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British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815. Outline. Introduction Early intellectual reactions to the Revolution Radicalism and the origin of working-class activism Loyalism and popular conservatism Conclusion. Popular Radicalism and Loyalism.

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British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815

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British Radicalism and the French Revolution, 1789-1815


  • Introduction

  • Early intellectual reactions to the Revolution

  • Radicalism and the origin of working-class activism

  • Loyalism and popular conservatism

  • Conclusion

Popular Radicalism and Loyalism

  • 1789-1815 events in France polarised public opinion

  • Built on extra-parliamentary reform movement & debate on popular conservatism/loyalism that emerged during American revolution.

  • Events in France revived popular radicalism & debates on constitution

  • Reactions to revolution stimulated the growth of militant loyalism

Popular radicalism revived?

  • Some common factors with earlier reform movements

  • But movement spread much further down the social scale and was influential in a wider geographical area, not merely confined to the capital.

  • Based claims on historic rights of Englishmen under the ancient constitution.

  • JGA Pocock viewed debate as struggle between Whig ancient constitutionalists, notably Burke, and new republicans.

  • Isaac Kramnick disagreed terming Paine, Priestley and Price as pursuing a new Liberal ideal.

Richard Price

  • In 1789 Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister preached a largely innocuous sermon "On the Love of Country." (commemorating 1688)

  • Congratulated French National Assembly, for opening new possibilities for religious and civil freedom

  • Price spoke of being a citizen of the world with the rights that citizenship implied.

  • Argued for doctrine of perfectability – that world can be made better through human effort. Justified social reform

Richard Price (1723-1791)

Unitarian Minister, philosopher, political radical

Burke haunting Richard Price: Smelling out a rat; - or - the atheistical-revolutionist disturbed in his midnight calculations by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 3 December 1790

Edmund Burke’s response: 1790

  • Responded with Reflections on Revolution in France

  • Argued overthrow of authority in France would bring chaos and disorder. He denied Price's assertions of natural rights and doctrine of perfectability.

  • Viewed himself as moderate. Argued Reflections had gradualist reform agenda

  • Reformers in France should recognise Europe was already improving

  • Praised reforming institutions eg Church, arts, commerce and the landed gentry.

Edmund Burke (1729/30-1797)

Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1774

Burke’s Assessment of the causes of revolution

  • Interactions of three interests:

    a) literary cabal (Rousseau, Voltaire etc) determined to attack religion and with it the entire establishment b) politicians who wished to build France into a world power via a republic c) government of Louis XVI abetted revolutionaries were abetted by the stupidity of the court.

  • France was out of control and incapable of correcting itself

Burke’s predictions on the consequences of the revolution

  • predicted a deterioration into military government

  • That France would attack her neighbours

  • That only outside intervention could reverse the situation

  • He suggested nations of Europe should launch a pre-emptive invasion of France to restore the old order

Response to Burke:Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Member of Price’s congregation wrote: A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790.

  • Presented Burke as former reformer, grown old and confused, basically a good man but one corrupted by the English establishment.

  • Argued for rights of civil and religious liberty. Aristocracy displaced in France was decadent.

Response to Burke: Wollstonecraft

  • Criticized Burke's sympathy for women of the displaced aristocracy in France – particularly his eulogising of Marie Antoinette – as selective, ignoring the many more thousands of women who suffered under the old regime

  • She supported his notion of gradualism of reform.

  • Considered the present as a prelude to a brighter age

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Portrait by John Opie, c. 1797

Wollstonecraft’s later writing

  • Burke and MW disagree on views of reason, equality, feminism and education

  • In 1791 wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Extended arguments about the need and value of female emancipation.

  • In 1792 visited France and challenged her own earlier arguments with a more reserved optimism.

  • Published An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, an attempt to reconcile her horror at the blood of the Revolution with her faith in perfectability.

Tom Paine

  • Propagandist for American patriots, wrote Common Sense in 1776

  • Rights ofMan (1791 and 1792)written as defence of the French Revolution and its principles (liberty, equality, fraternity)

  • Was in Europe when revolution broke out.

  • Rights of Man was more than answer to Burke

  • Also statement of philosophy of all democratic movements

  • In two years it sold over 200,000 copies

'The rights of man; - or - Tommy Paine, the little American taylor, taking the measure of the crown, for a new pair of revolution-breeches‘ by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, 23 May 1791

First edition from Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Title Search on Rights of Man returns 196 titles

The Rights of Man and the demand for constitutional and social change.

  • In Part 1 Paine made distinction between absolute monarchy & constitutional monarchy.

  • In Part 2 he maintained all traditional forms of governments were “creatures of imagination” relying on the “romantic and barbarous distinction of making men into kings and subjects”.

  • Advocated abolition of all monarchy and the establishment of democratic republics based on universal manhood suffrage.

  • Also social measures for young, sick and old

  • Demanded removal of legislation restricting wages of workmen.

