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.