Thursday, 29 November 2007

Waging war

Unprepared for war
During the long Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britain was France’s most consistent enemy. It was a war described by Napoleon as the war of the elephant and the whale: France could not defeat Britain at sea, but the British could only defeat the French on land by coalition building – an expensive and frequently unreliable strategy. It took four coalitions to bring about the final defeat of France. (The other three were smashed by Napoleon.)
Britain entered the war from a position of weakness. Pitt had rehabilitated the national finances partly at the expense of military expenditure. In particular, the army was too small – 15,000 men in the British Isles with perhaps twice as many again deployed to India and the West Indies.

Pitt as war leader
This raises the question: Was Pitt a good war-time Prime Minister? Arguably not. Britain entered the war unprepared and undermanned. The strategy was ill thought out and Fox was right to pick out the confusion of war aims. Furthermore, Pitt mistakenly believed that the war would be short and his financial measures rested on this assumption. He underestimated French fighting capability and France’s sense of patriotic identity. However, he has acquired a reputation as a great war-time leader, because Britain was not defeated and because his allies after his death praised him as ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’.

Britain’s attempt to defeat revolutionary France in the 1790s rested on three strategic pillars:
(a) supporting the European allies with cash and troops;
(b) using the navy to pick off French colonies, especially in the Caribbean;
(c) offering practical aid to opponents of the Revolution within France.

Pitt’s strategy therefore was essentially to follow his father’s policy, though he did not anticipate a war as long as the Seven Years’ War. However the war refused to follow this pattern.

The Armed Forces
The danger of a massive French invasion was so great after 1793 and so protracted that the government was compelled to call Britons for the defence of the nation. This was an era which saw an unprecedented mobilisation - such a scale would not be attempted again until the First World War.

The Army
There were three ways in which men could serve in the army.
1. As regular soldiers
2. In the county militias
3. In the volunteer regiments formed to counter the threat of a French invasion.
The part-time and voluntary forces had reached almost half a million men by 1804.
Regular soldiers
Traditionally Britain, like other European nations, had fought its wars with the aid of mercenaries, mainly Germans, and supplemented with artisans and labourers who enlisted voluntarily in the armed forces, and with men seized by press gangs against their will.
Recruitment was chaotic as different recruiting parties competed with each other. Faced with this chaos, the government authorized the formation of 100 independent companies each of 100 men. The cost of recruiting fell to the individual who raised the company, but it guaranteed him a commissioned rank relative to the numbers he raised. If he couldn’t find a regiment to receive him he went on half pay and could draw army pension for life.
When married men joined the army, their families often had to resort to the parish. In Sunderland in September 1793 the overseers of the poor of Sunderland estimated that the poor rate would treble.

When the army had difficulties in recruiting, it resorted to crimps, civilians who forcibly recruited men for the army. The employment of crimps led to great hostility - they were seen as synonymous with kidnappers. In 1794 there were anti-crimp riots in London.
Most of the recruits came from the unemployed - also from apprentices who wished for adventure (though this was forbidden, and several young men came before the quarter-sessions for enlisting while apprenticed). Many enlisted while drunk.

The Militia
At the onset of the war with France the only civil defence force in operation was the militia. This had been remodelled in 1757 when Parliament ordered that every English and Welsh county was to supply a given quota of men between the ages of 18 and 45 and pay them out of the rates. 32,000 men ‘all of them good Protestants’ were to be chosen by ballot and subjected to martial law in time of active service; during peacetime they were to be dispatched for a month’s military training every year under the voluntary leadership of the gentry.

The system was unpopular and inefficient, with the burden of militia service falling overwhelmingly on the illiterate poor. The lords lieutenants, who were in charge of the militia, appointed poorly paid clerks to carry out the organization. Detailed administrative work (for example, assessing which parishes were deficient in quotas) was not carried out.

Magistrates had to swear in the militiamen. They and the mayors and constables had to organize transport and tented camps and allocate billets in local inns. Reimbursement for innkeepers was often insufficient, and innkeepers often petitioned for barracks.
Parliament authorized a weekly allowance for a wife and each lawful child under 10 of a militiaman (if they did not follow the regiment). This came from the rates and was much resented by rate-payers.

There were numerous exceptions - men under 5ft 4inches, peers, army and militia officers (including ex-militia officers who had served for four years), members of the English universities, Anglican and Dissenting clergy, articled clerks, seamen, apprentices, Thames watermen etc. A balloted man could avoid service by paying a £10 fine or by finding a substitute. The newspapers advertised agencies that could find substitutes.

