The Revolution Controversy
, a British debate over
the French Revolution
, lasted from
1789 through 1795. A pamphlet war began in earnest after the
publication of Edmund Burke's
on the Revolution in France
(1790), which surprisingly
supported the French aristocracy. Because he had supported the
American colonists in their rebellion against England
, his views
sent a shockwave through the country. Many writers responded,
defending the revolution in France, among them Thomas Paine
, Mary Wollstonecraft
and William Godwin
. Alfred Cobban calls the
debate that erupted "perhaps the last real discussion of the
fundamentals of politics" in Britain. The themes articulated by
those responding to Burke would become a central feature of the
radical working-class movement in Britain in the nineteenth century
and of Romanticism
. Most Britons
celebrated the storming of the
in 1789, believing that France's monarchy should be
curtailed by a more democratic form of government. However, by
December 1795, after the Reign of
and war with France, there were few who still supported
the French cause.
Responding in part to a sermon defending the French Revolution
given by the Dissenting
entitled A Discourse on the Love
of our Country
(1789), Edmund Burke published his
on the Revolution in France
in an effort to advance
arguments for the current aristocratic government. Because Burke
had previously been part of the liberal Whig
party, a critic of monarchical
power, a supporter of the American
, and a critic of government graft in India,
most in Britain expected him to support the French revolutionaries.
When he failed to do so, it shocked the populace and angered his
friends and supporters. Burke's book, despite being priced at an
expensive three shillings
sold an amazing
30,000 copies in two years. The Reflections
aristocratic concepts of paternalism, loyalty, chivalry, the
hereditary principle" and property.
Burke criticized the view of many British thinkers and writers who
had welcomed the early stages of the French Revolution. While the
radicals saw the revolution as analogous to Britain's own Glorious Revolution
in 1688, which had
restricted the powers of the monarchy, Burke argued that the
appropriate historical analogy was the English Civil War
(1642-1651) in which
had been executed in
1649. He viewed the French Revolution as the violent overthrow of a
legitimate government, contending that citizens do not have the
right to overthrow their government. Civilizations and governments,
he maintained, are the result of social and political consensus;
their traditions cannot be challenged—the result would be anarchy.
Liberals such as William Godwin
, and Mary Wollstonecraft
argued for republicanism
, agrarian socialism
, and anarchism
. Most of those who came to be called radicals
emphasized the same themes: "a sense of personal liberty and
autonomy"; "a belief in civic virtue"; "a hatred of corruption"; an
opposition to war because it only profited the "landed interest"; a
critique of the monarchy and the aristocracy and its perceived
desire to draw power away from the House of Commons
of Great Britain.
Many of their works were published by
, who was
eventually jailed for his "seditious" activities.
Wollstonecraft had been much influenced by
the ideas she ingested from Price's sermons at Newington Green
Unitarian Church and the whole ethos of Rational Dissent in the village of
These seeds germinated into A Vindication of the Rights
, her response to Burke's denunciation of her
mentor. Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the
argued in Rights of
that popular political revolution is permissible when
a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights,
and their national interests.
This Controversy left further legacies. Wollstonecraft's most
famous work, A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman
was written in 1792, in
the spirit of rationalism extending Price's arguments about
equality to women. Anna
Laetitia Barbauld, a prolific writer admired by Samuel Johnson and William Wordsworth and wife of the
minister at Newington
Green, alluded to Burke's work and his opponents in her
"Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation" (1793).
- Butler, "Introduction", 1.
- Qtd. in Butler, "Introduction", 1.
- Butler, 33; Kelly, 85.
- Butler, 35.
- Butler, 33-34.
- Butler, 1.
- Butler, 3-4.
- Gordon, p51 passim.
- Butler, Marilyn, ed. Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the
Revolution Controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1984. ISBN 0521286565.
- Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary
Wollstonecraft. Great Britain: Virago, 2005. ISBN