The Threat of (a French) Revolution in Britain: Causes, Interpretations, and Implications, 1789-1848

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The Threat of (a French) Revolution in Britain:

Causes, Interpretations, and Implications, 1789-1848

Nick Chiorian

Hudson High School

Hudson, Ohio
2008 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Interpretations of the Industrial revolution in Britain

Discussions of the Industrial Revolution in Britain generally do not include references to the French Revolution. On the surface, the social implications of the Industrial Revolution evokes images of oppressed workers, wealthy, innovative industrialists, and intense class conflict between this newly created proletariat and the exploitative bourgeoisie. Images of the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre, the Six Acts, the Combination Acts, and other events and legislation paint a picture of a Britain on the verge of class revolution. But these images are not often paralleled with Jacobins or sans culottes. Yet in the minds of the ruling classes in Britain after 1792, there was a strong association between the two revolutions, one that accounted for the strong backlash against various working-class reform movements in the 1790s and early decades of the 1800s.

What were the dynamics of the relationship between revolution in France and the threat of revolution in Britain? Was Britain on the verge of revolution? And if so, what were the underlying causes? Most importantly, to what extent did the intense revolutionary activity on the Continent impact revolutionary ideas and the fear of revolution in Britain?

This essay will explore social unrest in Britain during the period from roughly 1789-1832 in light of the work of several authors.1 In so doing, it will explore the extent to which social unrest was due to Marxian class conflict, in addition to several related questions: was social unrest due entirely to the development of new technologies and new methods of organizing production? Or was it a reaction to the events and ideals of the French Revolution2 and Napoleon? Indeed, we also have to question whether or not there even existed a coherent movement of social unrest. Ultimately, this essay will argue that while the social unrest of the period may have been due to various social and technological/organizational changes brought about by industrialization, the political response to these actions was due more to the French Revolution than to fear of a workers revolt.

Several factors complicate this discussion. First, the question of chronology clouds the issue. Historians have tended to place the Industrial Revolution roughly between 1750 and 1850. But, as Maxine Berg has pointed out, the starting point can easily be pushed back to 1700.3 This essay will explore the time period beginning in 1789 in order to allow for exploration of the influence of both industrialization and the French Revolution. For an ending point, 1848 serves well. This timeframe situates major social movements, such as the Luddites and the Chartists, allows for major Parliamentary reform, ranging from the Six Acts to the Reform Bill, and in the end, places Britain side-by-side with revolutions throughout the Continent.4 Second, the issue of scope is problematic. Again, Berg has pointed out that the example historians so often utilize—that of the mechanized textile industry—is not indicative of all, or even a majority of people, workers, or industry in England during the aforementioned time period. Yet, the scope, or at least the importance of the industrialization, was substantial enough to elucidate various Parliamentary responses, both positive and negative. We must keep this in mind when evaluating the (perceived) threat of revolution during this time period.

“The French Revolution had transformed the minds of the ruling classes, and the Industrial Revolution had convulsed the world of the working classes.”5 This statement, written in 1917, effectively contextualizes the actions of the workers and the reactions of the ruling classes during our time period. In 1917, J.L. and Barbara Hammond wrote The Town Labourer, which became one of the most prominent articulations of the working class oppressed by the forces of industrialization. One of the most significant aspects of their work is the contextualization of industrialization with the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces of the French Revolution. Certainly, the Hammonds made no effort to hide their sympathy for the workers, but that aspect is not useful in this discussion. But, contrary to assertions by historians such as Ashton, this does not detract from the significance of their work. They did not use a wide brush to paint a picture of class conflict situated entirely around industrialization. Instead, they, and later E.P. Thompson, explained that while industrialization may have motivated working class agitation, it was the French Revolution which primarily informed the bourgeois and aristocratic response. Ironically, according to the Hammonds, the French Revolution brought the Crown, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie together: “By the end of the [eighteenth] century, with the panic of the Revolution, a new danger came into [the governing classes’] minds. There was now no quarrel between the aristocracy and the Crown…”6 Indeed, after the French Revolution, “the tone was very different. The poorer classes no longer seemed a passive power: they were dreaded as a Leviathan that was fast learning its strength.”7 If we are to accept the Hammonds’ argument, then it was primarily the French Revolution, not the Industrial Revolution, which created the perceived threat of revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The evidence they provide makes such an assertion attractive.

