The British Constitution in Crisis: The Gordon Riots and the American Revolution

By Lauren Michalak

In the first week of June 1780, London was nearly brought to its knees by a week-long riot. Rioters destroyed all but one prison, attacked the properties and bodies of judges and politicians, and attempted to sack the Bank of England. The proximate cause of the riots was the crown’s and parliament’s rejection of a petition, purportedly signed by over 100,000 Londoners, that advocated for the repeal of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act (CRA), a law that granted limited rights to Catholic subjects to encourage enlistment in the military. The rioters’ response to the rejected petition reflected broader, transatlantic concerns about government operating without the consent of the governed, echoing grievances raised by American colonists prior to their declaring independence. To regain control over London, George III, with the support of his Privy Council, issued an extraordinary order to empower the 15,000 troops (brought into the city shortly after the riots began) to fire-at-will on the crowd, without the approval of civil magistrates as necessitated by law. As a result of this order, the number of casualties skyrocketed, with troops killing between 400 and 700 persons, and injuring countless more. The number of arrested also grew upwards of 450, of which 160 were tried, with 75 convicted and 25 executed (62 were initially sentenced to death, with 37 granted clemency) for participating in the riots.[1] This crackdown on the rioters marked the end of any real consideration for the petitioners’ grievances. Following the suppression of the riots, Lord George Gordon, the head of the Protestant Association who organized the petition and protest, and from whom the riots got their name, was arrested for inciting the riot and tried for high treason (he was ultimately acquitted). 

Historians have been hesitant to situate the Gordon Riots within the Age of Revolutions.[2] What would happen if we saw the Gordon Riots as part of the imperial crisis, and intricately connected to the American Revolution? Indeed, many Britons and Americans at the time did. Steve Pincus’ (and others) have called for a global perspective to the American Revolution that would ultimately help us to “think the empire whole.”[3] Taking this approach with the Gordon Riots not only enables us to see the ongoing entrenched and interdependent political convictions between subjects across the fracturing empire, but also makes evident the British constitution’s significant precarity in the face of growing political grievances over power and consent.

The Gordon Riots, and in particular the Protestant Association’s petitioning and protest prior to the riots, gives us a window into how deep the “imperial” fracture manifested in the supposed “domestic” realm. Protestant Associators’ publications reveal that their criticism of the British government dovetailed with American critiques prior to declaring independence. For example, associators and their sympathizers drew parallels between the 1778 CRA and the 1774 Quebec Act. MP Frederick Bull, in a Parliamentary speech following the riots, connected the two acts when asserting that the “late toleration of Popery within this realm…[was] part of a deep laid ministerial plan—a plan which has for its object the destruction of the liberties of the people, and the formation of an arbitrary despotic government.”[4] A seemingly perennial threat to British liberties, Popery ushered in memories of kings and queens ruling arbitrarily and sparked real concerns that, with the passage of the CRA, the government was trending in that direction, willing to infringe on their subjects’ rights to amass power.[5]

Indeed, George III’s ultimate response to the riots seemed to confirm that he sought such power: He demanded that his Privy Council reinterpret statutes so that his troops could bypass civil magistrates and fire-at-will on the crowd. In making such an order, George III not only increased his own power but flouted the contemporary understanding of the English Constitution–perhaps a side benefit to quashing the riots. His government, and allies in the press, took special pains to emphasize that this move was necessary, that despite all appearances, it was not a deployment of martial law. It was different from what they had done in Boston in 1774, the crown and allies implied. Yet when Opposition members raised questions in Parliament about the continued presence of military troops in London, troops encamped seemingly permanently in Hyde Park, the crown kept the troops and dismissed the questions.[6]

