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Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis

"Knowledge Against Paper: Forgery, State Violence and Radical Cultural Resistance in the Romantic Period"

Alex Benchimol
University of Glasgow


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1.        The production, representation and circulation of radical knowledge have become important areas of scholarly investigation in Romantic period studies over the last twenty years. In books like Kevin Gilmartin’s Print Politics (1996), Michael Scrivener’s Seditious Allegories (2001) and Ian Haywood’s The Revolution in Popular Literature (2004), radical Romantic intellectual and cultural production is mapped as a means to highlighting the wider ideological struggle against dominant economic, social and political narratives in the period. Haywood has demonstrated in his Bloody Romanticism (2006) that this struggle against a corrupt economic and political system was often a bloody process, emphasizing the centrality of what he calls “spectacular violence” in the wider public sphere: “In order for the Romantic period to develop an unprecedented self-awareness about the depravities of public violence, and in order for the radical critique of cyclical State violence to be disseminated throughout the public sphere, spectacular violence had to become a major cultural force” (3). The radical campaign against the paper money system, and the corrupt polity that facilitated its emergence and unsteady existence in the early nineteenth century, provides one illustration of how the production and circulation of radical knowledge in the public sphere helped to create an oppositional site of “spectacular violence” in the Romantic period for its popular audience. The print protests of William Cobbett and T. J. Wooler against the paper money system and its brutal political enforcement demonstrate how the depiction of state violence can be used as a vehicle of ideological resistance in the service of radical political and economic reform. As Wooler put it in The Black Dwarf about the judicial crisis sparked by the forgery executions of December 1818, even the “many admirers of ‘the system,’ confess they do not like it disfigured with blood” (Black Dwarf 2 [16 Dec. 1818], 789).

2.        “Gentlemen; we, the people of this country, have been persuaded to believe many things,” writes Cobbett almost a decade earlier in the first letter of his “Paper Against Gold” article series in the Political Register. “We have been persuaded to believe ourselves to be ‘the most thinking people in Europe;’ but, to what purpose do men think, unless they arrive at useful knowledge by thinking?” (Register 18 [1 Sep. 1810], 260). This essay will firstly examine the strategy of radical education in the early nineteenth-century plebeian public sphere around the issue of paper money, illustrated by Cobbett in his article series “Paper Against Gold”, published in the Political Register during 1810-11. Cobbett’s role as a counter-hegemonic intellectual in the series and the conception of popular knowledge it championed will be emphasized, in part through his attempts to expose the complex workings of the wider financial system he described as a “place… of a sort of mysterious existence; a sort of Financial Ark; a place not, perhaps, to be touched, or even seen” (Register 18 [8 Sep. 1810], 294). The second part of the essay will demonstrate how this form of critical publicity was transformed in the postwar years into an active project of resistance against the worst abuses of the paper money system, culminating in Cobbett’s “puff out” campaign in the Register to materially undermine Bank of England paper currency and Wooler’s print protests in The Black Dwarf directly confronting the enforcement of the “bloody code” in the capital forgery trials of late 1818. This postwar print campaign against the paper money system illustrates key aspects of the wider radical intellectual project in the plebeian public sphere, highlighting how the radical press “converted” popular public debate into a new form of cultural currency in the Romantic period, a currency that emblematized a continuing concern for the material welfare of its readers and listeners in the face of a corrupt and bloody political and economic system.

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3.        In their carefully constructed thematic sections and transparently didactic tone the articles in “Paper Against Gold” resemble a popular lecture series in the form of correspondence. The subtitle to the articles, “Being An Examination Of The Report Of The Bullion Committee In A Series Of Letters To The Tradesmen And Farmers In And Near Salisbury”, gives an indication of the audience Cobbett sought to address. It was this important group of petit-bourgeois local stakeholders in the national economy that he believed to be at risk in the rapidly expanding paper-money system. As in his “Perish Commerce” Register articles published in 1807-8 attacking the corrupt roots and corrosive social effects of free trade in England, Cobbett’s argument presumes class interest to be at the heart of the current fiscal and monetary policies pursued by the government.

4.        In the introduction to the first letter Cobbett lays out the theme he will pursue throughout the series: “I think it may not be amiss, if, upon this occasion, I address myself to you. I have introduced myself to you without any ceremony; but before we part, we shall become well acquainted; and, I make no doubt, that you will understand the distinction between Paper-Money and Gold-Money much too well for it to be in the power of any one ever again to deceive you...” (Register 18 [1 Sep. 1810], 259). Cobbett views his intellectual function as facilitating public understanding of the official conclusions published in the Bullion Report [1] , an influential document chiefly composed by the Scottish Whig economist Francis Horner from the Select Committee tasked with investigating the associated values of Gold Bullion and paper currency in the national economy. The conclusions of this Report, as Cobbett sceptically relates, suggest “that it is possible to lessen the quantity of the paper-money, and to cause guineas to come back again and to pass from hand to hand as in former times” without “the total destruction of the paper-money” system. Mocking the intellectual arrogance and moral self-regard reflected in the Report, Cobbett reminds his audience of the practical material issues at stake in public debates like this one: “such is our present situation in this country, that every man, who has a family to preserve from want, ought to endeavour to make himself acquainted with the nature, and with the probable consequences, of the paper-money now afloat” (261).

5.        He begins his interrogation of the paper-money system with a simple reminder of the use value of money as a method of exchange for goods: “Money is the representative, or the token of property, or things of value. The money, while used as money, is of no other use; and, therefore, a bit of lead or of wood or of leather, would be as good as gold or silver, to be used as money” (261). Ever the practical materialist, Cobbett wants his audience to see the root causes of their domestic discomfort, causes concealed by the increasingly dominant method of paper currency transaction:

while we are all acquainted with the fact, and while many of us are most sensibly feeling the effects, scarcely a man amongst us takes the trouble to inquire into the cause... We see the country abounding with paper-money; we see every man’s band full of it; we frequently talk of it as a strange thing, and a great evil; but never do we inquire into the cause of it.
With an appeal to popular collective memory, he traces the spread of paper currency by focusing on the changing pattern of social relations in the English countryside: “There are few of you, who cannot remember the time, when there was scarcely ever a bank note among Tradesmen and Farmers... People, in those days, used to carry little bags to put their money in, instead of the paste-board or leather cases that they now carry” (262).

