Britain and the French Revolution – Historical Document Exercises

Submitted to Dr. Kate Watson, Tutor
John Bull, Tom Paine & The British Jacobins
Oxford University
Department for Continuing Education
Andrew Becker
Roger M. Jones Fellow Abroad, The University of Michigan
Hillary 2009

Britain and the French Revolution – Historical Document Exercises

Parliamentary Reports

Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Commons, May 1794
1) Significance of Dates / Origins: May 1794 was just before the “Thermidorian Reaction” (Thermidor = July in the French revolutionary calendar), which replaced the most radical elements in power in France with more conservative ones. This was a period of terror in France.
2) Concerns Voiced: The Committee is scared that the Constitutional Information Society and the London Corresponding Society are part of a wider conspiratorial network aligned with revolutionary groups in France, and might try to lead Britain down the same path.
3) Language and Tone: Suggests a “traitorous conspiracy”, i.e. “French treachery” versus British treachery, meaning that these elements are working against the King but not for any foreign power or other interest.

An Account of the Debate on the Treasonable Practices Bill, November 1795
1) Significance of Dates / Origins: November 1795 was just after the end of the Thermidorian Reaction, and also the end of “Pitt’s terror”, the British were still figuring out how to deal with the threat of change.
2) Concerns Voiced: The author of the account is afraid of things going too far in Britain, and believes that change of the type in France will by nature be associated with chaos.
3) Language and Tone: Labeling of revolutionary literature as “infernal poison”, and what’s worse, publishing at the cheapest rate so that even the common people can read it!
4) Pros / Cons of Parliamentary Reports as Sources: Parliamentary reports give an idea of the more “official” viewpoints of the times, but they are (from this time period) only second hand accounts, and thus not as pure as historians would like. We can only guess at the type of emphasis the authors would have added when orating these reports.

The Caricatures of Gillray

The Zenith of French Glory, Gillray, 1793
1) Significance of Date: In 1793 France declared war on Great Britain, following the execution of King Louis XVI. This was also the period of the Terror in France, and the caricature is reflecting on that.
2) Message Conveyed? Gillray is illustrating the revolution in France as not leading to a better society, but a brutish and ugly one.
3) Use of Images and Title: Images in the caricature include the typical savage “sans-culottes” Frenchman, who is, as per usual depiction, wearing no pants at all. He has his foot on some priests who have been executed, and a guillotine in the background also alludes to out of control executions. A sort of cross topped with a liberty cap above the hanging priests depicts the “religion” of the revolutionaries as atheism. The sans-culotte plays a violin, perhaps a reference to Nero, who famously fiddled as Rome burned. The full title mocks the liberty derived from the French revolution as inferior to the sort of liberty already held by the common Englishman.

London Corresponding Society Alarmed- Guilty Consciences, Gillray, 1798

1) Significance of Date: In 1798 there was a perceived rise of Jacobinism in Great Britain, taking place underground.
2) Message Conveyed? The LCS is composed of inferior lower-class people (who could not possibly know anything), who meet in dark places and delude themselves with atheistic Jacobite propaganda.
3) Use of Images and Title: The men in the image appear as troglodytes, meeting in a dark place. They are workingmen; the message is that these sorts of people have dangerous personal political beliefs that are wrong for the good of the rest. There is a visible LCS pamphlet in the bottom right corner, associating this group with the threatening appearance of the men. The title says that they are alarmed, probably with the rise of Napoleon.
4) Pros / Cons of Caricatures as Sources: While caricatures show some general attitudes of the times and give insight into the complexity of the issues, this complexity makes them one of the most difficult types of source to read. There are so many details, a good example being the violin played by the sans-culotte in the first caricature, which could really mean any number of things.

Contemporary News Articles

Hampshire Chronicle, November 15 1790
1) Significance of Date: In 1790 Great Britain was still in a very liberal phase in terms of the reaction to the French Revolution, which was met initially with general tolerance. Burke had just published a “reflection” against the Revolution, which was met with derision during this period of naiveté.
2) Message Conveyed: The message of this passage is that Burke is a fool, liberal things are good, and that his being Irish makes him a possible secret-Catholic that might be working in the service of the Catholic Church and therefore absolutism in all forms.
3) Use of Language and Tone: The use of the word “hurling” reminds the reader that Burke is Irish, and therefore not to be trusted. The section is overall dismissive of Burke personally, more than his beliefs.

Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, December 9th 1792.
1) Significance of Date: In the wake of the “September Massacres” of the late summer of 1792, where anarchy ruled and rape and murder were said to be common, Great Britain views the French Revolution as a savage affair.
2) Message Conveyed: The author is implying that everyone should demonstrate their loyalty to the crown, and those that do not are highly suspect.
3) Use of Language and Tone: In this section, those who form loyalty associations are “distinguishing their character”, while those who do not are “backward”, “crude”, “licentious”. Anyone who does not demonstrate loyalty is associated with the anarchy, rape, and murder in France and may want to bring that to British shores.
4) Pros and Cons of Newspapers: Selections from newspapers such as these provide historians with the middle-class view of historical events and the immediate gut-reaction of the populace, but suffer from press bias or the possibility that press bias may be present.


The Consecration of Banners… Wallingford Loyal Assoc, Rev. T. Pentycross 1798
1) Context of Date and Place: Great Britain is at war with France in 1798. A “Loyal” association is against any sort of Jacobin politics, and would have been especially receptive to this message refuting Atheism.
2) Message of the Sermon: Rev. Pentycross wants the people to believe that God is on their side against the heathen atheist Jacobins, and that in fact they lack free will when it comes to their war against the French, that they must fight because God makes it so.
3) Use of Religion for Politics: In this example the preacher does not explicitly declare a political message, but by explaining that God chooses the wars we fight he blesses the war against the French and the British Jacobins.

A Sermon Preached Before the Chiswick Military Association, 1798
1) Context of Date and Place: Again, Great Britain at war with France in 1798. The Military Association would be similar in disposition to a Loyal Association but perhaps would have more “common” members, and so this sermon is even more direct in it’s message.
2) Message of the Sermon: The French are not just wrong, they are wicked and going against God, Christianity, and society. They are immoral, and therefore it is righteous to wage war against them.
3) Use of Religion for Politics: Every warring faction always regards themselves as having “god on their side”, but this preacher takes it a step farther, making this a war not just between Great Britain and France but between Christian morality and atheistic anarchy.
4) Pros / Cons of Sermons as Historical Sources: Religious sermons generally are supposed to provide guidance for the people, in line with a larger Church doctrine, so they may indicate the Church response where the populace was conflicted over an issue. However, they may also simply reflect the personal politics of the individual preacher.

Web Resources Consulted:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s