Critically, to fully understand the Gordon Riots as part of the imperial crisis, we must recognize its reverberating Anglo-Atlantic dynamics.[7] The riots were not just a symptom of the British constitution in crisis, but also exacerbated the crisis. News of the riots circulated in newspapers throughout in the U.S., with Patriot printers homing in on Parliament’s rejection of the petition and George’s empowering troops to quash the riots.[8] English publications insinuated that American and French spies instigated the riots.[9] Newspapers in both places covered Gordon’s trial for high treason in detail. Patriot printers’ used the riots to implicitly reaffirm their own grievances with the British constitution and to emphasize the necessity of achieving independence, especially by detailing the king’s “stretch of authority” that forced Parliamentary approval after the fact.[10] Patriot correspondents confirm this interpretation of just what the king’s actions portended, with John Adams remarking “The King seems in a fair Way to the Summit of all his wishes, absolute Power. Martial Law is very agreable to him.” A correspondent with Benjamin Franklin noted that by quelling the mob and restoring peace, the reinvigorated British government thought they could “subdue the whole world,” including the American states. These examples demonstrate just some of the ways Patriot leaders drew meaning and constructed narratives from the Gordon Riots for their own political cause.[11] 

The Gordon Riots allow us to better understand the totality of the imperial crisis. Rioters nearly brought London to its knees: nightly bonfires lit up the sky, all but one prison was torn down, the Bank of England was threatened, the house of the chief justice burned, government officials were attacked and Parliament was besieged. Yet this event, usually viewed as a hiccup in an otherwise stable imperial nation, would not have occurred without broader political fissures in the empire. And it played a crucial role in furthering those fractures, even after the British government was able to contain the riots’ challenge to the British constitution. In a May 1780 letter, just a few weeks before the start of the Gordon Riots, John Adams asserted “Ld George Gordon I think will be the Oliver Cromwell, after all. He seems the only Man of Common sense, and he begins with Religion. Burke, Barry, Fox, Conway, &x and all the rest appear but small Boys to Lord George.”[12] We will probably never know exactly what Adams read prior to his assessment of Gordon’s character and place in history, but Adams had reasons to consider him an ally.[13] Gordon had spoken out numerous times against the American War as MP from the pocket borough of Ludgershall.[14]  Adams’ May letter, and the circulation of news about Gordon and the June 1780 London riots that bear his name, point to a continued shared political culture amidst a fracturing empire. And, more importantly, placing the riots in conversation with the American Revolution underscores just how fragile the British constitution was at the end of the eighteenth century—not only on the peripheries, but in the very heart of the British imperial nation.


Lauren Michalak is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her dissertation, tentatively titled “‘The Mobs All Cry’d Peace with America’: The Gordon Riots and Revolution in England and America,” examines Anglo-Atlantic revolutionary politics during the American Revolution by exploring the connections between the 1780 Gordon Riots in London and American Patriot and Loyalist ideology and rhetoric. 

Title Image: Gordon rioters in front of Newgate, which is in flames. This is a more or less exact representation of the scene (with some details introduced which occurred elsewhere during the riots) as described in letters, &c.

Suggested Readings:

Gould, Eliga H. The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution. UNC Press Books, 2011.

Green, Dominic. “The Lunatick Apostle: The Life and Times of Lord George Gordon (1751-1793).” Ph.D. diss. Brandeis University, 2012.

Haywood, Ian, and John Seed. The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, UK ; Cambridge University Press, 2012. 

Jones, Brad A. “‘In Favour of Popery’: Patriotism, Protestantism, and the Gordon Riots in the Revolutionary British Atlantic.” The Journal of British Studies 52, no. 01 (January 2013): 79–102. https://doi.org/10.1017/jbr.2012.60.

Klooster, Wim. Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 

Rogers, Nicholas. Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain. Clarendon Press, 1998.

Rudé, George F. E. “The Gordon Riots: A Study of the Rioters and Their Victims: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6 (1956): 93–114. https://doi.org/10.2307/3678842.

Endnotes:

[1] George Rudé, “The Gordon Riots: A Study of the Rioters and Their Victims: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 6 (1956): 93-114, 99.

