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The history of the French Revolution in England begins with a sermon and ends with a poem. Between that famous discourse by Dr. Richard Price on the love of our country, delivered in the first excitement that followed the fall of the Bastille, and the publication of Shelley’s Hellas there stretched a period of thirty-two years. It covered the dawn, the clouding and the unearthly sunset of a hope. It begins with the grave but enthusiastic prose of a divine justly respected by earnest men, who with a limited horizon fulfilled their daily duties in the city. It ends in the rapt vision, the magical music of a singer, who seemed as he sang to soar beyond the range of human ears. The hope passes from the confident expectation of instant change, through the sobrieties of disillusionment and the recantations of despair, to the iridescent dreams of a future which has taken wing and made its home in a fairy world.

In 1789 when Dr. Price preached to his ardent congregation of Nonconformist Radicals in the meeting-house at the Old Jewry, the prospect was definite and the place of the millennium was merely the England over which George III. ruled. The hope was a robust but pedestrian “mental traveller,” and its limbs wore the precise garments of political formulae. It looked for honest Parliaments and manhood suffrage, for the triumph of democracy and the abolition of war. Its scene as Wordsworth put it, was

Not in Utopia, subterraneous fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where,
But in the very world which is the world
Of all of us, the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all.

The impetus of its own aspiration carried it swiftly beyond the prosaic demand for Parliamentary Reform. It evolved its programme for the reconstruction of all human institutions, and projected the amendment of human nature itself. America had made an end of kings and France was in the full tide of revolution. Nothing was too mighty for this new-begotten hope, and the path to human perfectibility stretched as plain as the narrow road to Bunyan’s Heavenly City.

There followed the phase when persecution from alarmed defenders of things as they are, disgust at the failures of the revolution in France, and contempt for the futilities of the revolution at home, drove the new movement into as many refuges as its votaries had temperaments. For some there was cynicism, for others recantation. “The French Revolution” as Hazlitt put it, “was the only match that ever took place between philosophy and experience; and waking from the trance of theory we hear the words Truth, Reason, Virtue, Liberty, with the same indifference or contempt that a cynic who has married a jilt or a termagant listens to the rhapsodies of lovers.” Godwin found his own alluring by-way, and turning away at once from political repression and political agitation, became the pioneer of philosophic anarchism. To Shelley at the end of this marvellous thirty years of ardour, speculation, and despair, the hope became winged. She had her place no longer in “the very world which is the world of all of us.” She had moved to

Kingless continents, sinless as Eden
Around mountains and islands inviolably
Prankt on the sapphire sea.

It requires no inordinate effort for us who live in an equable political climate to realise the atmosphere of Dr. Price’s Old Jewry sermon. The lapse of a century indeed has made him a more intelligible figure than he could have seemed to the generation which immediately followed him. He was temperate in his rationalism and thrifty in his philanthropy. He tended to Unitarianism in his theology, but was a sturdy defender of Free Will. He had written a widely-read apology for the Colonial side in the American Civil War. A stout individualist in his political theory, inspired, as were nearly all the English progressive thinkers of his day, by an extreme jealousy of State action, he yet guarded himself carefully against anarchical conclusions, and followed Saint Paul in teaching obedience to magistrates. He had written a treatise on ethics which on some points anticipated Kant. But his most characteristic pre-occupation was a study of finance in the interests of national thrift and social benevolence. This cold moralist, who despised the emotional aspects of human nature and found no place for the affections in his scheme of the virtues, lapsed into passion when he attacked the National Debt, and developed an arithmetical enthusiasm when he explained his plan for providing through voluntary insurance for the old age of the worthy poor. He was not quite the first of the philosophers to dream of the abolition of war, and to plan an international tribunal for the settlement of disputes between nations. In that he followed Leibnitz, as he anticipated Kant.

It was such an essentially cold and calculating intellect as this which in that age of ferment could launch the new doctrine of the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Modern readers know the Rev. Dr. Price only from the fulminations of Burke, in whose pages he figures now as an incendiary and again as a fool. He was in point of fact the soul of sobriety and the mirror of all the respectabilities in his serious dissenting world. It is worth while to note that he was also, with his friend Priestley, perhaps the only English Nonconformist preacher who has ever enjoyed a European reputation. No less a man than Condorcet refers to him as one of the formative minds of the century.

Dr. Price’s sermon is worth a glance, not merely because it was the goad which provoked Burke to eloquent fury, but still more because it is a document which records for us the mood in which even the older and graver progressives of his generation greeted the French Revolution. It was an official discourse delivered before the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain. This typically English club claimed to have met annually since 1688 for a dinner and a sermon. The centenary of our own Revolution and the events in France gave it for a moment a central place on the political stage. It was an eminently respectable society, mainly composed of middle-class Nonconformists, with four Doctors of Divinity on its Committee, an entrance fee of half-a-guinea, and a radical peer, Earl Stanhope, for its Chairman. At its annual meeting in November, 1789, Dr. Price “disdaining national partialities and rejoicing in every triumph of liberty and justice over arbitrary power,” had moved an address congratulating the French National Assembly on “the Revolution in that country and on the prospect it gives to the two first kingdoms in the world of a common participation in the blessings of civil and religious liberty.” The sermon was an eloquent expansion of this address.

