The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

ENGLAND IN THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND NAPOLEONIC WARS

Category: 19th century

Very few people in Europe realised that a new epoch was beginning when the French Estates-General met at Ver­sailleson May 5th, 1789.

Before long the Third Estate found itself in violent con­flict with the Crown and the aristocracy and was forced along the path of revolutionary struggle. In this it received strong support from the peasantry and the lower classes in the towns. Chateaux were attacked and burnt and great estates broken up. On July 14th the people of Paris stormed the Bastille. In Octo­ber they marched out toVersailles and brought the king back as a virtual prisoner to Paris. To foreign observers all these events appeared to confirm their first impression thatFrancewas sinking into anarchy and could be neglected as a European power. Only by degrees did they realise that a new power was arising out of the chaos.

British interests were at first not directly threatened for geographical reasons.Britain, therefore, was one of the last countries to join in the counter-revolutionary war, yet, once involved, she was the most determined to carry it through.

Early in 1793 Britain entered the war, joining with Aust­ria,Prussia, Spain and Piedmont to form the first coalition.

Before war began the Radical and Republican agitation which arose in England as a reflection of the Revolution inFrancehad been met with a pogrom and severe legal repres­sion. Tory mobs, with the connivance of the magistrates, loot­ed and burned the houses of Radicals and dissenters in Bir­mingham and elsewhere. The Whig Party was soon split, the majority going over to Pitt and the reaction and only a handful under Fox persisting in their demands for reform. Small as it was, this group was of great historical importance because it formed the link between the Whigs of the eighteenth century and the Liberals of the nineteenth century.

Fox and his followers were aristocrats. The period saw also the first definitely working class political organisation, the Corresponding Society. Its official programme was only Uni­versal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments, but most of its members were republicans and disciples of Paine. Paine, who had fought for the Americans in the War of Independence and had helped to formulate both the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was a passionate advo­cate of the then novel idea that politics were the business of the whole mass of the common people and not only of a govern­ing oligarchy. Government was only tolerable if it secured to the whole people “Life,Libertyand the pursuit of happi­ness”, and any government which failed by this test ought to be overthrown, if necessary by revolution. His clear and logical exposition of the principles of the French Revolu­tion won a ready hearing among the intelligent working men from whose ranks the Corresponding Society drew its members.

The weakness of the movement lay in its limited charac­ter. It was confined mainly toLondonand to the mechanics and artisans who formed the upper stratum of the working class. It had no roots in the industrial towns of the North. These were full of misery and discontent but the dispossessed peasants and ruined domestic workers who crowded there were not yet capable of political thought or activity. Their protest took the form of desperate acts of violence and destruc­tion.

It was only at the end, when the repression of Pitt was operating to crush the movement, that it began to make con­tacts with the new industrial proletariat and these contacts came too late to be immediately fruitful.

In 1794 Pitt suspended Habeas Corpus and rushed through laws to prohibit the holding of public meetings. The suspension of Habeas Corpus lasted for eight years. Even before this “The Right of Man” was banned and Paine only escaped trial by a flight toFrance. The Corresponding Socie­ty and other Radical organisations were declared illegal.

In the years that followed, although the open expression of Radical views was made impossible, frequent strikes, bread riots and machine wrecking riots kept the Government in a state of terror. The whole country was covered with a net­work of barracks, built so as to prevent contact between the people and the soldiers, who had formerly been billeted in houses and inns. The industrial areas were treated almost as a conquered country in the hands of an army of occupa­tion. Troops were often used to suppress disorder, but even so were often found to be unreliable because of their sympa­thy with the crowds they were ordered to attack.

The fury of the Government and ruling class was all the keener because of the continued success of the French armies.

From the formation of the First Coalition in 1793Britaintook first place in the various combinations againstFrance. Other powers changed sides or drifted in and out of the war but with one short interval after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802Britainremained continuously at war till the capture ofPa­risin 1814. The main source of her strength was the modern and capitalist economic organisation which enabled trade and industry to increase even under war conditions and vast sums of money to be raised without bankruptcy.

Pitt’s war finance was merely an extension of that prac­tised throughout the eighteenth century: heavy and increas­ing taxation of the necessities of life, a huge National Debt and subsidies totalling £50,000,000 to the European powers who were prepared to raise armies against Napoleon. It has been estimated that a labourer earning 105. aweek paid half of it in indirect taxes.

The effect of this war finance, besides reducing the real wages of the working masses and forcing up prices, was to reinforce the class of financiers and rentiers and to increase enormously the scope and volume of banking and credit operations. The new finance magnates so created became in due course landowners and pillars of the Tory Party.

