Even among liberal and reform-minded politicians, the notion of true ‘democracy’ in late 18th-century British politics was something to be feared and avoided. True political privilege, many argued, was a precious and delicate right only to be entrusted to men of wealth, education and breeding. The common man was viewed by many among the ruling class as essentially untrustworthy and child-like, and incapable of making rational or informed choices.
By the 1790s, however, pressure for parliamentary reform was mounting. Much of it came from the emerging commercial middle class which was keen to exert its influence in parliament. This middle-class campaign also mobilized support among artisans by forming popular radical societies calling for voting reform. This handbill from the 1790s sets out a declaration of the assumed ‘Rights of Englishmen’ common to many of these campaigns. At their core was a desire for universal suffrage: a vote for every male citizen in order to release them from the ‘slavery’ of being subject to laws and governments only ever chosen by a narrow elite of electors.