Counter-Factuals

Linda Colley

  • The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism edited by Margaret Jacob and James Jacob
    Allen and Unwin, 333 pp, £18.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 04 909015 1
  • Insurrection: The British Experience 1795-1803 by Roger Wells
    Alan Sutton, 312 pp, £16.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 86299 019 X
  • Radicalism and Freethought in 19th-Century Britain by Joel Wiener
    Greenwood, 285 pp, $29.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 313 23532 5
  • For King, Constitution and Country: The English Loyalists and the French Revolution by Robert Dozier
    Kentucky, 213 pp, £20.90, February 1984, ISBN 0 8131 1490 X

Just the place for a snark, the Bellman said. And with equal assurance, political activists from Tom Paine to Friedrich Engels and historians from Elie Halévy to Edward Thompson have hailed 18th and 19th-century Britain as just the place for a revolution. For superficially – though only superficially – the conditions seem to have been almost ideal. From the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to Waterloo in 1815, Britain faced a recurrent threat of French invasion and the near-certainty of French aid for dissidents and conspirators at home: Jacobites before 1745; Jacobins after 1789. In the hundred years after 1750, Britain’s social fabric was tried and tormented by the strains of unprecedented population growth and pioneering economic change. Add to this the world’s most sophisticated press network, a corrupt and supposedly amorphous state structure, and the impact and example of the American and French Revolutions, and surely one can argue that a British conflagration was on the cards?

Certainly this claim was explicit in The Making of the English Working Class. And though the buoyancy and optimism of the 1960s which helped to make Thompson’s book have receded, its influence and example have not. Indeed the obligation to study past radicalism felt by many socialist historians, and (to borrow one of Roger Wells’s more charitable epithets) ‘what passes for liberal historians’, seems only to have been intensified by resurgent conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, according to its publisher’s blurb, the Jacobs’ volume is designed to celebrate ‘the historical opponents of kings, established churches, ruling oligarchies, autocratic government officials ... exploiters of people’ and various other baddies. It goes on to say that ‘many of these radical ideas will sound familiar; they are also timely.’ Unfortunately, after the spate of works which has appeared in the past twenty years on the nature of dissidence in Georgian Britain, it is the familiarity which is the more striking. This does not mean that the history of British radicalism is an exhausted subject – far from it. But the assumptions and approaches of many of its practitioners have become by now increasingly repetitive and decreasingly productive.

All four of these books – though in different ways and degrees – reflect this. The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism brings together 19 papers delivered at a New York conference back in 1980. Like most ventures of this kind, its sum is not greater than its component parts, which vary widely in quality. Perhaps the best essay – J.G.A. Pocock’s – is also one of the few which attempt to define radicalism. It reassesses WASP political ideologues between 1688 and 1776 and admits some oppositional Tories and some capitalists to a share in virtu. Christopher Hill supplies an engaging and suggestive piece on radical pirates after the Restoration; Wilson Hays offers an interesting study of John Everard; and there is some predictably tough and valuable political analysis from David Underdown and Nicholas Rogers.

What emerges from most of these essays, however, is not so much the undoubted ideological confluence of English and American radicals, as the disparities between their respective national experiences in the past and their historians in the present. It is, for example, indicative that of the four essays devoted to religion and radical culture, only one deals with England and it is confined to the Civil War. It is surely bizarre that in the rich flurry of radical historiography, there has been no full-length study of the politics of 18th-century Protestant Dissent – the very spearhead of English radicalism – since Anthony Lincoln’s monograph in 1958. But if British historians are more irreligious than their American counterparts, they are at least less whiggish. Too many American historians look too simplistically at the English Civil War/Revolution for pointers towards the more durable achievements of 1776. One suspects, for instance, that Corinne Weston’s emphasis on the emergence of ‘the co-ordination principle’ between king, lords and commons after 1642, is shaped at least in some degree by the need to seek out an ancestry for the separation of powers.

By contrast, Joyce Appleby’s essay is valuable in large part because it stresses what was un-English about the 18th-century American dream – the abundance of American land. The availability of landed property for a majority of whites enabled men like Jefferson to champion a free-enterprise, meritocratic bourgeois state without – in the late 18th and early 19th century at least – too much detriment to his nation’s labouring classes. But when English bourgeois radicals like Burgh, Price, Priestley and even Paine advocated a minimal state organised around an enterprising and enlightened middle class, the implications for the working classes were likely to be less benign. A successful cult of enrichez-vous might indeed challenge the power of the landed aristocracy, but it could also – as de Tocqueville recognised – lead the middle classes to support an efficient but anti-popularist regime for the sake of quiet, profit and individual mobility. This is surely what happened in Britain from around 1780 and is one of several factors militating against a successful sociopolitical revolution which Roger Wells neglects.

Yet there are some excellent things in Wells’s book. The revolutionary potential of the years between 1795 and 1803 in Britain has attracted so many historians already that he has had to work extremely hard among familiar sources and explore neglected archives in order to say something new. His deployment of court-martial records to illuminate the nationalist and sectarian tensions among the naval mutineers of 1797 is outstanding. His account of the Alien Office’s contribution to British espionage is the most detailed yet available, and he has disinterred some intriguing evidence of a crisis of confidence among the ruling gentry in the West Midlands in 1800-1.