It opens with a defence of the cosmopolitan attitude which could rejoice at an improvement in the prospects of our hereditary rival. Christ taught not patriotism, but universal benevolence, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows. “My neighbour” is he to whom I can do most good, whether foreigner or fellow-citizen. We should love our country “ardently but not exclusively,” considering ourselves “citizens of the world,” and taking care “to maintain a just regard to the rights of other countries.” Patriotism had been in history a scourge of mankind. It was among the Romans no better than “a principle holding together a band of robbers in their attempts to crush all liberty but their own.” The aim of those who love their kind can be only to spread Truth, Virtue and Liberty. To make mankind happy and free, it should suffice to instruct them. “Ignorance is the parent of bigotry, intolerance, persecution and slavery. Inform and instruct mankind and these evils will be excluded.” There follow some rambling remarks on the need for a revisal of the Liturgy and the Articles, a complaint of the servility shown in a recent address to King George, who ought to consider himself rather the servant than the sovereign of his people, and a prediction that France and England, each delivered from despotism by a happy revolution, will now “not merely refrain from engaging in wars with one another, but unite in preventing wars everywhere.” As for our own Revolution of 1688, it was a great but not a perfect work. It had left religious toleration incomplete and the Parliamentary franchise unequal. We must continue to enforce its principles, especially in the matter of removing the disabilities that still weigh upon dissenters. Those principles are briefly (1) Liberty of Conscience, (2) The right to resist power when it is abused, and (3) The right to choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct and to frame a government for ourselves. There follows a curious little moral exhortation which shows how far the good Dr. Price was from forgetting his duties as a preacher. He had been distressed by the lax morals of some of his colleagues in the agitation for Reform, and he pauses to deplore that “not all who are zealous in this cause are as conspicuous for purity of morals as for ability.” He cannot reconcile himself to the idea of an immoral patriot, and begs that they will at least hide their vices. The old man finds his peroration in Simeon’s prayer. He had seen the great salvation. “I have lived to see thirty millions of people indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice, their king led in triumph and an arbitrary monarch surrendering himself to his subjects. And now methinks I see the ardour for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment beginning in human affairs; the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.”

The world remembers the scholar Salmasius only because he provoked Milton to a learned outbreak of bad manners. There is something immortal even in the ill-temper of great men, and Dr. Price lives in modern memory chiefly because he moved Burke to declamatory rage. His Reflections on the French Revolution was an answer to the Old Jewry sermon, which, eloquent itself, was to beget much eloquence in others. For four years the mighty debate went on, and it became as the disputants conversed across the echoes of the Terror, rather a dialogue between the past and the future, than a discussion between human voices. Burke answered Dr. Price, and to Burke in turn replied Tom Paine with the brilliant, confident, hard-hitting logic of a pamphlet (The Rights of Man) which for all the efforts of Pitt to suppress it, is still read and circulated to-day. Two notable answers were ephemeral, one from Mary Wollstonecraft, and another (Vindiciae Gallicae) from Mackintosh, who afterwards recanted his own opinions and lived to be known as Sir James.

To lift the discussion to the height of a philosophical argument was reserved for William Godwin, a mind steeped in the French and English speculation of his century, gifted with rare powers of analysis, and inspired with a faith in human reason in general and his own logical capacity in particular, which no English mind before him or after him has approached. In spite of a lucid style and a certain cold eloquence which illumines if it does not warm, Godwin’s Political Justice was dead before its author, while Burke lives and was never more widely read than to-day.

The ghosts of great men have an erratic habit in walking. It is passion rather than any mere intellectual momentum which drives them from the tomb. There is, moreover, in Burke a variety and a humanity which appeals in some one of its phases and moods to all of us in turn. The great store-house of his emotions and his phrases has the catholicity of the Bible. Each man can find in it what he seeks. He is like the luminous phantom which walked in Faust through the witcheries of the Brocken. Each man saw in her his own first love. He has been hero and prophet to Whigs and Tories, and in our own generation we have seen him bequeath an equal inspiration to a Cecil and a Morley. It is no part of our task to attempt even the briefest exposition of his philosophy; we are concerned with him here chiefly as an influence which helped by its vehemence and its superb rhetorical exaggerations to drive the revolutionary thinkers who answered him to parallel exaggerations and opposite extremes. Inspired himself with a distrust of generalisation, and a hatred of philosophers, he none the less evolved a philosophy as he talked. Against his will he was forced into the upper air in his furious pursuit of the “political aeronauts.” His was a volcanic intellect which flung up principles in its moments of eruption, and poured them forth pell-mell with the vitupérations and the exaltations.

No logical dissection can reach the inner truth of Burke. Every statement of a principle in an orator or a pamphleteer is coloured by the occasion, the emotion, and the mood of an audience to whom it is addressed. Burke spoke amid the angers and alarms inspired first by the subversive energy, and then by the doctrinaire cruelty of the French Revolution. It was in the process of “diffusing the Terror” that most of his philosophical obiter dicta were uttered. The real nerve of the thinking of a mind so vehement, so passionate, so essentially dramatic is to be sought not in some principle which was the major premise of his syllogisms, but in some pervading emotion. Fanny Burney said of him that when he spoke of the Revolution his face immediately assumed “the expression of a man who is going to defend himself against murderers.” That is exactly the tone of all his later utterances. His mission was to spread panic because he felt it. By no other reading can one explain or excuse the rage of his denunciation of the excellent Dr. Price.

If his was philosophy it was philosophy seeing red. He predicted the Terror before it occurred, and by his work in stirring Europe to the coalition against France, he did much to realise his own forebodings. But, to do Burke justice, his was a disinterested fear, and it would be fairer to call it a hatred of cruelty. Burke was not a man to take fire because he thought a principle false. His was rather the practical logic which found a principle false because it led to evil; and the evil which caused his mind to blaze was nearly always cruelty. He hated the French philosophers because in the groves of their Academy “at the end of every vista you see nothing but the gallows.” He pursued Rousseau and Dr. Price because their teaching, on his reading of cause and effect, had set the tumbrils rolling and weighted the guillotine for Marie Antoinette. It was precisely the same impulse which had caused him to pursue Warren Hastings for his cruelties towards the Bégums of Oude. The spring of all this speculation was a nerve which twitched with a maddening sensitiveness at the sight of suffering.

