A battle for public opinion

William Pitt and the French Revolution 1785-95 - The British Monarchy and the French Revolution
July 2, 1999

Britain stood alone as her allies crumbled and most of Europe came under the control of a predatory and expansionist continental power infected with a hostile ideology. Between the nation and invasion stood the Channel and the Royal Navy, though hurried attempts were made to organise the loyal populace into a variety of makeshift military forces. What saw Britain through these dark times was a firm prime minister who never lost confidence, "the pilot who weathered the storm", and the steadying influence of the monarchy. We are not talking about the second world war, about Churchill and George VI, but about the picture of Britain during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that has emerged from many recent studies. Pitt's reputation stands high, while the unlikely figure of George III is increasingly seen as the focus for national unity.

This is a far cry from the depiction by historians of the late 1860s and 1870s, of "Pitt's reign of terror" and of a Britain where a radical working class was emerging from the chrysalis of early capitalism and where general enthusiasm for the ideals of revolutionary France was only held in check by the draconian legislation and repressive apparatus of a reactionary government. Then, we heard much of the Corresponding Societies, the Society for Constitutional Information, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and the National Convention. Now the emphasis is on loyalism.

The popular roots of support for the established order have been the subject of detailed investigations and the depiction of the Britain of radical societies and plans for insurrection have been balanced by that of loyalist associations and the volunteer movement. Articles in the leading historical journals have concentrated on vulgar and popular conservatism rather than on radicalism. Yet the radical interpretation of the period still stands its ground, leaving us with, as Marilyn Morris comments, two divergent views: a "Britain, racked with dissension stemming from religious and political antagonisms, economic crises and war weariness, [which] narrowly escaped revolution"; and a Britain that was "overwhelmingly conservative and united in support of king, constitution and country".

It is in the nature of historiography that two divergent views should be in want of a synthesis and both Jennifer Mori's William Pitt and the French Revolution 1785-95 and Morris's The British Monarchy and the French Revolution contribute to such an integration. A synthesis has been emerging for some time and has been expounded in recent work on popular conservatism; both these books seek to consolidate it and integrate its strands rather than inaugurate it.

The essence of the new interpretation is that the impact of the threat to the established order from the French revolution and from France was to launch a great battle for public opinion, which left neither radicals and reformers on the one hand, nor conservatives and loyalists on the other, unchanged and had the effect of widening the political public. If radicalism had to confront and take account of the instinctive loyalty and patriotism of what was almost certainly the majority of the population, then loyalism could, increasingly, not assume loyalty, but had to counter radical and reformist ideas and put forward a positive and rational case for its own tenets even to the common people.

It is conventional to debate whether William Pitt was a conservative Whig or a liberal Tory. Mori's Pitt was more of a sceptical Whig. By conviction a moderate reformer, his salient characteristics were caution and pragmatism. He was far from sharing Burke's veneration for tradition or his fear and detestation of the French revolution. He had little concern about French revolutionary ideals or those who sympathised with them in Britain, until confronted with disorder and firm evidence of actual revolutionary threats within Britain. Ever pragmatic, he postponed any reform initiatives, realising their impracticability in the new climate, and concentrated on securing the state and pursuing the interests of Britain in the war against the old enemy, France.

Pitt had little time for the French ancien regime and less for a counter-revolutionary crusade, but had a considerable appetite for pursuing British national interests at the expense of France. Even if he detested the excesses of the revolution during the period of the revolutionary committees, he was prepared for peace with the Directory. Pitt's approach to the internal problems of Britain was equally pragmatic. He adjusted himself to the move to the right of parliament and respectable opinion as the French revolution proceeded, brought the Portland Whigs into his government, although he did not share their convictions, and was happy to use, though he did not sponsor, loyalist associations and their propagandist tracts to buttress public opinion.

Whether or not there was a serious threat of insurrection in collaboration with the French enemy, it is clear the government came to believe there was and Pitt's measures against the perceived threat were responsive and taken with respect to constitutional proprieties. Fearful of radical reform in the context of the war, yet never embracing counter-revolutionary fervour, Pitt pursued a course designed to ensure security and stability while, in Mori's words, preserving "a constitution in which the common good, as interpreted under wartime conditions, was not to compromise the liberty of the individual in the long run".

The monarchy was central to the appeal of loyalism. Morris follows Linda Colley ( Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992) in arguing that British identity and the monarchy had become intertwined. George III had refurbished the monarchy, combining ceremony and grandeur with his personal sobriety and domesticity; he had made new links with civil society, especially with the middle ranks and women. Yet, Morris argues, the settlement of 1688 had left unclear many questions as to the rights and duties of monarchy and a simple appeal to the sacrosanct nature of kingship did not suffice as a battlecry against republicanism. As part of the general reformulation of support for the political and social status quo, the debate between monarchist and republican ideas produced a synthesis that "endowed George with the best aspects of reformist and loyalist models of monarchy: an image of paternal authority coupled with republican devotion to the public good".

The French revolutionary wars and the challenge of revolutionary ideology tested the institutions of the British state and the unity of British society. They were not found wanting, but that Britain remained resolute and relatively united had much to do with the flexibility of the response and the negotiation that can be seen to have taken place between reformists and loyalists and between the social strata.

Overt proselytism of the case for the established order and for its apex, the monarchy, required modifications to take account of social, political and economic change, while the appeal to the loyalism of the lower orders ineluctably encouraged their participation in public debate and recognised the need for their support. The institution that proved most effective in this adaptation was the monarchy and much of its success was due to the monarchical style of George III. Morris concludes that, "George III's ruling style fostered a loyalist culture that was accessible to all ranks of society".

Both these well-researched and cogently argued books help explain how Britain countered the challenge from revolutionary France.

A. W. Purdue is senior lecturer in history, Open University.

William Pitt and the French Revolution 1785-95

Author - Jennifer Mori
ISBN - 1 85331 137 5
Publisher - Keele University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 305

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments