British responses to the French Revolution

Richard Price

In 1789, Richard Price (1723-91), a Welsh dissenting minister who had supported the American Revolution, published Discourse on the Love of Our Country. In this work, he argued that the Revolution of 1789 represented an improvement on the 1689 settlement in the following areas:

  • matters of the liberty of conscience
  • the right to resist abuses of power
  • the right to choose and dismiss governments.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-97) was the son of an Irish Protestant lawyer and his Roman Catholic wife. He also studied law, and became a politician and man Edmund Burkeof letters. His work An Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) was extremely influential in the formation of aesthetic taste in relation to the natural world and is referred to in the Synopses section of this guide:

  • he argued against the way in which the House of Commons was dominated by the King and his supporters
  • he spoke and wrote on behalf of Roman Catholic emancipation
  • he supported the American Revolution.

The French Revolution, however, horrified Edmund Burke:

  • in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) he refuted Richard Price's argument that the people had the right to dismiss the elected government and form a new one, and he appealed to the lessons of history in support of his view
  • he believed that society was an organism rather than a purely administrative or legislative mechanism
  • he thought that the revolutionaries in France were atheists who had offended against history by overthrowing the monarchy.

When he was in France in 1773, he had seen Queen Marie Antoinette; she had come to represent for Burke all that was sacred in the principle of monarchy, and he wrote a eulogy of her in Reflections. For Burke, then, the principles of the 1689 English settlement remained the best basis for government.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was born in Norfolk, his father a Quaker and his mother an Anglican. He emigrated to America in 1774 after being dismissed from his job as an excise officer for seeking an increase in pay. He worked on behalf of American independence and served in Washington's army, fighting against British troops. He returned to England in 1787 and published the two parts of The Rights of Man in 1790 and 1792 as a direct response to Burke's Reflections:

  • he advocated the idea of fundamental ‘inalienable rights' that should be enjoyed by all human beings
  • he challenged Burke's notion of society as a binding contract between the past, present and future, and argued that for society to progress towards greater freedom and justice it was vital to break free from the chains of the past.

The Reign of Terror and disillusion with the Revolution

Excitement among those who had welcomed the French Revolution turned to disillusion. The years 1793-4, beginning with the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, saw bitter conflicts in France as different political groups fought for supremacy. During the ‘Reign of Terror', thousands of people from all parties were executed in Paris and elsewhere in the country.

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