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About this book

Gregory Claeys explores the reception of the French Revolution in Britain through the medium of its leading interpreters. Claeys argues that the major figures - Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and John Thelwall - collectively laid the foundations for political debate for the following century, and longer.

Table of Contents

Chapter One. Introduction The Origins of Modern Political Discourse

Abstract
While the apparent simplicity of such an explanation may seem questionable today, the French Revolution is incontrovertibly the defining act of modern politics. From it flowed the European upheavals of 1848, the Russian Revolution, and a goodly share of those urgent demands for democracy, liberty and equality, whose often contradictory fusion remains the unresolved problematic of our times. Yet the meaning of the Revolution has remained, from its inception, heavily contested. Some have hailed the events commencing on 14 July 1789 as the inexorable progress of Enlightenment towards the eradication of aristocratic, monarchical and clerical tyranny, the downfall of superstition and exploitation, and an end to the enslavement of non-whites.2 Others, however, date the origins of the colossal bloodbath of twentieth-century totalitarian tyranny in the degeneration of the Revolution into mob rule, the Terror of 1793–4, and the later Napoleonic dictatorship.3 In the latter view, Robespierre begat Stalin, and the Enlightenment should be symbolised less by the incandescence of Reason than the ghastly illumination cast by the lanterne upon corpses suspended from it. Nor was there, even initially, agreement as to the causes of the Revolution. For the Abbé Barruel, Mounier and others, writing in the late 1790s, a conspiracy of freethinking anti-clerical philosophers had plotted to bring down the ancien régime.4
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Two. Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and the Origins of Conservatism

Abstract
Born in Dublin in 1729, of Catholic extraction on his mother’s side, Edmund Burke studied law, wrote several philosophical works, notably A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), a satire on Bolingbroke, and A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), and conceived and edited the Annual Register, a leading historical periodical. He became a Whig M.P. for Wendover from 1765–74, then for Bristol (1774–80) and Malton (1781–94). Renowned as an orator, he achieved acclaim as a financial reformer, and as the scourge of the East India Company’s abuses of power through his prosecution of Warren Hastings’ excesses in pursuing British conquests in India. A prominent defender of Catholic rights and leading advocate of the American colonists’ claims, Burke had nonetheless failed to attain high office despite a distinguished career, and was disgruntled by the great Whig magnates’ failure to appreciate his talents.1 By 1789 he was still a leading political figure of considerable influence; he would soon be the most controversial politician of his age. He died in July 1797.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Three. Thomas Paine Rights of Man (1791–2) and the Origins of Radicalism

Abstract
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, 29 January 1737, the son of a Quaker stay-(corset)maker. He assumed the family trade, then briefly became an exciseman (tax-collector), and emigrated to America in 1774. Here he quickly joined the colonists’ cause and befriended Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington. His famous pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), was crucial in persuading the Americans to part from England. After serving in the revolutionary war, Paine worked as a farmer and inventor. In England in 1790, he wrote the main response to Burke’s Reflections, Rights of Man (2 parts, 1791–2), for which he was prosecuted and the book proscribed. Forced to flee to France, Paine was first welcomed as hero, and elected as one of only two foreign members of the National Convention, but was then imprisoned during Robespierre’s Terror (1793–4) and nearly guillotined for supporting exile rather than execution for Louis XVI. He was later greatly disappointed with the course of revolution. His The Age of Reason (1794) was written against ‘priestcraft’, though his religious views were deist rather than atheist. But the tract did much to make him widely unpopular in the United States, where he died in 1809.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Four. Mary Wollstonecraft Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and the Origins of Feminism

Abstract
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, the daughter of reasonably affluent weaver whose fortunes declined in her youth. For a time in the 1780s she taught school at Newington Green, where she befriended the philosopher and pro-American Richard Price, agreeing with his Rationalist Dissenting optimism respecting social and individual change, though remaining an Anglican. She also worked as a governess in Ireland before becoming a journalist and a woman of letters. Wollstonecraft’s career as a writer began with Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786). Thereafter she assisted the leading publisher Joseph Johnson, notably with the Analytical Review, wrote a children’s book (Original Stories, 1788), and soon entered into the inner circles of London radical society, meeting Thomas Holcroft, William Godwin, Thomas Christie, and others. She may have heard of the French writer Condorcet’s plea for equal rights for women, written in 1790.1 When Burke’s Reflections appeared in November 1790, Wollstonecraft was its first respondent, producing her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) within a matter of weeks. The famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman followed in 1792. Wollstonecraft lived in France between 1792 and 1795 with an American sea-captain, Gilbert Imlay. She later wrote an important historical account of the French Revolution, and began a novel, later published as Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. She married William Godwin, and died in childbirth in 1797.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Five. The Spectre of ‘Levelling’: Loyalists and Paineites, c.1791–5