To rouse Burke’s genius to its noblest utterance, there must needs be a suffering which he could personify and dramatise. He saw nothing of the dull peasant misery which in truth explained the Revolution. He ignored those catalogues of injustice and wrong that composed the mandates (the cahiers) which the Deputies carried with them to the National Assembly. He forgot the famines, the exactions, the oppressive privileges which made revolt, and saw only the pathos of the Queen’s helplessness before it. In Paine’s immortal epigram, he “pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird.” But it is paradoxically true that while he pursued the friends of humanity, his real impulse was the hatred of cruelty which modern men call humanitarian. To that hatred he was always true. No abstract principle, but always this dominating passion, covers his inconsistencies, and bridges the gulf between his earlier Whiggery and his later Toryism. In the French Revolution he saw only cruelty, and he opposed it as he had opposed Indian Imperialism, negro slavery, the savage criminal justice of his day, and the penal laws against the Irish Catholics. Of Burke one must ask not so much What did he believe? as Whom did he pity?

It was the contrast of temperament and attitude which made the cleavage between Burke and the friends of the French Revolution deep and irreconcilable. In the fundamentals of political theory he often seems to agree with some of them, and they differ as often among themselves. Burke seems often to retain the typical eighteenth century fiction that the State is based on some original pact or social contract. That was Rousseau’s starting point, and it was Godwin’s work (after Hume) to shatter this heritage which French and English speculation had been content to accept from Locke. There are passages in which Burke appears to accept the notion, unintelligible to modern minds, of the natural, or as he put it, “primitive,” rights of man. He reserved his contempt for those who sought to tabulate or codify these rights, and he would always brush aside any argument based upon them, by asking the prior question, what in the given emergency was best for the good of society, or the happiness of men. Paine, when he was in his more a priori moods, was capable of deducing his whole practical system from the abstract rights of man; Godwin was a modern in virtually dismissing the whole notion. While Burke was belabouring Dr. Price, he whittled away the whole theoretic significance of the English Revolution of 1688, but he remained its partisan. He tried to deny Dr. Price’s claim to “choose our governors,” but he could not relapse into the seventeenth-century Tory doctrine of non-resistance, and would always allow in extreme cases the right of rebellion. Here again there was no final opposition, for there are passages in Godwin against rash rebellion and the anarchy of revolution more impressive, if less emotional, than anything in Burke.

Modern criticism is disposed to base the greatness of Burke on his inspired anticipation of the historical view of politics. Quotation has made classical those noble passages which glorify the continuous life of mankind, link the present by a chain of pieties to the past, conjure up a glowing vision of the social organism, and celebrate the wisdom of our ancestors and the infallibility of the race. There was, indeed, a real opposition of temperament here; but Burke had no monopoly of the historical vision. It is a travesty to suggest that the revolutionary school despised history. Paine, indeed, was a self-taught man, who knew nothing of history and cared less. But Godwin wrote history with success and even penned a remarkable essay (On Sepulchres) in which he anticipated the Comtist veneration for the great dead, and proposed a national scheme for covering the country with monuments to their memory. Condorcet, perhaps the greatest intellect and certainly the noblest character among them, wrote the first attempt at a systematic evolutionary interpretation of history.

But it makes some difference whether a man sees history from above or from below. Burke saw it from the comfortable altitude of the Whig aristocracy to which he had allied himself. The revolutionary school saw its inverse, from the standpoint of the “swinish multitude” (an angry indiscretion of Burke’s) for whom it had worked to less advantage. Paine was a man of the people, and Godwin belonged by birth to the dissenting community for whom history had been chiefly a record of persecution, illuminated by rebellion. For Burke the product of history was the sacred constitution in which he saw an “entailed heritage,” the social fabric “well cramped and bolted together in all its parts.” For Godwin it was mainly a chronicle of criminal wars, savage oppressions, and social misery. Burke, in a moment of paradoxical exaltation, was capable of singing the praises of “prejudice,” which “renders a man’s virtue his habit.” For Condorcet, on the other hand, history was the orderly procession of the human mind, advancing through a series of well-marked epochs (he enumerated nine) from the pastoral state to the French Revolution, each epoch marked primarily by the shedding of some moral, social, or theological “prejudice,” which had hampered its advance.

It is easy to criticise the naïve intellectualism of such a view as this, which ignores or thrusts into the background the economic causes of advance and retrogression. But it is certainly not an unhistorical view. Burke dreaded fundamental discussions which “turn men’s duties into doubts.” The revolutionary school believed that all progress depended on the daring and thoroughness of these discussions. History for them was a continuous Socratic dialogue, in which the philosophers of innovation were always arrayed against the sophists of authority. They hoped everything from the leadership of the illuminated few who gradually permeate the mass and raise it with them. Burke held that “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” and the “natural aristocracy” in whom he trusted was to keep the inert mass in a condition of stable equilibrium.

We retain from Burke to-day the sonorous generalisations, the epigrammatic maxims, which each of us applies in his own way. But to Burke’s contemporaries they meant only one thing a defence of the unreformed franchise. All his reverence for the pre-ordained order of providence, the “divine tactic” which had made society what it was, meant for them in bald prose that Old Sarum should have two members. Burke had not “a doubt that the House of Commons represents perfectly the whole commons of Great Britain.” They, with no mystical view of history to guide them, pointed out that its electors were a mere handful of 12,000 in the whole population, and that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford had not a Member among them. While Burke perorated about the ways of providence, they pointed to that auctioneer who put up for sale to the highest bidder the fee simple of the Borough of Gatton with the power of nominating two members for ever. That auctioneer is worth quoting: “Need I tell you, gentlemen, that this elegant contingency is the only infallible source of fortune, titles, and honours in this happy country? That it leads to the highest situations in the State? And that, meandering through the tempting sinuosities of ambition, the purchaser will find the margin strewed with roses, and his head quickly crowned with those precious garlands that flourish in full vigour round the fountain of honour? On this halcyon sea, if any gentleman who has made his fortune in either of the Indies chooses once more to embark, he may repose in perfect quiet. No hurricanes to dread; no tormenting claims of insolent electors to evade; no tinkers’ wives to kiss.... With this elegant contingency in his pocket, the honours of the State await his plucking, and with its emoluments his purse will overflow.”

