The twin centenaries of the English and French revolutions are now upon us—1689 and 1789—and they seem fated to coincide with a moment when the word “revolution” has lost all its prestige and even much of its point.

In 1987, for example, Paris was shaken by a book expressively called The Cost of the French Revolution by Rene Sedillot. Its title, to an extent unusual in historical studies, tells the whole story. Sedillot argues that the French Revolution was a game not worth the candle. Some two million Frenchmen are thought to have died in it—some dramatically, in the Terror of 1793-94, most in the revolutionary wars down to Waterloo in 1815. The number is more than France lost in the First World War a century later, and the nation was only one-third as populous as the France of 1914. Some 17,000 are thought to have died in the Terror—some by the guillotine, some by prison massacres, some by mass drownings. That total is modest in relation to the great political massacres of the 20th century—Hitler’s and Stalin’s—but Sedillot argues disturbingly that it may have been the French Terror that presaged the great holocausts of recent times. The thought is embarrassing. The rhetoric of the modern French state is wholly based on the revolution, and it now stands accused by a Frenchman of reviving the dire notion of killing-by-category which had ended in Europe over a century earlier with the close of the wars of religion. The revolution hunted heretics in its own way, after all—disbelievers in itself. More than that, Sedillot argues that the revolution turned France into a centralized state; an administrative malady from which it still suffers. And its first cause was meaningless. When the Bastille fell after three-quarters of an hour of fighting on July 14, 1789, it contained only seven prisoners, of whom four were convicted forgers (common criminals, in fact, and in no way political prisoners) while another two are thought to have been of unsound mind. By 1794, by contrast, at the end of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, there may have been some 400,000 languishing in French prisons for political offenses. And so on . . .

The book that shook Paris—a city notoriously easy to shake—may leave London and Washington unmoved. Sedillot’s point, after all, is much like Burke’s in the Reflections of 1790—that you cannot make, or try to make, a “complete revolution,” as he called it, without self-degradation and tyranny; that civil liberty depends not on the promises of written constitutions like the French, but on sustained stability, the slow and assured progress of societies quietly determined to have more and more of it, bit by bit and one step at a time. Burke’s analysis is the more remarkable when it is remembered that, at the first appearance of the Reflections, France was still a constitutional monarchy and intent, as some Englishmen believed, on following the English example after a century of delay. When twenty-year-old William Wordsworth walked across France in the summer of 1790 with another Cambridge undergraduate, he saw and applauded in his heart what looked like an outcome dear to all Englishmen, or deserving to be so. He did not then visit Paris, being on a walking-tour to Switzerland. But the news from the capital was all good: Louis XVI enthroned in the Champ de Mars among his subjects to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of tyranny, land distributed to the peasants, a Declaration of the Rights of Man to match the British Bill of Rights, and a land at peace and in liberty.

What Burke sniffed in the last months of 1789, and intemperately condemned, was a spirit of absolute change. He had cautiously conceded the case of Washington and his friends some 15 years earlier, in a pragmatic if not in a principled sense. The American rebels of 1775-6 might be morally and legally wrong, he held, to claim that England had no right to tax them while their defense was paid for by England, but it might be more sensible to concede the point on magnanimous grounds: “Great empires and little minds go ill together.” But then Washington and his friends, in the common judgment of the 1770’s, were not making a revolution, and it was a rare Englishman or American who used or knew the phrase “the American Revolution” before the 19th century. To English ears down to the 1790’s there was only one revolution that counted—the English Revolution of 1689; and it represented the greatest event in the secular history of all mankind. Ironic, then, that France in 1989 seems likely to celebrate her revolution only with a sour, or, at best, appraising glance; odder still that the English seem unlikely to celebrate theirs at all, in their heart of hearts, though formal tributes are afoot. But then if there breathes a single Englishman who thinks of himself as living in a revolutionary state, I have yet to meet him.