Abstract
The coming of revolution in France provoked what has been termed ‘perhaps the most crucial ideological debate ever carried on in English’.1 Raging most fiercely between 1791 and 1793, this pamphlet war has often been described as a ‘Burke-Paine’ controversy. Both at the time, and subsequently, it has too often been caricatured as the uneven contest of an ill-educated, angry, conceited and ignorant Paine against an eminence grise, the greatest statesman of his generation, Burke.2 But this is somewhat misleading.3 Burke responded in the first instance to the Richard Price’s sermon lauding the revolution in the context of a complex pre-existing set of issues, while much of Rights of Man was not a direct reply to Burke at all, but an independently grounded exposition of Paine’s own political principles. Moreover, many issues marginal to Burke and/or Paine, such as the plea for women’s rights we have just examined, were nonetheless taken up by other participants in the controversy. Furthermore, if we can generalise respecting the perhaps six hundred contributions to the debate,4 much of both the loyalist assault and the Paineite defence of revolutionary principles came to centre upon the question of the degree to which these principles promoted ‘levelling’, or social equality, and what the consequences thereof would entail. Prominently and lengthily detailed, the accusation of ‘levelling’ was in some respects merely a tactical ploy to frighten off Paine’s middle class supporters.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Six. Varieties of Whiggism: Fox, Sheridan and the Whig Party, 1791–3

Abstract
The unhappy history of the Whig party in this period is well known and can be restated briefly.2 Most Whigs were neither anti-monarchist republicans nor revolutionaries, and while many had considerable sympathy for France in 1789–90, this had begun to cool by late 1790 and was transformed widely into antipathy by the publication of Burke’s Reflections. A few, however, led by Charles Grey, formed the Society of the Friends of the People (SFP) in order to link outdoor agitation to the parliamentary party.3 The Whig grandee, Charles James Fox, was also wooed by the government, and sought to defend a middle ground between these competing pressures, but failed to accommodate any group. Eventually a large group of Whigs led by the Duke of Portland agreed to support the government, in early 1793, and then joined Pitt in a coalition government in mid-1794. This left the Foxites isolated in opposition, and powerless to halt the crushing of the extra-parliamentary plebeian reformers by the suspension of habeas corpus and the passage of the treason and sedition laws of 1795. From about the spring of 1792, then, the Government had one main strategy, and the reformist Whigs two. Pitt, under considerable pressure from Tories and conservative Whigs, aimed to portray all reforming activity as unpatriotic and un-English if not downright seditious and treasonable.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Seven. William Godwin The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the Origins of Philosophical Anarchism

Abstract
Born in Wisbech in East Anglia on 3 March 1756, William Godwin was the seventh in a family of 13 children, whose father was a strict minister in a small Baptist sect, the Sandemanians. This group, followers of John Glas, upheld three ideals which Godwin would later develop in a secular manner in his chief work, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793): that belief in God must be wholly reasonable; that property should be subject to the needs of the congregation of the Church; and that the decisions of the Church should be unanimous, and reached through rational discussion.1 After becoming a Sandemanian minister in 1778, Godwin abandoned his beliefs, and left the church to become a historian and novelist. Political Justice, now usually described as the founding text of British philosophical anarchism, brought Godwin immediate fame, and he helped, by swaying public opinion, to defeat the government’s prosecution of leading radicals in 1794. Despite the success of his first major novel, Caleb Williams (1794), he failed to develop his literary career in the atmosphere of anti-Jacobin repression, and died in relative obscurity in 1836. The account of his ideas in this chapter will survey the chief doctrines of Political Justice, some crucial shifts in Godwin’s thought in the later 1790s, and the development of his reputation in this period.
Gregory Claeys

Chapter Eight. John Thelwall Luxury, Property and the Rights of Labour

Abstract
After Paine fled to France in late 1792, the leading republican writer in Britain was John Thelwall. Born in Covent Garden on 27 July 1764, Thelwall was apprenticed as a silk-mercer and tailor, and was then a student of divinity, medicine and law. The author of Poems on Various Subjects (1787), and later friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Thelwall moved from a youthful Toryism towards radical principles, and became a lecturer, journalist, and political pamphleteer. He joined the London Corresponding Society in late 1793, and was tried for treason in 1794, but acquitted after six months’ imprisonment.1 Though he resumed lecturing, harassment forced him to retreat to rural Wales in 1797. He later became a successful lecturer on elocution, and re-entered radical politics as editor of the Champion newspaper from 1818–21. He died on 17 February 1834.
Gregory Claeys

Conclusion

Abstract
War, intimidation, the exile and emigration of large numbers of reformers, and a markedly ‘anti-Jacobin’ shift in public opinion combined to repress radical sentiment in Britain for at least a decade. When parliamentary reform finally occurred in 1832, some of the actors of the 1790s, notably Earl Grey, but also former members of the London Corresponding Society, like Francis Place and Thomas Hardy, played important roles. Political unrest and intellectual dissent were never wholly suppressed during the intervening period, however. At the end of the 1790s nationalism would ally dramatically with radical principles to produced the short-lived, bloody rebellion of 1798 in Ireland,1 where the French Revolution had been described as ‘universally popular’ and Paine’s doctrines had been welcomed even more fervently than in England.2 Naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, and the activities of genuinely subversive underground groups like the United Englishmen, were met in part by a massive volunteer movement which armed the gentry and yeomanry against enemies both foreign and domestic.3 Smouldering embers of radical and utopian sentiment were also still evident after 1795, as we have seen, which may be as closely associated with Godwinism as with Paineite radicalism. These were met by a new wave of loyalist propaganda, spearheaded by the longest-running and most successful loyalist periodical, The Anti-Jacobin Review (1799–1821).
Gregory Claeys
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