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The Age of George III

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The Impact of the French Revolution on Pitt and the Government

The events in France in and after 1789 produced a number of reactions in Britain. These are epitomised by the attitudes of Pitt and his government, that of Edmund Burke and that of Thomas Paine.

Between July 1789 and April 1792 Pitt's government adopted an attitude of neutrality. Pitt felt that France was on the path of self-destruction in which Britain was only a spectator. He could not financially or diplomatically afford to get involved because of the parlous state of the British economy. There was no aggression by Britain, but Pitt's neutral stand began to change when France started to interfere with other European nations.

For example, the French encouraged rebellion in Holland in 1792 and denounced the right of Holland to control the navigation and commerce of the Scheldt. This arrangement dated back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and Britain wanted to uphold that treaty. At this time Holland was an ally of Britain and Pitt was concerned about the possible effects on Britain's trade and naval power if Holland came under French control. This was the clear aim of the French government. Pitt needed to be wary also, because of the risk of invasion from Holland up the Thames.

In November 1792, after the French had issued the Edict of Fraternity calling on people to overthrow their rulers, Pitt's attitude towards France grew much colder. Much suspicion of supporters of the Revolution was generated.

The Contrast

"The Contrast 1792"

Thomas Rowlandson published this etching on behalf of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers.

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was executed and the Jacobins set up a dictatorship through the Committee of Public Safety. This was seen by Pitt as a threat to national stability in Britain.

On 1 February 1793, France declared war on Britain and Pitt reciprocated. Most people supported Pitt and the king in this action. Pitt's reforming policies were frozen by the French Revolution and he reverted to the two traditional duties of an eighteenth century PM

  1. maintenance of domestic law and order
  2. defence of the realm from foreign invasion

These became his primary aims. He also felt that the republicanism of the Revolution would spread in England if it was not checked. He therefore changed from being a reformer to being a reactionary.


Pitt's domestic policies during the French Wars
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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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