The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

England and the French Bourgeois Revolution of 1789

Category: 18th century

The French monarchy in 1789 crumbled down under the blows of the revolutionary movement of the French people.

The hatred against the corrupt regime found expression in the storming of the century old prison — the Bastille on July 14, 1789 which marked the beginning of the French bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century.

All Europe was deeply affected by the revolutionary events in France. V. I. Lenin noted that the great French Revolution did so much for the bourgeoisie that the whole nineteenth century was marked by its influence.

The Tories and right Whigs in Britain were hostile to the revolution because they understood that the popular masses in England could take similar action against the privileged classes. Moreover, the ruling elite feared that revolutionary France could enhance its international position which was detrimental to British interests. This explains why William Pitt the Younger entered the first coalition against France in 1792 together with Austria, Prussia and Spain.

The left Whigs who represented the middle class were initially sympathetic to the revolutionary events in France and their leader Fox hailed the storming of the Bastille as ‘the greatest event in the world’. However, with the spread of the revolutionary developments they became scared by their scope and confined their agitation to parliamentary reform as a means of preventing a revolution in England. The popular masses of England wholeheartedly sympathized with the French Revolution. The social upheaval in France galvanized groups of working men to organize political Corresponding Societies in London in 1792 and the main provincial towns. The London Society was headed by Thomas Hardy, a former cobbler and its radical programme was for full political reform: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, secret ballot, as well as freedom of speech, unions, press, meetings and a single income tax. Some societies went as far as to proclaim England a republic. Frederick Engels observed that the programme of these societies undoubtedly influenced the future Chartist movement.

Most radical and influential were the Corresponding Societies. Politically-minded workers, artisans, journeymen and shopkeepers met in their Jacobin clubs, addressed each other as ‘citizen’ and debated the issues of the people versus the privileged. In 1793 the Congress of the Corresponding Societies hailed the Jacobin Convention. A spate of radical pamphlets poured out together with cheap editions of the works of Thomas Paine and other progressives. The government became alarmed with such developments and instituted a policy of repression. Radicals were put on trial. Hardy was arrested. Paine had to emigrate to France, where he became a French citizen and an active participant of the revolution. The members of the Societies were driven underground.

In 1795 in connection with the war against France and the difficulties in transporting products, there was a famine in England. In a number of places food riots broke out. William Pitt took harsh measures. England was divided into military areas headed by generals. Habeas Corpus Act was suspended. This gave the authorities a free hand to arrest and detain anyone they found necessary.

However, revolutionary events continued to spread. Most dangerous of all for the government and the ruling oligarchy was the mutiny in the fleet in 1797. The events in England at the end of the 18th century vividly show the degree of social tension in the country. The French Revolution galvanized the struggle of the popular masses in the country. However, no revolution took place. This can be accounted for three reasons. In the first place, a bourgeois revolution had already taken place in England in the 17th century, which on the whole removed the most serious obstacles on the way of capitalist development. Secondly, the ruling classes in England held the power firmly in their hands, because of the close alliance between the bourgeoisie and the gentry. Thirdly, the independent peasantry had been destroyed almost entirely as a result of the enclosures, and it could not be a fighting force in a revolution. The working class on the other hand was just emerging as a basic class of capitalist society. It was still weak and politically immature.

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