The Language of Politics: England and the French Revolution
1789 was certainly a pivotal year--it was a watershed. It was the year in which the ancien regime was destroyed and replaced by reason and justice. The French Revolution marks the beginning of the Modern Age. Remarkable rhetoric! Just the same, this is the vision of the revolutionaries themselves. This is how William Wordsworth (1770-1850) experienced 1789.
Change was in the air--not rebirth but birth itself. A future of improvement, intellectual improvement, human happiness, equality and liberty was near at hand. Such optimism-- heady at the very least--could perhaps have only become manifest among a society whose spokesmen claimed to be enlightened. Irony abounds, however. For all the talk about, if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him, or the near future will see the necks of the last king strangled by the entrails of the last priest, the Age of Enlightenment and French Revolution created a radicalism still enveloped by Christian idiom. For instance, the new age would give rise to the New Jerusalem. A new age was certainly at hand--and its appearance could be announced with the zeal of the prophet.
On Nov. 4,1789, the Dissenting preacher RICHARD PRICE (1723-1791) appeared at the pulpit of the Old Jewry, an ancient meeting house near the Inns of Court in London. Price stood before the fifty or so members of the "Society for the Commemoration of the Revolution of Great Britain." A century earlier, the English had succeeded in curbing the power of the monarchy during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Price was to give the keynote address to the Society. The language, tone, and style of his address, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, is expressive and important:
Price's assertion had two major effects: (1) it marked the first response to events across the channel. (2) it got Edmund Burke so worked up that he had to respond to Price. What followed was a battle of words, a pamphlet war which raged as long as the French Revolution survived.
A pamphlet war is one manifestation of "an alternative structure of politics." In the late 1780s, and throughout the 1790s, the number of pamphlets rose dramatically. When the statesman EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797) heard of Price's sermon, his response was one of anger and disbelief. In November 1790, Burke published what would quickly become the manifesto of conservative political opinion. The REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE is nothing less than a direct answer to and attack upon what Burke called the "pulpit style" of Richard Price. Again, with Price's Discourse and Burke's Reflections, a revolution controversy was born. Opinion was now polarized -- on the one hand, liberalism; on the other hand, conservatism. The result of the battle of words which would develop over the next few years was to supply thinkers with a new vocabulary. Liberal, conservative, socialist, anarchist, liberty, equality, fraternity, capitalist and capitalism, are all products of the age of the French Revolution.
Before 1789, Burke had been one of the most outspoken orators of the liberal wing of the dominant Whig party. For years he had criticized the corruption of the monarchy. He also stood for the American colonies back in the 1790s. For Burke, expedience and necessity was everything -- it was not only inevitable but necessary that America free itself from the yoke of English rule. But when the "swinish multitude" -- Burke's indelicate expression for the French revolutionaries -- crushed the Bastille in July 1789, Burke was horrified. He couldn't believe that the "swinish multitude" could -- in a frenzy of misguided passion -- destroy the most venerable of all French institutions. Burke's Reflections is a highly rhetorical and lyrical style of polemic. He attacked Price's sermon and also the English Jacobin societies such as the London Corresponding Society (LCS). He called these political clubs and societies of the politically excluded, "the mothers of all mischief."
Burke glorified the ancient constitution of England and saw nothing but horror and anarchy emanating from France. He was scared to death! He attacked Price as "the spiritual doctor of politics." "No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity," wrote Burke. For Burke, religion and politics ought not to be mixed together. After all, Price was a PROTESTANT DISSENTER, and the old Jewry, was a Protestant meeting house. Of Price, the corresponding societies and the French revolutionaries, Burke argued that:
When Price spoke of the natural rights of man, Burke groaned in agony. For Burke, there are no natural, inalienable rights. The only rights proper to speak of are those civil and political rights granted to the people by the laws and the king. So, when Price said that the Revolution of 1688 gave the English subjects their natural rights -- to choose their governors, chastise them for misconduct, and to frame a new government for themselves -- Burke's passions were inflamed.
Burke feared the passions of the mob -- like most conservatives, he believed that the "swinish multitude" had no part in the political life of the nation. So Burke had to sound the alarm. He had to bring England to its senses. In a classic passage, Burke turns from his polemic against Price to the French Revolution itself.
