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Lecture 14

The Language of Politics: England and the French Revolution

I will proclaim my principles, because I am sure if mankind would but act candidly and fairly, and avow the genuine feelings of their hearts, that system of terror and tyranny which has so long subjugated the nations of Europe, must fade and shrink away without a struggle -- without an individual victim. --I glory in the principles of the French Revolution! I exult in the triumphs of reason!  I am an advocate for the rights of man!

--- John Thelwall (1795)

1789 was certainly a pivotal year--it was a watershed. It was the year in which the ancien regime was destroyed and replaced by reason and justice. The French Revolution marks the beginning of the Modern Age. Remarkable rhetoric! Just the same, this is the vision of the revolutionaries themselves. This is how William Wordsworth (1770-1850) experienced 1789.

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love;
Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven: O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance;
When Reason seem'd the most to assert her rights
When most intent on making of herself
A prime enchantress -- to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name.
Not favor'd spots alone, but the whole Earth!

Change was in the air--not rebirth but birth itself. A future of improvement, intellectual improvement, human happiness, equality and liberty was near at hand. Such optimism-- heady at the very least--could perhaps have only become manifest among a society whose spokesmen claimed to be enlightened. Irony abounds, however. For all the talk about, if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him, or the near future will see the necks of the last king strangled by the entrails of the last priest, the Age of Enlightenment and French Revolution created a radicalism still enveloped by Christian idiom. For instance, the new age would give rise to the New Jerusalem. A new age was certainly at hand--and its appearance could be announced with the zeal of the prophet.

Brief biography of Richard PriceOn Nov. 4,1789, the Dissenting preacher RICHARD PRICE (1723-1791) appeared at the pulpit of the Old Jewry, an ancient meeting house near the Inns of Court in London. Price stood before the fifty or so members of the "Society for the Commemoration of the Revolution of Great Britain." A century earlier, the English had succeeded in curbing the power of the monarchy during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Price was to give the keynote address to the Society. The language, tone, and style of his address, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, is expressive and important:

What an eventful period this is! I am thankful that I have lived to see it; and I could almost say, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation. I have lived to see a diffusion of knowledge, which has undermined superstition and error -- I have lived to see the rights of men better understood than ever; and nations panting for liberty, which seem to have lost the idea of it. I have lived to see 30 MILLIONS of people, indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery, and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice; their king led in triumph, and an arbitrary monarch surrendering himself to his subjects. -- After sharing in the benefits of one revolution, I have been spared to be witness to two other revolutions, both glorious. And now methinks I see the love for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment beginning in human affairs; the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.

Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defense! 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 to France, and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates EUROPE!

Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments . . . . Call no more reformation, innovation. You cannot hold the world in darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality. Restore to mankind their rights; and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.

Price's assertion had two major effects: (1) it marked the first response to events across the channel. (2) it got Edmund Burke so worked up that he had to respond to Price. What followed was a battle of words, a pamphlet war which raged as long as the French Revolution survived.

More on Edmund BurkeA pamphlet war is one manifestation of "an alternative structure of politics." In the late 1780s, and throughout the 1790s, the number of pamphlets rose dramatically. When the statesman EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797) heard of Price's sermon, his response was one of anger and disbelief. In November 1790, Burke published what would quickly become the manifesto of conservative political opinion. The REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE is nothing less than a direct answer to and attack upon what Burke called the "pulpit style" of Richard Price. Again, with Price's Discourse and Burke's Reflections, a revolution controversy was born. Opinion was now polarized -- on the one hand, liberalism; on the other hand, conservatism. The result of the battle of words which would develop over the next few years was to supply thinkers with a new vocabulary. Liberal, conservative, socialist, anarchist, liberty, equality, fraternity, capitalist and capitalism, are all products of the age of the French Revolution.

Before 1789, Burke had been one of the most outspoken orators of the liberal wing of the dominant Whig party. For years he had criticized the corruption of the monarchy. He also stood for the American colonies back in the 1790s. For Burke, expedience and necessity was everything -- it was not only inevitable but necessary that America free itself from the yoke of English rule. But when the "swinish multitude" --  Burke's indelicate expression for the French revolutionaries -- crushed the Bastille in July 1789, Burke was horrified. He couldn't believe that the "swinish multitude" could -- in a frenzy of misguided passion -- destroy the most venerable of all French institutions. Burke's Reflections is a highly rhetorical and lyrical style of polemic. He attacked Price's sermon and also the English Jacobin societies such as the London Corresponding Society (LCS). He called these political clubs and societies of the politically excluded, "the mothers of all mischief."