A reference to the elegant contingency of Gatton sufficed to deflate a good deal of eloquence.

Burke, indeed, believed in the pre-ordained order of the world, but he somehow omitted the rebels. When in his sublimest periods, he appealed to “the known march of the ordinary providence of God,” and saw in revolution and change an assault on the divine order, one sees, rigid and forbidding, the limitations of his thinking. The man who sees in history a divine tactic must salute the regiment in its headlong charge no less than the regiment which stands with fixed bayonets around the ark of the covenant. Said the Hindoo saint, who saw all things in God and God in all things, to the soldier who was slaying him, “And Thou also art He.” The march of providence embraced 1789 as well as 1688. Paine and Godwin, Danton and Robespierre might have answered Burke with a reminder that they also were His children.

The key to any understanding of the dialogue between Burke and the Revolutionists is that each side was moved by a passion which meant nothing to the other. Burke was hoarse with anger and fear at the excesses in France. They were afire with an almost religious faith in human perfectibility. Burke’s is a great record of detailed reforms achieved or advocated, but for organic change there was no place in his system, and he indulged in no vision of human progress. “The only moral trust with any certainty in our hands,” he wrote, “is the care of our own time.” It was of to-morrow that the Revolution thought, and even of the day after to-morrow. Nothing could shake its faith. Proscribed amid the Terror for his moderation and independence, learning daily in the garret where he hid of the violent deaths of friends and comrades, witnessing, as it must have seemed to him, the ruin of his work and the frustration of his brightest hopes, Condorcet, solitary and disguised, sat down to write that sketch of human destinies which is, perhaps, the most confident statement of a reasoned optimism in European literature. He finished his Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, left his garret, and went out to meet his death. A year later, as if to show that the great prodigal hope could survive the brain that conceived it, the representatives of the French people had it circulated as a national document.

Its thesis is that no limit can be set to the perfection of human faculties, that the progress and perfectibility of man are independent of any power which can arrest them, and have no term unless it be the duration of the globe itself. The progress might be swift or slow, but the ultimate end was sure. Twenty years before, Turgot projecting a system of universal education in France, had promised to transform the nation in ten years. Condorcet was less sanguine, but his perspective was short. The indefinite advance of mankind presupposed, he argued, the elimination of inequality (1) among peoples, and (2) among classes, and lastly the perfection of the individual. For all this he believed that the Revolution had already laid the foundation. Negro slavery, for example, would end; Africa would enter on a phase of culture dependent on settled agriculture, and the East adopt free institutions. The time was at hand when the sun would rise only on free men, and tyrants, slaves, and priests would live only in history. The Revolution had proclaimed the equality of men, and the future would proceed to realise it. Monopolies abolished, fortunes would tend to a level of equality, and a system of insurance (Dr. Price’s specific) would mitigate or abolish poverty. Universal education would reduce the natural inequality of talents, and break down the barriers of class, so that men, retaining still the desire to be instructed by others, would no longer need to be controlled by their superiors. Science had made a dizzy progress in the past generation, but its advance must be still more rapid when general education enables it to be cultivated by still greater numbers, and by women as well as men. To the fear which Malthus afterwards used as the most formidable argument against revolutionary optimism, that a denser population would leave the means of subsistence inadequate, he opposed intensive cultivation, synthetic chemistry, and the progress of mankind in self-control and virtue. Human character itself will change with the amendment of human institutions. Passion can be dominated by reflection, and by the deliberate encouragement of gentle and altruistic sentiments. The business of politics is to destroy the opposition between self-interest and altruism, and to make a world in which when a man seeks his own good, he need no longer infringe the good of others. A great share in this moral elevation would come from the destruction of the inequality of the sexes, which Condorcet preached in France while Mary Wollstonecraft was its pioneer in England. That inequality has been ruinous even to the sex which it favoured, and rests in nothing but an abuse of force. To remove it is not merely to raise the status of women but to increase family happiness, and to reform morals. Wars too will end, and with them a constant menace to liberty. The ultimate dream is a perpetual confederation of mankind.

It would be a fascinating but too protracted study to follow this faith in the perfectibility of mankind to its final enthusiasms of prophecy, and to trace it to its origins in the speculations of Helvetius and Holbach, of Priestley and Price. It was a creative impulse which made for itself a psychology and a sociology; it rather led the thinking of men than followed from their reasonings. They seem at every turn to choose of two alternative views the one which would favour this sovereign hope. Is it reason and opinion, or some innate character which governs the actions of men? The philosophers of hope answer “opinion,” for opinion can be indefinitely changed and led from prejudice to science. Is it climate (as Montesquieu had urged) or political institutions which differentiate the races of men? Clearly it is institutions, for if it were climate there would be nothing to hope from reform. Burke opposed to all their schemes of construction and destruction, to their generalisations and philosophisings, the unchangeable fact of human nature. They answered (diving into Helvetius) that human nature is itself the product of “education” or, as we should call it, “environment.” Circumstances and above all political institutions have made man what he is. Princes, as Holbach puts it, are gardeners who can by varying systems of cultivation alter the character of men as they would alter the form of trees. Change the institutions and you will change human nature itself. There seemed no limit to the improvement which would follow if we could but discard the fetters of prejudice and despotism.