[2] For older historiographical interpretations that centered the riots domestically, see: Christopher Hibbert, King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 (Sutton, 2004); Rudé, “The Gordon Riots”; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Open Road Media, 2016). More recent scholarship that incorporates Atlantic elements include: Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain (Clarendon Press, 1998); Ian Haywood and John Seed, eds., The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, UK ; Cambridge University Press, 2012); Brad A. Jones, “‘In Favour of Popery’: Patriotism, Protestantism, and the Gordon Riots in the Revolutionary British Atlantic,” The Journal of British Studies 52, no. 01 (January 2013): 79–102, ; Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Historical Sociology 3, no. 3 (1990): 225–52.

[3] Steve Pincus, et. al., “Thinking the empire whole,” History Australia Vol. 16: 4 (2019): 610-637.

[4] “The Speech of Mr. Alderman Bull…,” The Protestant Magazine vol. 1 (London, 1781), 173. Emphasis original.

[5] American colonists shared this concern with Popery as well. See John Dickinson’s notes and drafts on the First Continental Congress’s Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec (Series 1.b, Box 3, Fol. 12, R.R. Logan Collection of John Dickinson papers (Collection 383), Historical Society of Pennsylvania), in which he strongly objects to the “popery” of the Quebec Bill—not the permission for individuals to practice Roman Catholicism, but specifically the abolition of local jury trials and the structure of the colonial government (appointed by crown, not elected by the people) associated with the “arbitrary” nature of the act.

[6] Whitehall Evening Post, 10 June 1780; Public Advertiser, 10 June 1780; John Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George the Third, vol. 5 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1927-1928), 74, 76; “Debates in the Two Political Clubrooms,” The Town and Country Magazine (August 1780), 410; Christopher Hibbert, King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 (Sutton, 2004), 102–3.

[7] Joel Herman traced a similar situation between the American Revolution and the development of the Irish Free Trade movement (“Transnational News and the Irish Free Trade Crisis of 1779,” Age of Revolutions, 8 February 2021, https://ageofrevolutions.com/2021/02/08/transnational-news-and-the-irish-free-trade-crisis-of-1779/).

[8] Some examples of newspapers printing detailed accounts include Pennsylvania Journal, 16 August 1780 and Independent Chronicle, 7 September 1780, among many others. Loyalist printers also reprinted and framed the Gordon Riots to suit their political narrative, championing George’s powerful response to the riots as evidence that a similar return to order would happen in the rebelling American colonies. I explore their interpretation further in a conference paper given at the 2021 Consortium on the Revolutionary Era virtual conference and in my dissertation’s fourth chapter.

[9] Adams’s Weekly Courant, 20 June 1780.

[10] Independent Ledger, 4 September 1780.

[11] “John Adams to Abigail Adams, 23 June 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives; “To Benjamin Franklin from Thomas Digges, 12 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[12] John Adams to Edmé Jacques Genet, 20 May 1780, Founders Online, National Archives.

[13] Ibid. See editors’ comments in fn. 1 on potential origin for Adams’ view of Gordon.

[14] For more on Gordon’s life, see Dominic Green, “The Lunatick Apostle: The Life and Times of Lord George Gordon (1751-1793),” Ph.D. diss., (Brandeis University, 2012). Examples of American newspapers reprinting stories about Gordon and/or the Gordon Riots include: Boston Gazette, 24 May 1780; Maryland Journal, 29 August 1780; The Royal Gazette (New York), 2 September 1780; Pennsylvania Packet, 26 August 1779.

2 thoughts on “The British Constitution in Crisis: The Gordon Riots and the American Revolution

  1. Great post! Thank you.
    French historian Edmond Dziembowski has a fascinating chapter on the Gordon Riots in Le siècle des révolutions, 1660-1789 (Perrin ed., 2019). The chapter is entitled “La Révolution d’Angleterre n’aura pas lieu” (the English revolution that won’t happen) pp.369-393.

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    1. Thank you! I’ll have to see if there’s an English copy I can track down! I’m interested to see his interpretation!

      Like

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