The Impact of the French Revolution: Texts from Britain in the 1790s

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Overview

The French Revolution embodied the emergence of the modern political world in the eyes of subsequent generations. It offered a new understanding of class politics, secular ideology, and revolutionary transformation which inspired the world-wide Communist experiment of the twentieth century. Iain Hampsher-Monk examines the variety, influence, and profundity of major thinkers such as Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine and Godwin, as well as the impact of other less celebrated writers in this authoritative anthology of key political texts exploring the impact of this period on the British experience.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'… advanced students and specialists should not ignore it. Hampsher-Monk has managed to place between a single set of covers a book that is at once an excellent introduction to it's subject for an undergraduate target audience, a welcome guide to recent revolutionary scholarship that is full of suggestions for further reading, and a valuable collection of primary texts.' British Journal for the History of Philosophy

'… undergraduate and postgraduate students … will find Hampsher-Monk's edition to be a highly informative guide to one of the most fascinating periods in the history of British political thought. It will also be of interest to tutors and researchers dealing with the issues of Britain's intellectual history, the development of modern political thought and the intellectual impact of the French revolution on European conceptual history. An obvious advantage of this edition is its comprehensive approach in the presentation of individual texts, as well as the dialogical dynamic that it introduces between the texts. … This book gives the reader an opportunity to gain an overall perspective into the broad political spectrum of opinions represented in Britain at that time …' Political Studies Review

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Iain Hampsher-Monk is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Exeter. A founder-editor of the journal History of Political Thought, his many publications include the prize-winning study A History of Modern Political Thought (1994). He is preparing an edition of Burke's Reflections for the series of Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.
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Cambridge University Press
0521570050 - The Impact of the French Revolution - Texts from Britain in the 1790s - Edited by Iain Hampsher-Monk
Excerpt



INTRODUCTION


The French Revolution as the touchstone of modernity

The French Revolution has been regarded by subsequent generations as the emergence of the modern political world. It comprised a paradigm shift that irrevocably changed the way in which we think about, speak of and therefore conduct our politics. Notwithstanding attempts to find the roots of the revolution in the ancien régime, and to trace continuities across the revolutionary period,1 conceptions of political legitimacy, human agency, historical process and even time itself were fundamentally restructured by this cataclysmic event.

Dramatic evidence of this was the fate of the historiography of Ancient Rome. Ever since antiquity, the rise and fall of Ancient Rome was the key historical phenomenon to be understood if political processes were ever to be brought within human understanding. Numerous writers, famously Machiavelli, Montesquieu and, most recently, Edward Gibbon, had devoted major works to the subject.2 After the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Rome became an essentially antiquarian study. The French Revolution, whether good or bad, repeatable or unique, successful or disastrous, completed or not, a product of ideology or of essentially material forces, becomes the problematic political event and the focus of political enquiry and understanding. For Burke and Hegel; James and John Stuart Mill; Constant; Tocqueville and the emerging science of sociology; Guizot and a whole line of eminent French historians; Karl Marx and his followers; and not excluding modern political scientists; an understanding of the Revolution was the key to understanding the processes and conditions of modern republican and nationalist politics and modern political action which the Revolution itself had ushered in. Nor was its importance confined to commentators and analysts. An understanding of class politics, the role of secular ideology and of revolutionary transformation drawn from the French Revolution inspired and made possible the nineteenth-century nationalist revolutions, the Russian Revolution, its twentieth-century communist and post-colonial imitators, and the whole world-wide communist experiment of the twentieth century.

The Revolution did not exert this influence through establishing any agreed truths about politics: on the contrary, it generated - and continues to generate - heated opposition and disagreement. But it did construct a field of controversy and placed at centre-stage certain issues and claims that have become the core of political argument. Some have become so much part of modern political thinking that we are hardly aware of them. We take them, almost unexamined, to be constitutive and irrefutable parts of political reality. One example is the central revolutionary claim that individuals possess natural rights which, when exercised collectively, give them the right - and the capacity - to shape their political world to their wills without regard to inherited institutions. Such beliefs inspired humans to free themselves from the injustices of the ancien régime but they contributed to a modern belief that social processes were more tractable than has in fact proved to be the case. Arguably too, such beliefs, together with the economic forces of modern markets, have fuelled processes hugely destructive of traditional societies. For good or ill the shadow of the Revolution has fallen heavily across the face of world politics.

In Britain this first modern revolution provoked the biggest public debate on political principles since the Civil War, a hundred and fifty years earlier. The unpacking of the implications of the languages of politics was crammed into a period of barely a decade, from the winter following the Revolution until 1799 when political debate and association was proscribed by law.3 These texts and prints are chosen to illustrate something of the range of responses. The rest of this introduction sets out the context from within which writers responded and indicates some features of these political languages.

