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A History of the Four Georges and of William IV, V

The King ordered Wedderburn to write at once to Lord Amherst

From the closing words of this account it is plain that at last authority had begun to do its duty and to meet force with force. Terrorized London shook with every wild rumor. Now men said that the mob had got arms, and was more than a match for the military; now that the lions in the Tower were to be let loose; now that the lunatics from Bedlam were to be set free. Every alarming rumor that fear could inspire and terror credit was buzzed abroad upon that dreadful day, when the servants of the Secretary of State wore blue cockades in their hats and private gentlemen barricaded their houses, armed their people, and prepared to stand a siege. Horace Walpole found his relative, Lord Hertford, engaged with his sons in loading muskets to be in readiness for the insurgents. Everybody now shared in the general alarm, but the alarm affected different temperaments differently. Some men fled from town; others loaded guns and sharpened swords; others put their hands in their pockets and lounged, curious spectators, on the heels of riot, eager to observe {206} and willing to record events so singular and so unprecedented.

It is pleasant to be able to chronicle that the King showed an especial courage and composure during that wild week's work. George the Third never lost head nor heart. To do his House justice, personal courage was one of their traditions, but the family quality never showed to better advantage than in this crisis. If indeed George the Second were prepared, as has been hinted, to fly from London on the approach of the young Pretender, George the Third displayed no such weakness in the face of a more immediate peril. The peril was more immediate, it was also more menacing. No man could safely say where bad work so begun might ultimately pause. What had been an agitation in favor of a petition might end in revolution against the Crown. Outrages that had at first been perpetrated with the purpose of striking terror only were changing their character. Schemes of plunder formed no part of the early plans of the rioters; now it began to be known that the rioters had their eyes turned towards the Bank of England and were planning to cut the pipes which provided London with water. With a little more laxity on the part of authority, and a few more successes on the part of the mob, it is possible that Lord George Gordon might have found himself a puppet Caesar on the shields of Protestant Praetorians.

[Sidenote: 1780--Stern action by the authorities]

That nothing even approaching to this did happen was largely due to the courage and the determination of the Sovereign. The Administration vacillated. The Privy Council, facing an agitation of whose extent and popularity it was unaware, feared to commit itself. George felt no such fear. Where authority fell back paralyzed in the presence of a new, unknown, and daily increasing peril, he came forward and asserted himself after a fashion worthy of a king. If the Privy Council would not act with him, then he would act without them. He would lead out his Guards himself and charge the rioters at their head. The courage which had shown itself at Dettingen, the courage which had been displayed by generations of rough German {207} electors and Italian princes, showed itself gallantly now and saved the city. The King lamented the weakness of the magistrates, but at least there was one, he said, who would do his duty, and he touched his breast with his hand. George the Third is not a heroic figure in history, but just at that moment he bore himself with a royal honor which ranked him with Leonidas or Horatius. If there are to be kings at all, that is how kings ought to behave. George was fortunate in finding a man to stand by him and to lend to his soldierly courage the support of the law. Wedderburn, the Attorney-General, declared, with all the authority of his high position, that in cases where the civil power was unable to restrain arson and outrage, it was the duty of all persons, civil as well as military, to use all means in their power to deal with the danger. The reading of the Riot Act was nugatory in such exceptional conditions, and it became the duty of the military to attack the rioters. Thus supported, the King ordered Wedderburn to write at once to Lord Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief, authorizing him to employ the military without waiting for authority from the civil powers. Wedderburn, who in a few days was to become Chief Justice and Lord Loughborough, wrote the order, kneeling upon one knee at the council table, and from that moment the enemy was grappled with in grim earnest.

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