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Censorship and Creativity: The Case of Sampson Perry, Radical Editor in 1790s Paris and London

Censure et Créativité : Sampson Perry, éditeur militant à Londres et à Paris pendant les années 1790
Rachel Rogers

Résumés

Nous nous pencherons, dans cet article, sur l’histoire de Sampson Perry, personnage marginal mais fascinant au sein du mouvement militant britannique de la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Nous tenterons de montrer que, face à la censure et à travers différentes expériences de répression, à la fois en France et en Grande-Bretagne pendant les années 1790, son militantisme politique, loin de s’éteindre, se galvanise et s’amplifie. Nous nous intéresserons tout d’abord à son départ en exil dans le Paris révolutionnaire après avoir été poursuivi à maintes reprises pour diffamation sous l’administration de William Pitt, puis à sa place au sein du groupe britannique militant à Paris et enfin à son retour en Grande-Bretagne après une période d’emprisonnement en France pendant la Terreur. Ce faisant, nous tâcherons de montrer en quoi la réaction de Perry face aux contraintes est innovatrice. Sa résistance est tenace, trouvant d’autres modes d’expression inédites malgré le contexte politique dans lequel il opère, où la dissidence politique est de moins en moins tolérée.

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  • 1 See for example the work of Iain McCalman on Newgate prison, “Newgate in Revolution: Radical Enthus (...)

1Scholars of radicalism have brought to light the ways in which governmental repression and restrictions on expression in the 1790s could produce rather than preclude a vibrant and innovative dissident culture.1 James Epstein and David Karr have contended that:

  • 2 James Epstein and David Karr, “’Playing at Revolution’: British Jacobin Performance,” The Journal o (...)

radical meanings cannot be understood independently from the terms restricting their articulation, including imperatives dictating strategies of indirection, the adaptation of language and behaviour “on the margins of legal sanction.” In this sense, government prohibitions on expression were not wholly negative; they were also productive of meaning.2

2Restrictions on expression, in this reading, could prompt creative responses which went some way to challenging the loyalist status quo. Sometimes these responses could combine outward respect for legal parameters with covert defiance or make way for more underground forms of militancy.

3In this paper I would like to examine the case of Sampson Perry, a radical editor in 1790s London and Paris, in the slipstream of these scholarly insights. Perry has been particularly vulnerable to broad-brush portraits of radical activists as victims of governmental repression. Indicted for sedition and cajoled into exile in revolutionary Paris in 1792 after numerous earlier prison terms and fines, his Argus newspaper was dismantled in the wake of his flight, his offices henceforth publishing the ministerial True Briton. Following a prolonged period of incarceration in Paris during the Terror, he returned to Britain only to be taken up on previous sedition charges and imprisoned in Newgate jail.

4My intention is to demonstrate that Perry was not simply a plaything of the ruling authorities, forced into exile, deprived of leverage and agency as well as his civil freedom, despite the undeniable restrictions he operated under. There was a significant degree of choice, planning and imaginative endeavour in his decision to leave London for Paris in late 1792. Equally, Perry’s experience of repression was a generative one, the motor of his ongoing political self-definition. Exile, first-hand experience of the French Revolution, incarceration in Paris and an extended jail term in Newgate were politicising and energising, honing his radical views, bringing him into contact with a network of radical activists and inspiring an unprecedented stream of published writings. These publications were subversive in their message and form, contributing to the emergence of a particular brand of defiance in late 1790s Britain.

5I will begin by highlighting the particular context in which Perry was active in the early 1790s and the way in which ministerial agents clamped down on the written and spoken word after 1792. I will then turn to the first of three particular periods of Perry’s experience, his flight to Paris in late 1792, showing that Perry was significantly involved in the decision to depart. This will lead on to a brief exploration of the politicising effect of his status as a spectator of the Revolution in 1793-94. Finally, I will explore the circumstances which surrounded his return to Britain and immediate imprisonment in Newgate in the altogether different political context of 1795-96. By focusing on Perry’s major writing project from within Newgate jail, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution, I will once again contend that repression and constraint were motors of creativity, generating alternative forms of dissent.