France, America, England - Different Revolutions?

Between 1789 and the present, most European nations and many others underwent 'revolutions' modelled to some degree on that of the French. The significant feature of these revolutions was the attempted destruction of pre-existing political orders in which political authority was grounded; usually in a mixture of custom, heredity and in some cases theological endorsement, most obviously combined in the institution of Monarchy but including also the authority derived from an aristocratic or sometimes priestly elite.4 This was replaced by a notion of political authority and legitimacy deriving from the will of a 'people' considered (at least rhetorically) as undifferentiated in status; claimed indeed to derive ultimately (if for a long time only in principle) from the supposed consent of each adult individual.5 Such a political order we have come to call a democratic republic, or, where - as often in Europe - it was combined with a residual monarchical element, a constitutional monarchy. The United States, Britain and its 'white' settler colonies were the only major exceptions to this process.

The United States of America, of course, was also born from a revolution - that of 1776 - involving a war of independence from Britain, closely followed in 1787 by the creation of a federal republican constitution. Nevertheless important differences distinguish the American Revolution from the French and its imitators.6 First the American Revolution was begun, and for long fought, as a claim by Englishmen to traditional English rights. 'No taxation without representation' was as much the catch-phrase of English colonists in America as of the English Parliamentarians against King Charles - from whom, along with their eighteenth-century 'commonwealthsmen' descendants, Americans had drawn inspiration.7 Secondly the American 'revolutionary moment' - the Declaration of Independence - crucially involved a pre-existing, politically organised society (actually a group of such societies) separating from an imperial power. Moreover, the Americans constituted their state not on the basis of the individual, but on the basis of a federal union of already existing states. The definition of citizenship had already been defined independently by each state and they would continue to do this separately for some time. Despite the Declaration of Independence's claim to the self-evidence of human equality, no deductions were drawn from this about the status of individuals within the states. The Declaration was an act performed on a third party - Britain - by the politically constituted 'United Colonies'. Both the Articles of Confederation (1776), operating immediately following independence, and the American Constitution (1787) guaranteed to each colony the various customs, rights and laws there established. Neither the American Revolution nor the Constitution (and contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) enshrined or claimed to regulate the political rights of individuals within the separate states as the basis of its authority.8 The franchise - then typically reserved to white male property-holders - remained essentially a state concern. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did the United States seek to impose on individual states the full political implications of 'natural equality' and then it took a civil war to do it.

The American Revolution provoked a political reform debate in Britain, but it was a debate that, for the most part, focused on legislative, parliamentary and taxation reform.9 Importantly it stimulated an emerging national political culture amongst what was then called the 'middling sort of people' - and it generated the beginnings of free-standing constituency-based and national political educational associations, such as the Society for Constitutional Information. Some of these survived to the 1790s, becoming important in the reaction to the French Revolution.10

The French Revolution embodied drastically different constitutional principles to the American. It involved not the separation of already-constituted political societies from a geographically distant, if culturally proximate authority but a single society seeking to reconstitute itself on the basis of new norms and principles. The man who articulated this most clearly and did so much to bring the revolution about was the Abbé Sieyes (1748-1836). Trained as a priest, and a representative of the Clergy in the pre-revolutionary provincial government, Sieyes burst into print - and history - in the preparations for the meeting of the Estates General, the French Ancient Regime's equivalent of Parliament.

The Estates General had not met since 1614, the French Monarchy having achieved for a while what the Stuarts in England had failed to do, namely to rule and raise revenue without recourse to a parliament. But by 1786, France was in a deep and continuing fiscal crisis: interest payments on debt consumed almost half the annual revenue of the government. Already by 1786 Calonne, controller of the Royal Finances, told Louis ⅩⅥ that piece-meal reform was impossible: 'The disparity, the dis-accord, the incoherence of the different parts of the body of the monarchy is the principle of the constitutional vices which enervate its strength and hamper all its organisation; . . . one cannot destroy any one of them without attacking them all in the principle which has produced and perpetuates them.'11 In order to generate public confidence in the regime's credit the King had had to open the finances to inspection, and ultimately to convene the Estates General.

The 'Estates General' were representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen - the Aristocracy, the Clergy and the property-owning Commoners - the last of which was known as 'Third Estate'. Inactive since 1614, even the rules of procedure had been forgotten, and so aware were participants of the impact of the franchise, number of seats, orders of voting, and so on that there was from the start intense debate about such matters.12 Into this debate the Abbé Sieyes inserted his famous pamphlet What is the third Estate?