County quotas were rarely met, and now attempts were made to adjust them to the changing balance of population. In 1796 the proportion of eligible men serving in the militia in the heavily agricultural counties of Dorset, Bedfordshire and Montgomeryshire was more than 1 in 10. But the more industrialised counties, which had experienced rapid population growth, only 1 in 30 for Yorkshire or 1 in 25 for Lancashire, were eligible.

The government responded with the Supplementary Militia Act (1796) which demanded a further 60,000 militiamen from England and another 4,400 from Wales, taking care to ensure that the quotas were more equal. In 1797 the militia was extended to Scotland for the first time.

These two acts brought up the total strength of the militia to c. 100,000. From this time onwards the militia became an accepted part of British life.

In addition, ‘gentlemen’ were encouraged to found their own private volunteer corps of infantry or cavalry, but no state subsidies were given to these early volunteers. The government wanted respectable men with a stake in the country - the leaders to be gentry and professions, the men to be tradesmen and farmers. Very often these forces were more remarkable for their elaborate uniforms than their efficiency. Although some historians have argued that the volunteer movement shows that the radicals had little support, the only labouring men who showed enthusiasm to volunteer were those living in the coastal counties, who felt they had most to lose from a French invasion. It was only when there was a nation-wide fear of invasion that the poor identified in a significant way with the fate of the nation.

Those who did volunteer did so from a variety of motives. Unemployment was a powerful factor. In addition, those who volunteered were usually exempt from the militia ballot, and militia training was much tougher than volunteer training. Part-time volunteer service offered companionship in the company of friends; it also offered tradesmen and shopkeepers the opportunity to tout for custom. In the Bristol volunteers, one sixth of the 848 men who joined it earned their everyday livings in the food and drinks trade, and a further 80 were shoemakers and haberdashers.

The Navy
The role of the Royal Navy was crucial. Because the British maintained their maritime supremacy, they were able to ferry troops to the theatres of war. Most importantly, they maintained (and increased) their global commercial empire, and with it the financial resources to build up coalitions.

The Navy the largest item in the national budget – the National Debt had been created to keep it running. In 1793 it had 54 battleships in commission and another 39 ready. It was directed by the Board of Admiralty, which was composed of civilian and naval members, headed by the First Lord and was responsible for the overall allocation of resources, the movements of fleets and ships, commissions and promotions.

Before individuals could be given command of ships they had to be judged competent to do so. Unlike the Army, promotion in the Navy depended on merit. Before Nelson could be made second lieutenant in 1777 he was examined by three assembled captains – though one of them was his uncle!

The Press Gang
The government entered the war with a depleted navy of 15,000 men. At first it hoped it would be able to man the navy with volunteers. On 1 December 1792 a royal proclamation offered bounties to volunteers: £3 to an able seaman, £2 to an ordinary seaman between the ages of 25 and 50 and £1 to a landsman between 20 and 35. Several men accepted (perhaps reasoning that if they did not volunteer, the press gang would accept them anyway) but many were reluctant to volunteer - said they had not yet received payment from the American War. In anticipation of this reluctance, regulating offices were established in the major ports and press warrants prepared ready for issue. The warrants were issued in February 1793 and gangs combed the ports looking for seamen.

Contrary to popular belief the actions of the press gangs were limited by law. There were many exemptions: all persons under 18 years of age and over 55; seamen with less than two years sea-going experience; apprentices with less than three years’ experience. In the case of inward bound vessels, the press gangs were required by law to leave sufficient men on board to ensure the merchant vessel safe navigation to her anchorage and a safe berthing. Masters, chief mates, boatswains and carpenters were exempt. Generally in the early stages of the war, only seamen were likely to be impressed - reluctant landsmen were a liability. Seamen were easy to spot - they dressed and walked distinctively. Impressment therefore created problems for merchant shipping. After Parliament passed an act (April 1793) allowing British merchant ships to have ¾ of the crew foreign nationals, no merchant ships were safe at sea. Merchant seamen dreaded the moment they arrived back on land when they could be pressed.
There were two kinds of gangs on shore.
(a) those run by land-based recruiting officers from recruiting houses
(b) those sent ashore from warships for a quick raid to boost numbers.
Men seized by the press-gang were offered the option of volunteering so they could take up the bounty.

