longstanding concern with the meaning of unfreedom, which reached back to the early modern period and which had become newly codified at the onset of the Victorian age. “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” Oscar Wilde would quip at the end of the century. Losing one’s freedom for threatening the government, to paraphrase Wilde, was unfortunate. But throwing one’s hands up at a lone magistrate risked appearing altogether more lax: the scandal of being treated like a member of the lower classes—or the still greater sin of yielding to subjection, servility, and emasculation. Hobhouse stayed the course, avoiding identification with the lower classes and others confined to the status of “slavery.” His success in maintaining his status as a respectable prisoner set him in good stead for his future as a liberal politician.

—John Owen Havard, Binghamton University

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