6.        In the second letter published in the Register, Cobbett continues with his investigation of paper money, this time focusing on the way it functioned to sustain the current funding system. He begins with a cautionary note regarding the popular mystification surrounding key terms like “Fund” and “National Debt” used in the new discourse of commercial finance. “These are words,” he writes, “which are frequently made use of; but, like many other words, they stand for things which are little understood, and the less, perhaps, because the words are so very commonly used” (Register 18 [8 Sep. 1810], 290). He continues:

if a right understanding of the meaning of these words be, in all cases where the words are used, of some consequence, it is of peculiar consequence here, where... we shall find the Funds, the Stocks, and the National Debt, to be so closely interwoven with the Bank Notes, as to be quite inseparable therefrom in every possible state or stage of their existence.
Cobbett here seeks to be both practical pedagogue as well as engaged social critic, patiently deciphering the reifying language deployed by the new financial elite in order to rally some kind of collective resistance to the paper money system and the political order it served. This was “an inquiry”, he explains, “worthy of the undivided attention of every true Englishman” and “every man who wishes to see this country of his forefathers preserved from ruin and subjugation” (291).

7.        Cobbett developed his discourse of economic populism as an explicit appeal to the suspicion and scepticism of the plebeian classes about the new paper money system. He also stressed the need for different indicators of what the political economists called “national prosperity”—a powerful abstraction utilized to promote the benefits of economic modernization from the perspective of a small elite of financiers, company directors, wealthy consumers, and high level government bureaucrats. This conception of national prosperity, Cobbett argued in the third letter, was demonstrated in “the increase of the number of chariots and of fine-dressed people”, rather than in the “good morals, of the labouring classes of the people” (Register 18 [12 Sep. 1810], 331-32). Far from promoting the health and productive energies of the labouring classes, this notion of prosperity, according to Cobbett, has had the opposite effect. In a series of questions to those farmers and tradesmen—the local stakeholders with a direct responsibility for the well-being of their labourers—he highlights the material inequalities produced by the new financial system and its shambolic notion of prosperity: “Have our labourers a plentiful meal of food fit for man? Do they taste meat once in a day? Are they decently clothed? Have they the means of obtaining firing? Are they and their children healthy and happy?” With reference to the direct experience of his audience, he adds, “I put these questions to you, Gentlemen, who have the means of knowing the facts, and who must, I am afraid, answer them all in the negative” (332).

8.        In the twenty-fifth letter of the series, published in July 1811, Cobbett reduces the concept of paper money to its original function as a unit of exchange in the wider economy. By doing this, he attempts to revive a native plebeian scepticism—still residually present—toward the financial abstractions promoted by the new system. He opens with a simple lesson about inflation: “Money, of whatever sort, is, like everything else, lowered in its value in proportion as it becomes abundant or plenty” (Register 20 [6 July 1811], 2). Always keen to return the focus in this debate back to the world of material things, he continues:

The use of money is to serve men as a sign of the amount of the value of things that pass from man to man in the way of purchase and sale. It is plenty, or scarce, in proportion as its quantity is great or small compared with the quantity of things purchased and sold in the community; and, whenever it becomes, from any cause, plenty, it depreciates, or sinks in value (2).
This was ultimately a lesson in the use-value of paper money in the day-to-day lives of ordinary labourers. To this end, Cobbett points out the difference between paper money and a staple commodity like bread, “one having a real value in its utility in supporting man, and the money having only an imaginary value” (3). He is making an important distinction between these things of “real value”—which were the product of “our soil or of our labour” and hence subject to a natural, if self-sustaining, scarcity—and the artificiality of paper currency in the commercial market system, where an increase in the amount of paper money in circulation meant that “any given quantity of it would purchase less bread” (4). This had more than an abstract meaning to his audience. As a result of the inflation generated by the new paper money system, prices rose by some eighty percent between 1797 and 1818, making staple items for the ordinary household prohibitively expensive. [2] 

9.        Exposing the ideological interests of the new financial elite who promoted the paper-money system, those men “that had profited from that borrowing” on the National Debt, was perhaps the most important of Cobbett’s critical objectives in the series. According to him the new financial system was based upon the activities of a small, parasitic group of capitalists who both compelled the payment of the interest on the National Debt as well as constructed the means for doing so through the expanding system of paper money. For Cobbett, the only question worth asking was not being addressed by the Bullion Committee. The question was whether the people can “by any means, diminish the amount of the Dividends” paid on the debt: “if that question had been answered in the negative, there was no course, for those who wished to support the Pitt system, to pursue but that of letting things take their own course, and aid the paper with their wishes” (17). But this attempt by the elite at public legitimation was in danger of backfiring. The issue had now been brought to the attention of the “public mind”, and the mystification surrounding it had been punctured, not least through pioneering efforts in counter-publicity [3]  and popular education like Cobbett’s article series. By considering the Committee’s recommendations in Parliament in May of 1811, the economic elite had by no means closed off all debate on the larger political issues surrounding the paper money system. Still a believer in the possibilities of democratic discourse, Cobbett’s twenty-fifth letter suggests that the political establishment had now opened the issue up to the wider scrutiny of the labouring classes, and, through the efforts of interlocutors like himself in the public sphere, this establishment was in danger of losing control of the debate (17-18).

10.        Throughout this extraordinary series of letters published in the Political Register, Cobbett was above all attempting to initiate a “legitimation crisis”—to use Jürgen Habermas’s influential phrase [4] —for a system he viewed as profoundly immoral, unjust, and constructed upon an unsustainable foundation of monetary abstractions. It was an essential, if often overlooked, prelude to Cobbett’s project of radical political reform pursued in the postwar period. His economic theories stemmed from a firm conviction, as A. L. Morton has bluntly put it in A People’s History of England, “that the common people, his people, had been robbed, were being robbed and would continue to be robbed until they combined to check and control the property-owning class” (318). This oppositional imperative is perhaps best illustrated by Cobbett’s address “To The Journeymen And Labourers Of England, Wales, Scotland And Ireland” in November of 1816 (Register 31 [2 Nov. 1816], 545-76).