Regulating officers were called Yellow Admirals, meaning admirals without flagships of their own. Some of these were corrupt and disreputable, but not all of them. Captain Peter Rothe (Tyne and Wear) released 22 of the 60 men seized, acknowledging that they were ships’ carpenters or apprentices and therefore exempt. The regulating officer had to live in the district, and it was in his own interests to establish a rapport with the inhabitants. It was very different with the gangs sent from men of war. In October 1792 a frigate captain ignored the advice of the regulating officer and landed a press gang in Liverpool. During the fracas, one of the midshipmen killed the master of a merchant ship. The population destroyed two recruiting houses, and the local authorities made no move against them.

In 1796 a quota system was introduced, which enlisted into the fleet reluctant young men not from seafaring backgrounds, such as urban artisans. This is undoubtedly one of the factors behind the 1797 mutinies. But in spite of problems, Pitt’s government managed to increase the naval personnel to 133,000 by 1801.

The First Coalition
By March 1793 there was a de facto alliance against France that came to be known as the First Coalition, comprising Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, many German and northern Italian states, and Holland. But this coalition was undermined by the fact that the allies were fighting the war from different motives. The French army put up strong resistance to the Duke of York and his German allies in the Low Countries. Austria and Prussia proved less than reliable allies because they had ambitions in Europe (such as the partition of Poland) which Britain did not share.

Pitt’s coalitions were essentially fragile. He was faced with the question of how to deploy the available British forces, plus the 22,000 men hired from Hanover and Hesse. But he was never able to deliver a knock-out blow against France.

In late February the French invaded Holland. British troops under the command of the duke of York were sent to Flanders but the campaign proved a failure. In August the British began a campaign to capture Dunkirk, but when the duke’s army was defeated at Hondschoote in early September it became apparent that the siege must be raised. The army was too thinly spread as it was also fighting in the Caribbean. Of the 89,000 troops sent to the Caribbean, about 70% were lost mainly to yellow fever. But the ‘West Indian’ strategy can be defended on the grounds that, as an essentially trading nation, Britain could not ignore the opportunities for conquering West Indian islands. Notable permanent gains included the sugar island of Demerara (captured from the Dutch in 1796) and Trinidad (seized from Spain in 1797).

The Levée en Masse
The war was not going all France’s way in 1793. They suffered reverses in the Low Countries and their brilliant general Dumouriez defected to the Austrians. In June a coup brought about the fall of the comparatively moderate Girondin deputies in the Convention and the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobins.

The most immediate result of the British activity was the levée en masse of 23 August. Castlereagh:
‘We contend against an opponent whose strength we have no means of measuring. It is the first time that all the population and all the wealth of a great kingdom has been concentrated in the field. What may be the result is beyond my perception.’ Lord Sheffield: ‘All we have done is to make all France soldiers.’
The Jacobin coup intensified French royalist anger. In August 1793 they opened the port of Toulon to Lord Hood’s fleet. This, in theory, meant that the Allies had a base from which an allied offensive might be mounted. But it also meant that troops intended for the West Indies had to be diverted to a third front – the Mediterranean. In December 1793 Toulon fell to Bonaparte – a serious setback for the British war effort.

Toulon represented the least successful aspect of Pitt’s strategy – his attempts to help French royalists. Toulon proved a failure, so did the Quiberon expedition of June 1795, which led to a mass shooting of French royalists, including Urbain d’Hercé, the Bishop of Dol.

The First Coalition was such an inchoate construction that it is not surprising that it crumbled before the determination of Carnot’s levée en masse. By 1795 only Austria was left in the field, and she was about to experience crushing defeats at the hands of General Bonaparte.

In the early years of the war, the mortality rate was appalling. Men were sent to Flanders or the West Indies with no training, little equipment and inadequate clothing. In 1794-5 the only troops in Flanders to have great-coats were those whose regiments had received them from public donations. There was no clothing department at the War Office and the clothing of a regiment was the responsibility of the colonel, who was expected to make a profit out of it. He received an annual sum of money for clothing his regiment, and negotiated, either personally or through his agent, with a wool merchant. The sum he received was based on the regiment’s full complement, whether or not it was up to strength. The lack of shoes led to crippling diseases in the West Indies.

An armed people?
Linda Colley suggests that the evidence suggests that in the early years of the war the British people was as afraid of its own people as of the enemy, with the authorities anxious to set up a respectable and propertied home guard to restrain domestic disorder. But in the winter of 1797 as fears of a French invasion grew, the government, d esperate and without European allies, moved to enlist plebeian support.