The Impact of the French Revolution on Radical Expression

6British society and political culture were far from immune from the tremors of the French Revolution and, despite the transatlantic echoes, the events of 1789, rooted in Old World Europe, were seen in different terms compared with the struggle for American independence. In the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille, therefore, calls for an overhaul of the unreformed British parliament, criticism of the unwritten constitution and oligarchic corruption, not novel in themselves, were gradually subject to more concerted assaults. Toleration of reformist language had narrowed considerably by 1792 and language which might have previously been considered merely dissident in the 1780s could now be easily interpreted as subversive.

  • 3 Thomas Paine, “Letter Addressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation,” in Philip S. Foner (ed (...)

7It was not only the ideas themselves and their association with what was seen as the perilously abstract political culture of revolutionary France that were considered dangerous, but their circulation among and seizure by a reading public of an increasingly wider social reach. What the political establishment feared above all was less the expression of reforming ideas by an intellectual elite than their popularisation through cheap editions and the use of plain language in pamphleteering. Thomas Paine was acutely aware of this when he wrote Part II of Rights of Man. He noted in September 1792, “The cheap edition of the first part was begun about the first of last April, and from that moment, and not before, I expected a prosecution, and the event has proved that I was not mistaken.”3

  • 4 The full title of Burke’s piece was Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings (...)
  • 5 The Society of the Friends of the People, a group of more progressive Whig politicians and sympathi (...)
  • 6 The first meeting of the London Corresponding Society took place in January 1792. Unlike existing r (...)
  • 7 For a detailed assessment of the “Proclamation against Seditious Writings” and the impact on oppos (...)

8Although Edmund Burke had spearheaded a conservative assault on what he saw as pretended French liberty as early as November 1790, sympathy with the revolutionaries was not seen as inherently subversive in the immediate aftermath of 1789.4 It was a convergence of circumstances in mid to late 1792 which triggered the beginnings of a more official clampdown on radical expression. This reaction would gain in force through 1793 to 1795. Whig politicians, early proponents of French liberty, began to step back from open enthusiasm as the Revolution veered into more violent territory.5 The emergence of popular societies in the spring of 1792 and the active dissemination of Rights of Man Part II also alarmed Whig reformers whose demands did not extend to cover any form of social reorganisation.6 Fear of the spread of revolutionary contagion to the British mainland prompted official responses as well as a host of informal intimidation tactics aimed at arresting the diffusion of reforming ideas. The Royal Proclamation of 21st May 21 1792 targeted seditious writings considered as seeking to foment discontent among the king’s subjects and destabilise the constitution, paving the way for official prosecutions. Thomas Paine was indicted for sedition on the same day as the Proclamation.7

9Behind the highly visible weapon of libel charges and public prosecutions other more pernicious tactics were employed to drive radicals underground. Reformist editors and booksellers were subject to extortionate taxes, often forcing closure or government takeover, and loyalist groups policed notorious radical taverns and meeting places. An additional tactic involved putting pressure on those indicted for sedition to seek exile. Faced with the prospect of prosecutions which were entirely controlled by the authorities, those charged knew the possibility of mounting a meaningful defence was slim. Exile forced authors, editors and publishers outside the bounds of the territory, cutting them off from their networks and, in the case of Sampson Perry, severing him from his radical printing press which would become an organ of government propaganda within a month of his departure.

10Perry, like his friend and fellow activist Thomas Paine, went into exile in what was by then republican France in late 1792. He was a member of the Society for Constitutional Information, a grouping which had begun to shed its elitist reputation of the previous decade. Perry, like fellow members and expatriate radicals John Frost and Robert Merry, seems to have encouraged connections between the SCI and the popular London Corresponding Society. Perry was also an ardent admirer of the French Revolution and a committed reformer who, through the mouthpiece of his journal the Argus, had refused to be silenced. Perry had taken up editorship of the Argus in March 1789, at a critical juncture of the reform movement in Britain. In those early years, it was officially considered as under the umbrella of the Whig opposition and, under Perry’s editorship, it adopted a conventionally liberal reformist posture. Yet, his journal became increasingly radical as events in France unfolded. Distancing itself from the Whig establishment, the Argus became the mouthpiece of more radical reforming ideas. Concerns for the freedom of the press, a classic Whig ideal, gave way to more militant calls for universal suffrage and the rights of man. His newspaper published the opening address of the London Corresponding Society in full and signalled the appearance of Part II of Rights of Man in February 1792.

