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Britain and the French Revolution


In the closing years of the 18th century, social and political unrest in Britain was growing rapidly. It was a time of argument and counter-argument centred on one issue: the rights of man. On one side were the radicals who backed a revolutionary new idea: democracy. On the other were the loyalists who strongly opposed any social reform, believing that it would bring the ancient British 'constitution' into danger.
Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man' - opens new window
Thomas Paine's Rights of Man
(title page and p. 69)
Document (199k) | Transcript
Thomas Paine Loyalists saw citizenship in terms of 'traditional' British values - property, social order, the Church and the monarchy. They believed that the long-established British political system was the wisest and most reliable form of government. The radicals, by contrast, thought that citizenship came from universal 'natural rights'. This meant that all men (though not necessarily all women) had a right to take part in politics, whatever their social class, political background or religious beliefs.
When the radical writer Thomas Paine published his book Rights of Man, in 1791-2, it caused a sensation. A powerful and eloquent defence of the French Revolution, it praised the downfall of the French ruling classes and urged the establishment of a democracy and the acceptance of the 'universal right of citizenship'. Paine's book questioned the traditional values of Britain and his message was clear: people didn't have to accept the way things were. He urged people to rise up and rebel against what he believed were generations of oppression. This kind of thinking was totally new for many people across the country and, perhaps for the first time, they questioned their place in society. Thomas Paine
Report on radical and reform societies, 1794 - opens new window
Report on radical and reform societies, 1794
Document (189k) | Transcript
Paine had written his book to rebut Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by the influential WhigGlossary - opens new window politician Edmund Burke. Burke had argued that ideas such as democracy and the 'rights of man' attacked the very beliefs upon which Britain's 'constitution' was based. Soon people began to form political societies based on Paine's ideas, and many openly advocated revolution. By the mid 1790s there were at least 80 of these groups in England. However, not all of them called for total change. The London Corresponding Society, for example, founded in January 1792, campaigned for parliamentary reform, rather than for a democratic republic and the end of the existing political system.
The loyalists continued to argue that Rights of Man was a dangerous piece of writing and claimed that it would only lead to war with revolutionary France. As this prospect drew closer, anti-French feeling grew rapidly within this section of society. Landowners were also reluctant to give up their precious property and wealth, and were worried by the idea of the lower classes being given rights of their own. During the crisis year of 1792 when war against France was at its closest, loyalist groups such as the Bull's Head Association in Manchester and a variety of societies and associations of 'Loyal Britons' were set up throughout Britain. Their aim was to organise patriotic, anti-French forces in defence of king and country.
Combating radical ideas, October 1793 - opens new window
Combating radical ideas, October 1793
Document (157k) | Transcript
Minutes of 'Loyal Britons' meeting, Lambeth, December 1793 - opens new window
Minutes of 'Loyal Britons' meeting,
Lambeth, December 1793

Document | Transcript

Ordinary people, as well as the rich and powerful, supported these groups. Why they did so is still debated by historians. Surely people with little or no land or property rights would have supported a revolution? Yet many thought new ideas were a threat to the nation. Instead, they supported conservatism and became loyalists. It was not unusual for effigies (models) of Thomas Paine to be burnt in towns and villages.

Nor were the radicals afraid to act on their beliefs. During June 1792 radicals demonstrated at the King's Birthday Riots in Edinburgh, and planted 'trees of liberty' in cities across Britain. Loyalists were to link these acts directly to the 'seditious' (disloyal and rebellious) writings of Paine and other radicals, and the government brought in strict new laws to stop any uprising happening again. Habeas corpus (the law protecting individuals from imprisonment without trial) was suspended in 1794, and a law banning 'seditious meetings' was passed a year later. It was now nearly impossible for radicals to meet without breaking the law. By the autumn of 1792 loyalists had branded Paine a traitor and made him an outcast, forcing him to flee to France in September of that year.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

The Marxist historian EP Thompson argues that the 1790s was a very important decade in the development of radical working-class politics, and that its effects can be seen in the growth during the 19th century of trade unionism and the emergence of the Chartist movement. Radicalism and Paine's promotion of democratic ideas also led to the various campaigns for electoral reform, which played an important part in the development of the labour movement.

Paine was not the first to urge American independence, but his ideas and writings, such as Common Sense (1776), had caught the mood of the moment and undoubtedly helped pave the way for the American Revolution - which ended two centuries of British rule and created the modern United States of America.

For more on the history of Thomas Paine, link to Thomas Paine Society or Thomas Paine National Historical Association.

Thomas Paine