In 1798 the Defence of the Realm Act demanded from each county details of the number of able-bodied men in each parish and what service he was prepared to offer the state. A further survey was done in 1803. A better known outcome of this frantic search for numbers was Britain’s first census, ordered by Parliament in 1800. The state was for the first time since Domesday Book attempting to compile precise information on its people.

The evidence suggests that even at the height of patriotic excitement about a possible French invasion in 1803 some Britons were averse to fighting for their country. Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire seemed to show an unwillingness to volunteer. On the other hand in the south and south-west, over 50% of all men aged between 17 and 55 volunteered to take up arms in 1803. Patriotism seems to have been reinforced by self-interest - whether men were convinced a French invasion was genuinely imminent.

It has been suggested that whereas the old historiography associated economic change with social and political disruption, urban artisans, more easily reached by propaganda and recruiting parties, were in practice more ‘patriotic’ than rural labourers. The government took a political risk in creating a nation under arms, though it had no choice.
‘A nation where formal political power was concentrated in the hands of the propertied few, and where perhaps only one adult male in 50 had the vote, had no alternative but to look to the mass of its inhabitants to win its wars and preserve its independence.’ Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (1992), 318.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Prelude

Click here to access the website of Radio 4's 'In our Time' when you can listen again to the discussion of Wordsworth's The Prelude (or better still download it).

The death of Marat

Here is David's famous depiction of the dead Marat as a republican martyr.

Britain and France: the coming of war

By the turn of the year 1792-3 Britain was on the verge of the greatest and most costly war she had yet fought. But awareness of war came upon her almost unawares. On 17 February 1792 in his ninth budget speech Pitt had announced tax cuts and reduced military expenditure. True to British traditions in foreign policy, no action was taken as first Prussia and then Austria declared war on revolutionary France during 1792. Even the September Massacres, the declaration of a French republic and the execution of the king were not regarded as pretexts for war in themselves. In October the French were looking for an alliance with Britain even though formal diplomatic relations had been disrupted by the overthrow of the monarchy. In early November the Foreign Secretary, Grenville, was still insisting that Britain would be able to remain neutral.

However, Pitt was greatly exercised by the Austrian defeat at Jemappes in November 1792, as this opened up all her Belgian territories to French occupation. British alarm grew when the French opened the Scheldt and offered ‘fraternity and assistance’ to all peoples seeking to break the yoke of monarchy and tyranny. On 16 November the French issued a decree asserting their right to pursue Austrian troops wherever they fled; this seemed a potential threat to the territorial integrity of Holland. On 19 November they promulgated a fresh decree offering fraternity and assistance to all nations which wished to recover their freedom. On 27 November they announced the permanent annexation of Savoy.

At the same time Pitt was pre-occupied (or professed to be) with the fear of home-grown subversion. This fear certainly frightened the more conservative Whigs. At the end of November extra troops were brought into London and defences at the Tower and the Bank of England were strengthened. On 1 December a new Royal Proclamation was issued, and a few days later Parliament was recalled. In the same month the navy mobilized and militias were called out in ten counties. Grenville informed the French ambassador Chauvelin: Britain
will never see with indifference that France shall make herself directly or indirectly sovereign of the Low Countries or the general arbitress of the rights and liberties of Europe.
But on 15 December a further French decree stated that the occupied territories would be incorporated into France and that any country hostile to the principles of republican government would be regarded as an enemy. At the end of December Britain communicated a rejection of this message.

On 8 January the Aliens Act gave the Home Secretary the power to expel undesirable aliens. Fox’s view that it was unnecessary was easily voted down. The export of grain to France was halted - and here the government may have been influenced by popular demonstrations that might have reflected a combination of anti-French feeling and anxieties about food shortages. On 2 February the Bristol Journal reported:
Several towns in Cornwall were last night visited by large bodies of miners from the different works, in search of concealed corn, which they insist upon is intended for exportation to France. At Wadebridge they found about 25,000 bushels in store, which they obliged the owners to sell at reduced prices. At Looe upwards of 6,000 bushels of grain were kept by them from being shipped - but we did not hear of their committing any outrage.
The Times’s opinion was:
Never was there a war more popular than the approaching one against France appears to be.
Most believed that the war would be short - it was against ‘vagabonds, freebooters and Levellers’. It was against a country in turmoil - it was therefore believed that France would not be able to defend herself.

Though it was not the cause of the war, the execution of Louis XVI aroused great outrage in Britain. Pitt declared it
the foulest and most atrocious deed.
Even Fox called it a deed that
stained the noblest cause that ever was in the hands of Men.
On 1 Feb the Convention declared war, probably pre-empting a similar action by Britain.

