Saturday 27 May 2017

How did Pitt face the French Revolution between 1789 and 1801?

In 1789, the fall of the Bastille[1] foreshadowed revolution in France. Reactions were mixed in Britain but many people were initially well disposed towards the revolution. Pitt saw political advantages for Britain because it weakened France’s colonial ambitions. Some thought France should become a ‘constitutional’ monarchy. Others saw it leading to reform in England. The British believed themselves to be the freest people in Europe, thanks to the 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution,[2] and many foreigners flatteringly took the same view. It is not surprising that the opening stages of the revolution looked like a French attempt to copy Britain.

Reacting to revolution: the intellectual debate

The debate began with a ‘political sermon’ given by the dissenting minister Richard Price on 4 November 1789. He pointed to the 1688-1689 Revolution Settlement as part of the dissenting agitation for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Many opponents of Dissent feared that much more was involved than mere religion. In November 1790, Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was an Anglican defence of the state and denied Price’s assertion that ‘the people’ had acquired important rights in 1688-1689, especially the right to choose their own rulers, remove them for misconduct and frame a government for themselves. Religion, not some vague contractual notion, was for Burke at the heart of the civil society. He celebrated aristocratic concepts of paternalism, loyalty and the hereditary principle in which the great social institutions--the Church, the law, even the family--confirmed the aristocracy as the ruling class and the protectors of traditional values. The response was immediate.

Thomas Paine wrote the first part of Rights of Man as a reply to Burke’s Reflections and it was published in February 1791. Part Two was published in April 1792. It was only one of the thirty-eight responses to Burke but was the most influential. It merged the debate about the revolution with a programme of practical and radical reform. Paine put forward a simple message. He denounced Burke’s idea of society as an association between past and present generations and his view of the role of monarchy and aristocracy. Power lay with the people and their rights. The impact of Rights of Man was immediate. It was distributed in cheap editions (50,000 copies of Part One were sold in 1791), read aloud and discussed. To his sup­porters, Paine was a heroic figure. To his opponents, he became a symbol of the excesses of revolution. He was frequently burned in effigy especially at the end of 1792 and the first few months of 1793. In Nottingham, for instance, Paine was ritualistically killed, stoned by ladies at a dinner and dance. Between 1792 and 1795, the circulation of Paine’s work was one of the main reasons given for the passage of repressive legislation.

The debate was not confined to a dialogue between Burke and Paine. Many of the authors knew each other and their work may be seen as a collective project. Paine, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft produced a number of innovative and utopian proposals between 1791 and early 1793--the establishment of a welfare state, the withering away of the centralised state, equality in relationships to remove the automatic obedience of employees to employers and women to men. Thomas Spence’s Meridian Sun of Liberty cost only one penny and was aimed at a different audience that Burke’s Reflections at three shillings and Godwin’s Political Justice priced at a pound. The extent to which the debate reached different sections of the public was largely determined by the cost of the written material.

Government was concerned that ‘informed opinion’ was in the hands of a closely-knit radical circle. While those individuals were addressing each other, they represented no threat to established order. However, the combination of growing political organisation with a supply of radical writings to politicise the masses was another matter. A loyalist backlash began in late-1792 with John Reeves and the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. It com­missioned and circulated popularly written anti-radical pamphlets to ensure the loyalty of the labouring population. It main­tained pressure on the radical writers while the govern­ment controlled radical publishing, processes helped by the patriotic reac­tion to the outbreak of war with France in 1793. With the publication of Godwin’s Political Justice in February 1793, innovative radical thinking stopped. Fewer pamphlets were published, repeated old ideas and tried to reassure a moderate audience rather than developing new theor­ies. The objective of many radical thinkers was to attract the widest possible support for an anti-government platform. The radical vision of communicating with a wide audience had been established yet in practical terms, the reforming movement achieved little. By 1800, European societies were destabilised and Burke’s fears had apparently been realised.

Reacting to revolution: radical demands for reform

British reformers were roused into action by the events in France. The dissenters’ campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was stimu­lated by events across the Channel. The Society for Consti­tutional Information (SCI), founded in 1780, began to circulate radical propaganda and in April 1792, some Whig reformers formed the Society of the Friends of the People to campaign for parliamentary reform. However, the Corresponding Societies marked a new departure for radicalism.
The French Revolution stirred people to political action and provided them with an ideology through which to redress their grievances but the economic conditions in the first half of the 1790s also played an important role. The disturbed state of Europe in 1792-1793 led to economic depression in Britain with widespread unemployment and lower wages. War interrupted trade. It also placed increasing tax burdens on the middle- and lower classes. Economic distress reached critical levels in 1795-1796 following harvest failure in 1794, pushing up food prices at a time when the labouring population was already faced with higher taxation and lower wages. It is, however, important not to see the reforming movement simply in terms of a response to economic conditions. What was different about the Corresponding movement was that it crossed the threshold from traditional economic grievances to fundamental political demands.