Burke glorified the ancient constitution of England and saw nothing but horror and anarchy emanating from France. He was scared to death! He attacked Price as "the spiritual doctor of politics." "No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity," wrote Burke. For Burke, religion and politics ought not to be mixed together. After all, Price was a PROTESTANT DISSENTER, and the old Jewry, was a Protestant meeting house. Of Price, the corresponding societies and the French revolutionaries, Burke argued that:

Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling, and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day's truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.

When Price spoke of the natural rights of man, Burke groaned in agony. For Burke, there are no natural, inalienable rights. The only rights proper to speak of are those civil and political rights granted to the people by the laws and the king. So, when Price said that the Revolution of 1688 gave the English subjects their natural rights -- to choose their governors, chastise them for misconduct, and to frame a new government for themselves -- Burke's passions were inflamed.

Burke feared the passions of the mob -- like most conservatives, he believed that the "swinish multitude" had no part in the political life of the nation. So Burke had to sound the alarm. He had to bring England to its senses. In a classic passage, Burke turns from his polemic against Price to the French Revolution itself.

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 . . . .

[The French have rebelled] against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession; their revolt was from protection; their blow was aimed at an hand holding out graces, favours, and immunities.

This was unnatural. The rest is in order. They have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence . . . .

Were all these dreadful things necessary? were they the inevitable results of the desperate struggle of determined patriots, compelled to wade through blood and tumult, to the quiet shore of a tranquil and prosperous liberty? No! nothing like it. The fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the devastation of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace . . . .

What bothered Burke so much about the Revolution was the incidence of violence and tumult. Keep in mind, he is only speaking of events as they unfolded between June 1789 and the summer of 1790. In the future lay the confiscation of church property, the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, the death of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and of course, Napoleon.

Wollstonecraft ResourcesWhen all was said and done, Burke's Reflections attracted a great deal more attention than the Discourse of Richard Price. The response to Burke was positively enormous. Approximately two hundred pamphlets, books and essays poured off the English press between November 1790 and 1795. The first attack came from MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797) -- feminist, novelist, wife of William Godwin (1756-1836) and mother of Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Wollstonecraft was born in London -- she was educated by Richard Price and other Rational Dissenters, and was closely connected to the radical intellectual circles of London. On November 29th, 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Man, the first attack upon Burke. She saw Burke as the defender of hierarchy and the spokesman for society founded on the systematic oppression of all English subjects. "I glow with indignation," she wrote, "when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes. . . ." Wollstonecraft's argument, as the title suggests, hinges upon the liberal conception of the natural rights of man. Above all, she argues that

there are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improvable faculties; and that, on receiving these, not from their forefathers but, from God, prescription [law] can never undermine natural rights.

Priestley and the 18th CenturyThe argument regarding natural rights was repeated by JOSEPH PRIESTLEY (1733-1804). Priestley, the illustrious chemist and philosopher, could count among his friends Richard Price and Wollstonecraft as well as the future industrialists Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819). He was also close friends with Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the naturalist. Priestley joined the Revolution controversy in 1791, several months after having read Price and Burke. Priestley was more than familiar with the context of the pamphlet war. On July 14, 1791, and while Priestley was attending a meeting in Birmingham, a church and king mob destroyed his home and laboratory. Priestley left his home -- what was left of it -- went to London, and in 1794 emigrated to the banks of the Susquehanna River where he and other intellectuals tried to set up a utopian community (Pantisocracy). Priestley, the Dissenter, chemist, radical and victim, knew, like Richard Price, that the French Revolution meant a great deal:

How glorious, then, is the prospect, the reverse of all the past, which is now opening upon us, and upon the world. Government, we expect to see, not only in the theory, and in books, but in actual practice, calculated for the general good. . . ; leaving all men the enjoyment of as many of their natural rights as possible, and no more interfering with matters of religion, with man's notions concerning God, and a future state, than with philosophy, or medicine.

One of the most widely admired replies to Burke was that of a Scottish doctor and lawyer, James Mackintosh (1765-1832). On May 17, 1791, Mackintosh published his Defense of the French Revolution. Mackintosh was a friend and admirer of Priestley, editor of two English radical newspapers, and a member of the moderate reform group, the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI). Mackintosh wrote with urgency and his Defense is intended for the literate middle and upper class London audience. The Defense is a work which would prove nearly impossible for low orders to digest. In Burke, Mackintosh discovered an "hysterical reaction to events, born of fear." This was a reaction which would soon be dubbed, "counter-revolutionary," and in our own day, "reactionary." Mackintosh was a child of the Enlightenment -- he understood that human progress would only result from the free exercise of human reason. But why, he asked, has Enlightenment been so slow to spread? His answer was quite specific.