11.        Cobbett’s address—published in a two-penny, unstamped pamphlet designed for the widest possible circulation—also marked a new stage of the radical intellectual project in the plebeian public sphere, building on the critical insights into the new paper money system and its political economy developed in “Paper Against Gold”. Beginning with the 1816 address a complementary strategy of collective protest—co-ordinated through the radical press—was initiated for the political and economic liberation of the labouring classes. These were the peak years of political activity in the plebeian public sphere, with the radical weekly occupying a central role in the wider Radical movement. Along with the founding of Wooler’s Black Dwarf a year later in 1817, this address by Cobbett signalled a new role for the unstamped weekly press as a vehicle for collective action. After long years of patient education of his public, Cobbett recognized that the time had now come for action: “Meeting after meeting, petition on petition, remonstrance on remonstrance, until the country be saved!” (Register 31 [16 Nov. 1816], 622).

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12.        This new strategic orientation of the plebeian public sphere was exemplified in events like the Spa Fields meetings of late 1816, where mass direct action in favour of broad constitutional rights proved, according to E. P. Thompson, “more revolutionary in its implication than the policy of conspiracy and insurrection” (682). Indeed, the combination of this form of “popular constitutionalism” with the mass mobilization potential of the unstamped weeklies provoked intense Government surveillance of all radical activities, with two secret committees appointed to report on any links to “revolutionary” acts like the attack on the Prince Regent at the opening of Parliament in early 1817. Directly out of this parliamentary backlash against the Radical movement came the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the “Gagging Acts”. Not long after Cobbett left England and almost certain arrest, sailing from Liverpool in March and arriving in New York in May. This “defection” from the Radical movement, as Thompson has called it in The Making of the English Working Class (674), prompted much consternation from those that remained, not least Wooler, but Cobbett persisted as a powerful print presence through the publication of his two-pence Register from July, and with the contemporaneous acceleration of the forgery prosecutions, the absent radical leader made a dramatic print intervention from America with an audacious attack on the entire paper money system in the cause of political reform.

13.        The immediate context for this kind of intervention was especially favourable to the critiques being made of the economic and political system by radical reformers like Cobbett and Wooler. With the suspension of gold payments in 1797, the Bank of England introduced £1 and £2 paper notes for mass circulation, and, due to the uneven quality of these notes, a precipitous rise in prosecutions for both uttering and forging Banknotes was the inevitable outcome. According to the legal historian Phil Handler in his essay “Forging the Agenda: The 1819 Select Committee on the Criminal Laws Revisited”, the number of prosecutions rose from 4 in the fourteen years prior to 1797, to 972 in the twenty years that followed the Restriction. London, with its complex commercial economy, was at the centre of these prosecutions, and, as Handler observes, the Bank “was able to manipulate the system by allowing some offenders to plead guilty to a non-capital charge of possession, whilst prosecuting those who refused to plead guilty or who were particularly persistent offenders, with the capital offence of forging or uttering counterfeit notes” (252). The result of such an inherently arbitrary application of the law was that nearly one third of those hanged in the capital in the first eighteen years of the century were convicted of forgery. “This severity ensured that forgery retained a central position in public perceptions of the criminal law”, writes Handler, and in the postwar period, “when the volume of forged notes in circulation increased rapidly…the Bank’s prosecutions began to arouse serious controversy” (252). The Bank of England—the single most important financial institution in the country—was now seen, through penalty of death, to be enforcing the nation’s corrupt economic order.

14.        In August of 1818, amidst an increasing public crisis over the forgery prosecutions, Cobbett used his two-penny Register to highlight the illegitimacy of Bank of England notes, extending his argument from the “Paper Against Gold” series almost a decade earlier about the paper money system and proposing specific actions to undermine its very foundations in the country. Writing from his Long Island, New York exile, he assails the continued legislative support for the suspension of cash payments and its intimate connection to the entire material edifice of Old Corruption: “The truth is, that it is impossible for them to pay in coin, without putting an end to their power, which exists only because people imagine, that the bubble is not a bubble. They are more in debt than all the lands, houses, mines and canals would sell for by auction, if there were any bidders to lay down the money.” As in his earlier article series, Cobbett highlights the political economy of this financial arrangement constructed by the nation’s elite. “They throw off the burden, at present, upon the labour of the people”, he argues, and, adds darkly: “but, will they do this at a day of reckoning!” (Register 34 [22 Aug. 1818], 8). The means for facilitating this financial “day of reckoning”—Cobbett’s so-called “puff-out” plan—features in much of the article’s subsequent discussion.

15.        Before he lays out the details of his plan for undermining the paper money system, Cobbett reminds his audience of the ideological nature of what he calls the “infernal funding system’—a system that “must produce misery as general as the air, and more severe than misery was ever before known” (13). What began as a wartime expedient to account for the shortage of gold was now being perpetuated in the postwar economy as part of the fiction of financial solvency for the Bank of England and its associated fundholders. The current debates in Parliament about delaying cash payments have only served to highlight how the nation’s financial and political elite, those who “live on the Funds and Taxes”, “had an interest in upholding the credit of the mischievous bubble” (14). For Cobbett, this relationship between organized financial corruption and the unrepresentative political system in the country was key to the sustaining of both, and hence a central target of his own postwar intellectual project, embodied in efforts like his 1816 print address and the present article. “It is now clear to you, my friends”, he writes, “that the existence of the Borough System depends entirely on that of the credit of the Paper Money; and it is, I think, equally clear, that the credit of the Paper Money may, at any hour, be destroyed in a moment, and that, too, as quietly as we can kill a frog or toad” (15-16).