Wordsworth’s “shades of the prison-house” which close upon the growing boy, were an echo of this thought. Godwin’s friend, Holcroft, embodied it in a striking metaphor: “Men do not become what by nature they are meant to be, but what society makes them. The generous feelings and higher propensities of the soul are, as it were shrunk up, scared, violently wrenched, and amputated, to fit us for our intercourse in the world, something in the manner that beggars maim and mutilate their children to make them fit for their future situation in life.”

The men of the Revolution phrased that idea each in his own way, according as they had been influenced, primarily, by Rousseau, Helvetius, or Condorcet. It gave to their controversy with Burke the appearance, not so much of a dispute between rival schools, as of a dialogue between men who spoke to each other in unknown tongues.

Burke condescended to reason with Dr. Price. But the main answer of authority to the friends of the French Revolution, was the answer which Burke prescribed for “infidels” “a refutation by criminal justice.” A curious parallel movement towards extremes went on simultaneously in the two camps. While Burke separated himself from Fox, split the Whig party, and devoted his genius to the task of fanning the general English dislike of the Revolution into a panic rage of anger and fear, the progressive camp in its turn was gradually captured by the “intellectuals,” and passed from a humdrum demand for political reform into a ferment of moral and social speculation. Societies grew up in all the chief centres of population, always with the same programme. “An honest Parliament. An annual Parliament. A Parliament wherein each individual will have his representative.” Of these the most active, the most extreme, and the best organised was undoubtedly the London Corresponding Society.

It was founded by a Scottish boot-maker named Thomas Hardy. The sober, limited character of the man is plain to read in his records and pamphlets. The son of a sea-captain, who had had his education in a village school in Perthshire where the scholars paid a penny a week, he was a leading member of the Scots’ Kirk in Covent Garden, and had drawn his political education not at all from godless French philosophers, but from the Protestant fanatic, Lord George Gordon, and from Dr. Price’s book on the American War. He gathered his own friends together to found his society, and nine of them met for the first time in the “Bell” tavern in Exeter Street in January, 1792. “They had finished their daily labour and met there by appointment. After having their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation, on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life, which they in common with their fellow-citizens felt to their sorrow, the business for which they had met was brought forward Parliamentary Reform.”

The Corresponding Society drew the bulk of its members from tradesmen, mechanics and shopkeepers, who contributed their penny a week, and organised itself under Hardy’s methodical guidance into numerous branches each with twenty members. It is said to have counted in the end some 30,000 members in London alone. It was a focus of discontent and hope which soon attracted men of more conspicuous talents and wider experience. Horne Tooke, man about town, ex-clergyman, and philologist, who had been at first the friend and lieutenant and then the rival and enemy of Wilkes, was there to bridge the years between the last great popular agitation and the new hopes of reform. He was a man cautious and even timid in action, but there was a vanity in him which led him to say “hanging matters” when he had an inflammable audience in front of him within the four walls of a room. There was Tom Paine, the man who had first dared to propose the independence of the United States, a veteran of revolution who had served on Washington’s staff, penned those brilliant exhortations which led the American rebels to victory, and acted as Foreign Secretary to the insurgent Congress. On the fringes of the little inner circle of intellectuals one catches a glimpse of William Blake the poet, and Ritson, the first teacher and theorist of vegetarianism. Not the least interesting member of the group was Thomas Holcroft, the inseparable friend and ally of William Godwin. Holcroft’s vivid and masterful personality stands out indeed as the most attractive among the abler members of the circle. The son of a boot-maker, he had earned his bread as cobbler, ostler, village schoolmaster, strolling player and reporter. His insatiable passion for knowledge had given him a mastery of French and German. He went in 1783 to Paris as correspondent of the Morning Herald, on the modest salary of a guinea-and-a-half a week. It was there that he acquired his familiarity with the writings of the French political philosophers, and performed the quaint achievement of pirating Figaro for the English stage. No printed copy was obtainable, and Holcroft contrived to commit the whole play to memory by attending ten performances, much as Mozart had pirated the ancient exclusive music of St. Peter’s in Rome. He was at this period a thriving literary craftsman, and the author of a series of popular plays in which the critics of the time had just begun to note and resent an obtrusive democratic tendency.

Under the influence of these eager speculative spirits, the Corresponding Society must have travelled far from its original business of Parliamentary Reform. Here is an extract from evidence given before the Privy Council, which relates the proceedings at one of its later meetings:

“The most gentlemanlike person took the chair and talked about an equal representation of the people, and of putting an end to war. Holcroft talked about the Powers of the Human Mind.... Mr. Holcroft talked a great deal about Peace, of his being against any violent or coercive means, that were usually resorted to against our fellow-creatures, urged the more powerful operation of Philosophy and Reason to convince man of his errors; that he would disarm his greatest enemy by these means and oppose his Fury. He spoke also about Truth being powerful, and gave advice to the above effect to the delegates present who all seemed to agree, as no person opposed his arguments.”

One may doubt, however, whether the whole society was composed of “natural Quakers,” who, like Holcroft and Godwin, preached non-resistance before Tolstoy. The dour commonsense of Hardy maintained the theory he vowed that it was only theory that every citizen should possess arms and know their use. As the Revolution went forward in France, the agitation in England became increasingly reckless. When the society held its anniversary dinner after the Terror, in May, 1794, at the “Crown and Anchor” Tavern, the band played “Ca ira,” the “Carmagnole” and the “Marseillaise.” The chief toasts were “the Rights of Man,” and “the Armies contending for Liberty,” which was a sufficiently clear phrase for describing the Republican armies that were at war with England. There followed an ode composed by Sir William Jones, a translation of the Athenian song which celebrated the deeds of the tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton;

Verdant myrtle’s branchy pride
Shall my thirsty blade entwine.

