- Re-reading the Politics of Romanticism
In recent years, an impressive amount of research has been published on British responses to the French Revolution and its aftermath, focusing particularly on the "Revolution Controversy" triggered by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but also exploring the struggles of radical writers and organizations against the British government's repressive "Reign of Terror" from the early 1790s to the defeat of Napoleon and beyond. The amount and range of this research might have led us to believe that we knew all we needed to know about the writing of politics in this period. Yet the two books under review here reexamine political writing and publication in the period in order to yield fresh insights and open up new angles for research. That they do so in quite different ways indicates that the investigation of political discourse in the Romantic period is an active, ongoing project. This is of particular interest and importance since, as Daniel I. O'Neill notes, scholars regard the Revolution Controversy (and its extension through the Romantic period) "as foundational for the emergence of political modernity itself" (3).
In some ways, O'Neill's study The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate is the less ambitious of these two books in that it largely confines itself to a single, two-handed debate within the Revolution Controversy, whereas Kevin Gilmartin's Writing Against Revolution looks at a wide range of conservative writing in Britain from 1790 to 1832. Yet although the dispute between Burke and Paine has received close critical attention since the 1960s, and although the Revolution [End Page 161] Controversy as a whole has been intensively studied at least since Marilyn Butler's Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy (1984), O'Neill claims new ground on the basis that his "is the first book-length account of the clash between Burke and Wollstonecraft" (2). One of the strengths of O'Neill's book is that it examines a larger range of Burke's and Wollstonecraft's writings than is often the case in studies that focus on the Revolution Controversy alone. For O'Neill, it is important to emphasize the ongoing, but often implicit, argument between Burke and Wollstonecraft because it helped to shape modern conservatism and radical feminism respectively (O'Neill rightly sees Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman partly as a response to the Revolution and to Burke). Both political doctrines were fashioned in reaction to the advent of what O'Neill calls "deep democracy"—the fear, or hope, that the French Revolution was not just a change of regime but was driven by an ideological commitment to a total revolution that would democratize all the institutions, from the family up to the church and the aristocratic state, that for Burke had enabled the emergence of European civilization and that for Wollstonecraft had impeded the civilized liberation of human beings, especially women. While Burke feared that deep democracy would return European civilization to savagery, Wollstonecraft saw it as the only means through which European civilization could emerge from a state of savagery that was maintained and disguised by what Burke himself, in the Reflections, called "pleasing illusions."
O'Neill's central, often illuminating argument is that these opposed responses to the potential consequences of "deep democracy" indicate the ways in which Burke's and Wollstonecraft's political theories were informed by different reinterpretations of Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy and historiography. In the grand narrative that was at least partly developed within the Scottish Enlightenment, human history typically takes the shape of a progressive development through four sequential stages—hunting, herding, agriculture, and commerce—whose different material conditions generate different modes of social and political organization and different cultural stages (from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization). For many thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the modern commercial world of late-eighteenth-century Europe epitomized the final stage of...