But Pitt’s war policy differed from Burke’s. Burke had become a ferocious hawk, obsessive in his search for evidence of subversion and sedition at home, but Pitt did not fight the war as an ideological crusade to extirpate Jacobinism. As war loomed, he called upon France to renounce ‘all ideas of aggrandizement’ and to ‘confine herself within her own territories’. Beyond that the war aims were unclear. Did they include the capture of French colonies? If so, was this to be the type of colonial war fought by Pitt the Elder? Because the government envisaged a short war, they did not come to grips with this question - for which they were severely criticised by Fox.

On the other hand the opposition was in increasing disarray. In the closing months of 1792 Burke and his ally William Windham began urging their colleagues to support the government against the threat of French Jacobinism. In January 1793 Pitt made the Whig Lord Loughborough Lord Chancellor. In February group of Whigs under the leadership of Windham declared their separation from Fox and constituted themselves a ‘Third Party’. The Whigs were splitting. Fox urged immediate peace negotiations but Portland (the nominal leader of the party) believed that revolutionary France had to be defeated.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Louis XVI: trial and execution.

Here is the Convention's indictment of Louis XVI and an eyewitness report on his execution. This account is especially valuable as it comes from the Catholic priest who accompanied him to his execution.

Here is Thomas Paine's courageous speech opposing the king's execution.

Here are the reports in the Times on the king's execution. As you can see the execution aroused great outrage in Britain.

After Louis' death there were numerous sentimental representations of the king being forced to part from his family for his trial. This fitted in well with the domestic ideology of the day. Whereas French royalists depicted the king as a Catholic martyr, English Protestants represented him as the model family man. The people in the paintings are the king himself, Marie Antoinette, his daughter, Marie Thérèse (Madame Royale), and the little dauphin (Louis XVII). Next is a depiction of the harrowing event when the dauphin was parted from his mother in July 1793. Below that is a portrait of Madame Elisabeth in happier times. As always, you should click to enlarge.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The discovery of oxygen

Click here to get to the website of Melvyn Bragg's 'In our Time' programme where you will be able to listen again or (even better!) podcast the discussion.

Update: Here is Melvyn on Priestley from his newsletter:
The great discovery for me, and for some people I’ve talked to since, was Priestley, who, as Jenny Uglow pointed out, brought together his religion, his politics, his science and his chemistry into one single system which today seems quite wonderful but as remote as a hidden planet.

British loyalism and the French Revolution

The mobilisation of loyalism
In spite of Paine’s powerful rhetoric and the growth of the reforming societies, there is no evidence that the radicals represented majority opinion, and during 1792 events in France seemed to reinforce the arguments of the anti-reformers. Increasingly, events seemed to prove Burke right. In May Edward Gibbon wrote from Switzerland wrote of the monarchy and nobility in France: they are crumbled into dust;
they are vanished from the earth. If this tremendous warning has no effect on the men of property in England, if it does not open every eye and raise every arm, you will deserve your fate.
By this time France was at war with Austria and Prussia, and the Tuileries had been invaded by the revolutionary Parisian citizens, the sans-culottes, putting the royal family at ever graver risk. The sans-culottes were caricatured by artists such as Gillray as bloodthirsty monsters.

To counter the provincial reforming societies, ‘Church and King’ clubs sprang up. But even before part 2 of Rights of Man the Birmingham riots of July 1791 (see previous post) had shown the beginnings of a loyalist reaction loyalist reaction had begun. Following the publication of part 2 of Rights of Man early in 1792 Paine-burning ceremonies took place up and down the country.

In May 1792 the king’s Proclamation (drawn up by Pitt in consultation with – significantly - the duke of Portland, the nominal leader of the Whigs) banned seditious writings. As a result, criminal prosecutions were launched against Paine, his printer and various booksellers. Whatever slight chance there was of an acquittal was removed by a letter addressed by Paine from Paris to the Attorney-General expressing contempt for the decision of the court and asking:
‘Is it possible that you or I can believe that the capacity of such a man as Mr Guelf or any of his profligate sons is necessary for the government of a nation?’
The jury found Paine guilty of seditious libel.

Meanwhile public assemblies of local notables held across the country to consider the Proclamation forwarded to London nearly 400 addresses of support for government and constitution.

