The spirit of rebellion - politics

Blake's was a time of turmoil arising out of challenges to established ideas about monarchy, hierarchy, human nature and human rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

RousseauIn 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his work The Social Contract, about human society and human rights. This championed republicanism and democracy. It was centred upon the idea of freedom as active participation in political life and legislation. Rousseau was the first philosopher of Romanticism, valuing feeling and innocence highly whilst downplaying the role of intellect. He said that:

‘Man was born free but everywhere is found in chains.'

Rousseau also held that children were born good and had an in-built capacity to learn through experience. Formal education distorted the child's creativity, imagination and freedom to develop.

The American War of Independence and the French Revolution

The spirit of rebellion took political form very clearly in America and France. In 1775, the American War of Independence began, ending in 1783. This was seen as a blow to monarchy and a victory for Republicanism.

King Louis XVIIn 1789, the French Revolution began. This led to the execution of King Louis XVI of France in 1793 and the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Many French aristocrats took refuge in Britain. However, 1794 saw the execution of Danton, Robespierre and other leaders of the French Revolution. Many who had originally supported the Revolution were alienated by the cruelties it involved and by the way in which one tyranny was replaced by another. In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise to power. This led to more war and to fear of a new tyrant emerging.

Tom Paine's The Rights of Man

The French Revolution spurred the publication of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, part 1 in 1791 and part 2 in 1792. In this work, Paine:

  • Attacked hereditary government and the monarchy
  • Argued for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords
  • Advocated equal political rights and proposed that all men over twenty-one in Britain should have the vote. He believed this would create a House of Commons willing to pass laws favourable to working people.

Thomas Paine charicatureThe book was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine gave anyone the right to reprint his book. It was produced in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. In just over two years, more than 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy. This led to the founding in 1792 of the London Corresponding Society by a shoemaker, Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the 19th century novelist and poet). The society's aim was to win the vote for all adult males.

Paine also produced The Age of Reason, attacking the claims of Christianity. He criticised the Old Testament as being untrue and immoral and claimed that the Gospels were contradictory. This caused further outrage and lost him popularity with many of his earlier supporters, including Blake.

Religious and political dissent

Paine's main themes in The Rights of Man chimed in with the beliefs of many of the Christian sects which abounded in England at the end of the 18th century. These sects were called Dissenters because they did not agree with the establishment of a state church with the monarch at its head. Most of them would have been seen as politically revolutionary, since they rejected monarchy, hierarchy in state and church and espoused equal rights for all people. They were the descendants of the sects which had flourished after the English Civil War in the previous century, such as the Levellers.

The basic approach of the dissenters was summed up in a saying from a much earlier period:

‘When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?'

They believed that government by royalty and with a system of hereditary power was wrong. It divided people into classes, giving civil rights only to the few while keeping the majority unnaturally poor. This was seen as a perversion. God did not intend this enslavement when he created human beings. ‘It was not so in the beginning' was the core belief. See Religious / philisophical context > Blake's religious world > Beliefs of Dissenters for further information.

Blake's response to politics

Blake moved among politically radical people but rarely entered wholeheartedly into any political movement, largely because most radicals were Deists or freethinkers. For example, he admired Thomas Paine for his support of equality and belief in the ideals of a non-hierarchical democracy. However, he disagreed strongly with Paine's Deist, anti-Christian beliefs.

Blake's initial support of the French Revolution was later tempered by his abhorrence of the violence it involved. He was also appalled to see that the revolutionaries quickly became tyrannical oppressors in their turn.

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