British Parliament Passes the Six Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Peterloo Massacre of August, 1819, the Tory administration of the second earl of Liverpool proposed a series of measures designed to stifle radical dissent (by regulating public assembly, speech, and the press), to speed up trials, and to ban military drilling. Acting quickly, the Tories in Parliament passed six such measures over the opposition of the Whigs.

Summary of Event

During the Regency period (1811-1820) of the reign of George III George III (r. 1760-1820)—when his son, the future George IV George IV , ruled Great Britain as prince regent—the British government feared the development of radicalism and possible insurrection in the nation similar to the excesses of the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Great Britain[Great Britain] and the Napoleonic era in France (1789-1815). Unprecedented problems caused by the disruption of traditional patterns of life that were due to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, war with France and the United States, demobilization of soldiers and sailors after the defeat of Napoleon I in 1815, and a tremendous increase in population had produced significant strains in Great Britain’s economy, society, and government. Six Acts of 1819 Great Britain;political reforms [kw]British Parliament Passes the Six Acts (Dec. 11-30, 1819) [kw]Parliament Passes the Six Acts, British (Dec. 11-30, 1819) [kw]Passes the Six Acts, British Parliament (Dec. 11-30, 1819) [kw]Six Acts, British Parliament Passes the (Dec. 11-30, 1819) [kw]Acts, British Parliament Passes the Six (Dec. 11-30, 1819) Six Acts of 1819 Great Britain;political reforms [g]Great Britain;Dec. 11-30, 1819: British Parliament Passes the Six Acts[1030] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 11-30, 1819: British Parliament Passes the Six Acts[1030] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 11-30, 1819: British Parliament Passes the Six Acts[1030] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 11-30, 1819: British Parliament Passes the Six Acts[1030] Sidmouth, First Viscount Liverpool, second earl of Hunt, Henry Cobbett, William

These strains spurred many to call for political and social reform and emboldened others to pursue radical solutions to the country’s problems. Episodes such as the actions of the Luddites, Luddites the Spa Fields Riot (1816) Spa Fields Riot (1816) , the March of the Blanketeers Blanketeers, March of the (1817) (1817), and the Pentrich Rising (1817) Pentrich Rising (1817) had caused the second earl of Liverpool’s Liverpool, second earl of government to pass the Seditious Meetings Act (1817) Seditious Meetings Act of 1817 and suspend the right of habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in Great Britain[Great Britain] (1817) in order to prevent what was feared might be a large-scale rebellion. Both of these measures lasted only until 1818, however.

The immediate impetus for the passage of the Six Acts in December, 1819, was the Peterloo Massacre Peterloo Massacre (1819) of August, 1819, in which local officials in Manchester attempted to arrest the social reformer Henry Hunt Hunt, Henry during a massive outdoor meeting of between forty and eighty thousand people. The actions of the authorities and the panicked crowd resulted in eleven deaths and hundreds of injuries. Calls for an investigation of the local authorities’ behavior were rejected.

The home secretary, the first Viscount Sidmouth, Sidmouth, First Viscount expressed regret that Parliament had not been summoned in order to enact measures to prevent disturbances such as the one at Peterloo. When Parliament met on November 23, 1819, Sidmouth presented a set of measures in the House of Lords that the government had prepared for consideration. The proposals were based upon the belief that reform meetings constituted in principle a “treasonable conspiracy” against George III George III , the Church, and property. They set forth a set of provisions that should be enacted to regulate such meetings. Sidmouth continued his presentation with a statement to the effect that an individual convicted of “blasphemous or seditious libel” a second time should suffer imprisonment or banishment and that other publications should be subject to the tax due on newspapers. Because unauthorized military drilling posed a potential danger, Sidmouth outlined measures to ban such practices and allow local authorities to seize weapons. The same program was presented to the House of Commons.

Parliament moved swiftly. The Tory Party held the majority in both houses of Parliament, with the Whig Party Whig Party (British);and Six Acts[Six Acts] in opposition, and between December 11 and 30, 1819, the Six Acts—as they came to be called—were passed over the protests of the Whig leadership, which claimed that they were “an attack” on the British constitution and that the measures were not necessary and might drive some to more extreme measures. However, a number of rank-and-file Whigs supported the proposals.

Under the Six Acts, British subjects could no longer arm themselves, train in the use of arms, or gather and discuss political matters freely. Trials were to be held more speedily, and seditious libel and blasphemy were to be punished more severely. Moreover, the tax on publications was greatly increased. Inexpensive publications costing less than sixpence that appeared at least once every twenty-six days were now charged a four pence tax, an extremely heavy amount. Those who produced such works had to put up some form of security as a type of bond, £300 in London and £200 in other cities. Much of the primary source information for the measures came from the radical journalist William Cobbett’s Cobbett, William publications, the Political Register, established in 1802, and Parliamentary Debates, established in 1803.

Significance

The year 1819 saw the high water mark of political reaction in England, although Prime Minister Liverpool’s Liverpool, second earl of government did not resort to the suspension of habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in Great Britain[Great Britain] rights as it had in 1817. The Cato Street Conspiracy of February, 1820, an attempt by radical revolutionaries to assassinate the British cabinet, appeared to demonstrate the need for the Six Acts, but as economic conditions improved and some reform measures were enacted in the 1820’s and 1830’s, fear of insurrection waned.

Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the fact that the Six Acts may not have been as repressive as was once thought. The Seditious Meetings Act was repealed in 1824. Several others were allowed to lapse, and the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act proved difficult to enforce, because juries often refused to render guilty verdicts for offenses charged under it. The Training Prevention Act seemed to be a responsible measure and is still in force today, as is the Seizure of Arms Act. Collectively, the Six Acts helped provide a degree of stability in a society that possessed no internal police force, although for some very conservative Tories the measures did not go far enough.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cookson, J. E. Lord Liverpool’s Administration: The Crucial Years, 1815-1822. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. The first major reassessment of this prime minister’s government provides a backdrop for understanding the origins and passage of the Six Acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gash, Norman. Lord Liverpool: The Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool, 1770-1828. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. An important biography that assesses the motivations of Liverpool’s administration in introducing and securing passage of the Six Acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plowright, John. Regency England: The Age of Lord Liverpool. London: Routledge, 1996. A short work that argues persuasively that the Six Acts were not as repressive as previous works have described them to be.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sack, James L. From Jacobite to Conservative: Reaction and Orthodoxy in Britain, c. 1760-1832. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Places the turmoil in England and the Six Acts within the context of a shift toward political reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Robert A. Late Georgian and Regency England. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Provides information essential for understanding the context in which the Six Acts were passed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevenson, John. Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1870. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1992. A major work of interpretation with ample material on the Regency disturbances that prompted passage of the Six Acts.

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