The French Revolution and the constitutional debate

The French Revolution of 1789

The most influential political event of the period during which Frankenstein was conceived and written actually took place in The Storming of the Bastille1789, thirty years before the novel was published and nine years before its author was born. The French Revolution and the fall of the Bastille in July 1789 had an enormous impact on British public opinion in England and influenced the terms on which political debate would be conducted for the next thirty years.

The settlement of 1689 and the British Constitution

Since the constitutional settlement of 1689, which balanced the powers of Parliament and the monarchy, the British system of government had enjoyed support across the political spectrum and was much admired by observers from other countries. This system gave distinct roles in the process of governance and legislation to:

  • the Crown
  • the House of Lords
  • the House of Commons

It was felt to combine the best aspects of monarchical, aristocratic and democratic modes of government. It was believed that this combination of forces worked to offset the dangers inherent in allowing any one of them to predominate:

  • monarchy could easily degenerate into tyranny
  • aristocracy could degenerate into oligarchy, or the concentration of power in a ruling elite
  • democracy could become anarchy and the rule of the mob.

If anything occurred to upset the balance, such as the emergence of corrupt practices in appointments to political offices, the system would work to restore equilibrium.

The growth of political dissent

By the 1760s, however, this consensus of opinion was beginning to break down.

There had been political dissent earlier in the eighteenth century but it had tended to object to and seek to remedy abuses of the system without questioning the system itself. In the 1760s and 1770s, various strands of radical political opinion began to question the basis on which the British Constitution was founded:

  • it was argued that democracy was only partial and that this limited the representativeness of the House of Commons
  • the right to vote, as well as being granted only to men, depended on a property qualification, thus excluding the great mass of the population
  • religious dissenters, including Roman Catholics as well as members of nonconformist sects, did not enjoy such full voting rights as were available. Because MPs were required to swear an oath of conformity to the Church of England, religious dissenters were not eligible for election to public office.

The road to reform

Attempts to introduce Parliamentary reform in 1809, 1818, 1821 and 1826 were defeated in the House of Commons. It was only in 1832, the year after the revised edition of Frankenstein was published, that the Reform Act, with a major extension of the Parliamentary franchise, was passed into law. The Test and Corporation Acts, removing most of the political restrictions on religious dissenters, had been repealed in 1828, and the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act followed in 1829.

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