Sieyes - who had an ear for what we would now call the sound-bite - gave a notorious answer to this question. In contrast to the two other orders - the nobility and the priesthood - which, he claimed, were guardians of their own corporate privilege, the Third Estate had 'no corporate interest to defend . . . it demands nothing less than to make the totality of citizens a single social body'.13 It was, he claimed, not one order amongst others, but itself, alone, 'the nation': it was 'everything'. Sieyes's radical claim was that all other institutions and corporations of the ancien régime were indefensible privileges and so must be done away with. Moreover, if - as seemed vital - a new constitution were to be constructed, it would have to be done by some pre-political entity, for all existing political entities were partial - were selfishly constituted. For Sieyes that entity was 'the nation'. The nation was made up of natural individuals who logically preceded any conventional distinctions (such as status, education, profession, etc.) for these could only arise from within political associations. Being pre-social and undifferentiated these individuals must be equal. In a distinctly Rousseauvian fashion Sieyes saw the nation as a union of equal individuals bound to the common will of the whole as expressed by their majority. Only such an entity could exercise constitutive power, i.e. the power of constituting, or setting up, the institutions comprising a state - a political and social order. Moreover the resulting constitutional order could not itself constrain the nation that had created it. The nation's will was, he thought, 'free and independent of civil forms . . . its will is always the supreme law' and in this sense 'a nation never leaves the state of nature'.14 It followed from Sieyes's logic that the Third Estate - which lacked the privileged corporate status of the nobility or the clergy - composed the representatives of the nation, who alone were competent to undertake the work of constitution-making. Hence his epochal claim that the Third Estate should either declare itself a constituent assembly empowered to create a new constitution in the name of the nation or (preferably) get the nation to create an assembly with this competence. In a momentous vote on 17 June 1789 the Third Estate declared itself a 'National Assembly' and the work of constructing the new constitution began. Astonished Britons looked across the channel and began to consider the implications.

The 'Ancient Regime' in Britain

Britain itself had undergone two political upheavals in the seventeenth century, each of which are sometimes called 'revolutions'. The first - the Civil War between Parliament and the King (1642-9) - had indeed overthrown existing political forms - abolishing the Monarchy, the Lords and the established Church - and it had generated some very radical ideas and theories about the rights of individuals and the limitations of institutional power - of both the Monarchy and Parliament.15 Many of these theoretical positions were to re-emerge in the 1790s. But the seventeenth-century Commonwealth failed to produce a lasting political constitution, revealing how difficult early modern societies found it to escape the power of traditional forms of rule. Exhausted by civil war, constitutional experimentation and instability, the welcome restoration of the Monarchy, Lords and traditional institutions had left many Englishmen with a profound fear of civil unrest.16 Despite this, fears of a Catholic and autocratic monarch seeking to rule and impose taxation without parliamentary consent led to a second political upheaval in 1688-9, the so-called Glorious Revolution. This was effectively an aristocratic Protestant coup against a would-be absolutist Catholic monarch - James Ⅱ. The great eighteenth-century political groupings, Whigs and Tories, derive ultimately from their support or rejection of the principle of resistance articulated at this time. The Glorious Revolution was seen by some as re-establishing the principle of co-ordination, or England's 'Balanced Constitution' - a balance of King, Lords and Commons in which no one branch could act unilaterally without the co-operation of the others. The nation here was identified with its corporate orders not, as did Sieyes, with its undifferentiated individuals. Another, more radical interpretation of the event, enshrined in the second of Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690), could be claimed to show the people's right to intervene to determine to whom the powers of government should be entrusted.17 Even though this left open to dispute the identity of 'the people', the centrality of this 'right of resistance' was an ambiguous legacy on which to build a regime, and an increasingly embarrassing one through which the Whigs were forced to protest their loyalty to the monarch. These issues were played out in the famous trial of the High Tory priest, Dr Sacheverell, where the Whigs gave a very conservative account of the ideological significance of 1688.18 (See Burke, Appeal, pp. 183-4.)

Britain had maintained a monarchy whilst curbing its power, and had made constitutional liberty a principle of its political order. As Montesquieu had famously put it, England was a 'republic disguised as a monarchy'.19 whilst in virtually the whole of the rest of Europe royal power was being increased and concentrated.20