It is striking that Burke, the elderly Whig, and Wordsworth, the young radical, though separated in birth by over 40 years, hardly differed in their view of what France needed in 1789. She needed an English revolution—a turn of events, that is, to produce a constitutional state much like the English one. Every Englishman knew the French by tradition to be slaves: “We shall soon be landed in France,” says an ardent young man to his bride in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773), “where even among slaves the laws of marriage are respected.” Goldsmith was a Tory, but he wholly accepted what has since come to be called the Whig Interpretation of History, which was the view of all but a few 18th-century Englishmen. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 was an example of liberty to all the world. At the opening of his Reflections, Burke remarks that he belonged to “more clubs than one in which the constitution of this kingdom and the principles of the Glorious Revolution are held in high reverence,” and such reverence was highly competitive. Even David Hume, a skeptical Scottish Tory, did not deny in his History of Great Britain (1754-6) that 1689 was a great and singular event. It is not that he thought much of revolutions in general: “It is seldom that the people gain anything by revolutions in government,” he remarks cooly, meaning violent changes. But 1689 was an exception, and the British people profited by it in life, liberty, and property. By 1789 there was no view available except that the French should strive to follow the glories of the British example. Richard Price, a radical dissenter and friend of Benjamin Franklin, praised the fall of the Bastille in a notorious tract because ensuing events—the recall of the Estates General by Louis XVI and its enactments—demonstrated, in his view, that France was following a British example. How could freeborn Englishmen reasonably fail to welcome the spread of British ideas of government like constitutional monarchy and the rule of law?

When Burke replied in November 1790, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he had no cause to disagree with Price that the British system was best. His disagreement was factual: he denied that the French were bent on anything as cautious as the British example. Years later, and no longer a radical, Wordsworth was to describe his early convictions in The Prelude, where he does not represent himself as doubting that France was following a British path.

Bliss seemed it in that dawn to be alive.

And to be young was very heaven,

was the cry of a young Englishman who believed that France was emulating the tried success of the English Revolution. By 1800 both Wordsworth and Coleridge had abandoned their French enthusiasm. But though those enthusiasms were called “democratical,” at least by others, there is no reason to suppose that universal suffrage was in the mind of either of them. By 1793 their views were dangerous, as they knew, because France and England were at war: two revolutions had been tragically sundered by power politics and the refusal of the British Parliament to recognize its own children. To their bitter regret, a dream of revolution had turned them into traitors. But like the pro-Soviet traitors of the 1930’s, they still believed themselves for a time to be justified by a loftier law.

Enlightened opinion in France probably shared an enthusiasm for the English Revolution, though royal censorship before 1789 now makes it difficult to discern how far that admiration went. Voltaire occasionally praised William III, though always in cautious terms and sometimes in writings not meant for publication. His Lettres anglaises (1734), much his most radical book, is full of praise for the tolerance shown to dissenting opinion by Hanoverian England, where he had spent the years 1726-9, among an abundance of implied contrasts with a France that still burned heretics or broke them in public on the wheel. Montesquieu, who settled in England in 1729—the very year Voltaire left it, as it happens, and the very year of Burke’s birth—praised the constitution of England as the world’s finest in a passage Burke was later to applaud. England was the enlightened state of all Europe. With one or two small exceptions, like Holland and Switzerland, it stood alone, a pathfinder among nations. Monarchs studied it too, in prosperity and misery. Louis XVI read Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion in captivity, marveling at the nation that could suffer a disastrous civil war in the 1640’s and yet achieve sustained stability by 1689, only 15 years after Clarendon’s death; and with its grim recital of what civil war can do, the book helped to decide the French king not to call out his own supporters to liberate him. The English had got it wrong with Cromwell, in fact, and right with William of Orange: that is a view that would have commanded wide support in England, and enlightened Frenchmen also found it familiar and persuasive.

The quarrel in the English mind over the French Revolution, then, was not in the first instance an ideological quarrel. It was a difference about the facts of the case. The aging Burke and the young Wordsworth might broadly agree on the direction France should go in, if not on the pace at which she went there. They would not have agreed in the early 1790’s about whether France was going there or not. In The Prelude Wordsworth describes visiting the gallery of the House of Commons as a young man, and a late addition to the poem suggests that he perfectly understood Burke’s case against the French Revolution, though that addition fails to mention that Wordsworth must have listened to it mutinously at the time:

. . . While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth Against all systems built on abstract rights Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims Of institutes and laws hallowed by time; Declares the vital power of social ties Endeared by custom; and with high disdain Exploding upstart theory, insists Upon the allegiance to which men are born . . .

