French Revolution
French Revolution

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French Revolution

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.

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CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
A sound picture of the popular image of the French Revolution – the guillotine and fanatical crowds. And it’s not just a modern image. Look at ‘The Zenith of French Glory’ drawn by the great cartoonist James Gillray. It was published three weeks after the execution of Citizen Louis Capet – formerly known as Louis XVI of France. You can see it’s all there: the exultant sans-culotte – totally without any form of trousers – who sits fiddling on a lamp bracket from which a bishop and two monks have been hanged. On the next lamp bracket is a judge hanged alongside the sword and scales of justice. Louis is about to be guillotined beneath a flag proclaiming Vive l’Égalité. The dome of a church is ablaze, while over the crucifix to the right of our sans-culotte the notice ‘King of the Jews’ has been replaced by ‘Bonsoir monsieur’. Good night, good riddance, to the monarchy to the church to the law.
Of course, the French Revolution was much more than this, and, as I hope to show, the British reaction was far more complex than the criticism expressed here by Gillray. The execution of Louis XVI, followed a week later by the French declaration of war on Britain, was the inspiration for Gillray’s cartoon. But Gillray’s principle political target during the early 1790s was not so much the French Revolution as the British royal family. He mocked the supposed parsimony of King George III and Queen Caroline. He ridiculed the excesses of the Prince of Wales and the adulation heaped upon the Duke of York and his Prussian bride. That said, however, I want to use another Gillray cartoon as a way into other aspects of British reactions to the French Revolution and British politics during the period.
Look now at ‘Smelling out a rat’. This was published at the beginning of December 1790. It shows the Unitarian minister Dr Richard Price surprised at his desk by the giant nose and spectacles of Edmund Burke. Fine, but what does it mean? Price, a low church divine who dabbled in politics and economics had supported the American colonists in their war of independence. Then, in November 1789, he had preached a sermon ‘On the love of our country’ remembering England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ one hundred years earlier.
Reading 1:
We are met to thank God for that event in this country to which the name of The Revolution has been given; and which for more than a century, it has been usual for the friends of freedom, and more especially Protestant Dissenters, to celebrate with expressions of joy and exultation … By a bloodless victory, the fetters which despotism had been long preparing for us were broken, the rights of the people were asserted, a tyrant expelled, and a Sovereign of our own choice appointed in his room.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
That ‘Glorious Revolution’ had replaced the Catholic James II with the Protestant William and Mary. Eighteenth-century Englishmen insisted it had given them liberty and destroyed monarchical absolutism.
Reading 2:
… though the Revolution was a great work, it was by no means a perfect work; and… all was not then gained which was necessary to put the kingdom in the secure and complete blessings of liberty…. The most important instance of the imperfect state in which the Revolution left our constitution, is the inequality of our representation. I think, indeed, this defect in our constitution so gross and so palpable, as to make it excellent chiefly in form and theory. You should remember that a representation in the legislature of a kingdom is the basis of constitutional liberty in it, and of all legitimate government; and that without it a government is nothing but an usurpation.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
Price urged that the British now had to complete their Glorious Revolution with parliamentary, and various other reforms. The Americans had shown the way with their Revolution in 1776, and now the French seemed about to establish a greater degree of freedom for themselves than the British enjoyed. Price was enthused:
Reading 3:
Be encouraged all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected in France, and their kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates Europe!
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
What you have to remember is that, while there had been violence at the outset of the Revolution and notably in the storming of the Bastille, events in France had yet to take a radical turn. While historians still argue about it, there is some justification for saying that radicalism and ferocious political violence only began to be particularly serious in France in 1792 with a war that fostered the lurch into terror and massacre. When Price preached his sermon there were great hopes for a liberal, constitutional system and monarchy in France, and these hopes were largely shared across the political spectrum in Britain. The loudest, odd man out who did not share these hopes was the influential, Irish-born Whig statesman, Edmund Burke.
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Narration
In November 1790 Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France which condemned the revolution as a threat to all political and social order.
Reading 4:
France, by the perfidy of her leaders, has utterly disgraced the tone of lenient council in the cabinets of princes, and disarmed it of its most potent topics. She has sanctified the dark, suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust; and taught kings to tremble at (what will hereafter be called) the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians. Sovereigns will consider those, who advise them to place an unlimited confidence in their people, as subverters of their thrones; as traitors who aim at their destruction, by leading their easy good nature, under specious pretences, to admit combinations of bold and faithless men into a participation of their power. This alone (if there were nothing else) is an irreparable calamity … to mankind.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
As far as Burke was concerned, constitutions and the political order were organic. The notion that political thinkers could sit down and draft the perfect constitution for a state was just plain daft – and all right-thinking Englishmen and other Britons were bound to recognise this.
