The French Revolution, as seen from England

On Bastille day our director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses British views of the new regime in Paris…

Bastille day, the anniversary of the storming in 1789 of the brooding stronghold in Paris that represented for its inhabitants the arbitrary nature of the ancient regime, provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the advent of representative government in France on Britain and British observers. The French National Assembly had come into existence about a month before 14 July, when the Third Estate – the more popular element within the Estates General summoned to attempt to resolve the financial crisis of the French monarchy – declared itself the sole representative body of the nation and adopted its new title. The Assembly was in being until replaced by the Legislative Assembly in 1791 which was itself replaced by the Convention in 1792.

After the initial enthusiastic endorsements of the assertion of representative government, apparently à l’anglaise, British observers became progressively less impressed: and, in particular appalled by the way in which the Assembly conducted its business. Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France written in the first half of 1790 was famously splenetic about the febrile atmosphere in which the French National Assembly worked, among constant interruptions from members of the public:

The assembly, their organ, acts before them the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience; they act amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame, who, according to their insolent fancies, direct, control, applaud, explode them; and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them; domineering over them with a strange mixture of servile petulance and proud, presumptuous authority. As they have inverted order in all things, the gallery is in the place of the house. This assembly, which overthrows kings and kingdoms, has not even the physiognomy and aspect of a grave legislative body… Who is it that admires, and from the heart is attached to national representative assemblies, but must turn with horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque, and abominable perversion of that sacred institute?

It was a point echoed by many British commentators on events in France, including the agricultural improver Arthur Young, whose travels in the country from 1787 to 1790 are a key source for English attitudes to French politics. It was voiced by continental travellers to London as well, such as the Swiss, Henri Meister, who published his account of a stay in England in Switzerland in 1795: ‘Accustomed as I was to the tumult of our National Assembly, you may judge if I was not surprised to find in the House of Commons such decency, solemnity and stillness. … To be sure the people who filled the seats of this assembly are very unlike those who occupy with so much majesty the tribunes of our august Riding-house [the French Convention was housed in the indoor Riding Schoolin Paris at the time]. I did not observe one person who was not properly dressed, which is a proof how great an influence aristocracy has over this nation which calls itself a free people’. The contrast was equally drawn in Gillray’s print Patriotic Regeneration, published in March 1795. Behind Gillray’s frequently-made point about the revolutionary tendencies of the Foxite whig opposition to Pitt the younger and the dangers of parliamentary reform lies one about the debasement of political and parliamentary culture by a Frenchified idea of how a reformed parliamentary system might work.

Defenders of the National Assembly would counter attack by seizing on Meister’s ambiguously-put point about the influence of aristocracy. Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man contrasted its origin in popular election with the ‘vassal representatives’ of aristocratic pocket boroughs in the British system. The parliamentary language of its members, he claimed, ‘is free, bold, and manly’ (unlike the obsequious addresses to the king of their British counterparts); they debated ‘with the spirit of men, and the language of gentlemen’. They also made the obvious point that the British House of Commons could be just as badly behaved as those it criticised – as Mary Wollstonecraft said in her own acute and tart response to Burke, the House of Commons, despite its aristocratic pedigree, often resembled a bear garden.

Indeed, responses to the French Revolution and the split in the old Whig party made its debates take on a particularly edgy tone in the 1790s, though Burke’s own rebarbative temperament and rhetoric was often partly the cause of the problem. An opponent of his, the Foxite Whig Philip Francis, for example, enhanced his own reputation for acrimony in the ill-tempered debate at the opening of the new session on 15 December 1792 as he protested against the tone of the debate.

We are, or we pretend to be, a deliberative Assembly. We are debating upon a subject of the most grave, the most serious, the most solemn deliberation; that is, whether this nation shall, or shall not, be exposed to the hazards, and involved in the calamities of war. … [But] instead of discussing the great question of war and peace with temper, with a cool and careful consideration of arguments, without which there can be no wisdom either in the debate or the decision; instead of this, they in fact deprive themselves of all capacity to debate, of all faculty of judging; they listen with rapture to mere invectives, and echo them back again with shouts, with cries, and with clamours, renouncing and proscribing all liberty of opinion, all freedom of debate. Is this a British House of Commons, or am I suddenly transplanted by some enchantment into that Convention, against which the perpetual theme of reproach is, that they deliberate in passion and resolve by acclamation?


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