The French Revolution put the British political elite on the defensive in both the military and the ideological realm. From February 1793 until June 1815 Britain was almost continuously in conflict with a nation mobilised for war to an unprecedented degree. Furthermore, when Burke's characterisation of the French Revolution as an insidious event without precedent became the consensus among the ruling elite, it was realised that efforts needed to be made to reaffirm the legitimacy of Britain's governors. This response was at once intellectual and practical. A new conservative ideology was devised to provide justification for the elitist nature of British politics and a regressive distribution of wealth. This affirmation of the ruling elite's God-given and utilitarian right to rule ruled out radical reform of the British constitution, and so practical measures were encouraged by the state to convince the poor of the benefits of their deference. A two-pronged attack of often religiously-worded propaganda from the pulpit and loyalist societies along with doses of charity tried to create a 'vulgar conservatism' that would be an antidote to Paineite radicalism.

The proliferation of political organisations, especially in urban centres, helped to create a new culture of plebeian political awareness that the propertied elite came to see as threatening. Even if popular political attitudes favoured conservatism, the political education of the people gave them higher standards by which to judge their rulers. Amongst these rulers, debates in parliament saw the middle ground increasingly eroded and politicians forced to pick between the party of order and the party of change. Old labels became irrelevant and the terms of reference changed as a drawn-out war changed priorities and injected a new sense of urgency into politics. On all of the levels mentioned above – in intellectual, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary debate – the culture of politics was transformed by the French Revolution in the short-term, and the groundwork laid for the emergence in the long-term of a quite different British polity to that of 1789.

The Whig party that was gathered around Fox and Portland in 1789 was already weak and contained the seeds of its own disintegration, but the process of disintegration was given fresh impetus by the radicalisation of the French Revolution between 1789 and 1794. The general consensus that the Revolution was just a French 1688 that would lead to the establishment of a constitutional Monarchy slipped away following the September prison Massacres of 1792 in Paris, the stated aim of the French National Convention to export republicanism, and finally the outbreak of war in February 1793 following the guillotining of Louis XVI in January of that year. The Whig opposition of the 1780s had been based on fierce opposition to the Court party in Parliament, but the emergence of the new threat of French republicanism made a considerable segment of the Whig party rethink their priorities. Portland's break with Fox consigned the latter and his followers to the political wilderness, marginalizing reformists and inaugurating a deeply conservative period in high politics.

Prime Minister Pitt realised the importance of the conservative group gathered around Portland and courted them in an attempt to create a coalition of national unity, and after picking off several Whig grandees managed to lure Portland into just such a situation. Once within the governing coalition the Portland party failed to maintain its separate identity, and the conversion of the Whig grandee into a supporter of the Crown and what Wilkinson has termed a 'proto-Tory' was begun. The vast majority of the British ruling elite had come down in favour of property over liberty when they realised how high the stakes were, and this crucial choice of theirs characterised the political culture of the 1790s.

As the elite had now unsurprisingly decided in favour of the continuation of their own dominance, intellectual justification was required to legitimate their authority in the face of a supposedly universal rights-of-man doctrine. That these convictions were socially and economically convenient to the elite does not mean they were not sincerely held. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is only the most famous example of a rich and varied conservative articulation of the right and expediency of the propertied elite's rule. The pamphlet and propaganda campaign that sought to inculcate a popular and active conservatism into the British people was thought necessary to counter the spread of pernicious Paineite material. It spelled out the benefits of the status quo and warned against rapid alteration to the British constitution. As conservatives chose to rally fully to the defence of the constitution, they precluded the possibility of reform being carried out to satisfy the popular radical societies that were proliferating in urban centres. Although much radicalism was of an economic nature, many popular reform societies sprung up before wartime inflation made the economic situation particularly dire, a major wave of them emerging in 1792 – 93. Of course, it can hardly be considered a coincidence that these societies sprung up in the cities that were the hubs of economic change that was often detrimental to standards of living. Tensions in the economy were an underlying factor that led to the disaffection of many workers, but the transformation of this disaffection into an organised plebeian movement was occasioned by events in France.

The goals of these popular societies were usually fairly moderate and sober, with only a fringe element openly committed to republicanism. However, their growth was quite unprecedented and was seen by the ruling elite as posing a serious challenge. The existence of a possible fifth column within Britain was especially worrying given the threat of imminent invasion by the militarily expansive and successful French nation. In the short-term this required a change in the political culture that was able to countenance a suspension of some of the rights of Englishmen so that ultimately the constitution might be saved. Habeas Corpus was suspended for six months in May 1794 and the Seditious Meetings Act suspended the right to free assembly for three years. Under this assault and judicial prosecution, which failed to convict the leaders of the London Convention for treason, the republican radical fringe was thoroughly discouraged. The long-term effect of the emergence of radical reform societies was the increased political education of the population, as many erstwhile radicals turned to legal political means and education to achieve their goals. The French Revolution also influenced the content of their views on the inequalities in British society. Without the Revolution we would have had no Reflections, and without Burke's work no Rights of Man. The large circulation of volume two of Paine's book meant that in the long-term radicalism would appeal more to the rights of man than to the ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution and freedom from the Norman yoke.

Organised popular conservatism flourished in adversity. It was greatly helped in doing so by a national elite that had newly realised the importance of gaining mass support in the face of pernicious doctrines that threatened their privileged social and economic position. Philp's case study of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers headed by Reeves illustrates neatly this realisation. Burke had viewed the lower orders as objects of conservative thought rather than participants in it, but many of Reeves' correspondents were of the view that instruction of them was necessary to maintain order and stability. This realisation was occasioned by the spread of radical societies and the perceived need to encourage active loyalism rather than just passive acceptance; if the loyalists didn't get to the poor first, Paine might.