Reading 5:
We are not the converts of Rousseau: we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be long after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption…. We fear God: we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, to render us unfit for rational liberty; and by teaching us a servile licentious, and abandoned insolence, to be ourlow sport for a few holidays, to make us perfectly fit for, and justly deserving of, slavery, through the whole course of our lives.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
Gillray’s ‘Smelling out a rat’ was published the month following the publication of Burke’s Reflections. Gillray criticises Price. He portrays him under a picture of the execution of Charles I during the English revolution and writing a tract called ‘On the Benefits of Anarchy, Regicide, Atheism’. But, typical of Gillray’s style, he also pokes fun at Burke’s scare-mongering. Burke is the truly comic figure here. A gigantic, preposterous snooper clutching the symbols of Church and King, Gillray’s Burke is a figure of ridicule.
Burke’s Reflections sparked a public debate over the Revolution. Initially he had few supporters, and there were scores of critical responses. But within two years his ideas had become broadly accepted among many of the propertied classes who looked with increasing concern at Jacobinism across the Channel and at its British manifestations. Pro Church and King snooping and pro Church and King violence were to become significant elements in the British reaction to the French Revolution. What really panicked people of property was a new kind of radicalism in Britain that appeared to echo French Jacobinism, and that appeared rooted in plebeian society.
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Narration
Among the responses to Burke was Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.
Reading 6:
I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party, here or elsewhere. That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has the right to do. Mr. Burke says, No. Where then, does the right exist? I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights of the living….
Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
Paine, born in Thetford in Norfolk, had sailed to America on the eve of the war of independence and had become an inspirational pamphleteer for the colonists during the war. The British government had no great cause to admire Paine, but what truly alarmed ministers and many others about The Rights of Man, was who appeared to be reading it.
In the winter of 1791-1792 societies had begun to be formed amongst ordinary working-class men calling for a reform of parliament. While, to the surprise of foreign visitors, workingmen in London had long shown an interest in politics, it was something quite new for them to organise in political clubs and to demand political reform. The London Corresponding Society was the most famous, but there was a massive society organised among workers in the cutlery trade in Sheffield, and others sprang up among the weavers of East Anglia, and amongst more general workers in Birmingham, Manchester and other towns, big and small.
It was these popular societies that sponsored cheap editions of Paine and purchased them in enormous numbers. Members of the societies also showed sympathy for the French, especially when, in the summer of 1792, the armies of Austria and Prussia appeared likely to destroy the Revolution. French victories were cheered to the echo by the societies. Fraternal delegations visited the National Convention and some British radicals began to adopt terms such as ‘citizen’, ‘Jacobin’ and even ‘sansculotte’. The government responded by prosecuting Paine for sedition. He fled to France and was outlawed. The government also urged magistrates to prosecute anyone publishing Paine’s work and similar materials. In the winter of 1792-1793, even before the execution of Louis XVI and the French declaration of war, British loyalists were snooping into the political attitudes of those believed hostile to Church and King and government spies began to be infiltrated into the popular societies.
Eighteenth-century wars had been fought between princes using professional armies who sought to outmanoeuvre each other rather than confronting in a costly battle. The wars of the French Revolution were different. Ideology was involved. The French produced a mass, citizen army determined to bring its enemies to battle at every opportunity and to destroy those enemies by revolutionary élan and sheer weight of numbers. Some in Britain did recognise that this was a new kind of war and that ideology was important. Even so many of the radicals still believed that they had a right to express their opinions, to criticise the war and to urge reform in Britain. For loyalist supporters of Church and King such radicals appeared traitors, men who were aspiring to a Jacobin revolution in England. In the autumn of 1793 British radicals met in a National Convention in Edinburgh, and the proceedings of the convention adopted many French forms. Given that the French National Convention had executed a king and queen and declared war on Britain, we might say that this was a foolhardy thing to do. The authorities closed the British Convention, arrested the leadership and, following a succession of rather dodgy trials and verdicts, transported that leadership to New South Wales.
Were British Jacobins plotting revolution? Well, it’s possible that some were. Early in 1794 government spies were reporting extremist talk among some radicals in the political clubs and papers seized by government agents questioned whether it should be policy to ‘rip up monarchy by the roots’. In the early summer William Pitt’s government took the bull by the horns, arrested radical leaders across the country and suspended the Habeas Corpus Act with reference to such political suspects. Of those arrested in England, only three were brought to trial – and all three were acquitted of high treason. Historians have debated whether a charge of conspiracy could have been made to stick. The treason charge was very complex, and it appears that the jurors were not keen to sentence anyone to the grisly traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering. The arrests, the suspension of habeas corpus and the trial proceedings seem to have dulled the enthusiasm of the radicals, but the acquittals, the release of all of those who had been arrested, and the economic situation of 1795 brought a resurgence of radical activity.
