Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion, and Propaganda

Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion, and Propaganda

Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion, and Propaganda

Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion, and Propaganda

Excerpt

We prided ourselves on our prejudices: we
blustered and bragged with absurd vainglory; we
dealt to our enemy the monstrous injustice of
contempt and scorn; we fought him with all
weapons, mean as well as heroic. There was no
lie which we would not credit. I thought at one
time of making a collection of the lies which the
French had written against us and we had publish
ed against them during the war; it would be a
strange memorial of popular falsehood. (1)

The present volume makes a contribution to what some historians have dubbed the ‘Second Hundred Years War’ – the period between 1689 and 1815 for nearly half of which Britain and France were at war with one another, and during which Anglo-French rivalry constituted a major axis of European power politics. (2) Yet if in some senses the 1790s represented the final episode in a secular struggle for European supremacy, contemporaries were aware that the French Revolution transformed the nature and the intensity of the relationship of the two societies. It is my aim, in the Introduction to the present volume, to highlight some of the things that were novel and striking about the form that the Anglo-French conflict took in this ‘Revolutionary’ decade.

For most of the eighteenth century, even when formally at war, the French and the English had somehow contrived to be mutually admiring as well as hostile and disdainful. Georgian England was forever indulging in French fads and fancies, while ‘Anglomania’ was a recurrent leitmotiv of the French Enlightenment. There were times, it is true, when Frenchmen might feel, as one determined Anglo-phobe put it, that ‘before the English learn that there is a God to be worshipped they learn that there are Frenchmen to be detested’. The more ironical note struck by Oliver Goldsmith was on balance, however, closer to the mark: he observed that, “The English and the French seem to place themselves among the champion states of Europe. Though parted by a narrow sea, yet they are entirely of opposite characters; and from their vicinity are taught to fear and admire each other.”(3) That each nation had complementary characters was a truism accepted in central and eastern Europe too. The scions of Russian noble families who made the ‘Grand Tour’ of Western Europe, for example, often remarked on the respective virtues of the two leading nations of European politics: the French cultured, polished, fashionconscious, the English puritanical, industrious, commercially adept.(4) . . .

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