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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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3 Politics: Radicalism and reaction

Although ambiguous in his political views, Robert Owen could hardly avoid politics. As we shall see, he assiduously cultivated politicians or anyone else in authority who might be persuaded to support his plans for social reform.

The political background to Owen's essays is extremely important and complex, but on the international front the key features were undoubtedly the ideas underpinning the French Revolution, and the subsequent French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which had considerable impact on the domestic politics of the major European powers, including Britain.

Exercise 3

Consider the major historical events of the period roughly spanning 1795–1815. What key events or movements do you know of on (a) the international front and (b) the domestic scene that might form the political background to Owen's ideas?


You might have been able to pick out the major developments and dates around which the following more detailed responses to (a) and (b) are constructed.

The major items internationally, apart from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, were the introduction of Napoleon's Continental System (1806) and the War of 1812 with the United States (1812–15). Domestically, the Industrial Revolution proceeded apace, but economic progress was accompanied by widespread social and political protest, the latter partially inspired by Jacobin and French revolutionary ideas.

The fall-out from the French Revolution touched many parts of Europe and sucked all the major powers into long-term conflict lasting, with several short spells of peace, from 1793 to 1815. Britain was involved throughout, with one brief break (of a year) during the peace of Amiens, 1802. The expansionist aims carried the Revolution well beyond the frontiers of France – to the Netherlands, for example – but subsequently, as you have seen, Napoleon as consul and then as emperor set out to conquer much of the Continent. The fight back was led by Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia, in what became by the 1800s virtually a global war. By the time Owen was writing the First Essay Britain was also drawn into direct conflict with the United States in the War of 1812, which jeopardised the economy, trade and, specifically, the cotton industry as long as it continued. However, as Owen himself demonstrated by judicious management at New Lanark, raw materials could still be obtained from alternative sources, for example in the West Indies, and new markets could be profitably exploited in the Baltic and Russia. Napoleon's earlier Continental blockade (1806–9) did temporarily reduce Britain's exports to Europe, though Owen seems to have maintained his Russian markets. Indeed, Russia's reluctance to enforce the Continental System was one cause of Napoleon's invasion of that country. High demand for military supplies and in the domestic market meant that industry and agriculture generally expanded rapidly during much of the war.

Britain was unusual among the great European powers because it was a constitutional monarchy with representational government in the House of Commons, albeit on a very limited franchise, mainly controlled by landowners. The governments of the time had to face not only the wars but increasing domestic problems. These included the Irish Rising (1798), the activities of Radicals advocating political reform (but rarely revolution on French lines), and waves of industrial unrest provoked by organised labour, including the Luddites (who, in protest against the mechanisation that was costing them jobs, broke into mills and wrecked machinery), at their most active in 1812–13. Protest was thus partly economic. The economy expanded rapidly during the war, but even before its conclusion there was a decline in trade, creating unemployment and social distress. These in turn exacerbated the growing problem of the poor, whose numbers were rising due to the economic turmoil in countryside and town.

Suppression was the government's first response to protest, and this found expression in the raising of local militia, censorship or gagging of the press, vigorous prosecution of troublemakers, forcing the Radicals and other political associations underground, and establishing an espionage network to monitor all anti-government activities. The government also passed a raft of legislation against organised labour including the Combination Acts (1799, 1800), designed to outlaw trade unions and at the same time prevent the emigration of skilled labour, particularly to the United States. So despite long-term success in the wars and rapid progress in the economy, the authorities faced enormous problems. Worse was to come in the post-war depression, which lasted until 1820.

We shall refer in greater detail to the events and political personalities of 1812, the year Owen started work on the essays, in due course. But for now we turn our attention to Owen's background and early career in order to identify major influences on his ideas.