A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea":
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]

Chapter Three
"The Times -- 1791-95."

In 1791, Louis XVI fled France but was brought back a prisoner to Paris. The following year, on August 10th, 1792, a Parisian mob, stormed the Tuileries and took the royal family as prisoners. Then came the "September massacres" as it is known in French History, when a mass killing of political prisoners occurred in Paris from the 2nd to the 6th of September, 1792.1 On January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded; and, with his execution, the revolution came to an end. For the next 20 years France fought war, after war, with her neighbours; mostly under a dictator who arose out of the French military ranks, Napoleon Bonaparte.

With the beheading of Louis XVI, George the Third sent the French ambassador packing.2 Diplomatic relations were severed. France then invaded England's ally, Holland. On February 1st, 1793, France declared war on England. Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Britain form an alliance against France (the "First Coalition.") Prussia retired after gobbling up Poland; Spain made peace in July of 1795; after which large parts of Holland and Belgium received France as a friend. This war, according to Burke, was not a regular war between nations; but rather a war of all civilized nations (including the overthrown government of France) against Jacobins. "Whatever were the first motives to the war among politicians, they saw that in its spirit, and for its objects, it was a civil war; and as such they pursued it. It is a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all. It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France."3 As for Britain's general conduct of this war: not until 1808, when Wellington's force of 9000 men landed on the Peninsula of Spain, were British troops sent to continental Europe.4 Pitt's policy during his administration (up to 1801) "was twofold: it was a naval policy5 and a policy of subsidy."6

In London, on December 4th, 1791, there came to the streets the first edition of The Observer, the oldest Sunday newspaper in Great Britain. Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1792, wrote "the first great feminist manifesto," Vindication of the Rights of Women.7 A simple device for separating cotton lint from seeds was patented by Eli Whitney in 1794. In 1796, Jenner discovered vaccination. It was, too, in 1796 that a Bavarian by the name of Alois Senefelder discovered that water and grease did not have an affinity for one another and from that determined to employ a different printing process by which art work could be relatively and inexpensively reproduced in quantity: lithography.

Hackney College at London was a dissenting college; it was set up along with the one at Warrington by those, an increasing number, who differed in opinion not only with the doctrines of the church of England but also many of the political positions of the government which considered the church of England the official state religion. The Unitarian college at Hackney was apparently founded in 1790, about three years before the fifteen year old Hazlitt was sent there by his father for his further education.8 We might at this point make mention of Gilbert Wakefield (1756-1801). Wakefield had been a fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge; in the process he had taken orders in the church but renounced these Anglican orders to become a classical tutor at the dissenting colleges at both Warrington and Hackney. Wakefield's appointment came with the setting up of the collage in 1790 and he only taught there for that first year; so was not there when the young Hazlitt arrived in 1793. But the culture of the collage, I am sure, reflected Wakefield's views; but, apparently, not fully. Wakefield "was opposed to slave trade, field sports, war and public worship, and was a critic of civil and ecclesiastical government."9 Another person of historical note and who the young Hazlitt most definitely met, was Joseph Priestley. Priestly, who we see in 1770 was in Maidstone and a friend of Rev. Hazlitt, was, when young Hazlitt was sent there in 1793, "settled" at Hackney. The fifteen year old Hazlitt very likely took impressions from the 60 year old Priestly that were to last him a lifetime. It was in 1790 that Wakefield "was appointed professor of classics at the newly-founded Unitarian college at Hackney, but his proposed reforms and his objection to religious observances led to unpleasantness and to his resignation in the following year."10 Wakefield, leaving Hackney, turned to being a full time critic. He condemned the ongoing war with France as utterly unchristian. In 1798, Wakefield was charged with having published a seditious libel, convicted and imprisoned for two years in Dorchester.

In 1794, at least up to the time of Howe's victory of "The First of June," all England feared that France would mount an across the channel attack on England. The Volunteer Corps Bill was passed; the act was thought necessary "for the encouragement and discipline of such persons as shall voluntarily enrol themselves for the general defence of the country." For those reformers in England there was little sympathy from those in government who were conducting a war, and, it seems, there was little sympathy for the reformers coming from the general population. Habeas Corpus was suspended11 and the Traitorous Correspondence Act was passed. Numbers of men "against whom there was no evidence lingered in prison during the last years of the century."12 Also in 1794, the Trial of the 12 Reformers: Thomas Holcroft, Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and others were brought to trial on the charge of high treason, and acquitted amid excitement.

Hazlitt in his studies at London plunged into "the sea of metaphysics." "I applied too close to my studies, soon after I was of your age, and hurt myself irreparably by it."13 Now, while at this point in his life, Hazlitt might have gone off to be a minister, or a painter, or a writer; he did none of that. Having found Hackney College "congenial," he returned home to his father's house at Wem, "and there remained, doing what respectable people call 'nothing' for eight years."

"These eight years (1794-1802) at Wem were important years in Hazlitt's life as well as in the history of Europe. Few young men have so long and so quiet a time to brood over their thoughts, to nurse their fancies, and, it well may be, to feed their delusions. For a sentimentalist in grain a severer discipline, a more rigorous course of reading, would have been better. Both Hazlitt and his great contemporary Landor cultivated their self-will at too great a pace during these years."14
[Next: Chapter Four -- "The Times -- 1796-97."]

