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The impact of the French Revolution in Britain

There were a number of different reactions in Britain to the events in France after 1789. They can be separated into the reactions of

Burke was opposed to the Revolution. In 1790 he published his book Reflections on the Revolution in France as a warning to many English reformers such as the Country Gentry, the Foxites and Wilkesites who believed that the French were having their own Glorious Revolution. Clubs had been set up to celebrate Britain's centenary of the Glorious Revolution and these clubs began to celebrate with the French, to aid and encourage their revolution.

There were two types of club: Revolutionary Societies for the gentry and Reform Clubs for the lower orders.

Reflections was written in answer to these clubs and specifically to speeches and sermons by Priestley and Price, both of whom were radical, democratic Unitarian ministers. They advocated that the example of the French Revolution should be copied in England. Burke warned these groups to stop supporting the French, since the Revolution was not what it seemed.

Burke had built up his reputation on the defence of the rights of parliament and in supporting the underdog. He had done this over issues in America, India, Ireland and the rights of Catholics, particularly in Ireland. Now it seemed he was contradicting himself because he appeared to be defending the French monarchy.

However, Burke did not oppose reform per se. He believed in organic reform and organic growth: that is, natural evolution. He had no time for drastic revolution. He opposed rapid, uncontrolled change, as was happening in France, particularly since the demolition of the Ancien Régime was in the hands of amateurs who had little or no political expertise.

Burke said that the French were not having their own version of the Glorious Revolution but that events in France were something very different. He asserted that events in France would lead to conflict and bloodshed and that wars would result from the Revolution, ending in the establishment of a military dictatorship. Burke 'got it right', but died 1797 and never saw the rise of Napoleon. However, he failed to see the reasons for the Revolution. Burke had been in France in 1773-4 but had spent the time with the nobility and had been well-treated. He had not seen the oppression, the appalling living and working conditions or the misery that existed in France.

Burke had practical political reasons for his attitude to events in France and commented: 'I reprobate no form of government upon abstract principles'. Paine accused Burke of 'pitying the plumage and forgetting the dying bird'. Burke saw no need for the violent changes in France and said it would lead to disaster because all the foundations of government had been swept away leaving nothing on which to build. There were no men of experience in government, only theorists.

Burke increasingly gained support as he was proved right. Most people stopped endorsing the Revolution as it became violent and became conservative and reactionary. The exceptions were Paine, Fox, their supporters and the extremists. For the majority of the population, the word revolution' came to mean bloodshed, mobs and violent change. However, it is worth noting that Reflections was written well in advance of all this.

Burke had the greatest impact in Britain because the politically powerful followed his ideas. The Revolutionary Societies ceased to exist after 1793 and the landed, ecclesiastical and government powers fell in with Burke's attitude and adopted it, although misinterpreted, because they believed that any reform would lead to revolution. The only group in parliament advocating reform after the start of the wars against France were the Foxite Whigs. Fox was seen as a traitor and consequently did not hold office until 1806. Fox and Burke fell out very publicly in 1791 and never spoke to each other again.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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