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

Irritated by the non appearance of Wilkes


circumstances. His journey from Westminster to Bishopsgate was more like a royal progress than the passage of a criminal and an outlaw. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Wilkes was able to detach himself from the zeal of the populace {120} and get quietly into his prison. The prison immediately became an object of greater interest than a royal palace. Every day it was surrounded by a dense crowd that considered itself rewarded for hours of patient waiting if it could but get a glimpse of the prisoner's face at a window. All this show of enthusiasm exasperated the ministers and drove them into the very acts that were best calculated to keep the enthusiasm alive. On the day of the opening of Parliament, May 10, the Government, under the pretence of fearing riot, sent down a detachment of soldiers to guard the King's Bench Prison, in St. George's Fields. This was in itself a rash step enough, but every circumstance attending it only served to make it more rash. As if deliberately to aggravate the popular feeling, the regiment chosen for this pretence of keeping the peace was a Scotch regiment. At a moment when everything Scotch was insanely disliked in London such a choice was not likely to insure good temper either on the part of the mob or on the part of the military. That good temper was not intended or desired was made plain by a letter written by Lord Weymouth, the Secretary of State, to the local magistrate, urging him to make use of the soldiers in any case of riot.

What followed was only what might have been expected. The crowd, irritated by the non-appearance of Wilkes, still more irritated by the presence of the soldiery, threatened, or was thought to threaten, an attack upon the prison. Angry words were followed by blows; the brawl between the mob and the military became a serious conflict. A young man named Allan, who seems to have had nothing to do with the scuffle, was killed in a private house by some of the soldiers who had forced an entrance in pursuit of one of their assailants. Then the Riot Act was read; the troops fired; half a dozen of the rioters were killed, including one woman, and several others were wounded.

News of this bad business intensified the angry feeling against the Government. A Scotch soldier, Donald Maclean, was put on his trial for the murder of Allan. His {121} acquittal caused an indignation which deepened when the colonel of the regiment presented him with thirty guineas on behalf of the Government. This was taken as an example of the determination of the Crown to silence the voice of the people with the weapons of Scotch mercenaries. Pamphlets, speeches, sermons, all were employed to stimulate the general agitation and to brand with atrocity the conduct of the Ministry. The tombstone erected over the murdered man Allan chronicled his inhuman murder "by Scottish detachments from the Army," and quoted from Proverbs the words, "Take away the wicked from before the King."

[Sidenote: 1768--The Ministry on its defence]

The ministers, on their side, were not slow to defend themselves. Burke, with his usual fairness, has stated their case for them when he tells how they painted in the strongest colors the licentiousness of the rabble and that contempt of all government which makes it necessary to oppose to a violent distemper remedies not less violent. This is, of course, the excuse of every overbearing authority, which, having aroused irritation by its own mismanagement, can conceive of no better way of allaying that irritation than the bayonet and the bullet. The Ministry and the advocates of the Ministry maintained that the unhappy disposition of the people was such that juries under the influence of the general infatuation could hardly be got to do justice to soldiers under prosecution, unless Government interposed in the most effectual manner for the protection of those who had acted under their orders. They further urged that, in view of the danger of the insolence of the populace becoming contagious with the very soldiery, it was necessary for them to keep those servants firm to their duty by new and unusual rewards. "Whatever weight," says Burke, dryly, "might have been in these reasons, they were but little prevalent, and the Ministry became by this affair and its concomitant circumstances still more unpopular than by almost any other event." But it must in fairness be admitted that, foolish, stubborn, and even brutal as the King's ministers showed themselves to be, their position was a very difficult one.


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