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Wilberforce
Wilberforce

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2 Britain and the French Revolution

In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Edmund Burke (1729–97) made clear his hostile reaction to the Revolution, which he perceived as a dangerous destruction of tradition and continuity in favour of abstract Enlightenment principles. On the other hand, there was a substantial cross-section of British opinion that initially warmly welcomed the Revolution, including Wilberforce himself, as well as much more radical individuals, such as Thomas Paine (1737–1809).

Initially, the revolutionaries in France did not appear hostile to religion in general, although from an early stage the rationalist and Enlightenment ethos of the Revolution was reflected in quite radical reform of the Roman Catholic Church. From July 1790 the imposition of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy gave rise to a growing divide between the revolutionary government and the Church. Then in 1793 and 1794 there was an outright assault on traditional Catholic belief and the attempt to establish the cult of the Supreme Being in its place. This proved to be a temporary phase, but the enduring legacy of the Revolution in France was freedom of religion, in which non-Catholics enjoyed civil equality, and the ending of the privileged status of the Roman Catholic Church as an ‘estate’ of the realm.

From the point of view of the established churches in Britain the spectacle of the growing revolutionary onslaught on the French Roman Catholic Church was a double-sided one. For Protestants there were initially few regrets at the prospect of reforming what they believed to be false religion, but as it became clear that the preferred revolutionary alternative to Catholicism was not Protestantism but deism (the view that true religion is natural, not a matter of revelation), they became much more uneasy. At the same time the constitutional adoption of the principle of freedom in religion in France gave a boost to Dissenters from the Church of England, while heightening the insecurities of the supporters of the existing Church establishment.

The initial British perception of the Revolution was of a moderate move away from corrupt absolute monarchy towards the kind of ‘balanced’ constitution on which the British elite prided itself. It was therefore welcomed by all but the most conservative. As, however, in the early 1790s more radical and violent elements gained ground in Paris, erstwhile British sympathisers tended to become much more uneasy. Their fears were confirmed by the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, and after the outbreak of war in the following month the French and above all the supporters of the Revolution tended to be demonised as enemies. Thereafter too the minority in Britain who continued to identify enthusiastically with the Revolution were liable to be labelled as subversives and traitors.