Boyd Hilton

In Fear of the French

In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793–1815


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As the teacher of a university course on British history, I have read hundreds of essays on the question ‘How did the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars impact on Britain?’ There is almost too much for students to write about. The collapse of the Foxite Whig party led to the long parliamentary dominance of Pittite and Portland Whigs. In many large towns there was an explosion of Jacobin-inspired radicalism, which was more than counterbalanced by waves of conservative loyalism. Society was increasingly militarised by the world’s first ‘total war’ and the very real threat of invasion. A counter-enlightenment took a grip of the Establishment, leading to the suppression of scientific and theological speculation in favour of an orthodoxy based on biblical authority and the notion of a providential natural order. Then there was the public silencing of women, whose imaginative sensibilities were perceived by patriarchs to be dangerous in times when nothing but sober rationality was called for. Meanwhile, a ‘second British empire’ was being established in India and along trade routes. Economic stimulus created financial instability, leading to the collapse of the currency and a burgeoning of public and private indebtedness. A series of subsistence crises was met by the spread of public welfare over much of southern England. The state’s control over the lives of citizens tightened with Pitt’s introduction of income taxes and repressive legislation, the extension of policing powers in the capital and the stationing of soldiers around the country. Most spectacularly, there was a sudden escalation of sectarian animosities in Ireland, leading to the bloody ethnic strife of 1798. All these developments can be linked to the French Revolution and the wars that followed.

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