In a surprise reversal, the Special Commission at York granted reprieves to the Luddites who had destroyed several looms and spinning mules, committed lesser crimes of theft, and conspired to spread violence. Times in Britain were chaotic and desperate, not just from the blossoming Industrial Revolution and the reprisals from the Luddites, but also from the ongoing Napoleonic Wars where the French l'Empereur had just stormed Russia with his Grande Armée. The complex times called for swift action with the people.
Until this point, the government had been heavy-handed in its treatment of the working class. Inventions and modernizations were improving machines so that one man could do the work of a dozen. The textile industry received the greatest forward push using water power to drive looms with complex machinations replacing the skilled labor of years of guiding warps. Unemployment became widespread, and the cottage industry was overwhelmed by cheap manufactures. Desperate in these difficult economic times, the unemployed struck back, destroying industry and writing pamphlets signed by “King Ludd”, a cartoon figure based on Ned Ludd, a man who had been whipped for idleness and destroyed two frames in a fit of passion in 1779.
After widespread destruction of some 200 frames and nearly militaristic uprising by the Luddites, the Frame Breaking Act was passed in 1812, making destruction of a capital offense. Twelve thousand troops moved into Yorkshire and the surrounding North to restore order. A commission was installed to study the situation and root out the leaders with the plan of executing them as examples and solidifying productivity for the region and contribution to the war effort. However, as the commission followed the stories of the poor, they resolved that different measures must be taken to protect a way of life.
Excerpts from the sentencing explain the view of protectionism, “You, the other prisoners, James Haigh, Jonathan Dean, John Ogden, Thomas Brook, and John Walker, have been victim of one of the greatest outrages that ever was committed in a civilized country.” Civilization itself was the outrage, placing productivity over humanity. Rather than punish the men for defending their livelihoods, the commission pushed for the government to support its people.
The Act called for their execution, but the commission instead sentenced them to labor, the lack thereof had been the problem in the first case. “Hear the sentence which the Laws of man pronounce upon your crimes. The sentence of the Law is, and this Court doth adjudge, That you, the several Prisoners at the bar, be taken from hence to a place where you may retake your pursuits in industry.” The commission recommended to Parliament that taxation on textiles be invoked to support the less fortunate. Under social pressure and promises for military support, Parliament conceded.
Thus the Industrial Revolution in Britain became a model for other nations in progressive support for those who would be pushed to the periphery as society climbed to new heights. Taxation slowed potential progress by yoking monetary gain, but the funding became available for education for young and welfare for those economically displaced. Enormous public debts would routinely cause economic crises, but general welfare would continue.
After Napoleon's 1814 defeat, exile to Elba, and return in 1815, money for military uniforms and weapons was too tight to supply the soldiers needed for a quick defeat of the upstart at Waterloo or even Antwerp. The Lowlands Campaign dragged on for two years before Napoleon's death in battle after effectively destroying Prussian military prowess. Still, Europe would recover, and Britain would come to the forefront of progress over the course of the nineteenth century with such advances as the successes of Chartism in the 1840s and implementation of railways in the 1850s.
In reality, the York Special Commission found the men guilty of industrial sabotage and executed them. The movement for the rights of workers would be set back decades, even the 1838 Chartist movement failing on many of its points that would not be fully met until WWI. Built upon the backs of workers, industry surged ahead, establishing widespread growth in GDP and luxury goods for the poor as had never before been seen in history. National achievements such as defeating Napoleon and establishing public steam railways as early as 1825 would become landmarks of the ever-accelerating Industrial Revolution.