By the time Wordsworth wrote that addition to The Prelude, probably in 1820, he was already clear that Burke had got it right. Theories that offer a new heaven and a new earth are upstart, unmanageable, and dangerous. The ninth and tenth books of the poem, especially in their account of his second visit to France in 1792-3, are bitter with self-reproach. In Paris he heard in his darkening imagination Macbeth’s cry about murdering sleep, and as France moved towards the Terror his anxious mind became a prey to despair and doubt. “I had approached,” he writes,

like other youth, the shield Of human nature from the golden side. And would have fought, even to the death, to attest The quality of metal which I saw.

Back in England, now at war, his mind fell into a turmoil of conflicting sentiments, a sort of mental civil war. Revolutionary France was at once the hope of mankind and an agent of mass-murder:

I read her doom.

Vexed inly somewhat, it is true, and sore,

But not dismayed, not taking to the shame

Of a false prophet; but roused up, I stuck

More firmly to old tenets and, to prove

Their temper, strained them more; and thus, in heat

Of contest, did opinions every day

Crow into consequence, till round my mind

They clung, as if they were the life of it.

Most terribly, he hints at a readiness to commit terrorism:

Yet would I willingly have taken up

A service at this time for cause so great,

However dangerous


How much the destiny of Man had still

Hung upon single persons.

I do not suppose that implies Wordsworth was at any time in his life a political assassin. But he plainly suggests here that in the early 1790’s he stood ready to become one, if called upon. His mood was murderous, in a high-minded way, and bitterly antipatriotic: indeed in one famous passage he represents himself as silently dissenting from prayers for victory and longing for the defeat of his own nation in its war with France.

Why did British intellectual opinion divide so bitterly over the French Revolution and its aftermath? The question is vital. Foreign revolutions seldom find much echo in the national consciousness. The American Revolution, as it has since come to be called, failed after 1775 to divide British literary opinion in any such remarkable way, and Americans were not even foreigners. The Russian revolution, in our own century, had a broadly similar effect to the French—but not at the moment it occurred, since its literary fruits are largely limited to the 1930’s, and its immediate effects after 1917 were modest. Nor did the English Revolution of 1689 divide literary minds in any similar way, though there the analogy is potentially unequal: Jacobite literature, after all, was treasonable and forbidden during the reign of William and Mary, and for long after.

For whatever reason, then, the French Revolution is the great revolutionary event of the English literary consciousness. In a letter to his publisher in February 1821, Byron promised to make his hero Don Juan end his days as Anarchasis Cloots, an international agitator in the French Revolution, as if all roads in modern narrative naturally led to Paris. That jocular letter was written more than 30 years after the fall of the Bastille. Some Englishmen, like William Hazlitt, even contrived to believe in the French cause to their dying day. Edmund Burke, when he died in 1797 at the height of the French wars, was so obsessed with events that he directed the exact place of his burial should not be marked, for fear it might be ravaged in vengeance by invading French soldiery, and his memorial in Beaconsfield parish church to this day reads, “Near this place . . .” Gibbon, who died in the same year as Robespierre, 1794, remarks with horror that when French revolutionary troops were quartered near him on Lake Geneva, officers and men encamped together on the ground without distinction, higgledy-piggledy, as if that democratic spectacle symbolized the whole demeaning horror of the affair. Wordsworth after 1800 reproached himself in the bitterest terms for having given his youthful faith and trust to such a cause and—perhaps for this reason, among others—did not allow The Prelude to see print in his own lifetime. Coleridge prudently understated his own early revolutionary commitment when he came to write the Biographic Literaria in the summer of Waterloo; and he characteristically omits the one disreputable incident from his Cambridge undergraduate days (1790-4) which we now owe to Gillman’s Life (1838): that as a militant undergraduate at Jesus College, and in the nefarious company of a future Lord Chancellor of England, he had laid “a train of gunpowder” on the lawns of St. John’s and Trinity which, being set on fire, burned the grass to proclaim the dread and dangerous words Liberty and Equality. Gillman seems to have heard of the incident when a visitor to Highgate reminded Coleridge of it in his late age, and he implies that Coleridge, embarrassed as he was, did not disown it. The future Lord Chancellor can only have been Lord Lyndhurst, and Trinity presumably remained unaware of his part in the escapade, as they later elected him into a fellowship of the college. No reader of the Biographia, that reticent book, would easily guess that Coleridge in his first youth had been a revolutionary vandal and destroyer of private property.