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1It was a time in Paris "when the princesse de Lamballe, intimate friend of Marie-Antoinette, was killed, her body subjected to abuse and her head fixed on a pike paraded by a howling mob beneath the queen's window; when 43 boys at the BicĂȘtre reformatory, aged twelve to fourteen, were put to death; when a total of 1,600 helpless persons were senselessly and savagely slaughtered."[Spater's work, William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend (Cambridge University Press, 1982) at vol.#1, p.45.]

2 "It cannot be doubted that Pitt would learn from his father that a foreign policy required firmness and purpose; that, as in other things, vacillation was the one unpardonable sin; but that the arm of this country should never be put further forward than it could be maintained." [Lord Rosebery, Pitt (London: MacMillan, 1891) at pp. 95-6. (Herein referred to simply as Rosebery.)]

3 From Regicide Peace, as cited by Russell Kirk in his work, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (Arlington House, 1967) at pp. 202-3.

4 In 1793, Pitt "sent a large part of the available British forces to the West Indies"; it was in "the sugar islands" where, in his generation, great fortunes were made by English planters. Disease swept off these British soldiers by the thousands. There was to be experienced "the death of 40,000 British soldiers in three years," about the same number under Wellington, who, in six years, 1808-1814, drove Napoleon's troops out of Spain. (George Macaulay Trevelyan, Shortened History of England, p. 420.)

5 This naval policy of Prime Minister Pitt was to work very well. It culminated in 1794, with Howe's (Lord Richard: 1726-99) victory of "The First of June." It was then that the English and French fleets met off of Brest. Green wrote: "The number of ships on either side was nearly the same, and the battle was one of sheer hard fighting, unmarked by any display of naval skill." (Vol. X, p. 163.) The effect of it was that by January of 1795 "there was not a single mercantile vessel trading under the French flag." [Chatterton, A Life of William Pitt, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930) p. 304.]

6 Rosebery, p. 148.

7 In 1796, William Godwin met and impregnated Mary Wollstonecraft; in 1797 they married one other. Mary Wollstonecraft was to die shortly after giving birth to a girl who also was known as Mary. In 1814, this Mary, as a 17 year old, ran off with a 26 year old poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. After the death of Shelly's first wife (she committed suicide), Mary and Shelly were married. In 1816, Mary wrote the book for which she will be remembered, Frankenstein.

8 Hazlitt's father was a Unitarian minister (as we have seen, he was part of that movement that established the first Unitarian church in America at Boston in 1785). Unitarianism, in general, is a form of Christianity that denies the doctrine of the Trinity, believing that God exists only in one person. Modern Unitarianism had its beginnings back in the 14th century on the European continent. These views took root in England under John Biddle (1615-1662), who was thrown into jail for his preaching, where there he died. The sect holds no particular profession of faith, nor has a creed been adopted. Congregational polity prevails. Unitarianism "was, for countless intellectuals, a halfway house on the long road to agnosticism." (Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) pp. 114-5.)

9 Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Priestly's presence at Hackney "was a cause of disquiet to those local people who perceived themselves patriots, not least when he was made an honorary French citizen. He himself found the fervent atmosphere in which the Loyal Hackney Volunteers were established more than enough to make him uneasy. In 1794 he followed his sons to the freer atmosphere of America, never to return." (While it is not clear to me, it would appear these are the words of Isobel Watson which were set out in http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/study/localtim.htm : May 17, 2004.)

10 http://20.1911encyclopedia.org/W/WA/WAKEFIELD_GILBERT.htm : May 17, 2004.

11 "In 1795, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was renewed, and it continued till 1801." (Rosebery, p. 164.) As Lord Rosebery observed, the king was pelted and shot and his coach destroyed during his ride to open parliament. This was to bring on further suppression in the form of the Treasonable Practices Act and A Seditious Meetings Act. The first of these acts made the business of getting a conviction much easier by dispensing with certain evidentiary requirements. The second act forbade public meetings where there was more than fifty people involved without the superintendence of a magistrate. (Rosebery, pp. 164-5.) It 1797, a criminal law was passed (37 George 3) whereby there was a mandatory sentence of seven years, plus, transportation for "unlawful oaths." Simply meaning, that it was best to cooperate with your inquisitors at the jail house.

12 Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green; 1924), p. 71. It was only in 1815 after the "Great War" -- as it was once called -- came to an end, did the problem of liberty start to become more focused. The French Revolution was just one experience, that showed, in gory detail, the difficulties with the notion of absolute liberty.

13 "On the Conduct of Life," written by Hazlitt in 1822, and directed to his twelve year old son.

14 Birrell, William Hazlitt (London: MacMillan, 1902), p. 31. Hazlitt spent, during this time, "two whole years" reading Rousseau's two works, Confessions and New Eloise. It was at a footnote here that Birrell writes: "It is traditionally reported that Hazlitt never read a book through after he was thirty. Much the same is said of Dr. Johnson."


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Peter Landry