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Historical Development of Conceptions of Citizenship in the United Kingdom

“The definition of a virtuous man”: British Radicals’ Views of Citizens and Citizenship in the French Revolutionary Era

“La définition d’un homme vertueux” : l’opinion des radicaux britanniques sur les citoyens et la citoyenneté lors de la Révolution française
Rachel Rogers


This article seeks to explore the impact of the radicalization of the French Revolution on the way in which the debate within the British reform movement shifted from the relationship between the individual and the state to the moral advances needed to become a citizen in the first place. This transition will be placed in the context of the government clampdown on radical expression and the perceived need for reformers to defend themselves against charges of moral degeneracy. It will also be shown that the Terror led British onlookers to question the capacity of citizens groomed under monarchical rule to live up to the standards of virtue needed in reformed states.

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  • 1 Margaret Jacob, “Sociability and the International Republican Conversation”, p. 25 in Gilliam Russe (...)
  • 2 Michael Rapport, Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France: The Treatment of Foreigners 1 (...)
  • 3 This argument, on the ambivalence of radical discourse, draws on the work of James Epstein, David K (...)

1At the start of the 1790s, both the American and French Revolutions put the relationship between the state and its citizens at the forefront of international political debate. Both revolutions, while opposed by the governing authorities in Britain, gained some currency among moderate and radical reformers in Britain, many of whom made clear their desire to emulate these models. Yet by the outbreak of the Anglo-French war in February 1793, discussions in reforming circles seem to have shifted away from the relationship between the individual and the state, to the moral advances needed to become a citizen in the first place. Margaret Jacob has suggested that “in the last decades of the century, one theme seemed to dominate the international conversation in sociable circles: the meaning and nature of democratic republics, and after 1789, the kind of personal transformation needed to create the democratic subject.1 In this article, I would like to put this morality turn into the very specific context of the mid-1790s when a complex set of circumstances, tied up with the French Revolution, guided the terms of debate over citizenship. Radical reformers were ambivalent about the continued relevance of the French model for the British reform movement and this equivocalness came across in discussions taking place on citizenship. Firstly, radicals recognised that the political and diplomatic circumstances no longer allowed for a debate over rights and institutional reform to take place without infringement. They consequently tempered the tenor of their calls for an overhaul of Parliament and began to focus more keenly on individual moral regeneration. Radicals were also faced with the widespread transformation in attitudes towards the French Revolution in society at large and the dominance of the loyalist or “Church and King” movements, whose members often brought the moral rectitude of pro-reform activists into question. Radicals were compelled not only to rein in their calls for reform, but also to defend themselves against charges of moral degeneracy. Yet, these pragmatic considerations aside, there may have been some disillusionment, in the wake of the Terror in France and what was widely seen as both the radicalisation and the deterioration of the Revolution, about the capacity of citizens groomed under monarchical rule to live up to the standards of virtue needed in reformed states. Although not all radical reformers renounced the gains of the French Revolution, for a significant number it had shown that civil and political change did not necessarily engender virtuous citizenship. Finally, it is important to recognise that calling for moral regeneration had itself an ambiguous heritage which radicals were aware of. For some, it could still echo the French Revolution, which was, as Michael Rapport has put it, “a moral as well as a political transformation which would affect all humanity,” while for others it harked back to the patriot martyrs of the British republican tradition.2 Moral reform did not have a clear lineage and this ambiguity may well have been understood and actively exploited by radical reformers trying to negotiate their own place in the political landscape of the 1790s.3

  • 4 Those granted honorary citizenship included a number of British, American and European supporters o (...)
  • 5 23rd August 1792, Le Moniteur Universel, vol. 13, pp. 540-41. My translation.

2In the 1789 version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, drafted in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille in France, natural and citizenship rights were intertwined, and allegiance to the nation was less important that adherence to natural law. This universal definition of civic engagement inspired many British reformers to see in the French Revolution the establishment of a type of citizenship applicable more widely in the European context which transcended national frontiers. The French National Assembly’s decision to grant citizenship status to such foreigners as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce and Jeremy Bentham was seen as proof that the Revolution had defined membership of a community according to the dictates of natural right rather than nationality.4 The Assembly declared, “Considering that those men who, through their writings and courage have served the cause of liberty and paved the way for the emancipation of peoples, cannot be considered foreigners by a nation that their knowledge and courage has made free” they were to be made citizens of France.5 British reformer Henry Yorke wrote in 1793:

  • 6 Henry Yorke, These are the times that try men’s souls (London, Ridgeway, 1793), p. 45.