Britain’s official policy to France was one of neutrality, even in the face of the deposition of the monarchy (10 August), the entry of allied troops into France (19 August) and the September massacres (2-6). But on 20 September the French defeated the Prussians at Valmy and the Duke of Brunswick retreated. On 6 November the French defeated the Austrians at Jemappes and advanced into the Spanish Netherlands. Fox was enthusiastic: he ‘
could not recall a public event, not excepting Saratoga and Yorktown, which had given him so much pleasure.
This gravely disturbed the duke of Portland, the nominal leader of the Whigs, though he still refused to criticize Fox openly. The law reformer Samuel Romilly (1757-1818) was more representative of the new attitude to the French:
One might as well think of establishing a republic of tigers in some forest of Africa as of maintaining a free government among such monsters.
In December 1792 Burke once more clashed with Fox in the Commons, this time taking a dagger out of a brown paper bag and hurling it to the floor:
‘It is my object to keep French infection from this country; their principles from out minds, and their daggers from our hearts’.
The caricaturists portrayed the sans-culottes as bloodthirsty cannibals and the newspapers printed translations of the inflammatory Ça Ira. Anxieties over the European situation coincided with a poor harvest, rising grain prices, industrial disputes and bread riots in north-east England.

In November the National Convention in Paris endorsed a Fraternal Edict promising French military aid to export the revolutionary principles of the rights of man to oppressed peoples throughout Europe.

On 20 November a barrister, John Reeves, founded the 'Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers' at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand. Government-funded advertisements in the press invited responses from loyalists. The response was gratifying for Reeves. It included popular loyalist pamphlets such as the John Bull pamphlets - the first attempt by conservatives to appeal to the common people. In doing so, they were bringing them for the first time into the political debate – with incalculable consequences.

The Trial of Tom Paine
In December Paine was tried in his absence for promoting seditious libel. He had left Dover in September, witnessed by hostile townspeople. The government was determined he should not return.

The prosecutor at Paine’s trial was the future Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, the defender was Thomas Erskine, a brilliant legal mind and an eloquent orator. He defended Paine on the grounds of liberty of the press, a natural right, given by God that cannot be infringed by any earthly power. But the jury was unconvinced and convicted without hearing the prosecution evidence. However, Erskine was feted by a crowd shouting ‘Paine and the Liberty of the Press’, though there were also counter-shouts of ‘Damn Tom Paine’.

Paine had been rapturously received in Paris. He had already been made an honorary French citizen (along with Priestley and Wilberforce) and in the Convention elections he was elected for Calais, one of 750 and one of the few who was an artisan rather than a professional. In spite of this his French was rudimentary.

The victory of loyalism?
In 1791 Burke was regarded as a fanatic. By 1793 his views were common property. The execution of the king and the offensives of the French army discredited both the Revolution and the British movement for reform. In January 1793 Rivington published Hannah More’s Village Politics, which took Burke’s arguments to a popular audience. As a tactic this seems to have worked and the newspapers were full of reports of popular loyalist demonstrations. See for example, this report from the Bristol Journal of 2 March 1793:
On Tuesday the Colliers of Kingswood brought the effigy of the Traitor, Tom Paine, to a cart in this city, through the principal parts of which they went in procession, a great number being on horse-back, preceded by the Sunday School Children of St George’s Gloucestershire, carrying flags with various inscriptions, attended by trumpets and other musical instruments, which occasionally played God Save the King! in which the populace most heartily joined. - On one side of Paine a person habited like a Clergyman stood, appearing to admonish the traitor, and on the other a figure representing the Devil, who with his left hand seemed to have fast hold on him by the shoulder, and under his right arm carried a Fox, that was represented to be in the act of devouring an innocent Robin. - Though the concourse of people assembled on the occasion was immense, yet we do not hear of any disorderly conduct having taken place, but the cavalcade having proceeded peaceably thro’ the city returned to St George’s, where Paine’s effigy was executed amidst the execrations of an incredible number of spectators, who afterwards returned to their homes, highly gratified with having given this unequivocal testimony to their King and Country.
The motives behind these demonstrations are mixed - certainly they had the support of the magistrates. But the violence of the Revolution made it difficult for radicals. In Sheffield, however, it was Burke rather than Paine who was burned in effigy (Sheffield Register, 18 January 1793).

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft

In both Britain and France the Revolution sparked a debate about women’s rights. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman made an impassioned plea for rational education. In her Rights of Men she had attacked Burke, in the Vindication she took issue with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In spite of its title, her book was more a conduct book than a political treatise. It did not focus on later feminist concerns such as the vote. She argued that women were human before they were feminine and that the soul was unsexed. She showed a distaste for marriage and for sex and (possibly?) a contempt for the preoccupations of most women. Women should think of themselves as rational mothers and good citizens rather than good wives. Society could not progress if half its members were kept backward. At present women had the vices of any oppressed group such as slaves.

