A radical orator, writer and friend of Coleridge, his lectures and publications were a thorn in the side of William Pitt’s repressive wartime government. Later in life he published important works on elocution.
On 13 May, John Thelwall was arrested along with other radical leaders after addressing a massed rally of the London Corresponding Society.
Held in prison for seven months, he wrote a defence speech, which he was warned would have led to his hanging. He was more restrained at his trial, was acquitted, then published the speech anyway under the title The Rights of Britons.
I studied Thelwall for my final year undergraduate dissertation. His writings in 1795-96 are seen as significant in their focus on the economic as well as political condition of the common people in wartime Britain. And he wore a cudgel-proof hat as protection against ruffians loyal to the Government, which I always thought was rather cool.
Last year, in reaction to the rather ahistorical excesses of some social media cheerleaders, I dug out one of my favourite Thelwall quotations, a defiant invocation of the human spirit under pressure:
“Whatever presses men together, therefore, though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse.”
I’ve scoured Thelwall’s works and can find little reference to the Rights of Woman. For that, we must turn to Mary Wollstonecraft.
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