Taken all in all, then, there is nothing like the French Revolution, as events from abroad go, in terms of immediate potency upon literary life. Only the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 can hold a candle to it, and I wish I could believe that the literary effects of that affair in England were as distinguished as they were abundant. The question why remains; and though that why is not susceptible of a single and simple answer, I propose to settle here on the shifting meaning of the word “revolution,” even if much that needs to be said, in consequence, proves dry and lexical.

The French Revolution, within weeks of its outbreak in July 1789, threatened the English conception of history, for good or ill; and it divided public opinion because there were those who welcomed that thread to the English self-image and those who did not.

Revolution was not a radical term to the 18th-century mind, or earlier. It was preservative. That is a fact that some theorists in the present century have found hard to grasp. J.M. Dunn, in his Modern Revolutions (1972), has brushed the possibility of preservative revolution aside so carelessly that one suspects it may not even have occurred to him: “a form of massive violent and rapid social change,” he remarks in an initial attempt at verbal definition, and one that tries to “embody a set of values in a new, or at least renovated, social order.” Europeans—in all likelihood Americans, too—understood the word quite differently before the French Revolution, and they may have something to teach us now. Clarendon, writing in the 1640’s and after, studiously refrained as a royalist from applying it to what the Cromwellians had just done—that was a rebellion—and when he later continued his History he called the Restoration of 1660 a revolution, since it brought matters back to where they had begun, to a legitimate monarchy. In For Veronica Wedgewood These (1986), Christopher Hill has tried to show that the modern, radical use of the word was known before 1688, but his instances are inconclusive, and the lexical evidence still supports the view that for the 17th and 18th centuries a revolution commonly meant a “full compassing,” as with wheels or heavenly bodies, and that no reformer and no radical can easily be a revolutionary.

For all that, there may be advantages in avoiding the word “conservative” to describe what revolution meant to Englishmen before and after 1689. That is partly because “conservative” is by now the name of a political party in Britain and of a political idea throughout the Western industrial world; and partly because the implication that one can only choose between revolution and keeping-things-as-they-are is widely and dangerously misleading. Edmund Burke, who was never a conservative and who never called himself one, did not make that mistake. He hated what the French did because, as a parliamentary reformer, he was committed to deliberative change, and he rightly saw such change to be threatened by the all-or-nothing spirit of the wild men of the French National Assembly. Lasting constitutions are not written all at once: if they are to endure and to work, they represent the accumulation of years. The American Constitution of 1787 does not represent an exception to that principle, since it derives in large measure out of the accumulated experiences of colonial legislatures. Recent events in the Third World have illustrated Burke’s point more fully than he can ever have imagined, but then he already had good cause to feel justified in his own lifetime: he lived, after all, to see the Declaration of the Rights of Man lead to the Terror of 1793-94 and to the tyrannical Directorate that succeeded Robespierre, even if he did not survive to see Bonaparte’s seizure of power in 1799. The Reflections of Burke are not just sage as analysis. They are also justified as prophecy. A complete revolution must fail. His critics, two centuries later, still have a challenge to answer: what instance can they show of a complete revolution that has succeeded?