16.        In his “puff out” scheme Cobbett cleverly amplifies the public controversy around the forgery prosecutions to both undermine the legitimacy of Bank-produced paper currency as well as to underscore the material social injustice of the corrupt postwar economic system it emblematized. “It is the uttering of the forged paper that causes all the detections and all the hangings. Men utter it, because they want food, raiment, and drink, in exchange”, he reasons. “But, if the nation, goaded into deep enterprize, should, one of these fine mornings, find itself amidst abundance of Bank Notes, picked up in the streets, or taken out of post-letters, who, from that day forth, would ever take a Bank Note? Hard money alone would pass. Wheat would be three shillings a bushel. The bubble and the Borough-mongers would drop dead as a clod” (16). Drawing upon the moral currency of the unstamped press as his vehicle of radical resistance, Cobbett provides his substantial audience of readers and listeners with the methods for bringing down the postwar economic and political system, announcing: “To throw forged Bank notes (knowing them to be forged) about the street, or on the highways, or to put them into letters to go by post, is to utter them. But, who is to detect the utterer?” (17). This strategy has the practical effect of undermining the basic currency of London’s complex commercial economy while also demonstrating the manifest absurdity of the current policy of enforcement: “All money transactions would be at a stand. No buying, no selling. A Bank note would be rejected as something beneath contempt,” Cobbett observes (21).

17.        Cobbett’s scheme was premised on the assumption that paper currency was, as Kevin Gilmartin has put it, “the weakest link in a corrupt system, and the most promising ‘point’ of radical resistance” (Print Politics 163-4). It indicated a wider transition in Cobbett’s project of radical opposition, mirroring the means by which the corrupt political order attempted to maintain its dominance, as Gilmartin has argued: “Cobbett's ‘puff-out’ rested on the sense that a historical shift in oppressive power from force to fraud required a corresponding shift in political resistance” (164). In this 1818 Register article, much like in his 1816 print address, he empowers a marginalized and persecuted section of the postwar economy with a political agency otherwise unavailable to it. “And, as to the means of making this attack; as to the means of dealing this decisive blow,” Cobbett writes, “they are in the hands of thousands upon thousands of men, who are now in England, and who must wish to see the system destroyed.” Crucially, this plan of popular forgery rests on the democratization of printing, using forged notes as a material counterweight to the official paper money system in a suitably symbolic response to Government attempts at the regulation of the radical press: “The means are graving tools, price five shillings, perhaps A printing apparatus that a man may keep in a cubic foot of space. Some paper. And the operator’s own dwelling house”(18).

18.        The aim of this proposed act of mass forgery is made perfectly clear: “There are no means of preventing it except that of putting an end to the Paper-Money; and that is all that any one would wish to accomplish; for, then we know that the Borough and Dungeon, and Spy system is at an end” (19). Cobbett’s “puff-out” scheme would be very difficult to enforce against, highlighting the structural weaknesses of a corrupt and elitely administered political and economic system, as he emphasizes: “Neither Judge nor packed Jury, nor Circular Letter, nor Bill of Indemnity, could avail aught against this blow. Their Yeomanry Cavalry might sally forth prancing and swearing to hack the wind. The Bank would meet in select committee and the Privy Council, with Eldon and Canning amongst them, would be called together by Lord Liverpool, who, when proposing the Dungeon Bill, said that Ministers were ‘resolved to pursue the STERN path of duty’ ” (20-21). Perhaps the most important feature of Cobbett’s “puff-out” plan is that it serves to remind his audience of the profoundly ideological nature of the paper money system, with a clear attack on the wealth and power of its primary beneficiaries, the “fund-holders” and their political servants, the “Boroughmongers”. The political function of the current financial arrangements —a key point of discussion in “Paper Against Gold”—would be exposed for all to see: “They fear, that the nation would never suffer them to keep estates, bought principally with the borrowed money, while the lenders, however foolish and base, were starving; and, I am sure, that their fear is well-founded” (23-4). The plan would strike this corrupt politico-economic system at its roots, as Cobbett declares: “What a pretty foundation does the Boroughmonger system stand upon, then? This is their ‘solid system of finance,’ is it?” (25).

19.        As these assessments demonstrate, Cobbett’s “puff-out” plan should be understood in the wider context of the Radical reform movement during an episode of political crisis in the country’s capital city and financial centre. The increasing sense of injustice surrounding the forgery prosecutions and widespread suspicion cast upon Bank currency at this time only served to emphasize the need for immediate and major reform of the nation’s political and economic system. Cobbett is at pains to make clear that his mass forgery plan is above all intended to assist in the larger cause of radical reform, something he was keen to remind a British radical audience from his exile across the Atlantic: “If I am asked, what inducement any body can have to make Bank Notes in order to scatter them about the streets and high-ways, I answer; what inducements have any of us Reformers had, and have, for any of our exertions in the cause of Reform?” (24). Eliminating the hold of paper money on the postwar economy was a precondition to political reform: “A Reform would certainly put an end to the paper-money; but, the existence of the latter it is that has hitherto prevented the Reform” (27). Empowering his plebeian audience with such a key role in the larger struggle for political reform was surely a continuing reminder to the Establishment of the potency of the radical press in general and his Register in particular: “This, then, is the mighty Boroughmonger System! A thing which a Cobler with his awl may annihilate. There is no need of daggers for the many-headed monster. It may be killed as easy as a Hanoverian cracks a louse that he finds in his whiskers. A little money to buy paper. That is all that is wanted; and, as to such a sum for such a purpose, what is it!” (26). The same could be said, of course, for the two pence paid by those reading about Cobbett’s audacious “puff-out” plan throughout the country.