When the rights of human nature are not respected, those of the citizen are gradually disregarded. Yet the love of our country is subordinate to that of humanity […]. Benevolence is of no country, but embraces within the wide circle of her arms, from lake Huron to the wall of China, the brotherhood of the human race.6

  • 7 Paine criticised the incumbents of parliamentary office in Rights of Man Part Two, which was publis (...)

3Universal benevolence”, compassion towards one’s fellow men, was seen as one way of engendering public responsibility and virtue. Radicals could refer to themselves as “citizens of the world” or “international patriots”, both titles hinting at the importance they placed on membership of a community based on values and rights rather than birth place. The discussion following 1789 was largely about recovering or obtaining rights – rights to stand for public office, rights to take part in electing representatives, rights to have a say in approving or disapproving laws. Parliament, seen as corrupt, unrepresentative and dominated by a closed, oligarchic elite, was the chief body in need of reform.7 Yet by 1793, there seems to have been, if not an abandonment of calls for political and constitutional change, at least the emergence of a powerful strain of argument which insisted on the individual strides needed to become a citizen in the first place, something which British people needed to be reminded of and educated in. This was profoundly linked to the context of and reactions to the French Revolution.

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    1 Margaret Jacob, “Sociability and the International Republican Conversation”, p. 25 in Gilliam Russell & Clare Tuite (eds.), Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

    2 Michael Rapport, Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France: The Treatment of Foreigners 1789-1799 (Oxford, Clarendon, 2000), pp. 112-13.

    3 This argument, on the ambivalence of radical discourse, draws on the work of James Epstein, David Karr and Mark Philp and will be discussed in more detail towards the end of this essay.

    4 Those granted honorary citizenship included a number of British, American and European supporters of the Revolution, namely Jeremy Bentham, Joseph Priestley, William Wilberforce, Thomas Paine, James Macintosh, David Williams George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Anacharsis Cloots.

    5 23rd August 1792, Le Moniteur Universel, vol. 13, pp. 540-41. My translation.

    6 Henry Yorke, These are the times that try men’s souls (London, Ridgeway, 1793), p. 45.

    7 Paine criticised the incumbents of parliamentary office in Rights of Man Part Two, which was published in February 1792.

    8 Founded in 1792 by a group of tradesmen, including shoemaker Thomas Hardy, the London Corresponding Society campaigned for annual parliaments and universal manhood suffrage in elections to House of Commons. It was particularly active in the first four years of its existence (1792-1796), publishing radical works and coordinating the popular reform movement across Britain. Its leaders were charged with high treason when they suggested a national convention of reformers in 1794, but they were later acquitted. 1795 saw the height of the society’s strength and numbers. However the LCS was severely affected by the Seditious Meetings Act in 1795 (one of the “Two Bills”) and the society was officially proscribed in 1799.

    9 Joseph Gerrald, A Convention the only means of saving us from ruin (London, Eaton, 1793), pp. 2-3.

    10 Ibid., p. 50.

    11 For a detailed appraisal of John Frost’s sedition case, see John Barrell, “Coffee-House Politicians”, pp. 75-102 in The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006) and James Epstein, “’Equality and No King’: Sociability and s edition: The case of John Frost”, pp.43-61 in Gillian Russell & Clare Tuite (eds.), Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain 1770-1840 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

    12 Yorke, op.cit.,p. 3.

    13 Ibid., p. 33.

    14 Ibid., p. 50.

    15 Charles Pigott, A Political Dictionary explaining the true meaning of words (London, Eaton, 1795, p. 9). For more on Charles Pigott see Jon Mee, “A Bold and Free-Spoken Man”: The Strange Case of Charles Pigott”, in David Womersely, Paddy Bullard & Abigail Williams (eds.),“Cultures of Whiggism”: New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century (Newark, University of Delaware Press, 2005), pp. 330-50.

    16 The Trial of Joseph Gerrald, Delegate from the London Corresponding Society to the British Convention Before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh, on the 3rd, 10th, 13th, and 14th March, 1794 for Sedition. Taken in Shorthand by Mr. Ramsay (Edinburgh, Robertson, 1794), p. 182.

    17 Sampson Perry, Oppression!!!: The Appeal of Captain Perry, Late Editor of the Argus, to the People of England : Containing a Justification of His Principles and Conduct, to which is Added, a Development of Some of the Mysteries of the Spy Trade (London, Lee, 1795).

    18 William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its influence on general virtue and happiness (London, G. G. and J. Robinson, 1793), p. 359.

    19 John Thelwall, Sonnet V: The Source of Slavery (17th July 1794, Tower), Poems Written in Close Confinement in the Tower and Newgate, Under a Charge of High Treason (London, Ridgway, 1795), p. 5.