For the Hammonds, events in France gave renewed justification for social and economic ideas favorable to the ruling classes. Capitalistic, laissez-faire economic and political theories and policies found support from the reaction against the French Revolution more so than from their own validity. As the Hammonds explained, “The classes that possessed authority in the State and the classes that had acquired the new wealth, landlords, churchmen, judges, manufacturers, one and all understood by government the protection of society from the fate that had overtaken the privileged classes in France.”8 Thus, the Hammonds set up what E.P. Thompson would later label a “political counter-revolution from 1792-1832.” Fearing the fate of the propertied class in France, the ruling class of Britain immediately clamped down on any dissent, labor-oriented or other. The Hammonds asserted that “The mass of people was liable to be infected with Jacobin doctrines, and if the State was to be made safe from revolutionary agitation, it was essential that the proletariat should be excluded from all opportunity of discussion, association, education, and remonstrance.”9 This sentiment gelled with perceived notions of Malthusian and Ricardian laissez faire capitalism. Thus, from both a national security and an economic standpoint, repression of the lower classes found justification in the French Revolution. Indeed, the French Revolution may have had more impact in Britain that the Industrial Revolution. As the Hammonds concluded, “if you turn from the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to the language of magistrates’ letters, or to the speeches of Pitt and Wilberforce, you realize that the war between England and France, which developed or degenerated into a war for power in Europe, corresponded to a deep and vital spiritual struggle within the nation….Hence it happened that the French Revolution has divided the people of France less than the Industrial Revolution has divided the people of England.”10

In addition to the Hammonds, E.P. Thompson saw a strong connection between the French and Industrial Revolutions. His monumental work The Making of the English Working Class presented a working class on the verge of revolution and the “propertied” class trembling in fear of one. In so doing, Thompson effectively covered both the influence of industrialization and of the French Revolution. In both aspects, he presented the image of an oppressed working class ready and willing to overthrow its bourgeois masters—illustrative of his Marxist approach. He explained that, regardless of starting point, “It is the old debate continued. The same aspirations, fears, and tensions are there: but they arise in a new context, with new language and arguments, and a changed balance of forces. . . . We start at 1789, and English Jacobinism appears as a byproduct of the French Revolution. Or we start in 1819 and with Peterloo, and English Radicalism appears to be a spontaneous generation of the Industrial Revolution.”11 This aspect is essential, in that Thomson, like the Hammonds, overtly connected the relationship between the French and Industrial revolutions. He praised the Hammonds, explaining, “to the student examining the ledgers of one cotton mill, the Napoleonic Wars appear only as an abnormal influence affecting foreign markets and fluctuating demand. The Hammonds could never have forgotten for one moment that it was also a war against Jacobinism.”12 But he emphasized that while most working class agitation was due to industrialization, most governmental or bourgeois reaction to the working class was paradoxically influenced more by the French Revolution. He clarified how “after the French Revolution, no Whig politician would have risked, no City father condemned, the tampering with such dangerous energies…”13

Through Thompson and the Hammonds, then, emerges a strange dichotomy. While groups such as the Luddites, and later the Chartists and the anti-Corn Law agitators were motivated by direct forces in their lives, the response from the government and the bourgeoisie was cast not in light of purely domestic issues, but in light of events in France. According to Thompson, it was the threat of workingmen demanding rights—similar to the Third Estate in France—which “threw the propertied classes into panic.”14 It was not the Terror which scared the propertied classes, for, as Thompson explained, “The panic, and the counter-revolutionary offensive, of the propertied in Britain commenced some months before the arrest of the King and the September massacres in France.”15 The result, for Thompson, was a galvanization of forces against the lower classes: “Alarmed at the French example, and in the patriotic fervor of war, the aristocracy and the manufacturers made common cause. The English ancien régime received a new lease of life, not only in national affairs, but also in the perpetuation of the antique corporations which misgoverned the swelling industrial towns.”16 Indeed, he presented us with a working class up against a system mobilized to resist change: “There is the Industrial Revolution, in its technological aspects. And there is the political counter-revolution, from 1792-1832.”17