20.        Almost three weeks later Cobbett’s main rival in the plebeian public sphere, T. J. Wooler, published an impassioned protest against the forgery prosecutions in his Black Dwarf that complemented the exiled radical leader’s attack on the morality of the regime brutally enforcing the paper money system. In an article from September 1818 entitled “FORGERY OF BANK NOTES”, Wooler expressed profound scepticism about the means by which those accused of forging and uttering Bank notes had been convicted, arguing: “Before life is taken, the best and strongest proof that can be obtained, ought assuredly to be demanded.” The use of Bank employees as primary witnesses in recent successful prosecutions “has given value and force to…vague assertions, and they pass for proof”, with the result that the accused “is sacrificed to protect the Bank” with his life (Black Dwarf 2 [9 Sep. 1818], 562). In situations like this, the aim behind Cobbett’s “puff-out” plan is presented as a valid means to highlighting the deeply corrupt enforcement system in the service of the Bank of England: “Suppose it should assert that all its notes were forgeries! and bring all its servants to assert the fact! What would the Judge recommend the Juries to do with the possessors of them?” (562).

21.        Unlike Cobbett’s “puff-out” scheme in the Register, however, Wooler’s impressive print battle against the forgery prosecutions in The Black Dwarf places the judicial system itself on public trial for its role in the wider paper money system, as Phil Handler notes: “He conducted a campaign designed to subvert the Bank prosecutions and specifically urged jurors to reject the Bank’s evidence in the trials” (“Forging the Agenda” 253). This aim is dramatically set out in “FORGERY OF BANK NOTES”, with Wooler citing a contemporary case to add a sense of immediacy to his crusade: “To support the system, homicide has been legalized; and the name of law has been prostituted, and perverted to such a degree, that a Judge exclaims in the most evident astonishment, ‘What! come into a Court of Justice to talk about moral right, or moral wrong!’ There is something so monstrous in this, as imperiously to demand the public interference, lest justice should indeed perish beneath the load which miscalled law has heaped upon her” (561). That this judicial farce in the service of the Bank of England often ends in death for those accused only reinforces the urgency of the cultural resistance carried out in the pages of The Black Dwarf against the paper money system. “The authors of the misery that prevails, ought to be more honest,” Wooler implores, “than to drive men to wretchedness, to tempt them into a commission of a crime, and then to seize the life as forfeit to their power, which has been overcome by their temptation.” Echoing Cobbett, he asserts: “Nothing is easier than to forge bank notes—except the uttering of them when they are forged—and both are punished with the last of human sacrifices, the punishment of death!!!” (561).

22.        Wooler’s sustained print campaign in the plebeian public sphere against the forgery prosecutions focused on the integrity of the jury system as a symbolic battleground for wider public opinion around the issue of paper money. [5]  In a follow up front-page Black Dwarf article published two weeks after the “FORGERY OF BANK NOTES”, Wooler defended the intellectual autonomy of the British jury system as an essential moral counterweight to an inherently corrupt legal process. “To suppose because a bad law exists, affecting the lives of Englishmen, that Juries must become parties to its execution, is an absurdity,” he writes. Elaborating on this theme, Wooler observes:

The Jury is called, by the intent and spirit of all just legislation, to decide upon the moral guilt of the party accused—to ascertain what injury he has done to society—and to determine what punishment is merited:—and if there be no medium between inflicting an unjust, and cruelly severe punishment upon the offender, and suffering him entirely to escape, few juries will hereafter hesitate to pronounce, “that it is better many should escape, than one unjustly suffer.”
Crucially, he presents the moral and intellectual autonomy of the jury in these forgery prosecutions as an extension of a wider—and more compassionate—public opinion on the issue, adding: “Public feeling always revolts at unnecessary cruelty :—but when cruelly is useless, as well as unnecessary, there is an end to all reasoning against it” (Black Dwarf 2 [23 Sep. 1818], 593). A key element of this public outrage centred around the arbitrary nature of Bank-sponsored prosecutions and executions for forging and uttering Banknotes, something that Wooler directs his audience’s attention to as a rallying point for wider political resistance on the issue: “The Bank is perfectly aware, if it attempted to execute half its victims, they would be rescued from the scaffold by the public indignation. A mere statement of the numbers implicated will sufficiently prove that no government dare carry the law into effect,” he suggests, in a clear echo of Cobbett’s immediate objectives for his “puff-out” plan (597). With the judicial system so distorted by its obligations to the Bank over the prosecutions, Wooler argues that juries in these cases have now become the public embodiment of political justice, constituting a kind of symbolic avant-garde of radical resistance to the entire paper money regime in the country: “the whole system is sadly in want of a revision—and if the legislature should continue to neglect its duty, let a few humane and resolute jurymen refuse to find verdicts for the Bank, and necessity will effect what ought to be the result of justice” (600).

23.        This campaign against the forgery prosecutions in The Black Dwarf emphasized the transformative role of radical knowledge in the public sphere. In a headline article from October 1818 Wooler attempts to clarify the immediate duty of the radical press as a democratic check on the corrupt political and economic system, while demonstrating how it can also be used as an important vehicle for reform in its own right. He recounts a typical case of prosecution for uttering Banknotes as a thematic preface to the editorial article—where the poor quality of official Banknotes and confusion over what constitutes an expert opinion on forged notes makes the capital nature of the offence so morally appalling. “The deformity of the system encreases, as it is developed; and the hideous features of the paper demon become blacker as they are exposed to the sun,” Wooler declares to his audience, inviting them to share in his indignation. “The mind sickens to disgust at the hideous measures taken to sustain the blood-cemented fabric of paper currency; and turn with horror from the perspective immolations, which are destined to supply the future appetite for carnage,” he adds (Black Dwarf 2 [14 Oct. 1818], 641). With the clarity of an expert prosecutor probing the criminal malfeasance of the accused in the court of public opinion, Wooler gets to the heart of the injustice surrounding the forgery trials, “No one can read the uncertainty which pervades all the proceedings on this rotten foundation, without being convinced that the Bank is guilty of nearly all the mischiefs that flow from the offence of forgery,” he charges. “It has no certain means of distinguishing its own notes. This is demonstrated by its servants paying bad ones—those very servants who are called upon occasionally, and who ought always to be called, to pronounce upon the authenticity of those stated to be forgeries” (642). Without an objective and transparent basis for what constitutes a forged Banknote, Wooler argues, the entire legal edifice upon which the prosecutions are being conducted is undermined. Appealing to a plebeian public familiar with the importance of skill and accuracy in their working practices, Wooler asserts: “In the present advanced state of the arts, it is impossible to produce any engraving that might not be imitated more or less perfectly.” When “bank notes are so miserably executed”, he suggests, “any engraver’s apprentice could counterfeit them with the utmost facility” (644). This is followed by a lengthy critique of the Bank’s production process from a Liverpool correspondent that highlights the lack of craftsmanship and precision in its practices (644-45). In short, Wooler provides his own “expert” witness in print form to add to his public indictment of the Bank in the executions associated with the forgery crisis.

