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.
||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
|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.
Report on radical and reform societies, 1794
(189k) | Transcript
|Paine had written his book to rebut Reflections
on the Revolution in France (1790) by the influential Whig
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
(157k) | Transcript
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
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.