  • 8 “Letter to Onslow Cranley,” 21st June 1792, in Moncure D. Conway (ed.), The Writings of Thomas Pain (...)
  • 9 Ibidem, 460.
  • 10 TNA Treasury Solicitor’s Papers (TS) 11 962 3508, record of meetings of the London Society for Cons (...)
  • 11 TS 11 965 3510 A(1), informant reports of Charles Ross sent to undersecretary at the Home Office, E (...)

11Increasingly the preferred journal of reformers, the Argus, was espousing a more radical agenda at a time when such a platform was considered increasingly subversive. Thomas Paine’s reaction to his sedition charges were published in the paper8 and Paine, writing to Lord Onslow in June 1792, refers to his letter which “has since appeared in the ‘Argus’ and probably in other papers.”9 The journal was also being used by the Society for Constitutional Information to publish its motions and its circulation was being actively encouraged by its leading members. At an SCI meeting in October 1792 it was “ordered that the secretary be directed to transmit a copy of the Argus of tomorrow to each of the members of this society.”10 A month later it was “ordered that the advertisement relative to the submission for assisting the efforts of the Friends in the Cause of Freedom be published every day during the next week in the Argus.”11

12Before 1792, Perry had already been indicted for libel more than once. He had received a cumulative jail sentence of 12 months in 1791, during which time his deputy, John King, assumed the daily management of the paper. A day after his release on 9th July 1792, Perry was again indicted for libel for a reprint of one of William Pitt’s more reforming speeches made before he took up the office of Prime Minister. Though the apparent libel had occurred while Perry was still in prison, it was he, as proprietor of the paper, who was taken up on the charges. This time he was warned that he would be arrested, deprived of writing materials and held without bail, conditions which were much more stringent than his earlier periods of incarceration. Faced with the probability of total isolation from the world of print journalism and much harsher conditions, Perry agreed to take flight to Paris.

13The paper was targeted anew and with greater force in 1792 not only because the content was more virulent than on earlier occasions, but because the political climate had altered. At a time of heightened anxiety about the intentions of radical reformers, Perry was an editor who refused to succumb to official shackling and who also continued to claim authorship of his work. He did not adhere to the unwritten rules of self-censorship and equally he contributed to the wider circulation of reforming ideas through his involvement with radical societies. A stubborn refusal to tame radical expression, outspoken authorship and participation in disseminating ideas favourable to the republican turn in France were characteristics which marked Perry out. He left for France in November 1792.

  • 12 Werkmeister quotes a letter from William Augustus Miles to Charles Long on 24th September 1792 in w (...)
  • 13 The Times, 5th January 1793, quoted in Werkmeister, op.cit., 197.

14Government organs had already suggested that Perry was subsidised by the French government before his departure, with one newspaper implying that the Argus was one of two daily newspapers in London “actually bribed by the Jacobins in France.”12 The void left by Perry’s absence exposed him to further criticism. The Times, a supporter of the Pitt ministry, reported on 5th January 1793, “The Argus newspaper was intended to be re-printed in Paris on the 1st of January. The Conductor may there give unlimited scope to his treasonable abuse of our Government.”13 Shortly after his departure to France in late 1792, Perry’s newspaper offices were occupied by government officials and the Argus ceased to exist. This abrupt erasure of the traces of his radical press is emphasised today by the sparse remnants of the pre-1792 Argus in newspaper holdings.

Agency and Creativity in Response to Ministerial Repression

  • 14 Most historians, including Guy Aldred, John Goldworth Alger, Lionel D. Woodward and chronicler of p (...)

15At first sight, Perry’s decision to flee the country seems a case of submission to the machine of government repression and has even been cited as a benchmark for libel prosecutions in the eighteenth century.14 Yet while there is no doubt that Perry’s decision was largely due to the particular legal dilemma in which he found himself, it seems important to recognise that he also viewed expatriation to revolutionary France as an opportunity to exploit new openings. Sources seem to hint that Perry, once convinced that the repressive conditions in Britain would be intensified, made a conscious decision to go to France with the intention of securing the republication of his Argus in Paris.

  • 15 TS 11 965 3510 A(2) Wednesday 8th August 1792, Ross to Evan Nepean. Though we cannot be sure that t (...)
  • 16 TS 11 965 3510 A(2) 9thOctober 1792, Ross to Nepean.