As Wells himself acknowledges, however, postulating a British insurrection in this period is an exercise in counterfactual history. As such, the book is marred by its lack of subtlety and even more by its refusal to address seriously the structure of power. From the start, Wells lays it on the line. E.P. Thompson’s study of the working classes is an ‘unsurpassable masterpiece’; its critics are characterised by ‘imbecility’; and what Ireland had from Britain was ‘an imperialist yoke’. All these assertions are arguable: but Wells does not argue – he knows. Yet he must also know that the evidence he has so heroically assembled is often more ambivalent than his own thesis. The diary of the Oldham weaver, William Rowbottom, does not suggest that ‘every Briton decided one way or the other’ on the validity of Britain’s war against France and its revolution. It shows that Rowbottom hated the rich and wanted peace, but also that he relished British naval victories and dreaded insurrection at home. Wells’s own examination of those Irish sailors involved in the Spithead and Nore mutinies no more sustains his claim that they were necessarily an unreliable ‘anti-imperialist’ element in the Royal Navy than does his statistic that Irishmen made up 25 per cent of men below deck on the British side at Trafalgar.

Throughout his analysis, Wells pays insufficient attention to the dialectics of insurrection. British dissidents are given microscopic attention: but the wealth, power and cohesion of their opponents are minimised or simply ignored. If one examines the correspondence of Britain’s politicians in this period, of its landed élite and local authorities, one does indeed find periodic nervousness, but, in general, there is a remarkable degree of confidence. To cite a marginal but entirely typical example, in the period Wells discusses, the city of Liverpool – tremendously exposed though it was to French invasion from Ireland – spent nine times more on repairing its town hall than it did on building up its coastal defences. This may have been criminal complacency, but Liverpool’s élite was manifestly not quaking in its shoes at the bogeyman of French-inspired insurrection.

Wishful thinking is the occupational disease of all would-be revolutionaries; and one suspects that those historians who believe that, because the 18th-century British state was partly rotten, it could therefore easily have fallen, are succumbing to the same infection. They should ask themselves why it was that so many conspiracies against the British establishment failed in this period, and why this tight and semi-nepotistic élite was able to batter absolutist and Napoleonic France into second place in the European and imperial league. As Geoff Eley remarked some years ago, British social and socialist historians – with some notable exceptions – rarely bother to study the state and its works. Instead, most follow Joel Wiener in building up an impressive accumulation of particular knowledge on congenial topics, without locating them in a wider, if necessarily more hostile political, national or European context.

Despite its introspection, Wiener’s biography is an absorbing one. Less because its subject, Richard Carlile, was a ‘prototypical 19th-century working-class reformer’, as the author claims, than because he was not. Like many earlier British radicals – John Lilburne, John Wilkes and Tom Paine, to name but a few – Carlile abused his wife. Marital breakdown and adultery led him to publish one of the earliest and most important pamphlets in favour of birth-control for women. (It was typical of what can only be called his bloody-mindedness that he refused to allow either his wife or his mistress to use the sponge.) Contemptuous of trade-union organisation and Chartism, Carlile channelled his protest into more esoteric if ultimately perhaps more subversive topics. His New View of Insanity (1831) put forward the revolutionary argument that madness was constantly being redefined to suit the interests of the state. Two years later he started up a periodical designed to inject ‘a rational sense of citizenship’ among the lower ranks of the Armed Forces. All this having spent 15 of his 53 years as a tinplate worker, and six more (and very valuable ones they were for his self-education) immured in Dorchester Jail.

This is a well-researched and notably sympathetic study of a difficult man. Its limitations are partly due to Wiener’s narrow focus and partly inseparable from his hero. Apart from his publicist ventures in the late 1810s and early 1820s, Carlile was always on the periphery of English political radicalism. His debt to English religious radicalism may have been more profound. Some attention to 18th and 19th-century millenarianism might have illumined the Biblical imagery which informs Carlile’s prose even when he was at his most anti-clerical. It’s clear that he was, fundamentally, an oddball: another reminder that radicalism is something rich and strange.

Much the same could be said about Richard Dozier’s study of English loyalism between 1792 and 1796. The nature of loyalism during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars is an intractable but important topic which has only just begun to attract serious attention. There is of course a massive amount of information available on loyalist addresses, subscriptions, military parades and Paine burnings. Dozier has garnered much of this with considerable industry, lucidity and effect. But what one really wants to know – and what Dozier scarcely touches on – is the social composition of the leading activists involved (one suspects they were almost invariably the affluent) and how far their gestures were rooted in public enthusiasm (one suspects in this early period not much). Had Dozier extended his book to cover such crisis points as 1798 and 1803 he would have found a much more impressive though still variable plebeian and middling-class investment in conventional patriotism. But he believes that by the end of the treason trials of 1795, allegiance to the unreformed British state could be taken for granted: ‘Now all were patriots, as there was no longer any reason to be loyalists.’ A conclusion which makes one reel, if only because of the diverse connotations of the word ‘patriot’ in 18th-century usage.

Dozier stumbles on one of the more intriguing aspects of the authorities’ dilemma in the 1790s when he remarks that ‘what was needed was an active war policy which would allow the nationalistic fervour of the English population a measure of expression.’ But of course this was exactly what Pitt could not afford to implement. The British élite might use the rhetoric of a nation in arms during invasion crises like 1803, but the radical implications of arming the nation had been made only too clear in America in the 1770s and in France after 1789. Hence some of the peculiarities of the British in this period. Their leaders had to strengthen the nation and enmesh it with patriotic symbolism so as to keep Napoleon at bay, without, however, extending either guns or the vote to the majority of its citizens. So we come back to the state and the need to investigate it. There is a wider though related need for social historians in Britain to grit their ideological teeth, and examine the power of the armed forces, of nationalism, and of religion, especially plebeian anti-Catholicism: in other words, all those awkward factors which complicate, but also define the contours of popular dissidence. Until this is done, the main revolution is likely to consist of historians of radicalism going round in ever-decreasing circles of self-absorption. Like the snark hunter, they should watch out in case they disappear.