    20 Margaret Jacob, “Sociability and the International Republican Conversation”, pp. 25-7.

    21 A brilliant analysis of the meaning and use of the charge of “constructive treason” is contained in John Barrell’s, Imagining the King's Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-1796 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000). See also Thomas Pfau, “Paranoia historicized: Legal fantasy, social change, and satiric meta-commentary in the 1794 Treason Trials”, in Stephen C. Behrendt (ed.), Romanticism, Radicalism, and the Press (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1997), pp. 30-64.

    22 George Monro, 6th December 1792, TNA TS 11/959.

    23 Thomas Moore, The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (Paris, Baudry’s European Library, 1835), pp. 73-74.

    24 Lord Auckland to Mr. Pitt, 28th November 1794, Journal and Correspondence of William, Lord Auckland 2: 272.

    25 Letter LXII, 17th January 1793, Anna Seward and Archibald Constable, Letters of Anna Seward: Written between the Years 1784 and 1807, vol. 3 (Edinburgh, A. Constable and Co., 1811), p. 209. 

    26 Minutes of ‘Loyal Britons’ meeting, Lambeth, December 1793, PRO HO 42/27, no. 625.

    27 William Playfair, A History of Jacobinism, its crimes, cruelties and perfidies [...] (London, Stockdale, 1796), p. 778.

    28 Ibid., p. 174.

    29 After the declaration of the French Republic in September, the magistrate John Reeves established the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, aimed at preventing reform societies from meeting by threatening pub landlords with loss of licence if allowed meetings to go ahead. Known as the ‘Crown and Anchor Society’ because of the tavern they met at on the Strand, members of the society spread alarm about the activities of reformers. The popularity of the Association movement was immense and attracted a large number of followers. Burke is often seen as the figurehead of the anti-Jacobin reaction but men such as John Bowles John Reeves were also influential at a more popular level. The Reeves Association was established without the knowledge of William Pitt, but the Government latched on to the movement, seeing in its establishment a way of securing the stability of the country.

    30 I am grateful for the exchange with Edward Vallance on this issue in the 2014 conference on citizenship organised at the University of Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès which allowed me to refine this part of my argument.

    31 Joel Barlow called for citizenship to be extended to foreign patriots in his A Letter to the National Convention of France: On the Defects in the Constitution of 1791 and the Extent of the Amendments Which Ought to Be Applied (London, Johnson, 1792).

    32 William Brubaker, “The French Revolution and the Invention of Citizenship”, French Politics and Society 7:3 (1989), p. 44.

    33 Sampson Perry, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution: Commencing with Its Predisposing Causes, and Carried on to the Acceptation of the Constitution, in 1795, vol. 2 (London, Symonds, 1796), pp.Bottom of FormTop of Form iii-iv.

    34 Mary Wollstonecraft, Janet M. Todd & Marilyn Butler, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft: An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Letters to Joseph Johnson. Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (London, Pickering, 1989), p. 162.

    35 Sampson Perry, Oppression!!!, p. 10.

    36 The involvement of figures such as Algernon Sidney in the revolution of 1649 was conveniently erased from collective memory. What was retained was the contribution of such “patriots” to the settlement of 1688-1689.

    37 For a comprehensive study of the reliance of the Jacobin leadership on the notion of virtue, see Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986).

    38 See Sophie Wahnich and Marc Belissa, “Les crimes des Anglais: trahir le droit”, Annales historiques de la Révolution française 300:1 (1995), pp. 233-48, and Sophie WAHNICH, L'impossible citoyen: l’étranger dans le discours de la Révolution française (Paris, Albin Michel, 1997).

    39 Toast number thirteen was ‘Au gouvernement qui préfère des citoyens armés à des esclaves armés’, Le Moniteur Universel, vol. 14, Friday 23th November 1792.

    40 James Epstein & Karr, David, “Playing at Revolution: British ‘Jacobin’ Performance”, The Journal of Modern History 79:3 (2007), p. 530.

    41 See Mark Philp, “The fragmented ideology of reform”, p. 69 in Mark Philp (ed.), The French Revolution and British Popular Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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    Electronic reference

    Rachel Rogers, « “The definition of a virtuous man”: British Radicals’ Views of Citizens and Citizenship in the French Revolutionary Era », Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXI-1 | 2016, Online since 12 August 2016, connection on 16 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rfcb.921

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    About the author

    Rachel Rogers

    Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès

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    Licence Creative Commons
    Revue française de civilisation britannique est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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