16Perry’s plan progressively matured during the summer months of 1792 and cannot be considered a mere kneejerk reaction to imminent arrest. He was in close contact with Thomas Paine, who would depart for France in September, three months before Perry, and who would also be closely involved with the gathering of British radicals centred on White’s Hotel in Paris. Home Office informant Charles Ross reported that “On Friday last Capt’n Perry (Editor of the Argus) was with P_ in his room for a considerable time.”15 Perry was also in France in October 1792, attempting to generate interest for his newspaper in Paris. Ross reported from within the SCI camp that, “Captain Perry of the Argus is gone to France in order to establish Correspondents for his Paper […].”16

17Shortly after his arrival in Paris, the re-publication of Perry’s journal was announced in the January 1793 edition of La Chronique du Mois. The announcement, which included the news that Perry’s friend Thomas Paine would contribute to the journal, was followed by an appeal from Perry himself:

  • 17 La Chronique du Mois: ou, les cahiers patriotiques, January 1793, 80.

It must however give some satisfaction to the advocates for European freedom, and to the friends of the human race in general, should they find that their Argus is not banished from the world, but that it has only been transplanted from the region of tyranny, injustice and oppression to [t]his happy soil of Liberty, Equality.17

  • 18 McCalman suggests that Perry “may have been involved in efforts to found an ultraradical émigré new (...)

18If the physical apparatus of his printing venture had been colonised by an organ of the government press in London, Perry believed his enterprise could be relocated to Paris where, for the time being, a fierce cosmopolitan spirit still reigned. It is unlikely that this project reached fruition however, and no copies of the French Argus are traceable.18 The imminent outbreak of war is probably a key factor in the ultimate failure of the publication enterprise. Yet this does not detract from the fact that the initiative existed, that Perry made concerted attempts to realise his publication endeavour and that his arrival in Paris was filled with innovative potential.

  • 19 I. McCalman, op.cit., 2005.

19Not only did Perry perform a creative detour in avoiding persecution in Britain and pursuing a private publication project despite the restrictive political climate, but his experience of state repression fostered a particular brand of political discourse. As Iain McCalman has noted, “[Perry] is one of the 1790s ultraradicals whose political extremism crystallized as a direct consequence of counter-revolutionary repression.”19 Persecution, government intransigence in the face of calls for reform, the colonisation of his printing press, perceived betrayal by associates and biased readings of his newspaper in Britain all inflected his outlook, as did first-hand experience of the French Revolution and its idealists and his experience of Terror.

  • 20 My translation. Letter cited in the Affaire Marat, Archives Nationales, W 269 n° 16 folio 30: « un (...)

20Perry, an active member of the British radical club in Paris, was considered one of the most unflinching British supporters of the French Revolution. He was nominated for special civic recognition as late as March 1793, one month after the outbreak of war with Britain, an honour reserved for only the most partisan foreign admirers of the Revolution. During the trial of Jean-Paul Marat in April of the same year, Perry was called as a witness to testify to an affair involving a fellow British resident, William Johnson. One French citizen described him as “a gallant man, a victim of his love for the French Revolution, he fled his country where he had a price on his head for having defended republican principles in a paper he wrote under the name of the argus of the people.”20 Yet, despite special pleas on his behalf in the National Convention, Perry succumbed in late 1793 to the general backlash towards British residents in Paris, spending 14 months in French jails during the Terror, eventually being released in November 1794. He returned to Britain a few months later only to be denounced by a former acquaintance, taken up on previous sedition charges and sent to Newgate prison. His exile therefore only postponed his incarceration, and Perry was one of a handful of British radicals who fell victim to the prison system both sides of the Channel. Yet his brief freedom in Paris was a vital period in his political education and inspired his ensuing publication enterprise which would dominate his time in Newgate.

Perry’s Return and the Changing Climate of Wartime Britain

21In the period between Perry’s departure into exile and his return to the British mainland the political climate had been transformed. Before the outbreak of war with revolutionary France, disagreement with the status quo was tolerated to a certain extent and outward expression of discord or desire for political change, though not entirely free of risk, was not as heavily policed as it was after 1793. There was even a degree of convergence between sectors of the political elite and radical associations as to the welcome nature of the political change occurring across the Channel. Although the more outspoken radical editors and printers, such as Perry himself, were undeniably threatened with sedition charges or nudged into exile, space for overt criticism remained.