Yet, though anomalous, Britain was regarded by significant observers - including Montesquieu before, and Hegel after the French Revolution - as something of a model to be emulated, combining the liberty associated with a republic and the stability associated with monarchy. Secondly, although this is clear to historians, it is less often noted by historians of political thought, although the monarch's powers were constitutionally limited, that the emergent British state was more powerful and effective than any other at the time.21 A crucial feature of any state's power is its capacity to wage war (as Britain and France did - often mutually - throughout much of the eighteenth century): military power was dependent on the state's ability to raise the necessary manpower and material resources through taxation. Through the early development of modern fiscal institutions the British state succeeded in raising money through un-coerced borrowing from its citizens, establishing a national debt, the security of which was the lenders' confidence in its ability to extract taxation to pay interest and, perhaps ultimately, the principal.22 This confidence in turn was grounded in the state's political stability - which, as political commentators increasingly recognised, was based on 'public opinion'. 'Credit' was thus at once a feature of fiscal and of political legitimacy, and Britain enjoyed both because decision-makers in Parliament, having property of their own to protect, had personal interests in maintaining both the security of property-rights and the solvency and political stability of the regime. Whilst Britain had managed to sustain a symmetry between fiscal confidence and political support, France by contrast was caught in a vicious spiral in which it used up political credit to support its finances, endangering both in the process.

Despite Britain's advantage, this symmetry was always recognised to be precarious.23 There were huge ideological battles over the growing role of the state and over the tensions between the landed gentry whose land tax originally paid the interest on the national debt, the poorer consumers who paid excise tax on certain items and the 'monied men' who received as interest the taxes of the others but risked their capital on the stability of the regime. But the British state was able to raise money far more readily and at a lower rate of interest than could the French monarch. British 'liberty' in all three senses of the independence of the state from foreign control, the representation of the propertied elite in the state's decision-making and (and as a result) the guarantees that the state would respect individuals' property rights, paradoxically resulted in a state that was economically stronger than one claiming 'absolute' powers - and for that very reason. An absolute monarch might at any time default on his own debts, or impose tax burdens which rendered others liable to do so - the former a policy under active consideration by Louis from early on in the crisis. A constitutionally limited, parliamentary-based regime would not do this as long as those with the power to default were broadly the same as those who would suffer from doing so.24

It is only the last generation of scholars that has recovered credit as a major context for an understanding of the French Revolution.25 Yet it was the burden of debt and the collapse of credit that forced the calling of the Estates General and structured the whole of the early revolutionary debate in France. Reading Burke's Reflections in the light of this shows how his thinking about political stability is influenced either by explicitly financial issues or by political issues relating to the likely creditworthiness of the resulting regime.

The account given above suggests the British eighteenth-century constitution, in contrast to the French, was a successfully modernising one, and that the Revolution was an attempt to overcome a 'modernisation deficit'. Early on some British supporters indeed saw it in that way - in fact there are elements of this in James Mackintosh's analysis (see pp. 169-70). However, more characteristic of the Radicals was the view that the French Revolution, far from seeking to imitate Britain's constitution, sought to initiate a new and different political order which Britain should copy. For radicals of the day then, both pre-revolutionary France and contemporary Britain fell on the far side of the line dividing the reformed present from what increasingly came to be regarded as 'Feudal' and 'Gothic'. Burke's defence of the existing 'customary' constitution and the radicals' denunciation of it as Feudal mutually assisted in the emergence of a peculiar political Englishness in which economic and institutional modernity was combined with an ideological defence which, in its identification with the past, was distinctly un-modern.26

Radicals too were caught between defending an idealised economic simplicity and trying to think through the ways in which political and economic modernisation could be bought at a price which bore less heavily on the poor. The loss of small-holders' access to land owing to enclosure and increasingly commercial farming increased the numbers of urban landless labourers, and, in times of dearth such as the winter of 1795, fears of starvation. Some (Spence, p. 278) responded by claiming Lockean natural rights to the land as subsistence farmers and proposing similarly simplistic political institutions. These were essentially nostalgic models that were nevertheless to persist for some time.27 Others such as Thelwall (see pp. 340-1), recognising the potential benefits of the sophisticated exchange economy, sought to apply such theories to justify redistributive rights within, rather than in a way destructive of, the modern economy. These moral, social and economic oppositions were argued out in terms of a polarity between 'Feudal' and 'natural' which often cuts across modern categories of analysis and of the temporal processes in which they are now thought to be embedded, both of which were in process of being forged at the time.



© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations; Acknowledgements; Introduction; 1. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens (1789); 2. Richard Price: A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1790); 3. Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); 4. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790); 5. Tom Paine: Rights of Man (1791); 6. James Mackintosh: Vindiciae Gallicae (1791); 7. Edmund Burke: An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791); 8. Hannah More: Village Politics (1792); 9. William Godwin: Political Justice (1793); 10. The London Corresponding Society: Two Addresses (1793 and 1794); 11. Thomas Spence: The Real Rights of Man (1793); 12. Richard Brothers: A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (1794); 11. Edmund Burke: Two Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796); 12. John Thelwall: The Rights of Nature against the Usurpations of Establishments (1796); Index.
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