To suppose the social order is not capable of improvement from the progress of the human understanding, is to betray the inconsistent absurdity of an arrogant confidence in our attainments, and an abject distrust of our powers. If indeed the sum of evil produced by political institutions, even in the least imperfect Governments, were small, there might be some pretence for this dread of innovations, this horror at remedy, which has raised such a clamour over Europe: But, on the contrary, in an estimate of the sources of human misery, after granting that one portion is to be attributed to disease, and another to private vices, it might perhaps be found that a third equal part arose from the oppressions and corruptions of Government, disguised under various forms. All the Governments that now exist in the world (except the United States of America) have been fortuitously formed. They are the produce of change, not the work of art. They have been altered, impaired, improved and destroyed by accidental circumstances, beyond the foresight or control of wisdom.

Social evil and social misery then, are the result of government and oppression. Reason -- the light of Reason -- could not become more general while men are being oppressed by tyrannical governments. As Richard Price remarked, "they know that light is hostile to them, and therefore they labour to keep men in the dark." For Mackintosh, it was the French solution which had unleashed brilliance, it marked the beginning of man's emergence from immaturity. Government must be improved so that man may obtain happiness. France was the great example as had been the rebellion of the American colonies a decade earlier. "It was time that men should tolerate nothing ancient that reason does not respect," wrote Mackintosh,

And to shrink from no novelty to which reason may conduct. It was time that the human powers, so long occupied by subordinate objects, and inferior arts, should mark the commencement of a new era in history, by giving birth to the art of improving government, and increasing the civil happiness of man.

Paine biography and resourcesThere is little doubt that the most important response to Burke came from the son of the Quaker corset-maker from Thetford in East Anglia. THOMAS PAINE (1737-1809) was the kind of man who rose from the ranks of the working classes to become a voice of English radicalism in the 1790s. His reputation was secured in 1776 when he published Common Sense, a book which had enormous influence in the colonies. Common Sense broke with tradition in that it used a literary style intended to appeal to the broad masses of people rather than the elect few. Paine, after all, was a corset maker himself -- he was a man of the people. Hence his name, Citizen Tom Paine. Throughout his writings there is an emphasis upon the independence of the individual. This is both healthy and natural -- for Paine, this idea grew from his experience as a skilled worker.

Between February 1791 and February 1792, Paine published Part I and II of The Rights of Man (dedicated to George Washington). It is a republican tract -- it made its appeal to those members of the politically excluded in English society. However, the book was also taken up by English radicals and workers as well as by American thinkers. The French liked it too -- Paine was one of two non-Frenchmen elected to sit in the National Convention (Joseph Priestley was the other). Those who could not read The Rights of Man had it read to them in pubs, coffee houses and at the meetings of the LCS and SCI. Excerpts were published as broadsides available in almost every provincial city. In The Rights of Man, Paine depicted monarchs as nothing more than parasites, sucking up the wealth and health of the nation. They were useless -- they were con artists. The questions Paine would put to monarchs and their do-nothing aristocrats were quite simple: of what utility are they? are they necessary? do monarchs help me, or oppress me?

For Thomas Paine, all governments of the past were founded on tyranny and oppression. As Price, Mackintosh and others had argued before, governments had done nothing but hide truth and dispense falsehood. Monarchy is the engine of human misery and oppression. Monarchy is the supreme evil. It is the obstacle to human improvement -- it is hocus pocus.

Whether I have too little sense to see, or too much to be impressed upon; whether I have to much or too little pride, or of anything else, I leave out of the question; but certain it is, that is called monarchy, always appears to me a silly, contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.

We must shut our eyes against reason, we must basely degrade our understanding, not to see the folly of what is called monarchy. Nature is orderly in all her works; but this is a mode of government that counteracts nature. It turns the progress of the human faculties up side down. It's subjects age to be governed by children, and wisdom by folly.

In contrast to the folly and imposture of monarchy, Paine argues the necessity of introducing a representative system of government. This is what is meant by the expression, republicanism. The best that can be hoped for from a republican government is to explode myth, falsity and superstition, by bringing everything before the tribunal of human reason.

But the case is, that the representative system diffuses such a body of knowledge throughout a nation, on the subject of government, as to explode ignorance and preclude imposition. The craft of courts cannot be acted on that ground. There is no place for mystery; nowhere for it to begin. Those who are not in the representation, know as much of the nature of business as those who are. An affectation of mysterious importance would there be scouted. Nations can have no secrets; and the secrets of courts, like those of individuals, are always their defects.