  • 21 Timothy Morton and Nigel Smith (eds.), Radicalism in British Literary Culture, 1650 - 1830: From R (...)

22This relative toleration narrowed once war with France had broken out, an event which prompted renewed fear of foreign invasion and conspiracy from within. The Scottish Martyrs were sentenced to transportation for their role in the convening of the British Convention, mirrored on the National Convention of France and in May 1794 key members of the radical London Corresponding Society were arrested and detained in Newgate prison or the Tower of London on charges of treason. Their acquittal in November of the same year did not substantially ease the pressure on radical activists and the 1795 Two Acts, or “Gagging” Acts, revised the terms of treason offences and banned large-scale public gatherings in an attempt to dissipate popular association. As Morton and Smith put it, “the Gagging Acts necessitated forms of communication more tortuous than direct speech.”21 Direct forms of political opposition could be encompassed in new and draconian definitions of treason or sedition. Expressions of protest therefore found outlets either in underground, militant movements or sometimes through more codified defiance which heeded the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

23Not only had the terms of reference changed for radical activists, but many, like Perry, now found themselves detainees in political wings of prisons, a circumstance which dictated new responses to the articulation of opposition. Although, on the one hand, the conditions of incarceration restricted the expression of dissent in that behaviour and writing were heavily policed, publications vetted and associations closely monitored, on the other hand the prison experience could intensify grievances, foster alliances between fellow inmates and, in the case of Newgate, prompt the forging of a hub of radical exchange which fuelled rather than dissipated opposition.

Perry’s Major Publication Venture: Covert Defiance in An Historical Sketch …

24Once again behind bars, Perry began a major writing venture which would occupy his early years in Newgate. His previously banned Argus newspaper reappeared in two bound volumes, he printed a tract entitled Oppression!!! in which he defended himself against charges that his return to Britain was caused by disillusionment, wrote his An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution, a monumental 1,200-page, two-volume work of which he secured publication through one of his fellow Newgate inmates, the radical publisher H. D. Symonds and published a more abstract tract on the foundations of social organisation, The Origin of Government, in 1797. The title pages of these works bear the defiant trace of Perry’s former status. In brackets we find after his name, “late editor of the Argus”, the irrepressible symbol of his persecution and defining trait of his political persona.

25Perry’s work is an example of what historian Iain McCalman has termed “the paradoxical outcome of the unfreedom of Newgate”. McCalman writes:

  • 22 I. McCalman, op. cit., 107.

To Habermas, democracy arises from conditions of rational freedom, prison is an instrument of state surveillance and human disempowerment. In the particular and peculiar circumstances of Newgate in the 1790s, however, we see a paradoxical reversal. It was because they were locked up together, threatened with death, and subjected to prurient surveillance that Newgate radicals were able to make an enthusiastic cultural revolution.22

26For McCalman, a powerful subculture located within the walls of Newgate jail emerged during the last years of the 1790s. Civilian detainees, behind bars for political misdemeanours, were incarcerated together, often sharing living quarters and engaging in webs of sociability while they served their sentences. Radical editors, publishers, writers and artists rubbed shoulders but also provided momentum for a number of collective publication projects which would emerge from Newgate, providing inspiration not only for contemporary radical activists but also for later writers of the post-war age. The conditions of detention, the narrowing toleration of dissent and the proximity of a core nucleus of activists forged a collective spirit which could be considered as a founding element in the emergence of an alternative culture.

  • 23 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, 1992, London: Yale University Press, 2009 [199 (...)

27The danger for those of us attempting to interpret the forms of dissidence that manifested themselves in the period after the outbreak of revolutionary war with France is that of falling into the same interpretative mechanisms as the authorities at the time, perceiving sedition and treason in even the most innocuous gestures. When opposition goes underground or assumes more illicit or disguised forms, we can never be entirely sure of the veracity of our attempts to define them. While certain forms of behaviour may certainly suggest a subversive subtext, misreadings are an inevitable pitfall. Historian Linda Colley has argued that, although dissenting voices did exist in the loyalist-dominated climate of mid to late 1790s wartime Britain, “we should not let them drown out the other, apparently more conventional, voices of those far greater numbers of Britons who, for many different reasons, supported the successive war efforts.”23 While Colley is surely right in that radical voices were marginal after 1793, this does not detract from the fact that those voices continued to exist and could, as in the case of Perry, articulate themselves in innovative and dynamic ways.

