- Debating England’s Aristocracy in the 1790s: Pamphlets, Polemics and Political Ideas
Given the extensive historical literature which already addresses the Edmund Burke - Thomas Paine confrontation, what can remain to be said about the pamphlet debates touched off by the French Revolution? Scepticism gives way to admiration only a few pages into this cogent, engaging and perceptive analysis of the paper warfare between loyalists and radicals initiated by Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) and effectively concluded by the government's censorship crackdown five years later. Focus on the changing depictions of the aristocracy – which Dr Goodrich convincingly shows to have been a crucial and formative theme throughout that debate – lends coherence and incisiveness to her account, while also generating noteworthy contributions to our view of English political discourse and ideas, both during and after the 1790s. [End Page 137]
The most interesting of these is an emphasis on the considerable diversity of opinion among those who defended the political and social status quo against attacks from radicals, reformers, republicans and revolutionaries (the last much fewer in number after 1792). Paine's identification of England's nobility as corrupt and idle parasites, an ancien régime élite equivalent to their French aristocratic confrères, provided 'the starting point of 1790s radicalism' (p. 57). But in response to this fundamental conceptual and semantic shift, loyalists also went beyond invoking traditional conservative tropes of passive obedience, non-resistance and a divinely-ordained Church-State alliance.
For Goodrich brings to light contributions by a range of hitherto largely unnoticed 'intellectual loyalists', who saw England as a modern commercial-financial-industrial meritocracy dependent on the balanced post-1688 constitution, in which corruption was merely an inevitable concomitant of prosperity, and the nobility 'not just the political but also the economic leaders' (p. 111). Two other key points emerge from this close and balanced reading of the pamphlet literature. The period 1793-6 saw both a general retreat of radical publicists from the more extreme positions staked out in the early 1790s, and the revival of demands usually associated with the previous decade, such as that for 'economical reform'. Further, the repertoire of ideas and polemic generated in the French Revolution debates has proved remarkably long lived, influencing not only debates which led up to the passing of the first Reform Bill in 1832, but also continuing discussion of the powers and composition of the House of Lords down to the present day.
This book is commendably well organized and clearly written, with few typographical or factual slips, even if Burke never condemned the occupation of 'tallow-handlers' as unfit to rule (p. 39). It is a pity that further information about the body of primary sources on which her work is based was not incorporated from Dr Goodrich's thesis, as doing so might have quietened doubts about the basis of her claim that only two instances of the term 'oligarchy' occur in radical pamphlets of the years 1791-2 . I also hankered to learn more about the social identity of the various pamphleteers and their audiences, as well as how we might best assess 'the power of... written representations in forming contemporary opinion' (p. 169); but full treatment of these matters would have demanded a much longer and rather different sort of book.
Goodrich has an enviable ability to highlight the current historiographical implications of the pamphlet literature she discusses. While making no song and dance about 'theory', her sensitivity to the nuances and resonances of these texts, with their sometimes 'brilliant and expressive phraseology and language' [End Page 138] (p. 121), exemplifies the hermeneutic potential of the way the best historians have traditionally gone about their business. Despite its unassuming title, this book deserves a wider audience than many specialised monographs.