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French Revolution
French Revolution

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7.3 The Great Nation

The expanded France, which styled itself the Great Nation, provoked a second European coalition against it, but by 1799 it had established itself as a force to be reckoned with: a military force in the first instance but also and not least a potent ideological force. Its influence and attraction spread far beyond its frontiers to other peoples under foreign rule, to Poland under the dominion of Prussia, Russia and Austria, to Greece under the Turks, and to Ireland under the British. A Dublin ballad ran:

Oh! May the wind of Freedom

Soon send young Boney o'er,

And we'll plant the Tree of Liberty

Upon our Irish Shore!

(Palmer, 1964, p. 336)

Exercise 13

For a detailed discussion of the impact of the Revolution in Britain, now listen to tracks 1–7: Britain and the French Revolution (found below) and consult the related AV Notes also below) (Among other things, these refer you to the illustrations discussed in the recording.) The following two paragraphs are a summary of reaction in Britain to the Revolution.

Click to view The AV notes relating to the audio extracts [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1: An impression of the French Revolution and the British reaction
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Audio 1: An impression of the French Revolution and the British reaction
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Audio 2: An extract from Edmun Burke's Reflections on the revolution in France
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Audio 3: An extract from Tom Paine's The rights of man
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Audio 4: 'Peace and bread'
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Audio 5
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Audio 6: The Irish reaction
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Audio 7: Conclusions about the British reaction
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Click to view The pictures referred to in the AV notes.

In Britain the government was alarmed both by a revolutionary ideology which challenged its traditional political and social structure and by the re-emergence in a new form of the French threat to the European balance of power, signalled by French expansion into the Low Countries. Both factors explain Britain's participation in the wars against revolutionary (and then Napoleonic) France from 1793 onwards. A French attempt in 1796 to land troops at Bantry Bay was followed by rebellion in Ireland in 1798, leading to the Act of Union (1800) between Ireland and Great Britain. Naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 seemed to the authorities to reflect the influence of the Revolution.

Against this background arose a ferment of radical ideas, initially directed towards removing the civil disabilities suffered by Dissenters (Protestants outside the established Church of England) but rapidly spreading to encompass a reform of Parliament and a widening of the franchise. Inspired by the Revolution, radical political associations were established (notably the London Corresponding Society) and radical publications were circulated widely across the country. The government of Prime Minister William Pitt, in effect a coalition government after 1794, sensing a threat to law and order, imposed a variety of repressive measures: amendments to the law of treason, the partial suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act (prohibiting detention without trial), increased control of public meetings and publications. The London Corresponding Society was proscribed in 1799.

France had dictated the culture of civilised Europe since the seventeenth century. The eighteenth-century Parisian salons were at the heart of the Enlightenment. The French revolutionaries assumed that enlightened people everywhere would continue to look to Paris as the centre of progressive thought, would wish to be part of or at least associated with la Grande Nation. In August 1792 the National Assembly conferred honorary French citizenship on 17 assorted foreigners, as ‘men who in various countries have brought reason to its present maturity’ (Palmer, 1964, p. 54). These included leaders of the American Revolution George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison; Swiss educational pioneer Pestalozzi; English utilitarian philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham; the radicals Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley; leaders of the anti-slavery campaign Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce; and German poet and playwright Friedrich von Schiller. In his Sketch of a Historical Outline of the Progress of the Human Mind (1793), Condorcet looked forward, in the cosmopolitan spirit of the Enlightenment, to a world in which national differences would be erased. In the same spirit of international fraternity, German admirers of the Revolution took up Schiller's Ode to Joy, best known in its later setting by Beethoven but in the 1790s sometimes sung to the tune of the Marseillaise:

Seid unschlungen, Millionen

Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!

[Embrace each other, ye millions,

Here's a kiss for all the world!]

(Palmer, 1964, p. 445)

The Revolution, both in its original underlying principles and in its later excesses, was deeply divisive in France and Europe generally. It engendered conservatism and counter-revolution just as it did liberalism. Burke had from the first denounced the attempt to remodel society on abstract principles and preached the virtues of a settled, aristocratic society, of respect for precedent, tradition and time-honoured institutions. He deplored the example of ‘those who have projected the subversion of that order of things under which our part of the world has so long flourished’ (that is, the death of the Old Regime), and predicted that the Revolution would lead to bloodshed and tyranny (quoted in Welsh, 1995, p. 114). Britain was to prove the most persistent enemy of the Revolution.

But even men passionately attracted to the Revolution became aware of the perils of violent change. ‘I dreamed of a republic’, Desmoulins wrote on the eve of his execution in 1794, ‘that would have been the envy of the world. I could not believe that men could be so cruel and unjust’ (quoted in Schama, 1989, p. xi). Even in 1794, however, when the Terror had alienated many, Wordsworth still declared himself to be ‘of that odious class of men called democrats’, the enemy of ‘monarchical and aristocratical governments’ and ‘hereditary distinctions and privileged orders of every species’ and therefore ‘not amongst the admirers of the British Constitution’ (Palmer, 1964, pp. 22, 458). Wordsworth himself was soon to change his mind and to evolve a far more critical, reflective and conservative attitude to the Revolution. Like it or not, however, everyone accepted that the French Revolution marked an epoch in world history and that things could never be the same again.