24.        It is fitting that the leading radical journal of the postwar plebeian public sphere would emphasize the importance of older, artisanal production practices as a necessary corrective to the contemporary problems associated with the paper money system, but Wooler’s aims go beyond this kind of local reform. As both Alex Dick and Phil Handler have argued in respective studies of the forgery crisis, Wooler was instrumental in publicizing the immorality of the forgery executions as an emblem of the “bloody code” in the nineteenth century, where death was still used as a punishment for property crime. [6]  At the conclusion of this October Black Dwarf lead article, he reminds his audience of just what was at stake in the public debates over the forgery prosecutions:

To contribute to rescue one from the scaffold, will be a greater consolation to the BLACK DWARF, than the death of a million of sacrifices to the system can be to the ministry, or to the Bank. The policy of capital punishment for any crime save that of murder, begins to be doubted by every humane mind; but that forgery and the utterance of forged notes, should be punished with death, excites disgust in all, save those who profit by the law (646).
By drawing attention to the key role played by his journal in these battles for public opinion during the forgery crisis, Wooler underscores how radical knowledge can help to transform the wider public debate by identifying those economic and political agents who work against the establishment of democratic values in the country. “Awaked as the public mind is at present to the subject, it is not to be expected that the repose of the Bank should be left quite undisturbed as it has been,” he writes. “Insult and oppression have been all that the public have received from an acquiescence in the paper system. To that public is committed the expression of its own opinion, when the collected facts are laid before the public tribunal” (646-47).

25.        In an opening Black Dwarf article from 25 November directly addressed to “the Directors of the Bank of England”, Wooler extends his trial of the forgery prosecutions in the court of public opinion, presenting himself as a lead spokesman for a radical and rational public sphere capable of providing some effective moral judgement upon the shambolic nature of the official legal proceedings. “To appeal to your humanity, or sense of justice, would be useless,” he begins. “Your interest has perverted the one and deadened the other to a degree which would render you entirely callous to such an appeal.” In place of any “appeal” to the Bank—or the courts who have so shamelessly served it during the forgery crisis—Wooler instead emphasizes the moral autonomy and ideological authority of the radical press as an alternative vehicle for justice: “It remains, therefore, for the public to do itself that justice which you deny—to express its abhorrence of the system, in which you triumph, and as far as in them lies, to lend themselves no longer to the destructive practices of the system to which your establishment belongs, as an integral part.” This is a significant moment in the forgery crisis, where the leading intellectual opponent of the prosecutions asserts the full force of radical public opinion against the moral authority of a corrupt state and its principal financial institution. “To enlighten that public,” Wooler continues, “and not with the hope of converting you, is the object of the present compilation of the evidences of the falsehood of the fabric upon which prosecutions for the utterance of forged, or pretended forged, notes is erected” (Black Dwarf 2 [25 Nov. 1818], 737).

26.        Wooler lists a series of “charges” against the Bank that the “pages of the Black Dwarf have already recorded”, “sufficient testimony”, he argues, “to induce every honest juryman to pause before he surrenders his conscience to the Bank, and his sense of mercy to the Bench” (737). These include the following: the ease and accuracy of forgery; the ignorance and duplicity of the chief witnesses; the poor quality of official Banknotes; the lack of substantial evidence against the accused; the obvious ideological interests of the court Judges; and finally—and perhaps most morally dubious in capital cases—the lack of judicial rigour in accepting “expert” opinion for what he calls “positive evidence” (737-38). With the threat of the full force of popular radical opinion behind him, Wooler writes to the Bank Directors: “You can no longer hope to deceive. Your practices are exposed; and the exposition will proceed with increasing conviction of their fatal—their unjust tendency” (738). The paper currency of the radical weekly is here presented as the true emblem of national democratic values and the only real repository of justice in the affair, in place of the elaborate monetary deceptions, judicial corruption and elite political interests represented by the now blood-stained paper currency of the Bank of England. In the pages that follow, Wooler enacts a radical print trial of the Bank and its prosecutions, complete with his own “expert witness” (“a practical workman”), re-creation of relevant court arguments, and critiques of the tenuous legal basis for guilty verdicts, taken in part from correspondence with The Black Dwarf by readers and subscribers (738-43). He also reminds the Bank Directors of the increasing national reach of opposition to the paper money system, owed in no small part to the role played by periodicals like The Black Dwarf: “It is not only in London that ‘the System,’ is known and hated. Common sense has travelled into the country; and every mail brings to the ear some fresh remonstrance, or some fresh proof of the discontent that so generally prevails against your ‘system”’ (741).

27.        In December 1818 the Old Bailey became the principal battleground over the fate of the paper money system. Wooler’s print crusade in The Black Dwarf against the evidential basis of the forgery prosecutions was beginning to resonate, as Phil Handler has noted: “the dominant feeling of jurors in the forgery trials towards the end of 1818 was distrust of the Bank and the paper money system it was concerned to protect” (“The Limits of Discretion” 162). Juries at the trials of John Williams and John Dye acquitted the accused based on the dubious nature of Bank-sponsored evidence. [7]  Wooler’s response to the acquittals celebrates the efficacy of radical public opinion in the crisis. “We have not attacked the wicked system adopted on behalf of this tottering Mammoth without effect,” he opens the lead article in the 9 December issue of The Black Dwarf, titled “DEFEAT OF THE BANK”. He continues, “We have aroused, and concentrated, public opinion on this vital question; and enjoy the triumph which we were only able to suggest, with the most heartfelt congratulation.” Wooler adds, “ALL is safe, when a BRITISH JURY is fairly appealed to” (Black Dwarf 2 [9 Dec. 1818], 769), in a reference perhaps to recent high profile radical acquittals by juries defying judicial prejudice, like that of William Hone a year earlier at the Guildhall.

