The Revolution Controversy was a British debate over the French Revolution
, lasting from 1789 through 1795.
[Butt, "Introduction", 1.]
A pamphlet war
began in earnest after the publication of Edmund Burke's
''Reflections on the Revolution in France
'' (1790), which surprisingly supported the French aristocracy
. Because he had supported the American colonists in their rebellion against Great Britain
, his views sent a shock-wave through the country. Many writers responded, defending the revolution in France, among them Thomas Paine
, Mary Wollstonecraft
and William Godwin
calls the debate that erupted "perhaps the last real discussion of the fundamentals of politics" in Britain
. The themes articulated by those responding to Burke would become a central feature of the radical working-class movement in Britain in the 19th century
and of Romanticism
[Butler, "Introduction", 1.]
Most Britons celebrated the storming of the Bastille
in 1789, believing that France's monarchy
should be curtailed by a more democratic form of government. However, by December 1795, after the Reign of Terror
and the War of the First Coalition
, there were few who still supported the French cause.
Edmund Burke's ''Reflections''
Responding in part to a sermon defending the French Revolution given by the Dissenting
clergyman Richard Price
entitled ''A Discourse on the Love of Our Country
'' (1789), Burke published his ''Reflections on the Revolution in France
'' in an effort to advance arguments for the current aristocratic government. Because Burke had previously been part of the liberal Whig Party
, a critic of monarchical power, a supporter of the American revolution
aries and a critic of government corruption in India
, most in Britain expected him to support the French revolutionaries. When he failed to do so, it shocked the populace and angered his friends and supporters. Burke's book sold 30,000 copies in two years.
The ''Reflections'' defended "the aristocratic concepts of paternalism
, loyalty, chivalry
, the hereditary principle" and property
Burke criticized the view of many British thinkers and writers who had welcomed the early stages of the French Revolution. While the radicals saw the revolution as analogous to Britain's own Glorious Revolution
in 1688 which had restricted the powers of the Stuart monarchy
, Burke argued that the appropriate historical analogy was the English Civil War
(1642–1651) in which Charles I
had been executed in 1649. He viewed the French Revolution as the violent overthrow of a legitimate government, contending that citizens do not have the right to overthrow their government. Civilizations and governments, he maintained, are the result of social and political consensus as their traditions cannot be challenged—the result would be anarchy.
Radicals such as William Godwin
, Thomas Paine
and Mary Wollstonecraft
argued for republicanism
, agrarian socialism
. Most of those who came to be called radicals emphasized the same themes, namely "a sense of personal liberty and autonomy"; "a belief in civic virtue"; "a hatred of corruption"; an opposition to war because it only profited the "landed interest"; and a critique of the monarchy and the aristocracy and its perceived desire to draw power away from the House of Commons of Great Britain
. Many of their works were published by Joseph Johnson
, who was eventually jailed for his seditious activities.
Wollstonecraft had been much influenced by the ideas she ingested from Price's sermons at Newington Green Unitarian Church
and the whole ethos of Rational Dissent
in the village of Newington Green
[Gordon, p51 passim.]
These seeds germinated into ''A Vindication of the Rights of Men
'', her response to Burke's denunciation of her mentor. Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States
, argued in ''Rights of Man
'' that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights and their national interests.
This Controversy left further legacies. Wollstonecraft's most famous work, ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
'' was written in 1792 in the spirit of rationalism
extending Price's arguments about equality to women
. Anna Laetitia Barbauld
, a prolific writer admired by Samuel Johnson
and William Wordsworth
and wife of the minister at Newington Green
, alluded to Burke's work and his opponents in her "Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation" (1793).
* Butler, Marilyn, ed. ''Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. .
* Gordon, Lyndall. ''Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft''. Great Britain: Virago, 2005. .
Category:18th century in England
Category:Political history of England
Category:British non-fiction literature
Category:Historiography of the French Revolution
Category:1789 events of the French Revolution
Category:1790 events of the French Revolution
Category:1791 events of the French Revolution
Category:1792 events of the French Revolution
Category:1793 events of the French Revolution
Category:1794 events of the French Revolution
Category:1795 events of the French Revolution