The French Revolution was not initially an issue in British politics. In 1789 Pitt was relieved that he had survived the Regency Crisis and felt strong enough to strengthen his government by bringing in two supporters, both of them future Prime Ministers. In June Lord Sydney was replaced as Home Secretary by Pitt’s cousin William Wyndham Grenville (who was created Lord Grenville in the following year; in 1791 he became Foreign Secretary). Grenville was replaced as Speaker by Henry Addington, the son of the Pitt family doctor.
Internationally Britain was playing a role in resolving international crises. For example in July 1790 British diplomats mediated between Austria and Prussia and produced an agreement whereby both powers ended their wars with Turkey and the constitutional rights of the Netherlands were guaranteed. This was in keeping with Pitt’s overall foreign policy which was ‘to prevent (if it can be done without too great effort or risk) any material change in the relative situation of other powers – particularly naval powers – and to diminish the temptation to wars of ambition’. He did not foresee in 1789 that this policy would lead to war with France.
The British Reforming Movement
Although many argued complacently that the British had a perfect constitution that needed no change, support for parliamentary reform had existed since the 1760s and had revived during the American War. At the end of 1779 the Revd Christopher Wyvill’s Yorkshire Association had sparked a mass of petitions for parliamentary reform, notably in abolishing pocket boroughs and creating more county seats. This remarkable and sustained mobilisation of respectable opinion had the support of Pitt.
But for all its innovatory force, the Yorkshire Association was a cautious and respectable body. In March 1780 a more radical movement sprang up in London, the Westminster Committee Association, influenced by the Unitarian, John Jebb. It produced a series of sweeping recommendations: annual parliaments: single-member and equal constituencies: universal male suffrage: the secret ballot; payment of MPs; the exclusion of placemen from the Commons.
These views were also supported and circulated by a new association, the Society for Promoting Constitutional Information, founded in April on the initiative of the veteran radical, Major John Cartwright. Such proposals were too radical for the Parliamentary Whigs and stood no chance of success.
The Test and Corporation Acts
In the mid 1780s the reforming movement died down and Pitt’s modest attempt at parliamentary reform failed. But from 1787 a campaign to give full civil rights to Dissenters by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts got underway. It was spearheaded by the Rational Dissenters like the ministers, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, together with well-to-do manufacturers, merchants, professional men, in both London and the provinces. It was opposed by Pitt, but supported by Fox. It was defeated 176/98. The king was amazed that so many could be found to support ‘so ill-advised a proposition’.
On 8 May 1789 the motion was brought forward again. Fox argued: ‘No human government had a right to enquire into private opinions, to presume that it knew them, or to act on that presumption’. The motion was again rejected 124/104. There was a further defeat in 1790. The result of this campaign was an Anglican backlash which led to polarisation between Church and Dissent.
The Centenary Celebrations
Many of the characteristics of 1790s politics were already in place before the French Revolution: the parliamentary dual between Pitt and Fox, provincial movements for parliamentary reform, the grievances of the Dissenters. The events of 1788 added a further ingredient when the centenary of the Glorious Revolution was celebrated with bonfires and revolution dinners, and balls, and its ambiguous legacy was debated. The Bristol Journal for 1 November reported: ‘
Tuesday next the 4th of November being the [centenary of the Glorious Revolution] our fellow citizens of every rank and denomination appear zealous to commemorate this happy and important event by every testimony of joy which can demonstrate their thankfulness for so signal a deliverance ...’The tone of the celebrations was largely self-congratulatory, but in towns such as Birmingham, Derby, Newcastle, Norwich and Sheffield, Whigs and Dissenters made common cause, toasting ‘Equal liberty to all mankind’ and the end of slavery. The radical Revolution Society toasted:
‘May the dawn of liberty on the continent be soon succeeded by the bright sunshine of personal and mental freedom.’The Initial Impact of the Revolution
In June 1789 a bankrupt France faced the crisis of a severe harvest failure and Necker asked Britain to send over emergency consignments of flour. He had reasons to hope that this request would be granted as the two men had met in 1783 when Pitt made his one visit to France. Necker had been so impressed with him that he had offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage. However Pitt refused on the advice of the Board of Trade, who pointed out that Britain too was short of wheat and was scouring the Continent for supplies. This led to great resentment in France and the beginning of the persistent belief that ‘Pitt’s gold’ was undermining the Revolution. However the government’s attitude to the Revolution was one of public and private neutrality.
The news of the fall of the Bastille reached Britain in the week after the event. Even before this, the newspapers were referring to ‘the French Revolution’. In spite of the violence (the heads of the governor and the chief magistrate of Paris were stuck on pikes and paraded through the streets), most commentators complacently assumed that the French Revolution was a re-run of the Revolution of 1688. Members of the reforming societies sent a message to the French.
Fox: ‘The fall of the Bastille was ‘much the greatest event that has ever happened in the world, and ... much the best’.
Hannah More: ‘What English heart did not exult at the demolition of the Bastile [sic]? What lover of his species did not triumph in the warm hope that one of the finest countries in the world would soon be one of the most free? ... Who ... that had a head to reason and a heart to feel did not glow with the hope that ... a beautiful and finely framed edifice would in time have been constructed?' Remarks on the Speech of M. Dupont (1793)
Wordsworth: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven! (The Prelude, vi.)
On 4 October Parisian market women marched on Versailles. Overnight violence broke out and the queen fled for her life down the corridors. On the following day royal family were forced to leave Versailles for the Tuileries Palace in Paris. They never saw Versailles again.
On 5 November 1789 Richard Price delivered a sermon to commemorate the Glorious Revolution. It was published as ‘A Discourse on the Love of our Country’. In emotional language it hailed the fact that the king was forced to move from Versailles to the Tuileries as the dawn of a new age.
It was this that inspired Edmund Burke to write his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which came out in November 1790 and opened up a nation-wide debate on the meaning of events in France.