A Blupete Biography Page

A Historical Backgrounder, Part 3 to the Life & Works of
William Wordsworth

France up to the revolution was ruled by an absolute monarch. The French court, the envy of and model for foreign courts, as the 18th century closed, was bankrupt. The French king, in order to facilitate the business of getting more money out of the people, took a gamble, and called together the States General, it had not been called upon since 1610. Thus there came together, in a legitimate body, a collection of men who were to be a majority who could now act against the ruling classes, those who gave homage to, and were favoured by, the French court. No sooner did the members of the States General (presumably mostly Parisians) take their seats, when, they defiantly proclaimed that they constituted a National Assembly; and, as such was all powerful, or, at least more so than the French king. The French Revolution ensued: the absolute monarchy and its attending aristocratic order collapsed. In July of 1789, the storming of the Bastille took place, after which Louis XVI recognized the legal existence of the Constituent Assembly, - as the new National Assembly was called. The assembly adopted the "Declaration of the Rights of Man,"13 and drafted a new constitution, one that did allow for a limited monarchy, such as had existed in England since 1688.14 The French king was not much impressed with these developments and was of the view that the Ancient RĂ©gime should but continue: it was not to continue. On January 21st, 1793, as part of its ongoing revolutionary activities, those then in charge of France beheaded Louis XVI. In London, George III, aghast, having sent the French ambassador packing, severed diplomatic relations with France. France invaded England's ally, Holland, and, on February 1st, France declared war on England. Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Britain formed an alliance against France (the "First Coalition"). Prussia was to retire after it gobbled up Poland; Spain was to make peace (July 1795); and, 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."15

In England, the reaction to the goings on in France, at first, were mixed; but the majority, especially when the abuses of the French Revolution were recognized, were ready to support the French Royalists.

The English historian, John Richard Green:

"The cautious good sense of the bulk of Englishmen, their love of order and law, their distaste for violent changes and for abstract theories, as well as their reverence for the past, were rousing throughout the country a dislike of the revolutionary changes which were hurrying on across the channel; and both the political sense and the political prejudice of the nation were being fired by the warnings of Edmund Burke. ... [Burke hated] a revolution founded on scorn of the past, and threatening with ruin the whole social fabric which the past had reared; the ordered structure of classes and ranks crumbling before a doctrine of social equality; a state rudely demolished and reconstituted; a church and a nobility swept away in a night."16
There were, of course, people in England, while regretting the blood and destruction of the French Revolution, nonetheless supported the principles for which it stood. These principles were best summed up in Rousseau's expression: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains!" And, the Rousseauish cry: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Most all of the young intelligentsia of the age (for that matter of any age) were for change; after all, was not the existing state, unfair; where is the justice in the existing system; things need be set right. These notions were meat and drink to all of the young poets of the age, including William Wordsworth.

In England, in 1793, a political book, like no other, before or since, was to come off the presses. It was Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, or, more simply, Political Justice by William Godwin. It burst upon the scene as a major piece of sedition.17 It was an attack on aristocracy, property, religion, and even the sacrament of marriage. In 1793, the trials of the "Reform-martyrs," one of whom was Thomas Muir (1765-99) were to unfold. The lot of them were convicted and transported to Botany Bay. In 1794, there was to be 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 much excitement. These trials were part of the larger government effort to prosecute editors, nonconformists and radicals who were arguing for Parliamentary reform. England, however, was at war; and reform, indeed, even the liberties of the people18 were to take second place to the grand effort of making England victorious. And, victorious she was to be, due mainly to her superiority upon the oceans of the world.



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