It is a sad irony that the ordinary British soldier found himself disadvantaged by both neo-classical and liberal ideals. The ideal Georgian male citizen was independent, capable of subsisting on the product of his own labour, while soldiers were not. The soldiers’ failure in masculinity did not lie in their appearance, manners, or their profession, for fighting was undeniably masculine. Their failure lay rather in their status as wage-earning dependents, putting them on the same level as servants. To be in a dependent state was not merely thought to make a man vulnerable to coercion by his benefactor, but actually to render him incapable of truly independent thought or action. It was in this context that soldiers posed a threat, for their dependence would make them obedient to their officers, their generals, and whomsoever commanded the generals, be it the King or some politician.
The contemporary British fear of military government was not without justification, though the influence was not the pseudo-republican Interregnum alone, but the reign of James II, whose expansion and use of the regular army was widely seen as an attempt at military coercion.0 This attitude can be seen in the army’s involvement in the maintenance of public order. English law did not make clear whether or not soldiers could be used for riot control, with precedent and perception drawing the argument in opposing directions. On the one hand soldiers were in theory subject to the same law as civilians, meaning that they were required to assist the civil powers if called upon to do so. On the other hand, the use of soldiers in maintaining the civil peace was generally considered to be illegal, or at least unconstitutional, a belief for which there was no legal basis.0 The soldiers themselves resented riot control duties, as they often understood and sympathised with the rioters.0 On rare occasions they even became actively involved in sedition.
The most infamous example of this possibility was the so-called Despard plot. 0 While it is unclear whether it represented a real threat, the plot attracted significant attention because of its highest-ranking member, namely Colonel Edward Despard. While it was not unknown for individual enlisted men to become involved with seditious groups of one sort or another, for a man of Despard’s high rank to do so was both unthinkable and unprecedented in recent history. The plan was certainly shocking enough, with Despard’s small group supposedly planning to assassinate the King and seize various important buildings and positions throughout London, apparently confident of a mass uprising in their support. Far from such lofty ambitions, Despard’s fate was to be denounced by government informers, found guilty, and to be the last convict in British history to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
The extent to which the plot has any wider significance related to the identity of the British army is debateable. E. P. Thompson argues in The Making of the English Working Class that the event was of enormous significance, in that it tied together the Irish uprising of 1798 with the grievances of the downtrodden and disadvantaged in England. He furthermore argues that the Despard plot was entirely real, but that Despard himself had been led into it by others, and that he failed to defend himself out of a sense of honour.0 Mike Jay takes a different line, focussing on the weakness of the evidence against Despard, and the desire of the government to maintain credibility in the face of repeated failures to convict suspected terrorists. Marianne Elliott has concluded that Despard became involved with the plot in his capacity as a member of the United Irishmen movement, having been sent to restrain the conspirators long enough for their plan to coincide with the planned Irish uprising.0
The relatively small scale of the Despard plot, numbering only a handful of individuals, and Despard’s own situation militate against him representing any widespread tendency in the British officer corps. Despard was, as Jay describes him, a ‘patriot without a nation’. He entered the radical underground, Jay claims, because few other options were open to him at the time. Two years in prison for debt had effectively wrecked his military career, even if his troubles with the Jamaican planters, whom he had so enraged with his policies as governor, had not. He could not take the usual path of marrying his way to better things because he was already married to Catherine, whom Victorian commentators would dismiss as ‘his black housekeeper.’0 If he was the rejected misfit Jay made him out to be, then he cannot be considered representative of the officer corps of which he was ostensibly a member.
Nor can his experiences after moving to London from Jamaica necessarily be considered representative of the circumstances of officers. What ultimately ruined Despard’s chances of a further military career was his imprisonment in 1792 for debt amassed through legal bills and what Jay describes as an unfortunate tendency to neglect his personal finances, deriving from his wealthy background.0 It is worth pointing out that despite a policy of increasing trade with Jamaica, which meant not antagonizing the Jamaican planters, Grenville’s verdict in October of 1791 was that Despard had done no wrong.0 Although he was not reinstated the lack of stain on his character, combined with his impressive war record in the Spanish Main alongside Horatio Nelson, meant that were it not for his time in jail, there should have been little or no bar to him acquiring a new commission.
Though the radical movement known as the United Irishmen, of whom Colonel Despard may have been a founding member, was highly successful in infiltrating and further radicalising English radical movements, this success was not replicated with the army or the militia. Ironically, crucial evidence against Despard at his trial was provided by a certain Thomas Windsor, a disgruntled soldier who had signed on as a Home Office agent after being refused a discharge. It was Windsor who assigned to Despard the fatal phrase ‘His Majesty must be put to death.’0 Mike Jay regards Windsor’s motivation as being a desire to improve his bargaining posture, perhaps seeking to gain his discharge by being of use to the government. He was certainly not the only soldier to engage in this line of work. Sergeant Joseph Tankard of the 11th Light Dragoons joined on the orders of his commanding officer as part of an infiltration and evidence-gathering effort.0 Despite this, it would be inaccurate and unfair to argue that the army was entirely obedient and quiescent. Soldiers and militiamen became involved in public disorder from time to time, a notable example being the 1795 food riots.0