What Did Britain Think of The French Revolution?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

24 Oct 2019

On the afternoon of 14 July 1789, an angry mob stormed the Bastille, France’s political prison and the representation of royal authority in Paris. It was one of the most iconic events of the French Revolution. But how did Britain react to events across the channel?

Immediate reactions

In Britain, reactions were mixed. The London Chronicle announced,

‘In every province of this great kingdom the flame of liberty has burst forth,’

but warned that

‘before they have accomplished their end, France will be deluged with blood.’

There was a great deal of sympathy with the revolutionaries, as several English commentators considered their actions akin to those of the American Revolutionaries. Both revolutions appeared as popular uprisings, reacting to the unjust taxation of authoritarian rule.

Many people in Britain saw early French riots as a justified reaction to the taxes of Louis XVI’s reign.

Some assumed this was the natural course of history. Were these French Revolutionaries clearing the path for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, in their own version of England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ – albeit a century later? The leader of the Whig opposition, Charles Fox, seemed to think so. When hearing about the storming of the Bastille, he declared

‘How much the greatest event that ever happened, and how much the best’.

The majority of the British establishment strongly opposed the revolution. They were highly sceptical of the comparison to British events of 1688, arguing the two events were totally different in character. A headline in The English Chronicle reported the events with heavy scorn and sarcasm, laden with exclamation marks, declaring,

‘Thus has the hand of JUSTICE been brought upon France … the great and glorious REVOLUTION’

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Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

This was compellingly vocalised by the Whig politician, Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790. Although Burke initially supported the revolution in its early days, by October 1789 he wrote to a French politician,

‘You may have subverted Monarchy, but not recover’d freedom’

His Reflections was an immediate best-seller, appealing particularly to the landed classes, and has been considered a key work in the principles of conservatism.

This print depicts the intellectual ideas which sustained the 1790s. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, steers Britannia on a middle course. He seeks to avoid two terrors: the Rock of Democracy on the left (surmounted by a French bonnet rouge) and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary-Power on the right (representing monarchical authority).

Although Burke detested divinely appointed monarchy and believed people had every right to depose an oppressive government, he condemned the actions in France. His argument arose from the central importance of private property and tradition, which gave citizens a stake in their nation’s social order. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution.

Most impressively, Burke predicted the Revolution would make the army ‘mutinous and full of faction’ and a ‘popular general’, would become ‘master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic’. Napoleon certainly filled this prediction, two years after Burke’s death.

Paine’s rebuttal

The success of Burke’s pamphlet was soon overshadowed by a reactionary publication by Thomas Paine, a child of the Enlightenment. In 1791, Paine wrote a 90,000-word abstract tract called Rights of Man. It sold nearly a million copies, appealing to reformers, Protestant dissenters, London craftsman and the skilled factory-hands of the new industrial north.

In this satire by Gillray, Thomas Paine is seen to show his French sympathies. He wears the bonnet rouge and tri-color cockade of a French revolutionary, and is forcibly tightening the laces on Britannia’s corset, giving her a more Parisian style. His ‘Rights of Man’ is hanging from his pocket.

His key argument was that human rights originated in nature. Therefore, they cannot be given by political charter or legal measures. If this was so, they would be privileges, not rights.

Therefore, any institution which compromises any inherent rights of an individual is illegitimate. Paine’s argument essentially argued that monarchy and aristocracy were unlawful. His work was soon condemned as seditious libel, and he escaped to France.

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Radicalism and ‘Pitt’s Terror’

Tensions were high as Paine’s work prompted a flowering of radicalism in Britain. Many groups such as the Society of the Friends of the People and the London Corresponding Society were established, proposing anti-establishment ideas amongst artisans, against merchants and, more worryingly, amongst genteel society.

Extra spark was injected to the fire in 1792, as events in France became violent and radical: the September massacres started the Reign of Terror. Stories of thousands of civilians dragged out of their houses and thrown to the guillotine, without trial or reason, horrified many in Britain.

It provoked a knee jerk response to the safety of conservative views as a lesser of two evils. On 21 January 1793 Louis XVI was guillotined at Place de la Révolution, referred to as citizen Louis Capet. Now it was unquestionably clear. This was no longer a dignified reform effort towards constitutional monarchy, but a wildly dangerous revolution devoid of principle or order.

The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. The pedestal which held the guillotine once held an equestrian statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, but this was torn doubt when monarchy was abolished and sent to be melted.

The bloody events of The Terror and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 seemed to fulfil Burke’s predictions. Yet although many condemned the violence, there was widespread support for the principles the revolutionaries originally stood for and the arguments of Paine. Radical groups seemed to grow stronger every day.

Fearful of an uprising similar to the that in France, Pitt implemented a series of repressive reforms, known as ‘Pitt’s Terror’. Political arrests were made, and radical groups infiltrated. Royal proclamations against seditious writings marked the start of heavy government censorship. They threatened to

‘revoke the licences of publicans who continued to host politicised debating societies and to carry reformist literature’.

The Aliens Act of 1793 prevented French radicals entering the country.

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The ongoing debate

British support for the French Revolution waned as it seemed to become a disorderly bloodbath, miles away from the principles it had originally stood for. With the advent of the Napoleonic wars and threats of invasion in 1803, British patriotism became prevalent. Radicalism lost its edge in a period of national crisis.

Despite the radical movement not materialising in any effective form, the French Revolution provoked open debate about the rights of men and women, personal freedoms and the role of monarchy and aristocracy in modern society. In turn, this is sure to have propelled ideas surrounding events such as the abolition of slavery, the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ and the electoral reforms of 1832.