The British state was revolutionary in fact and in name. It was founded upon an act of successful and (in England at least) bloodless usurpation by a Dutch prince, whom Parliament in February 1689 invited to assume the throne, with his wife, as William and Mary. “It looks like a revolution,” remarked John Evelyn in his diary in December 1688, reporting James II’s flight to France; but it is still doubtful if Evelyn knew of any sense of the word other than the preservative. The traditional rights of Englishmen, in the common view, were being asserted by Parliament. Locke, similarly, only uses the word in neutral terms: he nowhere sees revolution as a specifically radical act. Eighteenth-century Whigs saw 1689 as affirming age-old rights: indeed Horace Walpole in a letter speaks of placing Magna Carta over his bed along with the Bill of Rights as twin guarantors of English liberty. Revolution affirmed what was there, against the rash attempts of tyrants to alter.

France did nothing like that after Louis XVI recalled the Estates General in the summer of 1789. It might be instructive, in a counterfactual way, to imagine what Frenchmen might have done had they been wholly inspired by the English example of a century before. They would not, for one, have changed the name of their parliamentary institutions from Estates General—a name dignified by centuries of use—into a National Assembly. To change a name, after all, is to risk losing the authority of an institution: the British, by contrast, have progressively changed their institutions over three centuries while keeping such names as Lords and Commons alive.

A France of Edmund Burkes would not have issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man. It would have emended the existing laws of France one by one and over a period of decades with a view of legitimating human rights. It would not have confiscated church lands, but negotiated step-by-step a system of sale at favorable terms and with compensation. It would have kept the monarchy as a figurehead; and kept the nobility, in dilution, by extending it throughout the 19th century into the trading classes and professions. It would have extended the suffrage gently and by stages during the course of that century and beyond, testing the political literacy of each newly enfranchised class as it went.

Above all, it would have publicly declared the French Revolution made by the Estates General a preservative act, restoring and defending the rights of Frenchmen sapped or destroyed since Louis XIV assumed despotic powers in 1660. And it would not have indulged in revolutionary wars under the illusion of a universal creed or a liberating mission for the whole world, but stayed at home. The British, it is notable, made no effort to spread their revolution after 1689. It was for foreigners to emulate it if they might, or count the cost to themselves if they did not.

The French Revolution, in that event, would have proved a far less literary event. It would have had to dispense with much of the admiration of the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, and presumably all of Hazlitt’s. Good sense has its costs. None of Burke’s majestic fulminations of the 1790’s predicting tyranny and woe to France and to the French people; no Wordsworth’s Prelude, or at least no books IX and X; and just possibly, no Godwin’s Political Justice, which appeared in 1793; and no radical sense of revolution.

For it is with Godwin, and as late as 1793, that “revolution” becomes a radical word in English for the first time, and few Europeans since the start of the 19th century have doubted that it signifies something radical. The transformation was swift and sure. Revolution is “instigated by a horror against tyranny,” said Godwin, writing within three years of the fall of the Bastille. Godwin is no friend to radical revolution. But, like most modern theorists, he thinks it is all that there is. An idealist passionately dedicated to free debate and rational discourse, he detests an act which, being violent, is always likely to create chaos, inhibit the exercise of reason and deny freedom of speech, even of mind. “There is no period more at war with the existence of liberty,” he writes, “than one of political violence, where freedom of speech is ‘trebly fettered’ and slavery ‘complete.'” Political Justice, that neglected masterpiece of political intelligence, is a radical and an antirevolutionary book; radical because antirevolutionary, antirevolutionary because radical. That was a perception soon to be adopted and extended by Shelley, Godwin’s son-in-law, who despised revolution as much as Godwin did, and longed only for peaceful and rational change. That strain of radical thought, thrown up in reaction to the French Revolution and its violent excesses, has since enjoyed its own untold history, mainly in British colonies. Gandhi, for example, was by intellectual descent a Godwinian. And it helps to confirm that almost all the effects of the French Revolution on the Anglo-Saxon mind, and on the minds of its imperial subjects, were in the long run negative. Seventeen eighty-nine was a cautionary tale. Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859) sums up that case: Dickens was a radical, and in his fiction he sees the Paris of the 1790’s only as a theater of horror. More recently, and more learnedly, Monsieur Sedillot has confirmed that view. Leave the Bastille where it is—that is the wisdom of the new age. Go round it, and find another way.