Monday, 27 February 2017

The French Revolution: the British debate

Britain in 1789

At the time of the fall of the Bastille, Britain was preoccupied with domestic politics. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, had survived the Regency Crisis, and the Foxite Opposition were more divided than ever. With a Commons majority and the support of the king he appeared safe.

However, he did not have it all his own way. Since the Wilkite agitations of the 1760s various reforming movements - some more radical than others - had sprung up. From 1787 a campaign to give full civil rights to Dissenters by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts  had got underway. It was spearheaded by 'Rational Dissenters' (later to be called Unitarians) like the ministers, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, together with well-to-do manufacturers, merchants, professional men, in both London and the provinces. The campaign was supported by Fox, but with the government opposed, it had no hope of getting through Parliament.

Richard Price
Dissenting Minister
National Library of Wales
Public Domain

The Anglican monopoly of political power was safe for the time being, but there was a great deal of bad feeling between the Church and the Dissenters. 

The Centenary celebrations

Many of the characteristics of 1790s politics were already in place before the French Revolution: the parliamentary duel between Pitt and Fox, provincial movements for parliamentary reform, the grievances of the Dissenters. The events of 1788 added a further ingredient when the centenary of the Glorious Revolution was celebrated with bonfires, revolution dinners, and balls. The tone of the celebrations was largely self-congratulatory, but in  towns such as Birmingham, Derby, Newcastle, Norwich and Sheffield, Whigs and Dissenters made common cause, toasting ‘Equal liberty to all mankind’ and the end of slavery. The radical Revolution Society toasted: 
‘May the dawn of liberty on the continent be soon succeeded by the bright sunshine of personal and mental freedom.’

The initial impact of the Revolution

The news of the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 reached Britain in the week after the event. Even before this, the newspapers, reporting the growing crisis in France, were referring to ‘the French Revolution’. In spite of the violence that accompanied the taking of the Bastille (the heads of the governor and the chief magistrate of Paris were stuck on pikes and paraded through the streets), most commentators complacently assumed that the French Revolution was a re-run of the Revolution of 1688. Members of the reforming societies sent a congratulatory message to the French. Fox said that the fall of the Bastille was 
‘much the greatest event that has ever happened in the world, and ... much the best’

In August the French National Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. On 4 October Parisian market women marched on Versailles to complain about food shortages. Overnight, violence broke out and the queen fled for her life down the corridors of the palace. On the following day royal family were forced to leave Versailles for the Tuileries Palace in Paris. They never saw Versailles again.

The March of the Women on Versailles, 5 October 1789
Public Domain

On 5 November 1789 Richard Price delivered a sermon in the City of London to commemorate the Glorious Revolution, which he then published as A Discourse on the Love of our Country It was an enthusiastic celebration of the Revolution, hailing the king's removal from Versailles as the dawn of a new age of liberty.

The intervention of Burke

But not everyone of influence welcomed the Revolution. From the start, Edmund Burke had refused to share his colleague Fox's enthusiasm and preferred to suspend judgement.  In a parliamentary debate in February 1790 he spoke of the danger of anarchy. Fox on the other hand, believed that in spite of the problems facing France, the current situation was preferable to what had gone before.

​In November 1790 Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, an attack on Dr Price’s sermon of the previous year, and in doing so he sparked off the British debate on the Revolution. Reflections is often seen as the most influential political pamphlet ever written, though its faults are obvious. It has been accused of being prejudiced, sentimental, and unhistorical. Burke was much mocked for his fulsome praise of Marie Antoinette. Caricaturists portrayed him as Don Dismallo. The historian Edward Gibbon described him in a barbed compliment as 
the most eloquent and rational madman I ever knew

Nevertheless, the book remains one of the great treatises on politics. Burke was unfair to the idealists who began the revolution, but in his interpretation of events he was justified in the end. He predicted violence and was proved right. And behind his sentimental excesses lay serious arguments that have laid the foundation of modern conservatism. 

  1. The Revolution’s secular radicalism laid the axe to the very roots of Christian civilisation. 
  2. Its ideology was a ‘mechanic philosophy’, its doctrine of the rights of man a mere abstraction.
  3. In contrast, Englishmen enjoyed specific, concrete liberties such as access to justice and ownership of property granted by Magna Carta and the common law. British liberties were deep-rooted and organic rather then mechanistic.

These arguments were to prove long-lasting.

The response to the Reflections

Burke's Reflections sold about 19,000 copies in its first year, with about another 30,000 over the next five years. It also sold well in France. The Whigs were divided in their response. Fox kept quiet about his disapproval but Sheridan was extremely vocal and the Pittite press gloated over Whig divisions. It inspired over fifty replies. 

The first of note was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men. It appeared anonymously in December 1790 and was republished almost immediately. Its most striking passage attacked Burke for sentimentality.
'Your tears are reserved ... for the declamation of the theatre or for the downfall of queens whose rank alters the nature of folly and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distresses of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration though they might extort an alms.'

