According to most accounts, reform debate shed its eighteenth-century constraints in the 1790s as the French Revolution offered a new political vocabulary, a new style, a new universalism. Although restricted at first to radical Dissenters, enthusiasm for revolution in France — otherwise regarded as a tardy continental version of 1688 — was dramatically accentuated by the publication and widespread diffusion of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–2) which, on the most conservative estimate, probably sold between 100,000 and 200,000 copies in the first three years after its publication. Repudiating the exclusive conventions of previous debate, Paine’s ‘intellectual vernacular prose’ rendered natural rights and rational republicanism accessible, all-embracing and uncompromising.1 In language, programme and organization, radicalism was extended to ‘members unlimited’.
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