In the representative system, the reason for everything must publicly appear. Every man is a proprietor in government, and considers a necessary part of his business to understand. It concerns his interest, because it affects his property. He examines the cost, and compares it with the advantages; and above all, he does not adopt the slavish custom of following what in other governments are called LEADERS.

Paine's radicalism was similar to that of Richard Price -- the language comes straight from John Locke (see Lecture 8). That is, government exists to guarantee the natural and inalienable rights of man: life, liberty, and property. This is the sole duty of government -- to protect those rights. Paine believed, in a frequently quoted statement, that "the government which governs best is the one that governs least."

William Godwin ResourcesWhile Paine supplied what was perhaps the most devastating critique of Edmund Burke, another radical and Jacobin entered the historical stage. Unlike Paine, however, WILLIAM GODWIN (1756-1836) was far more intellectual and nearly without passion. His treatise, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was published in 1793. It was a difficult, lengthy (two volumes) and expensive book. It's impact was largely among a circle of London intellectuals including: Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth as well as a number of radical publishers and booksellers. Like Price, Priestley and Wollstonecraft, Godwin was a Dissenter. He believed the character of the individual was formed by the environment. So, to change man, you must change his environment. For Godwin, this change would only transpire when men treated one another with candor, sincerity, and disinterested benevolence. Godwin attacked everything: monarchy, aristocracy, clergy, radical societies like the LCS and SCI, marriage, and revolutions in general. He was an anarchist -- the father of what is called philosophical anarchism. The best government, for Godwin, was no government at all. He looked at all social institutions and determined that all of them were forms of systematic oppression. Government, the workhouse, law, marriage and the church lay condemned. Why? Because they had made of man something less than he ought to have been. Godwin reminds us of Rousseau when he began The Social Contract (1762) with the following words: "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." This is an important concept -- the late 18th century begins that stage of western intellectual thought which recognizes that (1) man could be improved and (2) man will be improved. Both these concepts are implicit in the prophet of 19th century revolution, Karl Marx (see Lecture 24).

The solution for Godwin was quite simple and quite specific: annihilate government! Godwin was also a keen observer and one of his observations ought to sound familiar:

The rich are in all countries directly or indirectly the legislators of the state; and of consequence are perpetually reducing oppression into a system, and depriving the poor of that little commonage of nature, which might otherwise still have remained to them . . . . Legislation is in almost every country grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor.

What rankled Godwin was that the oppression of the poor by the rich had become systematized. Godwin believed that all government is evil because it chokes the natural tendencies of mankind. Government does not promote good morals, happiness or knowledge. Government is imposture -- it is systematized falsehood.

Godwin stood as a lone voice in the 1790s. He hated monarchy -- he hated government-- and although he helped publish Paine's Rights of Man while Paine was exiled, he did so not because he necessarily agreed with the ideas it contained, but because he believed in the freedom of expression. Godwin was not a reformer -- he was not interested in parliamentary reform. Nor did he care much for the various corresponding societies -- he hated the radical societies. He was no Jacobin. And he condemned all revolutions because they were full of "tumult and violence." Like Burke, natural rights meant nothing to Godwin. And constitutions, whether written or unwritten, ought to be condemned as well. All politics did was to make man less of an individual and more a part of that brute machine of oppression.

In political associations, the object of each man, is to identify his creed with that of his neighbor. We learn the Shibboleth of a party. We dare if not leave our minds at large in the field of enquiry, lest we should arrive if some tenet disrelished by our party. We have no temptation to enquire. Party has a more powerful tendency, than perhaps any other circumstance in human affairs, to render the mind quiescent and stationary. Instead of making each man an individual, which the interests of the whole requires, it resolves all understandings into one common mass, and subtracts from each the varieties, that could alone distinguish him from a brute machine.

Where Tom Paine argued that the best government is the one which governs least -- classic laissez-faire ideology -- Godwin argued that government was absolutely unnecessary.

The reader has probably anticipated the ultimate conclusion from these remarks. If juries might at length cease to decide, and be contented to invite, if force might gradually be withdrawn and reason trusted alone, shall we not one day find, that juries themselves, and every other species of public institution, may be laid aside as unnecessary? Will not the reasonings of one wise man, be as effectual as those of twelve? Will not the competence of one individual to instruct his neighbors, be a matter of sufficient notoriety, without the formality of an election? Will there be many vices to correct, and much obstinacy to conquer? This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward, to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise removable than by its utter annihilation.

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