The French Revolution, 1789 to ‘99, was a period of massive social and political turbulence, and it had reverberations across Europe. Some historians have even gone so far as to say that it’s the most important event in Western history. The revolution was a rising up against the old hierarchical system of government and monarchy, the Ancien Regime, and a replacing of this with a Democratic Republic, a self governing country without a monarch.
Historians are divided as to what and who caused the revolution, but all recognise the significance of economic depression, and with it, social unrest following a run of bad harvests, along resentment against a social system in which the power and privileges were located in the clergy and the nobility while the main body of the people was economically exploited and without a voice. The finding of a revolutionary voice owed a lot to the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement in the 18th century which championed the findings of individual reason and encouraged the dismantling of traditional thought and practises. The Revolutionary crowd first found expression in the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July, 1789.
The Bastille was a symbolically important state prison, which also housed the gunpowder needed by the revolutionaries. Building on this shift in power, a National Assembly was set up which ushered in the defining statement of the revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, claiming Equal Rights and freedom of every citizen. The new French flag, the Tricolour, was introduced, visually representing the Republic and finding an echo in the Revolutionary mantra which translates as liberty, equality, fraternity. This mantra defines the main concerns of the revolution. Although the newly formed Republic of France was to last, the route towards it was increasingly brutal, bloody, and even tyrannical. The government was controlled by two types of revolutionaries, the Jacobins and the Girondins.
It was the Jacobins who introduced the most fearful and notorious feature of the revolution, the guillotine. With seemingly bloodthirsty speed, executions of the aristocracy and all counter revolutionaries at the guillotine became a daily occurrence, escalating to 1,600 people in just a few days in 1792, an event that became known as the September massacres. This and the executions of the king and the queen, Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793, and the ongoing slaughter in that year and 1794, known as the Reign of Terror seriously compromised the political credibility of the Jacobin wind of the revolutionary government in particular.
It also alienated the support that had been registered from afar by the radical what we’d now call left wing citizens in other parts of Europe. The early days of the French Revolution had in fact been enthusiastically welcomed by such radicals. William Wordsworth, himself who’d witnessed the revolution firsthand in tours of France during 1790 and then again in 1791 to 2 recaptured the sense of hope and excitement of the early revolutionary days in his autobiographical poem, “The Prelude,” in 1805. He writes, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.”
prominent political writers such as Thomas Payne and Mary Wollstonecraft engaged in a defence of the Revolutionary principles and understood them to offer the possibility of a similar transformation of England. From this perspective, the French Revolution suggested the next logical step for a country, England, that had already limited the role of the monarchy through the introduction of constitutional monarchy in 1688 and might now rid itself of monarchy all together. Opposing conservative voices, most prominently that of the politician and writer Edmund Burke cautioned against the revolution, and warned of its potentially contagious impact upon England. A debate opened up about the meaning of key political terms, such as liberty, equality, and rights.
And England was alert to the potential invasion of French revolutionary ideals. By the end of 1793, only the most idealistic of English supporters of the French Revolution remained loyal amidst the blood bath, and Wordsworth was one of many early enthusiasts to renounce his disport. In 1793, England joined what was to be called the Revolutionary Wars, invading and battling against revolutionary France. The war that was to continue until the peace of Amiens in 1802. In fighting against the French, the other European allies were trying to stem the flow of a republicanism that had turned so bloody, and threatened to infect their own countries.
The peace did not last long, as the triumphant general turned emperor of new France, Napoleon Bonaparte, sought to extend his own empire by taking over other European countries, England included. This led to the Napoleonic wars between 1793 and 1815, within which England played an important role. It is therefore worth remembering that when Wordsworth published his sonnets dedicated to liberty in 1807, he was writing to a country at war with France, and seeking to protect itself against invasion.