One may doubt whether Sir William Jones ever felt the smallest inclination to satisfy the thirst of his blade, but there was provision enough for more commonplace appetites. Two years before, Hardy’s worthy mechanics had supped on porter and cheese and talked of the hardness of the times. Their movement had been captured by a group of eager, sophisticated, literary persons, who went much farther than Parliamentary Reform, and with the aid of claret and the subtler French intoxicants, “turned indignant” as another Ode puts it:

From Kings who seek in Gothic night
To hide the blaze of moral light.
Fill high the animating glass
And let the electric ruby pass.

It was a cheerful indignation, a festive rage.

That dinner must have marked the height of the revolutionary tide in England. The reaction was already rampant and vindictive, and before the year 1794 was out it had crushed the progressive movement and postponed for thirty-eight years the triumph of Parliamentary Reform. It requires a strenuous exercise of the imagination to conceive the panic which swept over England as the news of the French Terror circulated. It fastened impartially on every class of the community, and destroyed the emotional balance no less of Pitt and his colleagues than of the working men who formed the Church and King mobs. Proclamations were issued to quell insurrections which never had been planned, and the militia called out when not a hand had been raised against the King throughout Great Britain. So great was the fear, so deep the moral indignation that “even respectable and honest men,” (the phrase is Holcroft’s) “turned spies and informers on their friends from a sense of public duty.” A mob burned Dr. Priestley’s house near Birmingham for no better reason than because he was supposed to have attended a Reform dinner, which in fact, he did not attend. Hardy’s bookshop in Piccadilly was rushed by a mob, and his wife, about to be confined, was injured in her efforts to escape, and died a few hours afterwards. A hunt went on all over the kingdom for booksellers and printers to prosecute, and when Thomas Paine was prosecuted in his absence for publishing The Rights of Man, the jury was so determined to find him guilty that they would not trouble to hear the case for the Crown.

Twenty years before, the French philosopher Helvetius, after an experience of Jesuit persecution and Court disfavour in France, made a quaint proposal for re-organising the whole discussion of moral and political questions. The first step, he thought, was to compile a dictionary in which all the terms required in such debates would receive an authoritative definition. But this dictionary, he urged, must be composed in the English language, and published first in England, for only there was discussion free, and the press unfettered. In the reaction over which Pitt and Dundas presided, that envied liberty was totally eclipsed. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended; the Privy Council sat as a sort of Star Chamber to question political suspects, and there was even talk of importing Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries to check an insurrection which nowhere showed its head. The frailest of all human endowments is the sense of humour. The sense of proportion had been eclipsed in the panic, and most of the cases which may be studied to-day in the State trials impress the modern reader as tasteless and cruel farces. Men were tried and sentenced never for deeds, but always for words. For a sermon closely resembling Dr. Price’s, a dissenting minister named Winterbotham was tried at Exeter, and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a fine of L200. The attorney, John Frost, returning from France, admitted in a chance conversation in a coffee-house that he thought society could manage very well without kings; he was imprisoned, set in the pillory and struck off the rolls. One favourite expedient was to produce a spy who would swear that he had heard some suspect Radical declare in a coach or a coffee-house, that he would “as soon have the King’s head off as he would tear a bit of paper” (evidence against a group of Manchester prisoners), or that he “would cut off the King’s head as easily as he would shave himself” (case against Thomas Hardy). The climax of really entertaining absurdity was reached when two debtors imprisoned in the Fleet were tried and sentenced for nailing a seditious libel to its doors. The libel was a notice that “This house is to let,” that “infamous bastilles are no longer necessary in Europe,” and that “peaceable possession” would be secured “on or before the first day of January, 1793, being the commencement of the first year of liberty in Great Britain.”

The farce of this panic became a tragedy when the reformers of Scotland ventured to summon a Convention at Edinburgh to voice the demand for shorter Parliaments and universal male suffrage. It met in October, 1793, and was attended by delegates from the London Corresponding Society as well as from Scottish branches. Nothing was intended beyond the holding of what we should call to-day a conference or congress. But the word “Convention” with its reminiscence of the French revolutionary assembly seems to have caused the Government some particular alarm. The Convention, after some days of orderly debate, was invaded by the magistrates and broken up. Margarot and Sinclair (the English delegates), Skirving, Palmer and Thomas Muir, were tried before that notorious hanging judge, whom Stevenson portrayed as Weir of Hermiston, and sentenced to fourteen years’ deportation at Botany Bay.

Of these five, all of them young men of brilliant promise and high courage, only one, Margarot, lived to return to England. Muir, daring, romantic and headstrong, contributed to the history of the movement a page of adventure which might invite the attention of a novelist. He escaped from Botany Bay on a whaler, was wrecked on the coast of South America, contrived to wander to the West Indies, there shipped on a Spanish vessel for Europe, fell in with an English frigate, was wounded in the fight that followed, and had the good fortune to find among the officers who took him prisoner an old friend, who recognised him, and assisted him to conceal his identity. He was landed in Spain, invited to Paris and pensioned by the Convention, but died shortly after his arrival. Less romantic but even finer is Sinclair’s story. He obtained bail while his comrades were tried and sentenced. He might have broken his bail, and his friends urged him to do so, but with the certainty that Botany Bay lay before him he none the less returned to Edinburgh, as Horne Tooke puts it “in discharge of his faith as a private man towards his bail, and in discharge of his duty towards an oppressed and insulted public; he has returned not to take a fair trial, but, as he is well persuaded, to a settled conviction and sentence.” Joseph Gerrald, another member of the same group gave the same fine example of courage, surrendered to his bail, and was sent for fifteen years to Botany Bay.