A mobilisation of the people in favour of the state was necessary not only as inoculation against radical agitation, but also to support the war effort in the absence of a British equivalent of the levée en masse. The 1790s were thus characterised by a new attempt by the state to elicit organised support, and also by a groundswell of desire to comply by the middling sort. Although the state was seeking to inculcate patriotism on a new level, the method by which this was carried out was in accordance with British traditions of decentralised politics. It was local corporations, counties and boroughs who responded to the Royal proclamation of 1 September 1792 with a pledge to combat radicalism in their locality. Whilst maintaining their autonomy in their locality, local officials were increasingly drawn into a national culture of patriotism and loyalism.

The government was successful in eliciting short-term loyalist enthusiasm but had more trouble sustaining it in the long run once initial passions had run out. The increased threat of invasion in the second half of the decade was much more successful in creating support for the Volunteer movement, but this threat would not last for ever and hence could not constitute a permanent change in political culture. A more permanent change was brought about by changing notions of what patriotism meant, and what exactly it implied allegiance to. George III had come to represent domestic probity and stability to many people following the turmoil of the American War of Independence (for which Lord North became the scapegoat), and the French Revolution did wonders for his popularity. Parliament became much more willing to sanction Royal pomp and splendour following the Revolution, recognising that it was necessary for national security to outdo the festivals of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Local festivities in favour of the monarch not only allowed local mayors to show their support for the status quo in the face of radicalism, but also to boast of their own achievements. Celebrations of the monarch and the state were increasingly permeated by a stress on civic pride and virtue rather than mere enjoyment as a means of encouraging order.

Of course, together with intellectual and moral justification of their right to rule and new definitions of patriotism, material benefits had to be offered to the poor to make sure they continued to be loyal. As patriotism increasingly became state property and the old libertarian style of patriotism became devalued, the state felt compelled to foster a paternalist attitude towards the poor that would help legitimise its monopoly and make it deserved of loyalty. The increased generosity of the poor law would eventually lead to a laissez faire reaction, but for now initiatives such as Speenhamland offered increased relief to the poor. Celebrations of the monarch's glory could be combined with charity to encourage attendance and win support.

Much of the new wave of charity came from private organisations such as the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor (SBCP), which was not directly influenced by the state. Rather, many private charities were religiously-inspired and believed that the reassertion of traditional religious and cultural values could arrest the spread of a corrosive and cosmopolitan 'Jacobin morality'. Actual material support became ever more vital as wartime economic problems got worse, and the key characteristic of the 1790s in this sphere is the reawakening of practical patriotism that compelled the social elite to display more energy in creating a stable and integrated state. Paternalism and patriotism became a replacement for democracy and republicanism.

One key consequence of the 1790s that changed the political culture of Britain for ever was the increased political education of the masses, both from radical agitation and from conservative propaganda and paternalism. Conservative propaganda could not help but educate the people by giving them standards by which to judge the government. By highlighting the benefits of the British constitution conservative propaganda established a standard of good government that would have to be met in the future, and that conceptualised important rights beyond purely economic ones. Although much of the agitation during the war was of an apolitical and essentially economic nature, economics and politics increasingly merged in the popular consciousness. Reform had been defeated for several decades by the conservative retrenchment, but in the long run the groundwork had been laid for a renewed burst of reformist activity that would be harder to resist once parliament was again willing to countenance reform. The debate over the structure of the British polity had been comprehensively removed from a vacuum and placed in the context of Enlightenment currents of thought. The disadvantaged of the British state could draw on rights of man doctrines to articulate their desires in a persuasive new manner once conditions were more favourable to reform.

In conclusion, the fundamental change in the political culture of the 1790s was the radicalisation and polarisation of politics. What happened was still fundamentally British and in many cases the accentuation or revival of previous trends, but many changes were occasioned by the French Revolution. It brought to a head issues to do with the role of the monarch in the state, the right balance between property and liberty, and how the government should respond to economic change that was created unemployment and misery in some areas of the country. In the short-term it created a rapacious and somewhat repressive state which existed in a climate of fear and uncertainty, but in the long-term was probably favourable to reform by forcing the governing elite of the country to face up to the question of their legitimacy. Pitt's unwillingness to countenance any radical alteration of the constitution kept it intact while measures were taken by all sections of propertied society to justify the status quo.

This search for a social rather than a political solution to the problem of elite legitimacy meant that the political education of the poorer sections of society was advanced and they came increasingly in the state’s orbit for the duration of the French Wars. In parliamentary politics, a consensus was established on the importance of defending an uneven distribution of property and political power against the encroachments of levelling republicanism, and the Foxite party was consigned to the political wilderness. The ruling elite managed to reaffirm its legitimacy and inspire support from the lower sections of society while presiding over a huge expansion of the state and taxation, but the methods it used ultimately undermined itself. The need to combat ‘Old Corruption’ after 1815 despite the boon of having just won the war shows the continuation of old trends in attacks on the extravagances of the ruling class and their need to constantly reaffirm legitimacy in a changing world.


E.J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State, 1783 – 1867 (1983)
L. Colley, 'The apotheosis of George III: loyalty, royalty and the British nation 1760 – 1820', Past and Present (1984)
H.T. Dickinson (ed.), Britain and the French Revolution 1789 - 1815 (1989)
M. Philp, 'Vulgar conservatism 1792 – 3', English Historical Review (1995)
M. Philp (ed.), The French Revolution and British popular politics (1991)
P. Harling, The waning of 'Old Corruption': economical reform 1779 – 1846 (1996)
T.P. Schofield, 'Conservative political thought in Britain in response to the French Revolution', Historical Journal (1986)
D. Wilkinson, 'The Pitt-Portland coalition 1794 & the origins of the Tory party', History (1998)
L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837 (2003)

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