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CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
Look now at ‘Substitutes for Bread’. This was published by Gillray on Christmas Eve 1795. Five men sit round a table gorging themselves on substitutes for bread. Fish is prominent, but so is drink and two massive sides of beef are being brought in. The men at the table are, from right to left: William Pitt, the prime minister seated on a padlocked Treasury; Pepper Arden, the Master of the Rolls; Henry Dundas, Secretary of War; Lord Grenville, Foreign Secretary; and Lord Loughborough, the Lord Chancellor. Through window can be seen a crowd carrying banners ‘Petition from the Starving Swine’ – a reference to Burke’s dismissal of the bulk of the population as ‘the swinish multitude’ – and ‘Grant us the crumbs from your table’. Bread was the staple of the poor’s diet in the eighteenth century. A disastrous harvest in 1794 had brought shortages and high prices. The war made matters worse by impeding imports and disrupting the usual internal movement of grain to feed enormous military encampments. The situation had occasioned rioting. The government responded by urging people to find substitutes for bread. On a rather different tack, National Fast days were held. The fast was seen as a sign of atonement and churchmen offered prayers on these days to win the war. Gillray linked the fast days and the famine, and visually expressed the cynical assumption that members of the government were doing well in finding bread substitutes.
Not long before Gillray published this cartoon the state opening of parliament had witnessed serious disorder. Crowds had hooted George III’s carriage to and from parliament. They chanted for ‘Peace and Bread’. A stone had broken the carriage window on the way to parliament. Someone had tried to drag the king from the carriage on the way back. The disorder followed hard on the heels of a mass meeting of radicals in London that addressed the nation, remonstrated with the king and called for peace and reform.
Reading 7:
We remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this country, can only be established by restoring to our fellow countrymen their natural and undoubted rights, universal suffrage and annual parliaments…
We believe the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties. The only hope of the people is themselves.
CLIVE EMSLEY (Open University)
The government responded to the mass meeting and the attack on the king with two new legislative proposals. The first bill made actions against the king’s person or the persons of his heirs capital offences. It also extended the law of treason to include incitement to hatred of the king, his heirs, his government or the constitution. The second bill restricted public meetings to 50 persons, unless a magistrate had given previous permission. It also gave magistrates wide powers to supervise public lecture rooms and public lecturers. Moderate, liberal reformers united with radicals to oppose the bills through meetings and petitions, but their campaign was a failure. The so called gagging hats received royal assent a week before Gillray’s ‘Substitutes for Bread’. A string of Gillray’s contemporaries responded to the new bills with the image of John Bull gagged. Thomas Spence, a former schoolmaster from Newcastle, who ran a small radical printing and publishing shop in London during the 1790s responded with the next print – ‘A Freeborn Englishman, the Admiration of the World, the Envy of Surrounding Nations, etc, etc’. It speaks for itself.
Moderate liberal reformers continued to deplore the new legislation. Some of the radicals appear to have given up politics when the bills passed, while others plunged into the twilight world of conspiracy. It is difficult for governments, and difficult of subsequent historians to estimate the seriousness of underground conspiratorial groups. Much of the evidence comes from spies, and are those spies telling the truth? Are they stating what they think governments want to hear? Are they emphasising dangers to keep themselves in employment? Manifestly in Britain during the 1790s there were self-taught artisans and journeymen with interests in politics and who considered that the political and constitutional structure were in need of major reform. Some were prepared for violence. Lack of success in the war and the serious food shortages prompted much discontent. But did this all add up to the potential for insurrection and revolution?
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Narration
Early in 1797 a small French force landed in Wales apparently hoping that the local population would flock to support them. Within a matter of hours the French surrendered – but the landing provoked a run on the banks, and the bank of England halted the payment of specie. Local authorities in the West Country were concerned about the antics of strangers and requested a government agent to investigate two young men in the Bristol region. A government agent, James Walsh, the dispatched. Concerned he reported that he could find nothing suspicious in the behaviour of the young men, and so the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge were left to get on with their spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.
However, within weeks there was a genuinely alarming and potentially very serious event – the home fleet mutinied.
Music: 1.08
The cause of the mutiny was rooted in late pay and appalling conditions for crews of warships. The government reacted with concessions, but not quickly enough. The ships’ crews at Spithead were eventually won over by the concessions and promises, but those at the Nore in the Thames remained suspicious. The crews at the Nore appear to have had popular radicals among them, or at least men who had absorbed radical literature.
