Pitt and Anti-Jacobin Hysteria: In the 1790s a Press Campaign Lambasted Jacobins and Fellow-Travellers

Article excerpt

In the 1790s a press campaign Lambasted Jacobins and fellow-travellers. Stuart Andrews considers whether the Government orchestrated it all.

The inaugural issue of the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine for July 1798 carried an engraving of a famous Gillray cartoon. It depicts the `High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his suite'. Leviathan has the face of the Duke of Bedford, on whose back ride Charles James Fox, John Thelwall and other figures waving revolutionary caps. Some appended verses help to identify other participants: the `wandering bards' Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey, Charles Lloyd (their protege) and Charles Lamb; the Unitarian chemist Joseph Priestley and those exponents of the `New Morality', Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Gilbert Wakefield and Thomas Holcroft. Mary Wollstonecraft's Wrongs of Woman is among a pile of pamphlets spilling from a `Cornucopia of Ignorance', while representatives of the radical press cluster round Louis Marie de La Revelliere-Lepaux, the `holy hunchback' of the French Directory. A sack stuffed with ecclesiastical mitres and communion plate, labelled `Philanthropic Requisitions', implies the imminent confiscation of church property in order to relieve the poor.

The term `Theophilanthropes' derived from the Theophilanthropic societies of Paris that first appeared in 1796. Followers of the new religion described themselves as `Adorers of God and Friends of Men'. In spite of its aim to transcend party politics it attracted the support of Lepaux and the approval of the Directory. In his cartoon, Gillray applied the label to a remarkably mixed bag of radicals, while the verses below supplied an equally variegated spectrum of French revolutionaries ranging from the least Jacobin of Directors, through the decidedly assorted `Jacobins' of Marat, Mirabeau and Voltaire. The prospectus to the July issue of the journal, to be published on August 1st, claimed that there is no need to define Jacobinism, since `the existence of a Jacobin faction, in the bosom of our country, can no longer be denied'.

Confusingly, the publication was the second journal to bear the Anti-Jacobin title. Its predecessor, the Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner had first appeared in November 1797. The introduction to the bound volumes later claimed that the weekly journal was directed against `those writers with whom France and French freedom are all in all', and who opposed the war as `one of unexampled disaster and disgrace'.

The war with revolutionary France was certainly going badly for the British government. The year 1797 had not only witnessed the Nore and Spithead mutinies in the Royal Navy's own fleets, but also saw French armies triumph all over Europe--except in Wales. The French landing at Fishguard in February had been a fiasco, with their surrender two days later, but, as publication of Admiral Hoche's orders in the Anti-Jacobin show, only a contrary wind had diverted them from attacking Bristol. The editor's stated aim at this critical time was `to invigorate the Exertions of our Countrymen against every Foe, Foreign and Domestic'. Among the domestic foes, it seems, were the Romantic poets. The first two issues of the weekly focused on `Jacobin poetry'--poems of social protest such as Robert Southey's `The Widow'--where the poets were accused of demanding an increase in misery in order to make political protest more effective.

The Anti-Jacobin counters this supposed tactic with a parody `The Friend of Humanity and the Needy Knife-grinder' which ends with the frustrated philanthropist overturning the grinding-wheel in anger at the grinder's resigned acceptance of his lot. The parodists were two Old Etonians, John Hookham Frere and George Canning, the future prime minister who had just been appointed under-secretary for foreign affairs, in return for quitting the Whigs to join William Pitt and the Tory government. Canning and Frere also concocted another parody of Southey's verse ('The Soldier's Friend'), besides writing a spoof Foxite speech hailing a French-style English Revolution. …