The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

Religion and Politics in the
Revolution Debate: Burke,
Wollstonecraft, Paine

Patricia Howell Michaelson

On January 19, 1793, after Louis XVI had been found guilty of treason by the National Convention, Thomas Paine spoke to that body, through a translator, urging that Louis be imprisoned and exiled, but not executed. He argued that Louis had been a friend to America, and that the French should not "bestow upon the English tyrant the satisfaction of learning that the man who helped America . . . has died on the scaffold." 1 Paine's speech hints at the curious triangulation of alliances and enmities between America, England, and France, and it foreshadows his own imminent imprisonment, rationalized partly by the ambiguity as to whether his citizenship was American or British. But even more ominous are the interruptions the speech suffered, by the powerful Jacobin Marat. At one point, Marat denounces the translator: "Such opinions are not Thomas Paine's. The translation is incorrect" (557). But twice, at the beginning and end, Marat rejects Paine's authority because of his supposed religion: "I deny the right of Thomas Paine to vote on such a subject; as he is a Quaker, of course his religious views run counter to the infliction of capital punishment" (556), and " Paine's reason for voting against the death penalty is that he is a Quaker" (558). On one level, Marat's "accusation" seems harmless enough; on another, it is frightening primarily because Marat was a person no one would want as an enemy. But what does it mean, really, to be "accused" of being a Quaker (or any other religion)? In what sense does it diminish the power of one's argument?

Religion and politics are, of all things, the most difficult to talk about dispassionately. Together banned from the dinner table, they all too often drive people to spout hot-headed, strongly felt nonsense. Here in America, we still cling to the myth that they can be separated: that government belongs in a secular space shared by all, while religion is a matter of only private or local interest. That myth, of course, does not hold up under scrutiny; given the

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The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of World Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Notes xv
  • Chronology xvii
  • Burke's Perception of Richard Price 1
  • Notes 21
  • Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine 27
  • Notes 38
  • The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution 41
  • Notes 53
  • Arguing Benevolence: Wordsworth, Godwin, and the 1790s 59
  • Notes 76
  • "Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution 83
  • Notes 103
  • Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution 107
  • Notes 118
  • Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature 123
  • Notes 131
  • Postscript: The French Revolution and Romanticism 137
  • Select Bibliography 145
  • Index 149
  • About the Contributors 155
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