What bothered Burke so much about the Revolution was the incidence of violence and tumult. Keep in mind, he is only speaking of events as they unfolded between June 1789 and the summer of 1790. In the future lay the confiscation of church property, the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, the death of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and of course, Napoleon.
When all was said and done, Burke's Reflections attracted a great deal more attention than the Discourse of Richard Price. The response to Burke was positively enormous. Approximately two hundred pamphlets, books and essays poured off the English press between November 1790 and 1795. The first attack came from MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797) -- feminist, novelist, wife of William Godwin (1756-1836) and mother of Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Wollstonecraft was born in London -- she was educated by Richard Price and other Rational Dissenters, and was closely connected to the radical intellectual circles of London. On November 29th, 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Man, the first attack upon Burke. She saw Burke as the defender of hierarchy and the spokesman for society founded on the systematic oppression of all English subjects. "I glow with indignation," she wrote, "when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes. . . ." Wollstonecraft's argument, as the title suggests, hinges upon the liberal conception of the natural rights of man. Above all, she argues that
The argument regarding natural rights was repeated by JOSEPH PRIESTLEY (1733-1804). Priestley, the illustrious chemist and philosopher, could count among his friends Richard Price and Wollstonecraft as well as the future industrialists Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819). He was also close friends with Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the naturalist. Priestley joined the Revolution controversy in 1791, several months after having read Price and Burke. Priestley was more than familiar with the context of the pamphlet war. On July 14, 1791, and while Priestley was attending a meeting in Birmingham, a church and king mob destroyed his home and laboratory. Priestley left his home -- what was left of it -- went to London, and in 1794 emigrated to the banks of the Susquehanna River where he and other intellectuals tried to set up a utopian community (Pantisocracy). Priestley, the Dissenter, chemist, radical and victim, knew, like Richard Price, that the French Revolution meant a great deal:
One of the most widely admired replies to Burke was that of a Scottish doctor and lawyer, James Mackintosh (1765-1832). On May 17, 1791, Mackintosh published his Defense of the French Revolution. Mackintosh was a friend and admirer of Priestley, editor of two English radical newspapers, and a member of the moderate reform group, the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI). Mackintosh wrote with urgency and his Defense is intended for the literate middle and upper class London audience. The Defense is a work which would prove nearly impossible for low orders to digest. In Burke, Mackintosh discovered an "hysterical reaction to events, born of fear." This was a reaction which would soon be dubbed, "counter-revolutionary," and in our own day, "reactionary." Mackintosh was a child of the Enlightenment -- he understood that human progress would only result from the free exercise of human reason. But why, he asked, has Enlightenment been so slow to spread? His answer was quite specific.
Social evil and social misery then, are the result of government and oppression. Reason -- the light of Reason -- could not become more general while men are being oppressed by tyrannical governments. As Richard Price remarked, "they know that light is hostile to them, and therefore they labour to keep men in the dark." For Mackintosh, it was the French solution which had unleashed brilliance, it marked the beginning of man's emergence from immaturity. Government must be improved so that man may obtain happiness. France was the great example as had been the rebellion of the American colonies a decade earlier. "It was time that men should tolerate nothing ancient that reason does not respect," wrote Mackintosh,
There is little doubt that the most important response to Burke came from the son of the Quaker corset-maker from Thetford in East Anglia. THOMAS PAINE (1737-1809) was the kind of man who rose from the ranks of the working classes to become a voice of English radicalism in the 1790s. His reputation was secured in 1776 when he published Common Sense, a book which had enormous influence in the colonies. Common Sense broke with tradition in that it used a literary style intended to appeal to the broad masses of people rather than the elect few. Paine, after all, was a corset maker himself -- he was a man of the people. Hence his name, Citizen Tom Paine. Throughout his writings there is an emphasis upon the independence of the individual. This is both healthy and natural -- for Paine, this idea grew from his experience as a skilled worker.