The influence of Richard Price can be seen in her views on the perfectibility of human society, the equality of individuals and the natural right of each to determine his or her own destiny. In doing so she linked feminism to the general struggle for political and social reform, arguing that the abstract rights of men and the tyranny of husband, kind, primogeniture, and hereditary privilege must all cease in the name of reason.

The main thrust of her argument was on education. The Vindication was dedicated to Talleyrand, the architect of the French National Assembly’s policy of a system of free education for women. She insisted that boys and girls should be educated together, and that both should have physical exercise. Like her conservative opponent, Hannah More, she deplored the excesses of sensibility, believing that it led to amoral self-indulgence.

Following a crisis in her personal life, when she fell in love with the Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli (a married man) Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December 1792 - a dangerous time!

The spread of radicalism

Reforming movements
The winter of 1791/2 witnessed a new development in extra-parliamentary politics with the foundation of a series of radical reform clubs organised by working men. The membership of these clubs consisted mainly of artisans, journeymen, mechanics, small shopkeepers and tradesmen. The subscription rate was low - a penny a week.

One of the first was the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791. Within a few months it was claiming more than two thousand members. For the first time many of the demands were explicitly economic. One of its first secretaries described the aim of the society as
‘to show the poor the reason, the ground of all their complaints; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family’.
Into the writings of the period came a note of class antagonism:
‘While the rich enjoy almost all the benefits, the poor undergo all the labour.’
The London Corresponding Society
The Sheffield Society’s arrangement into divisions was copied by the most famous of the working-men’s associations was founded by Thomas Hardy (1752-1832) a master shoemaker and devout Dissenter. In October 1791 he met with a few friends at the Bell Inn off the Strand. On 25 January the London Corresponding Society was founded. The admission test was an affirmative reply to three questions of which the most important was:
‘Are you persuaded ... that every adult person, in possession of his reason and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament?’
The membership fee was one shilling, followed by a penny a week. Within a fortnight 25 members were enrolled, and the sum in the Treasurer’s hand was 4/1d. By late 1792 it was claiming over 800 members, each committed to manhood suffrage and parliamentary reform ‘by all justifiable means’. Members were organised into 29 cells spread across London. These local divisions also functioned as adult education classes, with regular ‘readings, conversations and discussions’. Their seriousness and stamina differentiated them sharply from the riotous Wilkites of the 1760s.

In January 1792 the Sheffield Constitutional Society distributed copies of part 1 of Rights of Man at 6d each. Paine gave up his profits to finance a cheap edition.

At the same time radical newspapers circulated: the weekly Sheffield Register and the Manchester Herald as well as pamphlets by men such as Daniel Eaton and the bookseller Thomas Spence (1750-1814).

The reforming movements were overwhelmingly urban and flourished in towns with a large proportion of skilled men such as Sheffield cutlers and Norwich weavers. They were not a working class movement in the sense in which the term later came to be used. They were composed of independent artisans, journeymen, small traders - very similar to the Parisian sans-culottes. ‘Skilled men could read and they were encouraged by events in France to think’. They had considerable revolutionary potential. The authorities were particularly alarmed that the membership of the London Corresponding Society doubled in the month following the French victory at Valmy in September 1792.

In response to plebeian radicalism, a group of Foxites formed their own association, the Society of Friends of the People in April 1792. Its leaders included Charles Grey (a future prime minister), Sheridan, Thomas Erskine and Samuel Whitbread (the younger). Fox, for tactical reasons, did not join. The subscription was two and a half guineas and the policy adopted was deliberately moderate - more equal representation and more frequent elections. They repudiated any connection with Paine.

On 30 April Grey gave notice in the House that he intended to move for reform. Pitt replied that he and his associates were connected with people who wanted revolution rather than reform. Burke applied the word ‘Jacobin’ to the reformers.

These reforming societies were not an English phenomenon alone. For the first time Scotland was widely involved in political reform. In July 1792 the Lord Provost of Glasgow presided over a meeting in which representations in favour of equal representation, frequent elections, and universal suffrage were adopted. Edinburgh founded its own branch of the Society of Friends of the people - the leader a young advocate called Thomas Muir.

