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Burke, Paine & Wollstonecraft

Burke, Paine and Wollstonecraft

Events in France did much to revive the fortunes of the reform movement after it had declined in the mid 1780s and hostile reactions to the course the revolution was taking stimulated the rapid growth of militant loyalism as public opinion turned against the radicals. The French revolution did produce some changes:

  • movement spread further down the social scale
  • was influential in a wider geographical area, not merely confined to the capital.
  • some radicals were pursuing a new Liberal ideal

The debate began in 1789, when Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister in England, preached a sermon "On the Love of Country." In this sermon he congratulated the French National Assembly, for the Revolution had opened up new possibilities for religious and civil freedom. He developed his doctrine of perfectability -- that the world can be made better through human effort. This doctrine was the theological and philosophical justification for social reform, for striving in this world for social change.


The responses to this sermon are perhaps better known than the initial sermon itself. Edmund Burke responded with his Reflections on Revolution in France. Burke argued that the overthrow of authority in France would bring on chaos and disorder. He viewed himself as moderate. He maintained that reform in France should recognise that Europe was already improving. Burke regarded the FR as a consequence of the interactions of three interests:

  • the literary cabal as represented by Rousseau, Voltaire and the other philosophes
  • the politicians who wished to build France into a world power
  • the government of Louis XVI.  

He foresaw the revolution would deteriorate into military government and suggested the nations of Europe, in defence of their own interests, should launch a pre-emptive invasion of France to restore the old order.

The tremendous stir that Burke’s pamphlet caused mustered many English radicals into launching a counter-attack. Many of these were associated with the radical London publisher Joseph Johnson. In addition to works by MW and Paine, Johnson also published William Blake’s poem The French Revolution in 1791.


An initial response to Burke came from a member of Price’s congregation, Mary Wollstonecraft's in her pamphlet: A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790. MW presented Burke as a former reformer, grown old and confused, basically a good man but one corrupted by the English establishment. She spoke of the aristocracy that was being displaced in France as decadent and criticized Burke's sympathy for the women of the displaced aristocracy in France – particularly his eulogising of Marie Antoinette – as selective:

"your tears are reserved, very naturally considering your character, for the declamation of the theatre, or for the downfall of queens, whose rank alters the nature of folly, and throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration, though they might extort an alms".

Gary Kelly has noted that MW used both manner and style to reinforce her points. But MW supported Burke’s notion of gradualism of reform. Against his pessimism she considered the present as a prelude to a brighter age: ‘the revolution was the natural consequence of intellectual improvement, gradually proceeding to perfection in the advancement of communities, from a state of barbarism to that of polished society.’ Burke and MW did however, disagree on a number of significant issues including their views of reason, equality, feminism and education.

Mary Wollstonecraft followed this argument with another response in 1791, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Here Mary Wollstonecraft extended her arguments about the need and value of female emancipation.

Mary Wollstonecraft's visit to France in 1792 challenged her own earlier arguments and resulted in a more muted optimism. But she remained confident that the essence of humanity was good, and that even the "chaotic mass" could result in "a fairer government."


The Rights of Man was written as a defence of the French Revolution and its principles. But was more than an answer to Burke's arguments. It was also a fundamental text of modern democracy. In two years it sold over 200,000 copies making Paine the best-known revolutionary writer of his age. The ROM was written in two parts. Part 1’s purpose was to refute Burke but Part 2 set out a far more radical agenda.

In Part 1 Paine made the distinction between absolute monarchy: the ‘hereditary despotism of the monarchy’ and constitutional monarchy. By Part 2 he was maintaining that all traditional forms of governments were “creatures of imagination” relying on the “romantic and barbarous distinction of making men into kings and subjects”. In Part 2, Paine advocated the abolition of all monarchy and the establishment of democratic republics based on universal manhood suffrage. He also argued that it was the duty of the State to care for the old, infirm and the young, and declared that those who received such assistance were entitled to it, "not as a matter of grace and favour but as a right."

Revolutionary England?

Much of the historiographical debate about the impact of the French revolution on Britain has been informed by E P Thompson’s masterly thesis: The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson viewed the 1790s as the crucial period for the formation of working class political consciousness because of the proliferation of popular radical societies and the ideology of Paineite radicalism which legitimised the working class struggle. The so-called ‘panic of property’ in the early 1790s created a sharp break between the objectives and interests of the industrial and commercial classes which hitherto had been united in a common cause for reforming the constitution and which was to continue into the nineteenth century. He also argued that there was continuity - in both ideas and personnel - between the radical movements of the 1790s and the re-emerging parliamentary reform movements of the early 1800s.


The most active radical responses came from the important centres of Dissent and emerging commercial activity, especially manufacturing centres such as London, Norwich, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle. By the mid-1790s there were around 80 popular political reform societies in England and Wales. The most famous is the London Corresponding Society founded in January 1792 which comprised of as many as 90 divisions at its peak in 1795. Most societies espoused a radical programme which included calls for universal suffrage and annually elected parliaments. Some also included economic and social grievances, complaints against taxes, high food prices, the game laws and against the prosecutions of workers for participating in trade union activities.

Some of the most radical responses were in Scotland: there were 46 petitions for burgh reform presented to Parliament in 1788, attempts to push for Scottish reform were pursued through the efforts of Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1791 and 1792. In July 1792 the first Society for the Friends of the People was formed in Edinburgh, followed by similar societies in Dunbar and Glasgow. 1792 also saw the first General Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland led by Thomas Muir, an Edinburgh advocate. The convention was backed by a movement of radical artisans and shopkeepers.


In some respects the conservative reaction to the revolution sprung from the same cause as the radical movement: a pride in the supposed historic liberties and constitution of the British people. There was also antipathy towards the French and a patriotic defence of the nation’s institutions when under threat of invasion. The sheer scale of the loyalist movement was without precedent in the eighteenth century. Loyalist clubs and societies, the exploitation of the press and pulpit to disseminate conservative propaganda, the organisation of public meetings and street demonstrations, the creation of Volunteer companies and other armed defence associations swamped the radical groups. Propagandists like Hannah More were important, because they wrote simple texts designed to appeal to a mass audience and win them round to a patriotic defence of British institutions. Her Cheap Repository Tracts took the form of a series of moral fables advocating compliance, obedience and patriotism. They sold 2 million copies between 1795 and 1798 and were read by a higher proportion of the working class population than any radical publication. Conservative newspapers and periodicals outnumbered and outsold similar literature produced by the radicals in the years from 1789 to 1815. The Anti-Jacobin which was published weekly between 1797 and 1798 sold around 2500 copies a week. Loyalist associations also produced and distributed their own literature. The Crown and Anchor association published around 50 different tracts on paid to distribute them amongst its network of provincial associations. Hundreds of loyalist addresses, resolutions and petitions which were sent to the king in the years between 1789 and 1815. Loyalists also banded together to form societies, armed associations and Volunteer companies to assist the government to oppose radical views, to suppress disorder and protect private property. Large numbers were recruited at once and by 1804 the Volunteer force was 450,000 men strong.


The French revolution made a lasting impact on popular public opinion in British society of both a conservative and radical character. Debates about the closeness of Britain to revolution during this time, have concentrated on the radicals but loyalism too could be a revolutionary force. The revolution witnessed for the first time all sections of the population entering politics in some form, whether they supported the radicals and bought copies of Paine’s Rights of Man or whether they signed loyal addresses to George III they were participating in the political process and being incorporated into mainstream politics.