Reading 8:
Shall we, who in the battle’s sanguinary rage, confound, terrify and subdue your proudest foe, guard your coasts from invasion, your children from slaughter and your lands from pillage – be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derive from us alone their titles and their fortunes? No, the age of reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.
Music: 0.34
Some of the ships’ delegates at the Nore considered sailing their ships over to France, but in the event the mutiny was suppressed and ferocious punishments followed.
In the following year an attempt was made to ferment new mutinies in the Navy, and a group of radicals were found on the Kent coast seeking a ship to France and carrying messages for the French government. A new treason trial followed, but only one of the defendants, an Irish priest named James Coigley, was found guilty and executed. Again rumours of conspiracies circulated, and again the government responded with arrests and a new suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. About three dozen men were held without charge for between two and three years. The last were released when the Peace of Amiens brought a temporary respite to the war with France, but the short period of peace was punctuated with the exposure of a conspiracy within the Brigade of Guards in London. In February 1803 Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, a former comrade in arms of the national hero Admiral Lord Nelson, was executed for high treason along with six others, including two guardsmen. Historians argue about Despard’s conspiracy – was it part of a wider conspiracy across the British Isles, or was it principally linked only with Irish radicals?
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Narration
The period from 1797 to around 1801 was dubbed by radicals as ‘the English reign of terror’ or ‘Pitt’s reign of terror’. William Pitt, the prime minister, was equated with Robespierre by those radicals who believed that Jacobin extremism had sullied the high ideals of the Revolution. Some British radicals were themselves extremists, though the suggestion that there was a reign of terror that could compare with that in France is pushing credibility. It could be very unpleasant to be identified as a Jacobin in Britain during the 1790s. Officious loyalists might snoop on you, boycott your shop – if you had one, put pressure on your employer to dismiss you, attack you and your property, especially if you failed suitably to celebrate a British military victory. But the scale was of a very different intensity to terror in France – except in Ireland.
Music: 0.27
In Ireland the heady ideology of the rights of man fused with a desire for Irish independence from the British crown among a group of young professional men, and with a desire for agrarian reform and the removal of Protestant landlords among the Catholic peasantry.
The United Irishmen began among the professional men in Dublin and Belfast and was non-sectarian, but early on it began linking with the armed gangs of Catholic peasants who were known as the Defenders. Following an aborted French landing in Bantry Bay in December 1796, the authorities in Dublin sought to crush the United Irishmen. What they succeeded in doing was destroying the professional, nonsectarian element of the movement. When insurrection came in 1798, it had elements of brutal and savage sectarianism. Appalling atrocities were committed on both sides. A small French force that arrived too late briefly demonstrated what might have been achieved against the British in Ireland, but tired, outnumbered and running low on supplies, it surrendered after a short show of fight, leaving its peasant Irish allies to be slaughtered by British redcoats. The rebellion of 1798 left martyrs and myths for the future.
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Narration
Why was there no revolution in late eighteenth-century Britain? Well, it’s difficult enough for a historian to explain what did happen, tackling the question why something didn’t happen is even more complex. Why should there have been a revolution in Britain? In Britain there was considerable sympathy and support for what was happening in France at the very beginning of the Revolution. But much of the sympathy and support was couched in the smug terms that the French were finally achieving the sort of liberty and freedom that the British had enjoyed for a hundred years. Those like Dr Richard Price, who thought France might overtake Britain as a free nation, were relatively few. Moreover others thought that any disruption of the French political system for a few years could only work to Britain’s advantage – and anyway, such disruption served the French right for backing the American colonists in the recent war.
Music: 0.31
There was serious discontent. Some of this was long term – discontent at corrupt political system in which ordinary men had no vote – and I say ordinary men deliberately since, even among the political radicals, there were very few who regarded women as their equal. Some of the discontent was short term and derived from economic conditions or directly from the unsuccessful military campaigns against revolutionary France. But one of the things that strikes me about revolutions in general is how, at a crucial moment, a government loses its self-belief and nerve, fails to repress dissent and to act decisively, and thus provides the opportunity for others, generally from the same social class, to start unpicking the system. Pitt’s government was often unsure about how to act, about the seriousness of the internal threat that it faced – and modern historians are also divided about the seriousness of that threat. But Pitt’s government never lost its nerve, and never lost its determination to keep on governing. At times of crisis, when it may have been vulnerable and when revolution may have been possible, Pitt’s government never gave the parliamentary opposition, or the extra-parliamentary opposition, any opportunity to start unpicking the constitution.
Music: 1.28
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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.

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