Thursday, 15 November 2007

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).