By Bruce Tollafield
Published Online (2013)
Late 18th century France is a scene of social upheaval, chaos and confusion. The disaster of losing all of their American territories at the end of the Seven Years War, and funnelling coins to back the American War of Independence had bankrupted the nation, leaving a population starving and angry. In Jacques Louis-David’s interpretation of the Tennis Court Oath, where the Third Estate pledged to unite and form a new constitution, lightening flashed and wind cascaded through the hall lifting the roaring hopes of the people. What followed was a series of highs falling to lows; ideals of liberty arrested by a brutal police state. A war of ideals ensued, in which tens of thousands would kneel at the guillotine.
But we must not forget that the liberty lightening was about to illuminate another war which would result in a similar situation; a state gripped by paranoia and fear. Heads wouldn’t roll, but ink would flow, tensions would rise and saliva would fire from passionate mouths in coffee-houses. In this war of words three major forces in the shapes of Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft launched their missiles on the battleground of politics and philosophy. One of the greatest political debates in British history commenced when Dr Richard Price delivered his sermon on the 4th of November 1789.
Britain was still patting itself on the back for the success of the Glorious Revolution in 1688; The Revolutionary Society was founded in 1788 to commemorate a century of liberty and freedom. The society was a supporter of the revolution in France, which was seen as a fulfilment of prophecy and the group had sent a congratulatory letter to the National Assembly in 1789. On the 101st anniversary of the Glorious Revolution Dr Richard Price delivered his sermon A Discourse on the Love of our Country, which applauded King George III for recovering from his recent bout of insanity, but also had the cheek to warn him that unless he came to his political senses he too would go the way of Louis XVI. Price said, “May you be lead to such a sense of the nature of your situation to consider yourself the servant rather than the sovereign of the people”. This was big talk, and it got a big response. A Whig MP named Edmund Burke had been in favour of the French Revolution, but very soon became disillusioned as the uprising became violent. In 1790 he launched the first bombardment of the word war with his Reflections on the Revolution in France; a scathing attack on the revolution itself and the idea that it could/should occur in Britain.