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Rémy Duthille, Le Discours radical en Grande-Bretagne, 1768-1789

Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2017. xi + 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-729-41204-9
Rachel Hammersley
Bibliographical reference

Duthille, Rémy. – Le Discours radical en Grande-Bretagne, 1768-1789. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2017. xi + 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-729-41204-9

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1British radicals of the 1770s and 1780s have not received much scholarly attention, especially when compared with those of the 1790s or the nineteenth-century Chartists. Rémy Duthille’s book Le Discours radical en Grande Bretagne, 1768-1789 seeks to remedy this neglect and also offers an explanation for it. The radicals of this period, Duthille suggests, have been perceived as lacking unity and consistency due to tensions between English constitutionalism or patriotism and natural rights universalism or cosmopolitanism. Yet Duthille turns the issue around, arguing that the coherent position of these radicals was actually grounded in their management of that tension.

2Duthille’s book focuses on two important radical societies of the period – the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) and the Revolution Society – and within them on two key individuals – John Cartwright and Richard Price. He argues that they are ideal figures to explore this tension, since they stand at opposite poles on a spectrum, with Cartwright more closely associated with English constitutionalism and Price renowned for his cosmopolitanism.

3The SCI was established in the spring of 1780 with a mission to disseminate “knowledge of the great principles of Constitutional Freedom” throughout the nation, doing this largely via publications. SCI members were also at the forefront of the campaign for parliamentary reform. The Revolution Society’s origins are less certain. Some claim that it had been meeting annually since 1689 to commemorate William of Orange’s arrival in England, others have argued that it only emerged in 1788. Yet Duthille has found solid evidence that it was meeting regularly from 1765. Its main focus was the annual sermon and dinner held each year on 4 November.

4Major John Cartwright was a leading figure in the SCI and a committed advocate of parliamentary reform, playing a central role following the publication of his influential pamphlet Take Your Choice in 1776. Cartwright had a naval background, but he sacrificed his career by refusing to fight in the American War, ending up, instead, heading the Nottinghamshire militia. Richard Price was a leading dissenting minister and came to prominence in 1776 with his controversial Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty. His legacy is closely bound up with the Revolution Society, since he delivered the commemorative sermon on 4 November 1789, which was subsequently published as A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, a crucial spur to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

5Far from their attitudes towards patriotism and cosmopolitanism pulling them apart, Duthille argues that radicals at all points on the spectrum benefited from using both discourses, and that the two could prove complementary. After introducing the two societies and the individuals associated with them in Chapter 1, and exploring the two discourses – and their potential for integration – in general terms in Chapter 2, Duthille turns in Chapters 3 and 4 to a more detailed examination of exactly how the two were combined in the works of Price and Cartwright respectively. To some extent their choice of discourse depended on genre, purpose and audience. For example, Price’s petition to the King of 1775 was written in more constitutionalist language than his Observations. Moreover, in the first, more theoretical, section of Observations, the natural law discourse is dominant, whereas the second, more practical, part is more reminiscent of constitutionalism. In SCI publications, complex constitutionalist language was simplified so that no specialist knowledge was required. Duthille also shows that Cartwright’s earliest works were more strongly influenced by natural rights, suggesting that he only adopted constitutionalism as his dominant mode of argument from 1776. Cartwright also continued to cite natural right when constitutional precedents failed him. Consequently, while much of Take Your Choice is in the constitutionalist mode, there are several passages inspired by John Locke.

6The two discourses could also be integrated in more complex ways. Duthille argues that Price’s natural law theory was distinctively English, grounded in Locke rather than Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Moreover, while he wrote as a citizen of the world, he simultaneously evoked English memory and used references to practices sanctioned by tradition to temper his arguments. Building on the detailed analysis of Chapters 3 and 4, Chapter 5 focuses on the employment and integration of these discourses in debates surrounding parliamentary reform and the militia. Chapter 6 considers how the use of these discourses (and the tensions between them) affected the attitude of English radicals to the plight of Welsh, Scottish and Irish citizens, and explores their relationships with reformers elsewhere in the UK. It also addresses the radicals’ attitude to Britain’s place in the world and, in particular, the problem posed by the American Revolution. Appeals to English patriotism were used in support of the Americans against the British government, but since victory for the radicals’ ideas meant defeat for their country, they were vulnerable to accusations of treason. Finally, Chapter 7 focuses on Price’s Discourse, presenting his sense that “universal benevolence” is the most elevated form of patriotism as a culmination of the story told in this book.

7Duthille’s Le Discours radical en Grande-Bretagne is an important book, both for its treatment of a neglected subject and for its innovative, complex, and forensically argued claims. However, I do have a concern about the variation of the terms used to describe the discourses. For instance, sometimes constitutionalism is contrasted with natural rights, at other times it is patriotism versus universalism, and occasionally the ancient constitution is opposed to cosmopolitanism. By the end of the book the different discourses do become clearly differentiated, but this is less true earlier on; and I remain unconvinced that constitutionalism and patriotism or natural rights universalism and cosmopolitanism can be treated as synonymous. Linked to this is the question of the place of the English republican tradition within this story. For much of the book that tradition is downplayed, despite the fact that most of the figures discussed have been linked to it. Moreover, where it is mentioned it tends to be equated with English constitutionalism. This is problematic. The supposed conflict between civic humanism and liberalism is not identical with that between historic rights and natural rights; and both dichotomies have been criticised in the past.

8Despite these issues, however, this book constitutes a significant contribution to the study of English radicalism and of eighteenth-century political thought more generally, and deserves to be widely read.

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Electronic reference

Rachel Hammersley, Rémy Duthille, Le Discours radical en Grande-Bretagne, 1768-1789XVII-XVIII [Online], 75 | 2018, Online since 31 December 2018, connection on 21 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Rachel Hammersley

Newcastle University – School of History, Classics and Archeology

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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