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Manchester Association for Constitutional Order

Minute Book of the Manchester Association for Preserving Constitutional Order against Levellers and Republicans

A.6.45 Association for preserving constitutional order against Levellers and Republicans. Constitution and minutes of Committee 1792-99 (Crossley collection) 49 ff.

View the pdf of the Manchester Association for Constitutional Order here.

The minute book of the Manchester Association for Preserving Constitutional Order against Levellers and Republicans is one of a number of Library sources shedding light on the fear of revolution, a key feature of English political life in the 1790s. This was felt for the first time in 1792 when the government and propertied classes began to fear an alleged nationwide conspiracy aimed at the overthrow of the established order.

On the 20th November 1792, John Reeves (1752-1829), a judge and public official, founded at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in London the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. The Association was staggeringly successful, outstripping even the Constitutional societies, and within a short time more than 2,000 local branches had been established. Members sought to disrupt radical meetings, prohibit the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, publish loyalist propaganda, and initiate prosecutions for sedition.

The Manchester Association was founded three weeks after the London meeting, on the 12th December in the Bull’s Head Tavern. Over the next seven years the Association grew until it had over 160 members. Manufacturers and merchants dominated the committee, and most of the leading figures in the industrial and commercial life of the town became members, with a fair sprinkling of lawyers and clergymen. All members were required to sign a declaration of secrecy, and a paid man was stationed at the door at each meeting to interrogate those entering the room.

Very few of the archives of the provincial associations have survived and the minute book of the Manchester Association offers a remarkable insight into the conservative and propertied classes in 1790s Manchester. One of the objectives of the Association was to initiate prosecution against radicals, but the minute book of the Manchester Association indicates that they were not particularly active in this regard. A special committee was set up to receive information, and some of the members of the committee were active in securing evidence against radicals, but the body as a whole was less successful in initiating prosecutions.

The Association was more successful in distributing loyalist propaganda, and arranged for the printing and distribution of many thousands of copies of its own declaration of objectives and of some pamphlets and hand-bills on treason. The Manchester Association continued to meet intermittently up to 1799 but this was not typical as most of the regional committees folded after a few months. They had in many ways achieved their objectives: by flooding the country with loyalist literature and by uniting and organising the propertied classes, the Associations had transformed a situation of danger into one of confidence. Many of the tasks they had performed in a period of emergency were now taken on by other bodies and by government. According to the Leeds Mercury, the French Revolution made the whole country Tory, and the Association Movement played no small part in this process.