In Ireland the Revolution had its greatest impact among the Ulster Presbyterians.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

The French royal family

Here is a family tree of the French royal family down to the present day. Click to enlarge. You will see the absence of women because of France's Salic Law. Not only were forbidden from inheriting the French throne but a man could not claim it through a woman. If this had been applied in England it would have barred the succession not only of queens regnant but also of Henry II, Henry VII, James I and George I and Edward VII, who all claimed the throne through their mothers!

Merci, Martine.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Paine attacks Burke

Burke's Reflections sold about 19,000 copies in its first year, with about another 30,000 over the next five years. It also sold well in France. The Whigs were divided in their response. Fox kept quiet about his disapproval but Sheridan was extremely vocal and the Pittite press gloated over Whig divisions. It inspired over 50 replies. The first was Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759-97) Vindication of the Rights of Men. It appeared anonymously in December 1790 and was republished almost immediately.
'Your tears are reserved ... for the declamation of the theatre or for the downfall of queens whose rank alters the nature of folly and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distresses of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration though they might extort an alms.'
Among other refutations of Burke one of the most notable was James Mackintosh’s (1765-1832) Vindiciae Gallicae, which came out in early 1791. This set out a moderate Whiggism, based on the 1688 settlement.

But a more radical view was set out by Catharine Macaulay in her Observations on the Reflections of Burke (1790) which saw the French Revolution as a ‘sudden spread of an enlightened spirit’ inspired by a benevolent providence.

Rights of Man, part 1
In 1787 the former excise officer Thomas Paine (1737-1809) returned to England from America, where his Common Sense (1776) had inspired the revolutionary course, his immediate reason being to promote his design for an iron bridge. He and Burke knew each other and got on well because of their common support for the Americans. But when Burke published his Reflections, they became ideological enemies.

In March 1791 he published the first part of Rights of Man, dedicated to George Washington. 50,000 copies were sold in 1791 alone, breaking every publishing record. It was also welcomed by some moderate reformers. The Society for Constitutional Information recommended his book to the nation and one enthusiast wrote to taunt Burke on his opponent's ‘magnificent answer’. Certainly Paine captured the interest of the labouring classes in a way none of his predecessors had managed - much to the dismay of some middle-class reformers.

Burke breaks with the Whigs
Whig divisions over the French Revolution came as a relief to Pitt, who faced difficulties over British policy towards Russia. (In the so-called’ Ochakov incident’ Pitt mobilized the fleet to go to war against Russia in an abortive attempt to force her to surrender a Black Sea Port which she had seized from Turkey.) On 15 April 1791 the House debated Russia. Fox spoke in favour of the French Revolution; the Speaker did not allow Burke to reply. On 6 May Parliament was debating Quebec. However, when Burke, his subject was the French Revolution and he publicly broke with Fox. In the summer Fox paid a fraternal visit to France and Burke published a defence of his views in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.

The Birmingham riots
Events in Britain took an ugly turn in July 1791 when a revolutionary dinner held in Birmingham. This sparked off a riot in which Dissenting meeting houses were destroyed while the authorities looked on. Priestley had not been present at the dinner but he and his wife fled from their home. The mob torched Priestley's house, destroying his valuable laboratory and all of the family's belongings. Other homes of Dissenters were burned in the three-day riot. Priestley spent several days hiding with friends until he was able to travel safely to London.

By the summer of 1791 French politics had become more tense. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy had opened up divisions in France, causing the flight of many Catholic priests, a number of them to England. (By the end of 1792 there were to be over 10,000 émigrés in London alone.)

The failed flight to Varennes (20 June) had left the royal family virtual prisoners in the Tuileries. In August the king of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria threatened to punish France if the royal family were harmed.

Rights of Man, part 2

The publication of the much more radical part 2 in February 1792 heightened the concerns of those who had had misgivings about part 1. Paine’s work seemed a vindication of those who had argued that parliamentary reform would be the prelude to social revolution. He argued that a democratic government would reduce taxes on the poor but also levy a special property tax on the rich. He advocated child allowances of £4 p.a. for every child of a poor family until it reached the age of 14; old age pensions of £6 p.a. for those over 60; maternity allowances of £1 for each child born to a poor family; a marriage grant of £1 to each poor couple.

Nothing could stop the circulation of Rights of Man. More than 100,000 copies were sold by 1793, in spite of the determination of the government to prevent the sales.
In 1802 Paine estimated the sale of both parts at 4-5000,000 and in 1809 at 1½ million, including foreign translations.

Britain and the French Revolution: the initial response

Pitt in 1789
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.