When Thomas Cochrane Spoke Out …

It may surprise you, but not very long ago. only a very small minority of British subjects had the right to vote. Before the Reform Act of 1832  it was around 3%. The Reform Act raised it to 6%. Very radical!

And so the series of satirical paintings by Hogarth created in 1755, entitled “The Humours of an Election”  is not so far fetched. Here is one of the images, called “Chairing the Member

Image result for Hogarth election

The scene is described thus

One of the victorious Tory candidates is being carried through the streets on a chair in a traditional ceremony. He is about to tumble down because one of his carriers has just been accidentally hit on the head by a flail carried by a Tory-supporting rural labourer who is attempting to fight off a Whig supporter (an old sailor with a bear).

A group of frightened pigs run across the scene in a reference to the story of the gadarene swine. The Whig leaders watch from a nearby house. At the right two young chimney sweeps urinate on the bear.

Sir Kenneth Clark found the blind violinist on the right to be a charming touch of whimsy that elevates the painting above mere satire.

This raucous mood seemed to crest around that time known as the Regency, around the turn of the century.  The Regency, was a time of astonishing excess. The Prince Regent, who assumed kingly duties in place of his temporarily mad father, King George III, was at the center of all this. Here he is celebrating his birthday, in a caricature by Cruikshanks

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Sadly, after Napoleon was finally removed from power, the mood soured. An agricultural depression got ugly, and led to the passage of the infamous “Corn Laws“. These laws imposed a tariff on imported grain. Why suddenly was imported grain so dangerous?  The landed gentry needed the revenue from their own grain sales and could not afford to be undercut by imports. It mattered less to them that the high food prices this caused might adversely affect the poor.

The passage of the Corn Laws demonstrates who held the reins of power at that time – the landed gentry who were represented by the Tory party dominated parliament. The Tories held power by and large throughout the late 1700’s and up to 1830, with Whigs only coming in for brief periods.

You can see then why electoral reform became such a political hot potato. The hated Corn Laws had to be repealed and Tories had to be forced to share power more equitably. Those pushing for this would meet at the newly founded “Reform Club“.  BTW, the Corn Laws were finally repealed in 1846. The Economist Magazine, still in print today, was founded in 1843 with help from the Anti-Corn Law League.  This all may sound a bit obscure to us, but it was a very, very big deal back then.Indeed, the arguments for the repeal of the Corn Laws brought discussion of “the benefits of free trade” to the fore, and we might argue is the starting point for building our modern system of trade … that recently has become rather controversial.

My interest in this goes to the earlier part of this era when the Radicals started speaking out about electoral reform. Radicals and Whigs sometimes took similar positions on electoral reform, but the Radicals felt the Whigs were too soft. They wanted actin now! Unfortunately for them, they never developed any coherent political organization, and so they generally were kept out of power.

Thomas Cochrane, was one of the Radicals, and his story is rather incredible . Here he is

He was a naval hero. Napoleon himself called Cochrane “Le Loup des Mers” (Wolf of the Seas).  You can get the details of his exploits from the above link,. Suffice to say here that Cochrane’s career was the stuff of legend that inspired Forester a century later to create Horatio Hornblower.  He was not just any old dude.

Cochrane was also a Scott who liked to speak his mind. A more colloquial way to put this might be that he liked to “mouth off”. This was behavior that the Radicals found engaging, but as we will see, it got Cochrane into serious hot water given the political tensions of the day.

Cochrane was elected to Parliament as a Radical in 1806 and he started complaining right away. Given that this was the Regency Period, no doubt here was much to complain about. But not surprisingly, he started developing powerful enemies. In 1809, his public complaint about a fellow naval officer’s conduct in battle led to an inquiry and his being stripped of naval command. Then in 1814, he was implicated inn a fraud.

In June with five others he was brought to trial for fraud in a trial presided over by the harsh, overbearing and Radical-hating Lord Ellenborough. The outcome was never going to be in question and, even though the prosecuting counsel admitted the evidence was circumstantial, Cochrane was found guilty.

A word about Lord Ellenborough.. He was a high Tory and

… a notable enemy of the radicals, who had previously convicted and sentenced to prison radical politicians William Cobbett and Henry Hunt in politically motivated trials

Here is Lord Ellenborough in full glory. BTW, his is an interesting story as well. He started his public life as a Whig, but went hard Tory in reaction to  the french revolution.

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You get the idea. Cochrane swore he was innocent and the circumstantial evidence against him was weak. But the fact that there was circumstantial evidence at all was convenient and Ellenborough was easily persuaded to convict.

And the result?

Cochrane was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, fined £1,000 and was ordered to stand in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange for one hour. In subsequent weeks, he was dismissed from the Royal Navy by the Admiralty and expelled from Parliament following a motion in the House of Commons. Cochrane was further humiliated by the loss of his knighthood in a degradation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His banner was taken down from the Chapel of Henry VII in the Abbey and physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps outside.

Cochrane’s story does not end there. He went on to more amazing naval exploits for other countries. When the Whigs eventually came to power, and the nasty old Prince Regent (now George IV) passed away, Cochrane’s honor and career were restored. Eventually, the government even paid compensation to his descendants for the injustice of the trial.

It is an engaging tale — and perhaps would make an interesting movie. It also tells us something that may be relevant today. Stripped of all the rhetoric, Cochrane the Radical, was targeted as a political gesture. Political passions trumped reason and good will..And this type of unseemly targeting can happen whenever the political heat becomes uncomfortable for figures in power.Nixon, for example, had his enemies list.

The political heat in the US is rather high these days, And we have already seen a certain amount of this unseemly behavior. The targeting of Hilary Clinton is a prominent example.

I suspect that we will see more of this as the political heat rises further and perhaps from all sides. If and when we do, we can at least be reminded that it is nothing new. And hopefully the ugly mood will pass, as it did after the political impasse of the early 19th century in Britain was eventually broken and reform was won … errr …  at least for men

Let’s see, said the blind man!


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