28.        It is clear, however, that Wooler has a much larger target than the issue of judicial corruption in these cases. For him, the dominance of the paper money system—as well as its corrupt legal apparatus—was shown to be vulnerable when challenged by directed radical publicity in the public sphere. “To destroy these practices was worthy the ambition of a giant; and the success, it is hoped, will do some credit to the efforts of a Dwarf,” he suggests to his audience, with a considerable degree of pride (769). The paper money system “has now a rough road to proceed upon, and is stumbling at every pace upon some fragments of the wreck of national and individual welfare.” He asks: “Who will be found to lend any assistance to its wheels, that he may be himself crushed under them?” (769-70). At the article’s conclusion Wooler links the immediate triumph of the December forgery acquittals to the wider project for radical political reform:

The system feels the shock through all the ramifications of corruption—and trembles through every fibre of its dependents. It is in Threadneedle Street that the foundation of our miseries was laid—it is there they must be redressed. There, in the very temple of our oppressors must the banner of our emancipation be erected; and it is there, that national justice, and national humanity, ought to inscribe on tablets of brass the immortal names of those Jurymen, who have “dared to be honest, in the worst of times!” (775).
This call for the heroic memorialisation of the forgery jurors in The Black Dwarf was echoed during another period of crisis in the radical reform movement, when Wooler would suggest to his audience that the names of those martyred at Peterloo “should be collected, and a pretty little book compiled, to keep in memory for ever the bloody transactions of the day” (Black Dwarf 3 [25 Aug. 1819], 552). This comparison between the forgery jurors and the Radical protesters is significant, and not simply for the link it provides between two key episodes in postwar radicalism. Alex Dick has observed that “the same class of people that acquitted the Banknote forgers in December, 1818 were also those who gathered at St. Peter’s field eight months later” (393), drawing our attention back to the manner in which Wooler used the forgery jurors as symbolic surrogates for his audience in the wider plebeian public sphere, and how he would reprise this in his Peterloo writings about those martyred demonstrators for a wider Radical movement in desperate need of alternative means of protesting the state’s brutal political repression in Manchester. [8] 

29.        Despite the euphoria that accompanied the acquittals, in the 16 December 1818 issue of The Black Dwarf, under the headline of “MURDER!!!”, Wooler depicts a paper money system both soaking in blood and scarred by legal hypocrisy after the execution orders for three men were announced for “passing bad notes”, as he puts it (Black Dwarf 2 [16 Dec. 1818], 784). That they were convicted on a similar evidentiary basis to those who were acquitted the week earlier only adds to the public perception of calculated state injustice. In a direct attack on the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, Wooler again sets himself the role as the spokesman for an outraged popular public casting damning moral judgement on a corrupt and murderous regime in dire need of radical reform. “The public has been insulted by the deliberate sacrifice of three wretched individuals: and Lord Sidmouth has been the officiating priest at the altar of our infuriate Moloch,” he writes, in reference to the paper money system. “The public must speak,” Wooler implores, “and speak in thunder, to the feelings of this heartless man” (783). This lead article includes a petition written on behalf of the condemned utterers to the Prince Regent, a letter of protest to the Home Secretary, and perhaps most poignantly, a petition from the men themselves taken from a Sunday newspaper to conclude the piece (784-86, 789-90).

30.        In his final comments Wooler returns to a theme pursued throughout The Black Dwarf print campaign against the forgery prosecutions. “An unjust law is NO LAW, and ought not to influence juries to do wrong,” he argues. In an appeal to his audience in the wider plebeian public sphere—many of whom, like the condemned, with a first-hand experience of the corrupt paper money system—Wooler writes: “A partial law is a disgrace to justice: and while hundreds of utterers of forged notes are allowed to escape the penalty of the law, all who are made to undergo that penalty are unjustly put to death; and before a higher than an earthly tribunal, the offence will not be deemed the less, because it is shared by many, and justified by a perverted statute.” To emphasize the political nature of the executions—and the bloody monetary system they are intended to protect—Wooler directly implicates Sidmouth in the murder of the condemned: “May the spectres of his victims be constantly before his eyes! May his sleep never again be tranquil, until he atones for his fault by laying down an office he is every way unqualified to fill.” “Even his friends startle at his conduct,” Wooler adds, “and many admirers of ‘the system,’ confess they do not like it disfigured with blood” (789).

31.        Indeed, the legal historian Phil Handler has commented that the immediate effect of the executions, along with the earlier acquittals, “precipitated a crisis within the criminal justice system and a widespread debate on the best means of preventing forgery” (“Forging the Agenda” 253). Handler argues that the “trials and executions for forgery provided a stark public reminder of the evils of the paper system and the unreliability of Bank of England notes”, thus adding to “the political momentum towards a resumption of cash payments” and galvanizing “the criminal law reform movement”. He observes: “At the beginning of the 1819 parliamentary session the government had no intention of tackling the cash payments issue or initiating a full-scale inquiry into the operation of the criminal laws, but by March it had conceded both issues” (256). These comments remind us of the political efficacy of directed publicity in the plebeian public sphere, where sustained analysis and argument transmitted by leading radical weeklies like Cobbett’s Political Register and Wooler’s Black Dwarf provided a national platform for issues—like the paper money system—that had a disproportionate material impact on the everyday lives of their audience. The ideological relevance of the radical press at this time even provoked a reconsideration of the “bloody code” itself, as Handler has demonstrated. The report of a parliamentary Select Committee appointed to examine the legal basis of capital punishment explicitly cited the forgery executions as a manifestation of public alienation with the capital laws, and in a tone of moral disapproval similar to that found in the pages of the radical press: “There is no offence in which the infliction of death seems more repugnant to the strong and general and declared sense of the Public, than forgery; there is no other in which there appears to prevail a greater compassion for the offender and more horror at capital executions” (qtd. in “Forging the Agenda” 259).