Between February 1791 and February 1792, Paine published Part I and II of The Rights of Man (dedicated to George Washington). It is a republican tract -- it made its appeal to those members of the politically excluded in English society. However, the book was also taken up by English radicals and workers as well as by American thinkers. The French liked it too -- Paine was one of two non-Frenchmen elected to sit in the National Convention (Joseph Priestley was the other). Those who could not read The Rights of Man had it read to them in pubs, coffee houses and at the meetings of the LCS and SCI. Excerpts were published as broadsides available in almost every provincial city. In The Rights of Man, Paine depicted monarchs as nothing more than parasites, sucking up the wealth and health of the nation. They were useless -- they were con artists. The questions Paine would put to monarchs and their do-nothing aristocrats were quite simple: of what utility are they? are they necessary? do monarchs help me, or oppress me?
For Thomas Paine, all governments of the past were founded on tyranny and oppression. As Price, Mackintosh and others had argued before, governments had done nothing but hide truth and dispense falsehood. Monarchy is the engine of human misery and oppression. Monarchy is the supreme evil. It is the obstacle to human improvement -- it is hocus pocus.
In contrast to the folly and imposture of monarchy, Paine argues the necessity of introducing a representative system of government. This is what is meant by the expression, republicanism. The best that can be hoped for from a republican government is to explode myth, falsity and superstition, by bringing everything before the tribunal of human reason.
Paine's radicalism was similar to that of Richard Price -- the language comes straight from John Locke (see Lecture 8). That is, government exists to guarantee the natural and inalienable rights of man: life, liberty, and property. This is the sole duty of government -- to protect those rights. Paine believed, in a frequently quoted statement, that "the government which governs best is the one that governs least."
While Paine supplied what was perhaps the most devastating critique of Edmund Burke, another radical and Jacobin entered the historical stage. Unlike Paine, however, WILLIAM GODWIN (1756-1836) was far more intellectual and nearly without passion. His treatise, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was published in 1793. It was a difficult, lengthy (two volumes) and expensive book. It's impact was largely among a circle of London intellectuals including: Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth as well as a number of radical publishers and booksellers. Like Price, Priestley and Wollstonecraft, Godwin was a Dissenter. He believed the character of the individual was formed by the environment. So, to change man, you must change his environment. For Godwin, this change would only transpire when men treated one another with candor, sincerity, and disinterested benevolence. Godwin attacked everything: monarchy, aristocracy, clergy, radical societies like the LCS and SCI, marriage, and revolutions in general. He was an anarchist -- the father of what is called philosophical anarchism. The best government, for Godwin, was no government at all. He looked at all social institutions and determined that all of them were forms of systematic oppression. Government, the workhouse, law, marriage and the church lay condemned. Why? Because they had made of man something less than he ought to have been. Godwin reminds us of Rousseau when he began The Social Contract (1762) with the following words: "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." This is an important concept -- the late 18th century begins that stage of western intellectual thought which recognizes that (1) man could be improved and (2) man will be improved. Both these concepts are implicit in the prophet of 19th century revolution, Karl Marx (see Lecture 24).
The solution for Godwin was quite simple and quite specific: annihilate government! Godwin was also a keen observer and one of his observations ought to sound familiar:
What rankled Godwin was that the oppression of the poor by the rich had become systematized. Godwin believed that all government is evil because it chokes the natural tendencies of mankind. Government does not promote good morals, happiness or knowledge. Government is imposture -- it is systematized falsehood.
Godwin stood as a lone voice in the 1790s. He hated monarchy -- he hated government-- and although he helped publish Paine's Rights of Man while Paine was exiled, he did so not because he necessarily agreed with the ideas it contained, but because he believed in the freedom of expression. Godwin was not a reformer -- he was not interested in parliamentary reform. Nor did he care much for the various corresponding societies -- he hated the radical societies. He was no Jacobin. And he condemned all revolutions because they were full of "tumult and violence." Like Burke, natural rights meant nothing to Godwin. And constitutions, whether written or unwritten, ought to be condemned as well. All politics did was to make man less of an individual and more a part of that brute machine of oppression.
Where Tom Paine argued that the best government is the one which governs least -- classic laissez-faire ideology -- Godwin argued that government was absolutely unnecessary.
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