Clearly, through the work of Thompson and the Hammonds, we can see that counter-revolutionary ideas and actions directed by the government and supported by the new industrial bourgeoisie were not solely due to the social changes and discontent caused by industrialization. Unfortunately, workers agitating for better pay, combination, or safer working conditions found themselves in a storm of paranoia and repression caused by actions other than their own. Of course, this is not to say that we can completely ignore the contribution of working-class agitation toward governmental repression. But we can see the class tension in a wider scope which includes, to a significant degree, the French Revolution

For further support of this assertion, we can also look at the other end of the historiographic spectrum. An historian who disagrees completely with the Hammonds and Thompson regarding the nature of the Industrial Revolution is T.S. Ashton. Even though Ashton barely addressed the social implications of industrialization, he deserves mention here for his explanation of anti-union, or as Thompson and the Hammonds would call it, “anti-working class” legislation. For Ashton, the statistics of the economy during the period of industrialization showed unequivocal progress, both for society and the workers. He focused on the progress that industrialization and capitalism brought to Britain. But even he conceded a connection between the events in France and legislation at home. He admitted that after 1792, “Britain was at war: the ruling classes feared that unions might serve as a cloak for ‘corresponding societies’ or other, more revolutionary bodies.”18 But his conclusion is not as scathing as the Hammonds’. For Ashton, the French Revolution may have inspired the Combination Act of 1800, but he gave the Act little significance. “It was rarely invoked,” he told us, “partly, no doubt, because the penalties it imposed were relatively light.” Moreover, the Act did not sufficiently stop the formation of unions, “some of which operated in the open, without any action being taken to put them down.”19 But even though he downplays the significance of the Combination Act, we can still see the influence of French Revolutionary ideas on the actions and attitudes of the ruling classes.

Interestingly, E.J. Hobsbawm, who is generally on the same side of the spectrum as the Hammonds and Thompson, did not make any connection between the French and the Industrial Revolution. As a fairly orthodox Marxist, he of course gave revolution its place. But his is more the stereotypical view of a revolution from the workers against the repressive, capitalistic policies of the ruling classes. He explained that, “when the mechanism of peaceful adjustment [to industrialization] worked worst, and the need for radical change seemed most urgent—as in the first half of the nineteenth century—the risks of revolution were also unusually great, just because if it got out of control it looked like turning into a revolution of the new working class.”20 His is the Marxist interpretation of the bourgeoisie keeping the proletariat in its subservient position. He continued: “To keep social tensions low, to prevent the dissensions among sectors of the ruling classes from getting out of hand, was not merely advisable, but seemed essential.”21 For Hobsbawm, it was the goal of preserving power and expanding markets and capital which motivated the ruling classes. He argued that “both economic theory and economic practice stressed the crucial importance of capital accumulation by the capitalist, that is of the maximum rate of profit and the maximum diversion of income from the (non-accumulating) workers to the employers.”22 But beyond this, his focus is the motivation for the workers’ revolutionary sentiment, not the ruling classes’ counter-revolutionary sentiment.