Yet the wealth at Pitt’s disposal could not prevent his coali­tions from going down like ninepins before the armies ofFrance. The First Coalition collapsed in 1795 after Flanders andHollandhad been overrun.

In the beginning the French armies were welcomed as liber­ators by the middle and lower classes of the countries they conquered. ToItaly,Switzerland, the Rhineland and theLow Countriesthey carried the bourgeois revolution.

Much that was done in these years proved of permanent benefit, but presently the people of the occupied countries found that they were to be allowed, at best, a second class revolution with their interests always subordinated to those ofFrance.

The price of liberation was heavy taxes and the conscrip­tion of their sons to fill the gaps in the ranks of the French Army. The result was that the very classes which had welcomed and been aroused to political maturity by the French were gradually alienated. Their history is that of Beethoven, who intended to dedicate his “Heroic Symphony” to Napo­leon and then thought better of it. By breaking the shell of feudalism and ending the curious torpor that marked the eighteenth centuryEuropethe French created a bourgeois nationalism that turned inevitably against its creators.

The Second Coalition was smashed at Marengo in the last days of 1800. The Treaty of Amiens, recognised by all parties as a truce, brought hostilities to a close from 1802 to 1803. It leftFrancein control ofHollandand all the west bank of theRhine.

When war was resumed Napoleon had as alliesSpainandHolland. The French Army was camped atBoulogneready for a descent onEnglandif the French and Spanish fleets could be concentrated to cover the crossing. How far this plan was serious has never been certainly determined. In March 1805 theToulonfleet slipped past the blockade and sailed for theWest Indieswith Nelson in pursuit. TheBrestfleet failed to escape and theToulonfleet doubled back to join the Spanish inCadiz. In October both fleets were destroyed at Trafalgar.

Before Trafalgar was fought, however, the scheme for the invasion ofEnglandwas abandoned. By the promise of un­heard-of subsidies Pitt had persuadedAustriaandRussiato join in the Third Coalition and the French Army had been marched acrossEuropeto meet the new enemy. It is myth that Trafalgar savedEnglandfrom invasion: what it did was to place her naval supremacy beyond question for the rest of the war.

On the day before Trafalgar Napoleon defeated an Aust­rian Army atUlmon theDanube. Soon after he enteredVienna, and on December 2nd overwhelmed both Austrians and Russians atAusterlitz. For six years neitherAustrianorPrussiacounted as European Powers and after defeat at Friedland in 1807 the Tsar of Russia made his peace.

For a time Napoleon and the Tsar Alexander combined to dominateEuropebut Napoleon was not prepared to treat Ale­xander as an equal and the latter refused to be subordinate. Failing all else Napoleon tried to strike atEnglandby impos­ing a European ban on her manufactured goods.Englandreplied with a blockade, and though neither ban nor blockade were completely effective, a strain was begun under which the alliance betweenFranceandRussiaand the other North European countries crumbled away.

An army of nearly half a million — Poles, Italians and Germans as well as Frenchmen — was massed by Napoleon in 1811 for an attack onRussia. The march of the Grand Army toMoscowand its disastrous retreat setEuropeonce more ablaze.Germanyrose against the defeated Emperor and at last the French found themselves opposed not to the conscript armies of kings but to nations in arms. In April 1814 the al­lies enteredParis, the Bourbons were restored and Napoleon banished toElba.

England,Russia,AustriaandPrussiathen settled down at the Congress of Vienna to fight over the spoils of victory. Their deliberations, were interrupted in 1815 by the sudden return of Napoleon toFranceand the Hundred Days’ Campaign which ended with his defeat atWaterloo.

Revolution was felt to be as much the enemy asFranceand the victory of reaction was sealed by the Holy Alliance in whichAustria,RussiaandPrussiaagreed to give each other mutual support against the horrors of insurgent democ­racy. Yet neither Metternich nor Alexander could restoreEuropeto its sacred torpor or do more than delay for a little the process set on foot by the Revolution, and the Holy Al­liance did not survive the upheavals of 1830.

England’s share in the plunder was taken mainly outsideEurope. The foundations for a great extension of the Empire were laid by the acquisition of a number of strategic key points,Malta,Mauritius,Ceylon, Heligoland, and the Cape, then inhabited only by a few Dutch farmers and valued only as a stopping place on the way toIndia. The British bourgeoi­sie came out of the war ready to consolidate a world monop­oly for the produce of their factories and to begin a period of hitherto unimagined advance.

From A People’s History of England by A. L. Morton

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