The ferment was more than an intellectual stirring. It brought with it a moral elevation and a great courage that did not shrink from venturing life and fortune for a disinterested end. The modern reader is apt to indulge a smile when he reads in the ardent declamation of this time professions of a love of Virtue and praises of Universal Benevolence. We are impatient of abstractions and shy of capital letters. But it was no abstraction which carried a man with honour to the fevers and privations of Botany Bay, when he might have sought safety and fame in Paris. The English reformers were resolved to brave the worst that Pitt could do to them, and challenged the fate of their Scottish comrades. They prepared in their turn to hold a “Convention” for Parliamentary Reform, and showed a doubtful prudence in keeping its details secret while the intention was boldly avowed. The counter-stroke came promptly. Twelve of the leading members of the Corresponding Society, including Hardy, Horne Tooke and Holcroft were arrested and sent, for the most part to the Tower, on a charge of high treason. The records of their preliminary examination before the Privy Council go to show that Pitt and Dundas had allowed themselves to be persuaded by their spies that every species of treason and folly was in preparation, from an armed insurrection down to a plan to murder the King by blowing a poisoned arrow from an air-gun. The Government had said that there was a treasonable conspiracy; it had to produce the traitors.

There was some delay in arresting Holcroft. His conduct is worth recording because it is so typical of the naïve courage, the doctrinaire hardihood of the group. These men whom the reaction accused of subverting morality, were in fact dervishes of principle, who rushed on the bayonets in the name of manhood and truth and sincerity. Godwin when he came in his systematic treatise to describe how a free people would conduct a defensive war, declared that it would scorn to resort to a stratagem or an ambuscade. In the same spirit Holcroft hearing that a warrant was out against him for high treason, walked boldly into the Chief Justice’s court, and announced that he came to be put upon his trial “that if I am a guilty man, the whole extent of my guilt may become notorious, and if innocent that the rectitude of my principles and conduct may be no less public.” When a messenger did, in fact, go to Holcroft’s house about the same hour to arrest him, his daughters, obedient to the same ideal of sincerity, actually invited him to take their father’s papers.

One may doubt whether English liberties have ever run a graver danger in modern times than at the trial of the twelve reformers. The Government sought to overwhelm them with a mass of evidence which they lacked the means to sift and confute. But no definite act was charged against them, and the whole case turned on a monstrous attempt to give a wide constructive interpretation to the law of high treason. High treason in English law has the perfectly definite meaning of an attempt on the King’s life, or the levying of war against him. Chief Justice Eyre, in his charge to the Grand Jury, sought to stretch it until it assumed a Russian latitude, and would include any effort by agitation to alter the form of government or the constitution of Parliament. The issue, before a jury which probably had not escaped the general panic, seemed very doubtful, and it was the general opinion that the decisive blow for liberty was struck by William Godwin. Long years afterwards Horne Tooke, in a dramatic scene, called Godwin to him in public, and kissed the hand which had saved his life.

Godwin contributed to the Morning Chronicle a long letter, or more properly, a pamphlet, in which he analysed the Chief Justice’s charge and brought to the light what really was latent in it, a claim to treat as high treason any effort, however peaceful and orderly, to bring about a fundamental change in our institutions. The letter shows none of Godwin’s speculative daring, and his gift of cold and dignified eloquence is severely repressed. He wrote to attain his immediate end, and from that standpoint his pleading was a masterpiece. A certain deadly courtesy, a tone of quiet reasonableness made it possible for the most prejudiced reader to follow it with assent. The argument was irresistible, and the single touch of emotion at the end was worthy of a great orator. A few lines depicted these men who, moved by public spirit, had acted in good faith within the law, as it had been universally understood in England, overwhelmed by a sudden extension of its most terrible articles, applied to them without precedent or warning. Should the awful sentence be read over these men, that they should be hanged (but not until they were dead), and then, still living, suffer the loss of their members and see their bowels torn out? The ghastly barbarity of the whole procedure could not have been more effectively exposed. Looking back upon this trial there is no reason to think that the reformers exaggerated its importance. Had the Government won its case, it must have succeeded in destroying the very possibility of opposition or agitation in England. It was believed that no less than three hundred signed warrants lay ready for issue on the day that Hardy and his friends were convicted. But the stroke was too daring, the threat too impudent. When the trial began, the prosecution lightened its own task by dropping the charge against Holcroft and three of his comrades. But for nine days the charge was pressed against Thomas Hardy, and when he was acquitted a further six days was spent in the effort to convict Horne Tooke, and four in a last vain attempt to succeed against Thelwall.

The popular victory checked the excesses of the reaction. As Holcroft wrote: “The whole power of Government was directed against Thomas Hardy: in his fate seemed involved the fate of the nation, and the verdict of Not Guilty appeared to burst its bonds, and to have released it from inconceivable miseries and ages of impending slavery.” The reaction, indeed, was restrained; but so also was the movement of reform. The subsequent history of its leaders is one of unheroic failure, and of an unpopularity which was harder to endure than danger. Windham referred to the twelve in debate as “acquitted felons,” and Holcroft was constrained first to produce his plays under a borrowed name, and then to seek a refuge in voluntary exile on the continent. The passions roused by the Terror arrested the progress of the revolutionary movement in England. The alarms and glories of the struggle with Napoleon buried it in oblivion.