32.        Cobbett and Wooler’s opposition to the paper money system and its often brutal legal enforcement demonstrate how the production and dissemination of radical knowledge in the plebeian public sphere effectively confronted a corrupt and bloody political and economic order. More significantly, the critical debates around the paper money system initiated by these two leading radical intellectuals of the early nineteenth century allow us to see how dedicated strategies of cultural resistance were developed in response to the immediate needs of their readers and listeners, and how these popular concerns were fed back into the wider public debate about the relationship between paper money and judicial violence in an unreformed polity. “Resentment of the Bank and the paper system was at the heart of the forgery crisis,” Phil Handler observes. “Radicals harnessed public concern over the problem of forged notes to further their own attack on Old Corruption, which in turn threw many of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system into sharp relief” (“Forging the Agenda” 262). Perhaps fittingly, throughout this episode of political repression and economic crisis the paper currency of radical periodicals like the Register and The Black Dwarf became, for its audience, the most prominent emblem of their democratic aspirations, material welfare and desire for justice against the multifarious deceptions of the Bank, state and judicial systems.

Works Cited

Benchimol, Alex. Intellectual Politics and Cultural Conflict in the Romantic Period: Scottish Whigs, English Radicals and the Making of the British Public Sphere. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Cobbett, William. "To The Journeymen And Labourers Of England, Wales, Scotland, And Ireland." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 31 (November 1816): 545-76. Print.

Cobbett, William. "TO MESSRS. BENBOW, EVANS SENR. EVANS JUNR. JOHN ROBERTS, JOHN SMITH, FANCIS WARD, JOHN JONSON, JOHN KNIGHT, SAML. BROWN, JOHN BAGUELLY, AND THE REST OF THOSE, WHO HAVE ACTED THE SAME NOBLE PART: LETTER IV." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 34 (22 August 1818): 1-32. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Paper Against Gold: Being An Examination Of The Report of the Bullion Committee: In A Series Of Letters To The Tradesmen and Farmers In And Near Salisbury: Letter I." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 18 (1 September 1810): 258-69. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Paper Against Gold: Being An Examination Of The Report of the Bullion Committee: In A Series Of Letters To The Tradesmen and Farmers In And Near Salisbury: Letter II." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 18 (8 September 1810): 289-97. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Paper Against Gold: Being An Examination Of The Report of the Bullion Committee: In A Series Of Letters To The Tradesmen and Farmers In And Near Salisbury: Letter III." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 18 (12 September 1810): 321-33. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Paper Against Gold: Being an Examination of the Report of the Bullion Committee in a Series of Letters to the Tradesmen and Farmers In Or Near Salisbury: Letter XXV." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 20 (6 July 1811): 1-29. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Perish Commerce!" Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 12 (21 November 1807): 801-24. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Perish Commerce." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 12 (12 December 1807): 897-915. Print.

Cobbett, William. "Perish Commerce." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 13 (5 March 1808): 365-7. Print.

Cobbett, William. "To The Readers Of The Register." Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 31 (16 November 1816): 609-622. Print.

Dick, Alex J. "‘The Ghost of Gold’: Forgery Trials and the Standard of Value in Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy." European Romantic Review 18 (2007): 381-400. Print.

Ferguson, Niall. The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Fontana, Biancamaria. Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society: The Edinburgh Review 1802-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Print.

Gilmartin, Kevin. "Popular Radicalism and the Public Sphere." Studies in Romanticism 33 (1994): 549-57. Print.

Gilmartin, Kevin. Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975. Print.

Handler, Phil. "Forging the Agenda: The 1819 Select Committee on the Criminal Laws Revisited." The Journal of Legal History 25 (2004): 249-68. Print.

Handler, Phil. "The Limits of Discretion: Forgery and the Jury at the Old Bailey, 1818-1821." The Dearest Birthright of the English People: The Jury in the History of the Common Law. Ed. John W. Cairns and Grant McLeod. Oxford: Hart, 2002. Print.

Haywood, Ian. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2006. Print.

Haywood, Ian. The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People 1790-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Morton, A. L. A People’s History of England. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989. Print.

Scrivener, Michael. Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall & Jacobin Writing. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Print.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "BANKIANA!!" The Black Dwarf 2 (25 November 1818): 737-43. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "DEFEAT OF THE BANK." The Black Dwarf 2 (9 December 1818): 769-75. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "FORGERY OF BANK NOTES." The Black Dwarf 2 (9 September 1818): 561-5. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "FORGERY OF BANK NOTES!" The Black Dwarf 2 (23 September 1818): 593-601. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "FORGERY OF BANK NOTES.—No. 5." The Black Dwarf 2 (14 October 1818): 641-8. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "From the Black Dwarf in London, to the Yellow Bonze at Japan." The Black Dwarf 3 (25 August 1819): 550-2. Print.

[Wooler, T. J.]. "MURDER!!!" The Black Dwarf 2 (16 Dec. 1818): 783-90. Print.

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Notes

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[1] For an illuminating discussion of the Bullion Committee Report see Fontana 118-26. BACK

[2] See Ferguson 153. BACK

[3] For a conceptually valuable notion of counter-publicity in the period see Gilmartin, “Popular Radicalism and the Public Sphere” 553. BACK

[4] See Habermas. BACK

[5] A more thorough discussion of Wooler’s jury-focused campaign can be found in Handler, “The Limits of Discretion” 160-65. BACK

[6] See Dick 390-91; and Handler, “Forging the Agenda” 253 and “The Limits of Discretion” 160-65. BACK

[7] See Handler, “The Limits of Discretion” 161. BACK

[8] For an extended discussion of Wooler’s intellectual strategy in The Black Dwarf during the Peterloo crisis, see Benchimol 186-95. BACK

Published @ RC

February 2012

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