The Revolution Controversy and the Dissenters: political debate and action in the 1790s
The Revolution Controversy was a key British political debate in the 1790s that involved several prominent figures associated with Newington Green Meeting House. The debate took place between 1789 and 1795 and was triggered by the events of the French Revolution and its consequences for British politics. It took the form of a ‘pamphlet war’, where hundreds of pamphlets- as the popular political medium of the 18th century- were published as part of an extended debate. However, this debate was arguably more about politics in Britain than about the French Revolution. Alfred Cobban (1950) called the debate “perhaps the last real discussion of politics in this country”, as it involved arguments over some of the most fundamental principles, like freedom and equality, which continue to define politics today. It was a practical debate as well as an intellectual one, which discussed ways that government should be organised and with its participants explicitly aiming to put pressure on those in power.
The Dissenters played a key role both in writing and publishing pamphlets in the Revolution Controversy, as the most coherent group of reformers in the 1790s. Their coherence came from a common cause of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which prevented non-Anglicans from holding public office, as well as a broader ideological tendency towards radicalism. This led to Dissenters including Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Mary Wollstonecraft contributing key radical pamphlets to the debate, and to Dissenter publishers like Joseph Johnson being integral to their publication.
The Revolution Controversy reveals the key issues and forms of political thought in the 1790s. One of the key themes that came up during the controversy was the question of what the balance should be between emotion and rationality in political thought. Richard Price, who was the minister of Newington Green Meeting House, helped trigger the controversy with his sermon A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1790). Price celebrated the French revolutionaries’ fight for democracy and liberty and called for a similar movement in Britain, using emotional language such as “Tremble all ye oppressors of the world!” at the end of the sermon. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which surprisingly supported the French aristocracy and condemned the revolutionaries, was a direct response to Price’s Discourse. Throughout the pamphlet, Burke criticises Price for his lack of moderation, framing his sermon as representing the kind of impractical thinking expressed by “men of theory”. However, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s response to Burke in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), she accuses Burke himself of being irrational and overly emotional in his praise of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and criticism of the revolutionaries, writing “I perceive, from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a moral antipathy to reason”. Positioning oneself as, above all, rational was crucial to the authority of arguments in the Revolution Controversy. What was perceived as a ‘disproportionate’ use of emotion could be used to quickly dismiss those arguments.
‘Levelling’, i.e. economic equality, was another central issue in the political writing at the time, as commentators debated the relationship between economic equality and social progress. Accusations of ‘levelling’ could be used to suggest that someone’s arguments were too extreme and to scare off middle class supporters. However, the issue itself significantly shaped the arguments made by more conservative participants in the debate, such as Burke arguing that the natural rights of men did not include a right to equal things, which suggests that he wanted to counter the idea of levelling. These arguments were often based on more fundamental theories of human nature and the origins of society, which influenced arguments about whether equality would lead to a poorer ‘primitive’ society or a fairer one. The discussions of human nature and rationality that took place during the Revolution Controversy therefore show that this was a debate that explored some of the most fundamental questions about how society and government should be run.
The controversy also demonstrated the significance of how political opinion was communicated in the late eighteenth century. The radical writers who participated in the debate were concerned with attempts to democratise language in their pamphlets by finding a writing style for the literate but not classically educated lower middle and upper working classes. This was a way of challenging the highbrow and specialist language of the educated classes and encouraging mass political action. The fact that the debate took place through pamphlets was also a significant factor because the distribution of a pamphlet and its price could be used to target the audience that its author wanted it to receive. For example, part of the libel case made against Paine by Pitt’s government in 1792 for his writings in Rights of Man was based on the cheapness of the pamphlet, which only cost six pennies. This allowed a huge amount of copies to be sold, with around 200,000 being sold in the first two years after publication. The government therefore saw the pamphlet as a dangerous political tool that could be used to inspire the masses.
The Dissenters played an important part in publishing pamphlets in the Revolution Controversy, as well as writing them, since they largely ran the publishing industry in London. The Unitarian Joseph Johnson was one of the most prominent publishers at the time and was instrumental to the writing careers of many of Newington Green Meeting House’s important figures. For example, he helped Mary Wollstonecraft publish her first book and novel. Johnson’s dinner parties effectively became the social circle that determined what ‘informed opinion’ was in the early 1790s and led to the emergence of a group of interconnected radical intellectuals. Johnson played a significant role in the Revolution Controversy, publishing a quarter of the works responding to Burke in the year following the publication of Reflections, including Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men. On the other hand, he backed out of publishing Paine’s Rights of Man for unknown reasons but which could be linked to a fear of the controversy that it would spark.
The popularity of Rights of Man has been seen as a turning point in the controversy that led to tens of thousands of people in Britain joining organisations calling for parliamentary reform and to intellectuals themselves now considering themselves to be involved in a mass movement. This then sparked an ‘antijacobin’ backlash (referencing the left-wing Jacobins in France) by the government and conservative loyalist organisations. Hundreds of loyalist organisations were formed to promote patriotism and to harass radicals, such as by preventing them from meeting as well as writing huge numbers of pamphlets that argued against the ‘jacobinical’ cause. The government also took their own series of measures to stop the spread of radicalism through pamphlets and other written work, with the previously mentioned trial of Paine in 1792 being a key example. This campaign against radical intellectuals then intensified in the second half of the 1790s, with legislation to restrict reformers’ freedom of correspondence, assembly and speech and subsequent trials. For example, Joseph Johnson spent nine months in jail from 1798 to 1799 for selling Gilbert Wakefield’s pamphlet A Reply to Some Parts of the Bishop Llandaff’s Address to the People of Great Britain on the basis of a policy of wartime censorship. This repression, alongside the conservative mood that emerged from Britain’s war with France, effectively ended the Revolution Controversy.
The Revolution Controversy demonstrates important features of political thought and action in the 1790s, but it can also provide insights into contemporary politics. The current controversy and protests around the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill shows that how political debate is able to take place can be as significant as the issues that are being discussed. Who gets to determine the terms of the debate is tied to who holds power in society but there is also always room for these terms to be challenged. The Dissenters, including many of Newington Green Meeting House’s notable figures, knew themselves how these power dynamics impacted their lives. They therefore contributed to some of the most important critiques of power in the Revolution Controversy, which explore questions of human nature and society that are still relevant today.
Butler, M. ed., (1984). Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Claeys, G. (1990). ‘The French Revolution Debate and British Political Thought’, History of Political Thought, 11(1), pp. 59-80.