The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

19
The Impact of the French Revolution on London Reform Societies

Marilyn Morris

With The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, E. P. Thompson sparked a long-running debate on the revolutionary potential of Britain in the decade of the French Revolution, the motives of the reform societies, and the reasons for their disintegration. Thompson contended that "the revolutionary impulse was strangled in its infancy" by reactions to events in France. Fear united landowners and manufacturers against reformers. The resultant campaign of repression, together with a growing disenchantment with the direction the Revolution in France was taking, drove the educated, middle-class members from the reform societies. However, he added, a democratic tradition had been established and continued to flourish underground. 1 Subsequent studies of the British reform movement by James Walvin, Albert Goodwin, Malcolm Thomas, Peter Holt, and H. T. Dickinson emphasized its moderation and marginalized the extremist element in its membership. These historians suggested that it was more the internal dissensions within the movement than repression which brought about its demise. 2

But in the early 1980s, other historians began taking a closer look at the period after 1795 when the reform societies were supposedly in a decline and small, disparate, breakaway groups of extremists were living in a fantasy world of revolutionary conspiracy. J. Ann Hone's investigation of London radicalism from 1796 to 1821 presented the reform movement's diversity in a more positive light and emphasized its members' flexibility, pragmatism, and vitality. She pointed out continuities and collaboration between moderate reform society members, Whig politicians, and those who wished to bring about a revolution in Britain. 3 A contemporaneous study by Marianne Elliott showed the great degree of collaboration between Irish, British, and French revolutionaries to coordinate an Irish rebellion, a French invasion, and an insurrection in London, and gave a palpability to the revolutionary threat. 4 The following year, Roger Wells called Elliott's study myopic for having treated the British underground movement as disparate, loosely organized, and an appendage to that of the Irish. He painted a vivid picture of Britain from 1795 to 1803 as a hotbed of covert militant republicanism, and he dismissed E. P. Thompson's detractors as suffering from the same visual handicap as Elliott. 5

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