Hobsbawm’s analysis falls short of recognizing larger forces motivating the ruling classes. Certainly, there had to be an element of capitalist motivation to repress working-class reform movements. And certainly that concern played a role in the “political counter-revolution” of which Thompson spoke. But Hobsbawm seems to overestimate the presence of a purely Marxist revolutionary threat. His scope is much later than the pervious authors, generally post-1830. Yet, statements such as this seem unfounded: “As Marx and Engels rightly pointed out, in the 1840s, the spectre of communism haunted Europe. If it was relatively less feared in Britain, the spectre of economic breakdown was equally appalling to the middle class.”23 The latter part of the statement may have validity, but the claim that Marxism was a genuine threat as early as the 1840s casts doubt on Hobsbawm’s historiographical framework. In addition, he claimed that the industrial city was “a volcano, to whose rumblings the rich and powerful listened with fear, and whose eruptions they dreaded. But for its poor inhabitants it was not merely a standing reminder of their exclusion from human society. It was a stony desert, which they had to make habitable by their own efforts.”24 Again, there is certainly validity in this assertion. But Hobsbawm does not delve into the details of why the ruling classes were so paranoid. Instead, he explains their motivation through his larger Marxist framework.

But this does not exclude Hobsbawm from the present discussion altogether. From his work, we unquestionably see the threat of revolution and social unrest from the workers’ perspective. Thompson and the Hammonds would likely agree with such a presence. We can confidently assert that conditions of industrialization pushed various lower- and working-class groups toward reform-minded or even revolutionary actions and ideas. We can also confidently assert that the ruling classes feared such a revolution and acted to keep it from happening. From the aforementioned authors, the argument that the conservative reaction had a great deal of influence from the French Revolution is substantiated.

But that assertion is worth applying briefly to the revolutions that shook Europe in 1848. The Hammonds, Ashton, Thompson, and to a certain extent, Hobsbawm, completely ignored the revolutions of 1848. If indeed the ruling classes feared the spread of revolutionary activity in the 1790s, it would follow that widespread revolution in 1848 might also cause counter-revolutionary action in 1848, the year of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. But did it? Certainly, things had changed in Britain since the early 1800s. The Six Acts no longer restricted habeas corpus. The Reform Bill of 1832 extended suffrage to the middle class. The Combination Acts were revoked in 1824, and many pieces of legislation improved working conditions. But Chartism was alive and well just a few years prior to 1848, and several economic slumps in the 1840s led to much agitation. So the revolutions of 1848 occurred in the shadow of social unrest in Britain. It is interesting that there was not, or that historians have not explored, any counter-revolutionary backlash from the ruling classes in that year.

Works Cited

Ashton, T.S. The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures: 1700-1820. Second Edition. London:

Routledge, 1996.

Hammond, J.L. and Barbara. The Town Labourer: The New Civilization 1760-1832, New York: Harper & Row, 1970. First published by Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1917.
Hobsbawm, E.J. Industry and Empire. New York: The New Press, 1968.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin Books,


1 See J.L. and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer (1917); E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin Books, 1968); T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968); and E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (New York: The New Press, 1968).

2 For the purposes of this essay, the term “French Revolution” will be used to refer to events in France after the radicalization of the Revolution in 1792 until the fall of Napoleon in 1815. It will also imply the nearly constant state of warfare that existed between France and England during that time.

3 Maxine Berg, The Age of Manufactures: 1700-1820, Second Edition (London: Routledge, 1996).

4 Interestingly, the authors described above paid close attention to revolutionary activity surrounding the French Revolution and Napoleon, from roughly 1792 until the settlement at Vienna in 1815. But interestingly, they do not give attention to the influence of the numerous revolutions that occurred across the Continent in 1848. This could be due to the complete lack of influence of these revolutions on Britain in 1848, but is worth closer examination.

5 The Town Labourer (1917) , 94.

6 Ibid., 62.

7 Ibid., 94.

8 Ibid., 320.

9 Ibid., 321.

10 Ibid., 325.

11 Thompson, 27.

12 Ibid., 215.

13 Ibid., 79.

14 Ibid., 114.

15 Ibid., 117.

16 Ibid., 216.

17 Ibid.

18 Ashton, 108.

19 Ibid.

20 Hobsbawm, xv.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 27.

23 Ibid., 55-56.

24 Ibid., 65.

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