Radicalism, Constitutional Reform and the French Revolution

Radicals

My series of books about Dr Adam Bascom, Norfolk physician and solver of mysteries, are set in the period after the French Revolution, when the ideas and attitudes spawned in its turbulent birth were sweeping across Europe, unsettling regimes that had been stable (as they thought) for hundreds of years.

In England too, change and dissent were in the air. No educated person could have avoided being caught up in the ferment. Norwich and Norfolk were perhaps more affected by the conflict of ideas as almost anywhere else outside London.

The ruling ‘Tory’ elite feared the whole idea of constitutional change. They based their power on traditional notions of rule by a hereditary, land-owning caste. A caste that was free from the need to earn a living in ‘mercenary’ ways. Opposite to this ‘Tory’ approach, most Whigs felt the case for moderate constitutional reform was unanswerable and those who opposed it were either misguided or driven by base motives. Times had changed. Many merchants, factory-owners and professional men were now wealthy. Some were wealthier than a good many of the landed gentry. They sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge and lived in fine houses. Their stake in the country could not be denied. Nor should their right to take a full part in decisions which affected them.

Fighting over the Middle Ground?

Of course, the current Whig and Tory grandees expected to retain their privileges. Their chosen responses to events across the Channel varied only in whether or not they saw French events as a symptom of the collapse of ‘the natural order of things’ (Tories) or a belated French move towards a British-style parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy (Whigs).

Initially, the French Revolution had been warmly welcomed by many Whigs, especially the followers of Charles James Fox. They liked the idea of extending the powers of parliament by reducing (or even removing) many Royal prerogatives. They wanted to restrict further the possibility of arbitrary action by the monarch. The Tories—especially the remnants of Jacobite believers in the divine right of kings—were horrified by everything that had happened in America and France. For them, the stability of their (often hereditary) positions, and the titles to their lands and dignities, depended on the continuance of Britain’s hereditary monarchy and its associated nobility.

Neither side even considered what we might term ‘proper’ democratic rule. Tom Paine’s brand of full-blooded republicanism and democracy (at least for males) held no attractions for wealthy Whigs or Tories. Property was sacrosanct. Those who had it were not going to give it up; those who aspired to get it didn’t want the prize snatched away first.

On the other hand, Edmund Burke’s all-out defence of the status quo must have made many of them uneasy, even some Tories. At times, George III seemed to be trying to return to a Stuart-type absolute monarchy. The government of William Pitt the Younger was so keen to maintain ‘law and order’ that its actions bordered on semi-legalised tyranny. Intellectually, the differences between Whigs and Tories were limited. Tories leaned more towards traditional values; Whigs favoured the power of reason and the approach that fuelled the Enlightenment. Where they differed most was on the best means of maintaining political stability and respect for property rights.

Norfolk’s Attitudes

The national result of these controversies was a good deal of turbulence and anger, followed by ever more paranoid government action to hold the line against all ideas deemed too radical, republican or revolutionary. In such a climate, even the most necessary changes became impossible, as Pitt himself was to discover in time.

Norfolk was mostly Whig country, its wealth based on commerce and its local franchise unusually broad for the time. The many wealthy dissenters, like the Quaker Gurney family, were also Whigs. The Tories tended to be the major landowners, though there were several exceptions such as the Cokes of Holkham, and the Anglican clergy.

At the start of the period of revolutions, one of the most prominent local MPs, William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, was an outspoken opponent of action against the American colonists and a clear supporter of Charles James Foxe. However, the events in France and Burke’s flamboyant denunciation of everything tending towards constitutional change turned him around 90 degrees in his allegiances—and earned him the derisive nickname ‘Weathercock Windham’. He became so convinced of the dangers inherent in French ideas he was even willing to join in Pitt’s government and cabinet. Not surprisingly, many of his former friends turned opponents and he eventually lost his Norfolk seat.

It may be that personal devotion to Edmund Burke played as great a part in Windham’s change of mind as political principle. It is said that Pitt never trusted him or liked him, but preferred to have such a powerful orator on his side anyway. I find it hard to believe Windham liked Pitt, or that he would have made such a dramatic change in his thinking without the impetus of events in France. It seems significant that Windham served Pitt’s government loyally, but always resisted offers from Pitt to be given honours for doing so. That smacks more of duty than regard.

Failure

In the end, it all came to nothing. The draconian responses of the Pitt government suppressed the meetings to discuss constitutional change, whether violently inclined or not. The most prominent leaders of the radicals were rounded up and charged with high treason. When they were acquitted, the government resorted to suspending *Habeas Corpus * and imprisoning people under suspicion without trial. Publishing ‘seditious’ pamphlets attracted persecution. Loyalists demonstrations and mob violence were both fostered, and the magistrates didn’t hesitate to call in the military to break up opposing demonstrations.

It was not simply the violence of ‘The Terror’ and the deaths of the king and queen. When the French Republic declared war on Britain, they allowed the king and government to characterise all revolutionary sympathies as signs of disloyalty. When Napoleon seized power, destroying the revolution which had brought him into prominence, war with France dropped back into the familiar pattern of standing against a continental dictator with aspirations to global domination. After the failure of The Peace of Amiens, radical ideas went deep underground until well after 1815.

Democracy not welcome here

We need to be careful not to impose our modern sensibilities about democracy on the 18th century. Ideas of universal suffrage (or even universal male suffrage) were seen as so extreme as to be impracticable—even dangerous. Education was available only to a minority. Much of the fear generated by references to Cromwellian times was caused by recollections of extremist groups like the Levellers and the Diggers who did want to remove existing social distinctions.

Almost no one believed the vast majority of the population had the mental equipment needed to take part in politics; nor that they would be sufficiently responsible not to focus purely on grabbing whatever they could from anyone richer than them. In many ways, the early years of the French Revolution seemed to provide all the proof anyone could need that this was true. In reality, what we can tell of most ‘revolutionary’ societies shows they were painfully moderate, serious-minded and well-intentioned—about as far from the sans culottes as anyone could imagine.


Do you enjoy historical fiction?

A new Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, is now available. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.

Check it out here.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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