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John Thelwall on political sheep shearing (1795)

The radical English journalist John Thelwall (1764-1834) was imprisoned for supporting the French Revolution at a time when Britain was at war with France. He gave many lectures for the London Corresponding Society and at their meetings political songs like this one about “political sheep shearers” were sung:

COME to a song of rustic growth List all my jolly hearers, Whose moral plainly tends to prove That all the world are sheerers, How shepherds sheer their silly sheep, How statesmen sheer the state, And all when they can sheer no more Are sheer’d themselves by fate. Then a sheering we will go, &c.

But these are petty sheerers all, And fleece a little flock; Behold where haughty ministers Fleece the whole nations stock: The while pretended patriots, A still more venal race, With liberty and bawling cant, Would fleece them of their place— When a fleecing they, &c.

But cease ye fleecing senators Your country to undo— Or know we British Sans Cullottes Hereafter may fleece you, For well we know if tamely thus We yield our wool like drones Ye will not only fleece our backs, By God you’ll pick our bones— When a fleecing ye, &c.

Since then, we every rank and state May justly fleecers call, And since Corruption’s venal pack Would fleece us worse than all, May we Oppression’s out-stretch’d sheers With dauntless zeal defy, Resolv’d fair Freedom’s golden fleece To vindicate or die. When a fleecing they do go.

A SHEEPSHEERING SONG.

COME to a song of rustic growth List all my jolly hearers, Whose moral plainly tends to prove That all the world are sheerers, How shepherds sheer their silly sheep, How statesmen sheer the state, And all when they can sheer no more Are sheer’d themselves by fate. Then a sheering we will go, &c.

The farmer sends his clippers forth, And deems it not a sin To sheer the lambhog of his fleece, And sometimes snip his skin, Then if his landlord rack-rents him, Can he deem it unfair That he thus, in his turn, again, Is snipp’d and fleec’d as bare. Then a fleecing, &c.

Nor is the wealthy landlord’s self Of fleecing free from fears; How oft his rent-roll shrinks beneath His steward’s clipping sheers; And if he chances, for redress, The lawyer in to call, Why he takes out his legal sheers, And fleeces worse than all. With his capias, alias, and plurias, declaration, plea, replication, rejoinder, surrejoinder, rebutter, surrebutter, writ [191] of enquiry, writ of error, habeas corpus—flaws; fees; three and fourpence, six and eightpence, thirteen and fourpence, one pound one, &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. ad infinitum. Thus a fleecing he does go, &c.

But when the hour of sickness comes, And fevers mar his sleep, This legal fleecer proves, alas! Himself a silly sheep; Grave doctor’s call’d, whose potions, pills, The speed of death encrease, While his prescription sheers the while Strip off the golden fleece; When a fleecing he, &c.

At length the patient trembling feels His latter end is nigh— And conscience brings his crimes to view And makes him fear to die, That holy fleecer, call’d a priest, Is then call’d quickly in, Who, finding all the wool is gone, E’en strips him of his skin. Thus a fleecing, &c.

But hold, cries Mrs. Piety, And lifts her goggling eyes, O wicked lout, these holy men Thus for to scandalize! To steal the fleece, or strip the skin Not wicked robbers they, But watchful dogs, whose pious care Keeps fox and wolf away. Lest a fleecing they should go, &c.

Yet tell me, honest neighbours all, When oft with fresh demands, For rates, for fees, for Easter dues They tax your rack-rent lands, While for their tythings often they Perpetual warfare keep, Do they look more like dogs who guard, Or wolves who tear your sheep? When a fleecing they, &c.

Nor think that they in country shades, Can all the fleecing own, Full many a sheepish flat, each day, Is fleec’d in London town: There tradesmen fleece their customers, Them sharpers fleece, and then Your thieftakers, for hanging fees, The sharpers fleece again. When a fleecing, &c.

There misses too, patch’d painted pink’d, With fashion’s gaudy arts, With mincing wiles, and fraudful guile Would fleece us of our hearts. Yet while you’re roving thus at large, You bachelors may find, Miss will not only fleece your backs, But leave her mark behind. When a fleecing she, &c.

But these are petty sheerers all, And fleece a little flock; Behold where haughty ministers Fleece the whole nations stock: The while pretended patriots, A still more venal race, With liberty and bawling cant, Would fleece them of their place— When a fleecing they, &c.

But cease ye fleecing senators Your country to undo— Or know we British Sans Cullottes Hereafter may fleece you, For well we know if tamely thus We yield our wool like drones Ye will not only fleece our backs, By God you’ll pick our bones— When a fleecing ye, &c.

Since then, we every rank and state May justly fleecers call, And since Corruption’s venal pack Would fleece us worse than all, May we Oppression’s out-stretch’d sheers With dauntless zeal defy, Resolv’d fair Freedom’s golden fleece To vindicate or die. When a fleecing they do go.

About this Quotation:

John Thelwall joined the London Corresponding Society in 1792 to agitate for the kinds of freedoms which were being introduced in France just after the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Britain organised an alliance of the other monarchical powers to overthrow the new French Republic and restore the Bourbon monarch to the French throne. The LCS opposed this war and several of its members like Thelwall spent time in prison for their opposition. Thelwall was a popular orator whose lectures on political topics attracted sizable crowds. At these meetings he would lead the attendees in political songs which he published in his journal The Tribune. This is a typical example of one these songs. The political message is that politicians sheer the ordinary taxpayers of “fair Freedom’s golden fleece” just like shepherds shear their sheep for their wool. The barely concealed threat was that one day the “British Sans Cullottes” may rise up and defy their political shearers.

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