It is this complex experience which lies behind Godwin’s political writings. The French Revolution produced its simple effects in Burke and Tom Paine revolt and disgust in the one, enthusiasm and hope in the other. In Godwin the reaction is more complicated. He retained to the last his ardent faith in progress, and the perfectibility of mankind. No events could shake that, but it was the work of experience to reinforce all the native individualism of his confident and self-reliant temper, to harden into an extreme dogma that general belief in laissez faire which was the common property of most of the English progressives of his day, and to beget in him not merely a doubt in the efficacy of violent revolutions, but a dislike of all concerted political effort and the whole collective work of political associations. He had felt the lash of repression, saved one friend from the hangman, and seen others depart for Botany Bay: he remained to the end, the uncompromising foe of every species of governmental coercion. He had listened to Horne Tooke perorating “hanging matters” at the Corresponding Society; he had seen the “electric ruby” circulating at its dinners; he had witnessed the collapse of Thomas Hardy’s painstaking and methodical organisation. The fruit of all these experiences was the first statement in European literature of philosophic anarchism a statement which hardly yields to Tolstoy’s in its trenchant and unflinching logic.

“Logic” is more often a habit of consecutive and reasoned writing than the source of a thinker’s opinion. The logical writer is the man who can succeed in displaying plausible reasons for what he believes by instinct, or knows by experience. There is history and temperament behind the coldest logic. The history which set Godwin against all State action, whether undertaken in defence of order or privilege, or on behalf of reform, is to be read in the excesses of Pitt and the futilities of the Corresponding Society. The question of temperament involves a subtler psychological judgment. If you feel in yourself something less than the heroic temper which will make a militant agitation or a violent revolution against the monstrous ascendency of privilege and ordered force, you are lucky if you can convince yourself that agitation is commonly mischievous, and association but a means of combating one evil by creating another. Godwin was certainly no coward. But he was fortunate in evolving a theory which excused him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage. His ideal was the Stoic virtue, the isolated strength, which can stand firm in passive protest against oppression and wrong. He stood firm, and Pitt was content to leave him standing.

We have seen the first bold statement of the hope which the French Revolution kindled in Dr. Price’s Old Jewry sermon. We have watched the brave incautious effort to realise it in the plans of the Corresponding Society. In these crowded years that began with the fall of the Bastille and closed with the Terror, it was to enter on yet another phase, and in this last incarnation the hope was very near despair. To men in the early prime of life, aware of their powers and their gift of influence, the Revolution came as a call to action. To a group of still younger men, poets and thinkers, forming their first eager views of life in the leisure of the Universities, it was above all a stimulus to fancy. Godwin was their prophet, but they built upon his speculations the superstructure of a dream that was all their own. For some years, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth were caught and held in the close web of logic which Godwin gave to the world in 1793 in the first edition of Political Justice. Wordsworth read and studied and continually discussed it. Southey confessed that he “read and studied and all but worshipped Godwin.” Coleridge wrote a sonnet which he afterwards suppressed in which he blesses his “holy guidance” and hymns Godwin “with an ardent lay.”

For that thy voice in passion’s stormy day
When wild I roamed the bleak heath of distress
Bade the bright form of Justice meet my way,
And told me that her name was Happiness.

To us who read Godwin with many a later Utopia in our memories, his most valuable chapters are those which give his penetrating criticisms of existing society. To these young men the excitement was in his picture of a free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence. They resolved to found a community based on Godwinian principles, and to free themselves from the cramping and dwarfing influences of a society ruined by laws and superstitions, they lit on the simple expedient of removing themselves beyond its reach. They lacked the manhood and the simplicity which had turned more prosaic natures into agitators and reformers. It is a tale which every student of literature has delighted to read, how Coleridge and Southey, bent on founding their Pantisocracy, on the banks of the Susquehana, came to Bristol to charter a ship, and while they waited, dimly aware that they lacked funds for the adventure, anchored themselves in English homes by marrying the Fricker sisters.

As one of the comrades, Robert Lovell, quaintly puts it in a letter to Holcroft, “Principle, not plan, is our object.” Lovell had visited Holcroft in gaol, and one can well understand how that near view of the fate which awaited the reformer under Pitt, confirmed them in their idea of crossing the Atlantic. “From the writings of William Godwin and yourself,” Lovell went on, “our minds have been illuminated; we wish our actions to be guided by the same superior abilities.” Holcroft, older and more combative than his poet-disciples, advised the founding of a model colony in this country. But the lure of a distant scene was too attractive. Cottle, the friend and publisher of the Pantisocrats, has left his account of their aims. Theirs was to be “a social colony in which there was to be a community of property and where all that was selfish was to be proscribed.” It would realise “a state of society free from the evils and turmoils that then agitated the world, and present an example of the eminence to which men might arrive under the unrestrained influence of sound principles.” It would “regenerate the whole complexion of society, and that not by establishing formal laws, but by excluding all the little deteriorating passions, injustice, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking, and thereby setting an example of human perfectibility.”

What is left of the dream to-day? Some verses in Coleridge’s earlier poems, the address to Chatterton for instance

O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive,
Sure thou wouldst spread the canvas to the gale;
And love with us the tinkling team to drive
O’er peaceful Freedom’s undivided dale.

and those lines, half comical, half pathetic, in which the “sweet harper” is assured as some requital for a hard life and a cruel death, that the Pantisocrats will raise a “solemn cenotaph” to his memory “Where Susquehana pours his untamed stream.” Long afterwards, Coleridge described Pantisocracy in The Friend as “a plan as harmless as it was extravagant,” which had served a purpose by saving him from more dangerous courses. “It was serviceable in securing myself and perhaps some others from the paths of sedition. We were kept free from the stains and impurities which might have remained upon us had we been travelling with the crowd of less imaginative malcontents through the dark lanes and foul by-roads of ordinary fanaticism.”

Pantisocracy was indeed a happy episode for English literature. One may doubt whether the “Ancient Mariner” would have been written, had Coleridge travelled with Gerrald and Sinclair along the “dark lane” that led to Botany Bay. Nature can work strange miracles with the instinct of self-preservation, and even for poets she has a care. The prudence which teaches one man to be a Whig, will make of another a Utopian.