Corresponding Societies

During the winter of 1791-2, popular radical societies emerged. The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was the most important. Founded in January 1792 by a small group led by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, membership was open to all who paid a penny at each weekly meeting. Though formed to discuss the poverty faced by many of the labouring population and the high prices of the day, the LCS quickly adopted a political programme for remedying their grievances: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and redistribution of rotten boroughs to the large towns. The LCS spread rapidly across London and developed a sophisticated organisational struc­ture of divisions district committees and general committee.

Two features described the LCS: its size and its social composition. By late-1792, about 650 people regularly attended its meetings. By late-1794, its total active membership was 3,000. By the spring of 1796, this had fallen to about 2,000, by the end of the year to 1,000, to about 600 in 1797 and to 400 active members before it was banned in 1798. LCS membership was confined to a very small proportion of London’s working population. To call the LCS a ‘working-class’ organisation neglects the extent to which its membership was made up of individuals from the ‘middling’ and professional classes as well as artisans and tradesmen. An analysis of 347 activists shows that only half were artisans and the rest were medical men, lawyers, book­sellers, clerks, shopkeepers and printers. There is no evidence that it ever had much appeal to unskilled labourers or the very poor.

Provincial radical societies had begun to spring up before the LCS was founded. The Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information was formed in late 1791. Within a few months, it had grown from a few members to 2,500 members. In the autumn of 1792, the Sheffield SCI could bring 5-6,000 people on to the streets to celebrate the French victory at Valmy and a similar number in February 1794 to press for peace abroad and liberty at home. During 1792, the number of societies mushroomed and regional differences became more obvious. Manchester, with its factory workers, merchants and expanding population, stood at the other end of the scale to Sheffield. It had been Tory since the 1750s and this may account for the slow initial development of the Manchester Constitutional Society founded by Thomas Walker as early as October 1790. In Norwich, the radical cause developed along similar lines. A Revo­lution Society established in 1788, was dominated by middle-class Dissenters, merchants and tradesmen. It rivalled Sheffield as the pacemaker of radicalism. The textile industry supported artisans of a particularly independent temper and Norwich’s Dissent was rooted in a craggy, though surprisingly liberal, tradition. By 1792, forty tavern clubs of shoemakers, weavers and shop­keepers had developed, comprising some 2,000 members.


How did the radical societies attempt to achieve their aims? Weekly meetings and the spread of printed propaganda provided focus for their activities. They corresponded regularly with each other and with groups in France. However, their attempt to reach a mass audience was limited. There was, however, no nationwide petitioning campaign. There were only 36 petitions in support of Charles Grey’s motion on parliamentary reform in 1793. The reformers seriously overestimated the amount of mass support and dangerously underestimated the fears it would arouse in the authorities. Radical tactics were very restrained. The bulk of the labouring population did not rally behind parliamentary reform and few radical leaders appreciated the power of organised labour. Some radicals did try to whip up food rioters in Sheffield in 1795 to protest against the war and demand parliamentary reform and similar tactics were used in the north-west in 1800. However, these were isolated examples and the radicals made no attempt to co-ordinate popular riots. Most radical leaders, with their middle-class background, were committed to non-violent action. When the governing class refused to concede reform, resorting to repression and persecution, most radicals lost heart or moderated their demands.

Reacting to revolution: the conservative response

The attack on popular radicalism came from three directions. There was an attack on its ideology, a populist and loyalist reaction and a legislative attack by Pitt’s government. The reform movement collapsed not simply because of repressive actions but because the opponents of reform developed a defence of the existing political system that was convincing not just to those with property but also to large sections of British society.