Rights of Man, part 1

In 1787 the former excise officer Thomas Paine had returned to England from America, where his pamphlet Common Sense (1776) had inspired the revolutionary course. He and Burke knew each other and got on well because of their common support for the Americans. But when Burke published his Reflections, they became ideological enemies.

In March 1791 Paine published the first part of Rights of Man, dedicated to George Washington. 50,000 copies were sold in 1791 alone, breaking every publishing record. Like Wollstonecraft, he attacked Burke's sentimentality.

'Through the whole of Mr Burke's book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication, as if he were sorry it was pulled down.... Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout the book, has be bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope, in the most miserable of prisons. [Mr Burke] is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird.... His hero or heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of the dungeon....'

With his plain language and iconoclastic knock-about style, Paine had captured the interest of the labouring classes in a way none of his predecessors had managed - much to the dismay of some middle-class reformers.

Burke breaks with the Whigs

It was only a matter of time before the disagreement between Fox and Burke over the Revolution came into the open. In a routine debate in February 1790 Burke had attacked the French as a people whose 'character knew no medium' between despotism and anarchy. His disagreement with Fox deepened over the next twelve months. The break came on 6 May 1791 when Parliament was debating Quebec. This turned into an emotional exchange between Burke and Fox, at the end of which Burke proclaimed that 'their friendship was at an end'. Fox was left in tears. In the summer Fox paid a fraternal visit to France, and Burke published a defence of his views in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in which he responded in detail to Fox's remarks of 5 May. 

The Birmingham riots

The Priestley riots, 1791
Public Domain
Events in Britain took an ugly turn in July 1791 when a revolutionary dinner was held in Birmingham. This sparked off a riot in which Dissenting meeting houses were destroyed while the authorities looked on. Priestley had not been present at the dinner but he and his wife had to flee from their home. The mob torched his house, destroying his valuable laboratory and all of the family's belongings. Other homes of Dissenters were burned in the three-day riot. Priestley spent several days hiding with friends until he was able to travel safely to London.

By the summer of 1791 French politics had become more tense. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy had opened up divisions in France, causing the flight of many Catholic priests, a number of them to England. (By the end of 1792 there were to be over 10,000 émigrés in London alone.)

The failed flight to Varennes (20 June) had left the royal family virtual prisoners in the Tuileries. In August the king of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria threatened to punish France if the royal family were harmed.

Rights of Man, part 2

The publication of the much more radical part 2 of Rights of Man in February 1792 heightened the concerns of those who had had misgivings about part 1. He attacked the monarchy and the whole hereditary principle.

'All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny.... To inherit a government is to inherit the people as if they were flocks and herds. ...Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy. It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill, It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a king requires only the animal figure of man - a sort of breathing automaton....'

Paine’s work, which sold in a cheap edition, seemed a vindication of those who had argued that parliamentary reform would be the prelude to social revolution. 

He argued as well that a democratic government would reduce taxes on the poor but also levy a special property tax on the rich. He advocated child allowances of £4 p.a. for every child of a poor family until it reached the age of 14; old age pensions of £6 p.a. for those over 60; maternity allowances of £1 for each child born to a poor family; a marriage grant of £1 to each poor couple.

James Gillray, 'Fashion Before Ease'
Thomas Paine tries to force Britannia
into a constitution that does not suit her

Nothing could stop the circulation of Rights of Man. More than 100,000 copies were sold by 1793, in spite of the determination of the government to prevent the sales. In 1802 Paine estimated the sale of both parts at 4-5000,000 and in 1809 at 1½ million, including foreign translations.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie
Tate Britain
Public Domain
In January 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman - an impassioned plea for women's rights and rational education.  She argued that women were human before they were feminine. In the present ordering of society they had the vices of any oppressed group such as slaves, stifling their talents in an attempt to oppress men. As it was, society could not progress if half its members were kept backward. 

'How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre? How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!… Yet I sigh to think how few women aim at attaining this respectability by withdrawing from the giddy whirl of pleasure, or the indolent calm that stupefies the good sort of women it sucks in.'

Though she argued fiercely that women should earn their own livings, her  book did not focus on later feminist concerns such as the vote. Instead she linked feminism to the general struggle for political and social reform, arguing that the abstract rights of men and the tyranny of husband, kind, primogeniture, and hereditary privilege must all cease in the name of reason. The key to women's liberation rested with education. Boys and girls should be educated together and trained to be rational citizens.


  1. The events of the French Revolution were followed closely in Britain and sparked a fierce political debate.
  2. Edmund Burke seemed to abandon his previous Whig principles. He argued for custom and tradition and attacked the doctrine of the rights of man as a dangerous novelty.
  3. Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft argued for a radical restructuring of society and the abolition of privilege, whether based on heredity or on gender.

No comments:

Post a Comment