Making of the English Working Class?E. P. Thompson’s argument

  • 1790s was crucial period for formation of working class political consciousness because of proliferation of radical societies and the ideology of Paineite radicalism.

  • This strand of political radicalism had potential for revolutionary activity. They did not wither in repressive 1790s but merely transferred their activities ‘underground’.

  • Was continuity - in both ideas and personnel - between the radical movements of the 1790s and the re-emerging parliamentary reform movements of the early 1800s.

  • 1790s had seen ‘something like an English revolution… of profound importance in shaping the consciousness of the post-war working-class’.

Evidence: societies committed to overhaul the status quo

  • Most active radical responses came from centres of Dissent and emerging commercial activity such as London, Norwich, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle.

  • Some major setbacks: in Birmingham were anti-Dissent riots in 1791 which hounded the dissenting minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley to America

  • By the mid-1790s were around 80 popular political reform societies in England and Wales.


  • London Corresponding Society founded in January 1792 comprised of as many as 90 divisions at its peak in 1795.

  • Societies sometimes dominated by middle-class reformers but in places such as London, Sheffield and Norwich they were artisan based.

  • LCS members were mainly from London skilled trades

Radical Societies

  • In Sheffield the Society for Constitutional Information had 2000 members by 1792 drawn mainly from independent artisans in the craft metal trades.

  • In Norwich were around 40 small tavern clubs and a radical intellectual journal, The Cabinet.

  • Most societies espoused a radical programme of reform and social issues

"London Corresponding Society Alarmed " by James Gillray (April, 1798)

Report to Lords on the activities of radical and reform societies. The LCS and SCI are accused of undermining the constitution by circulating literature sympathetic to Tom Paine's Rights of Man. Both groups were infiltrated by government spies and in May 1794 their leaders were arrested.HLRO Main Papers (19 May 1794)


  • Scotland responded with radicalism: narrowness of the Scottish franchise and intellectual & political culture in the Scottish cities.

  • Scottish reform movement was active in 1780s: were 46 petitions for burgh reform presented to Parliament in 1788

  • July 1792 the Society for the Friends of the People was formed in Edinburgh. 1792 also saw first General Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland led by Thomas Muir, an Edinburgh advocate.

  • Following the French victories at Valmy and Jemappes, Trees of Liberty were planted in many Scottish towns and cities to demonstrate support for the French cause.

Getting the message out: radical tactics

  • Mostly reformers used moderate, legitimate tactics.

  • LCS producing pamphlet, Reformers No Rioters in 1794 to counter any suggestion that it was prepared to use violence to obtain its ends.

  • Used political education & petitioning.

  • Proposed convention in London in 1794 led to the arrest and trial of the leaders of the metropolitan reform societies on charges of high treason.

  • Treason trial was the high-point for the radical reformers. John Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke were publicly tried on several counts of treason and were sensationally acquitted.

  • But resulted in government oppression.


  • Conservative reaction sprang from the same cause as radical movement: pride in supposed historic liberties and constitution of the British people.

  • Contrasted ‘British’ system with continental neighbours.

  • Government deliberately encouraged the foundation of loyalist groups but scale of movement was without precedent in the eighteenth century.

  • Popular response was helped by the development of conservative ideology

Popular Conservatism

  • Articulated by eg William Paley, Hannah More and John Reeves

  • Appealed to utility, morality, natural law, religion, history etc.

  • More wrote simple but virulently conservative texts designed to appeal to a mass audience and win them round to a patriotic defence of British institutions.

  • Cheap Repository Tracts sold 2 million copies between 1795 and 1798.

  • Conservative propagandists tried to instil an acceptance of social distinction and pride in constitution and church.


  • Conservative newspapers and periodicals outnumbered and outsold radical literature

  • London papers: Star, Sun, True Briton and Observer Provinces: York Courant, Liverpool Phoenix, Manchester Mercury and Edinburgh Herald

  • Anti-Jacobin sold around 2500 copies a week.

  • Loyalist associations also produced and distributed their own literature.

  • Clergy disseminated conservative propaganda in their weekly sermons.


  • Were huge number of loyalist addresses, resolutions and petitions which were sent to the king in the years between 1789 and 1815.

  • 1789 more than 750 addresses congratulated George III on his recovery from illness

  • Treatment of Louis XVI in France served to strengthen the institution of the monarchy

  • Loyalists banded together to form societies, armed associations and Volunteer companies to assist the government to oppose radical views, to suppress disorder and protect private property.

Association movement

  • Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers founded by John Reeves in 1792.

  • Largest political organisation in country with at least 200 regional branches.

  • Penetrated all levels of society.

  • In 1794 government authorised raising of armed Volunteer companies.

  • By 1804 the Volunteer force was 450,000 men strong.


  • French revolution made lasting impact on popular public opinion in British society of both a conservative and radical character.

  • Loyalism too was a revolutionary force.

  • Revolution witnessed all sections of the population entering politics in some form

  • Public opinion became more important

  • Backdrop to parliamentary reform movements of the early nineteenth century.

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