Conservative ideology in the 1790s had considerable appeal. A tradition of resistance to constitutional change in Britain existed in the decades leading up to the revolution and events in France, especially after 1791, reinforced this tradition. Radicals at home were seen in the same light as revolutionaries abroad. It was not difficult to persuade people that the radical reform would destroy the established order as the revolution had in France. French anarchy was contrasted unfavourable with British stability and prosperity. Conservative apologists and propagandists appealed to British hatred of France and fear of radical change. There was also an intellec­tual response contrasting the stability of constitutional monarchy with the anarchy of ‘mob’ rule and democracy. Anti-radical propa­ganda, subsidised by the loyalist associations, by government and by private individuals, took many forms. Pamphlets and tracts like the Cheap Repository Tracts, many written by Hannah More, between 1795 and 1798; pro-government newspapers like the Sun, the True Briton and the Oracle; journals like the Anti-Jacobin (1797-8) and its successor the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, a monthly that lasted until 1821; political caricatures and cartoons by artists like Isaac Cruickshanks. James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson; and local newspapers like the Man­chester Mercury and the Newcastle Courant. This concerted campaign was outstandingly successful and convinced the majority of Eng­lish people that the French Revolution was a disaster.

Loyalist associations emerged initially as a response to the Dissenter campaign for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts but the number of Church and King clubs was given a major boost by the revo­lution especially the Royal Proclamation against seditious writings on 21 May 1792. By September 1792, some 386 loyal addresses had been received by the king and in November John Reeves formed the first loyalist Associ­ation for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (APLP). By the end of 1793, the total number of APLPs may have reached 2,000 making them the largest political organisation in the country. They spread from London first into the neighbouring counties, then to the west, Midlands and finally the north. Active membership was largely confined to men of property, though they were able to enlist support from across society. They can be seen as far more successful and popular ‘working-class’ organisations than the radical societies. Loyalist associations adopted the organisation and some of the methods of the reformers. They produced a great deal of printed propaganda but were not content to rely upon persuasion, resorting to intimidation and persecution to defeat their opponents. Calls for loyalty and patriotism proved far more popular with the bulk of the population than demands for radical change.

Government repression.

Pitt acted quickly against the threat pose by the radicals, inaugurating what has been called Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. The government was convinced it faced a revolutionary conspiracy, a view reinforced by the intelligence received from local magistrates and spies and believed it was justified in taking firm action. In May and December 1792, two Royal Proclamations were issued against seditious writings. The Home Office, especially after 1794 under the strongly anti-radical Duke of Portland, monitored the activities of the radical societies using spies as well as more conventional methods like opening letters, receiving reports from local sources, watching the activities of radicals abroad and infiltrating radical groups. Its resources were very limited with a staff of less than twenty-five. After success in the Scottish treason trials in 1793-1794, Pitt moved against English radicals. Forty-one men, including Hardy, were arrested in late 1794 and charged with high treason but after he was acquitted, further trials were aban­doned. The administration had little further success with treason trials during the remainder of the decade but had more success with those for publishing seditious libels. There were less than 200 convictions during the 1790s and whether this constitutes a government-inspired reign of terror is open to debate.

Parliament was prepared to pass legislation in support of the govern­ment though, in practice, this often turned out to be far less effective than anticipated. Habeas Corpus was suspended from May 1794 to July 1795 and April 1798 to March 1801 but only a few people were imprisoned without charge. The Two Acts of 1795--the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act--proved less than effective weapons despite the wide powers given to central and local government. The Treasonable Practices Act was designed to intimidate and no radical was pros­ecuted under it. The Seditious Meetings Act failed to prevent the increas­ing number of meetings organised by the LCS. There was only one pros­ecution under a 1797 Act rushed through Parliament following the naval mutiny at Spithead and the Nore. It strengthened penalties for attempting to undermine allegiance to the authorities and administering unlawful oaths. The banning of the leading radical societies by law in 1799 was unnecess­ary, largely because they were already in a state of collapse. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned combinations of workers completing the legislative armoury of repression. Radicalism was increasingly driven underground. It did not emerge as a mass movement until the last years of the French wars. Between 1794 and 1800, Pitt had successfully driven radical politics to the margins of political life.

Government legislation was infrequently used but it remained as a threat hanging over radicals, limiting their freedom of action. Its effect was to intimidate and harass. It destroyed the leadership of the radical societies, silenced the ablest propagandists and frightened many into abandoning the reform movement. However, the collapse of the radical movement was not simply a matter of repression by government or magistrates. War revived latent deep-seated patriotism among the most people for whom radicalism was only of peripheral importance.

[1] The Bastille was the royal palace and prison in the centre of Paris. Its capture on 14 July 1789 by a Parisian mob marked the beginnings of the French Revolution.
[2] The 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution occurred when the Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William III and Mary so preserving constitutional monarchy and the powers of Parliament.

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