28As I have noted, Perry’s early political engagement as a journalist is a story of open rebellion. Satirical jibes at government ministers, refusal to be silenced and persistence in ensuring that news of the publication of Paine’s tract was circulated all marked Perry out as one of the most ultra-radical and defiant newspapermen of his time. On his return to Britain in 1794-5, the political context had shifted significantly and outward manifestations of opposition had been heavily curtailed by successive ministerial assaults. Yet a study of Perry’s major Newgate work of the late 1790s, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution, reveals that dissidence and opposition did not end with these assaults but could assume new shapes. A number of subversive mechanisms exist in Perry’s Historical Sketch both in the explicit content but also in its latent message and form.

29Perry probably began this major work for a number of coinciding reasons, many of them stimulated rather than hampered by his status as an inmate of a London prison. In Newgate he had the time to set to work on penning an account which he hoped would revise the dominant perceptions of the French Revolution peddled by loyalist activists and other less favourable eyewitness accounts of revolution such as William Playfair’s The History of Jacobinism, Its Crimes, Cruelties and Perfidies, published the same year. Playfair, also a spectator of the French Revolution, wrote:

  • 24 William Playfair, The History of Jacobinism, Its Crimes, Cruelties and Perfidies: Comprising an Inq (...)

I am a greater advocate for liberty than those who call themselves reformers and patriots […]. I appeal therefore to the history of the sect against which I have written, to shew that the most disorderly and cruel despotism was exercised under the appearance of liberty and justice; that far from being an enemy to liberty, I am its friend, though I do not chuse to join in the general deception that has been practised with regard to what has been called French liberty.24

30Perry set out with an altogether different aim, noting in his preface:

  • 25 Sampson Perry, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution; Commencing with its Predisposing Caus (...)

A people long distinguished for the refinement of their manners, and for the brilliancy of their wit and genius, setting to surrounding nations a glorious example, by vindicating the injured rights of man, against opposition the most formidable that can be conceived, is one of those occurrences which cannot be magnified by the power of language. To spurn under foot the idols of tyranny and superstition by the influence of reason, — to erect, on the ruins of arbitrary power, the glorious edifice of civil liberty, — is a spectacle worthy of earth and heaven.25

31Perry wanted to make his hours in Newgate beneficial for posterity, educating British citizens on the true nature of the Revolution. He also set out to expose his own particular treatment at the hands of the ruling ministry, prefacing his Sketch with a deeply personal account of his own persecution and using his text to defend himself against accusations that he had become disillusioned with French liberty. Yet a key, though more implicit, aim of his writing project would appear to be to call into question the validity of the British system of representative government, the institution of monarchy and the rectitude of ministers. He also attempted to incite the British people to shake off their apathy and assume a civic role in politics and society.

32In the climate which reigned in 1795-96, open denunciation of the British constitution or ruling elite could easily be classed as treason. Perry therefore chose to disguise his criticism of the British state by packaging his text as a historical account of a foreign revolution. His Sketch was a filter through which he saw British decadence, a hybrid construction which certainly aimed at providing an alternative reading of revolution but which was equally concerned with perpetuating a discourse of opposition through a less contentious form than his earlier preferred medium of print journalism, in view of the more restrictive parameters at work in wartime Britain. In his writing, Perry exposed implicitly what, as editor of the Argus, he had denounced explicitly, namely the decadence of British political culture, the lack of transparency in decision-making, the moral vacuity of kings and their ministers, the need for external reform of government, the repressive context of the old regime and the unaccountability of ministers to the people they represented. The text is infused with the language of British political culture, despite the ostensible focus on revolutionary France.

33Take for example Perry’s denunciation of monarchy. Though anchored in the political context of France, he glides effortlessly from a critique of Louis XVI’s circle of advisers to the general frailty of monarchy, an observation which could not fail to allude to the much-maligned George III of England, seen as the pawn of Pitt and his cohorts. He states:

  • 26 Ibidem, 239.

It is the exclusive misfortune of a king to have advisers who always push him on to extremities and dangers. There is no situation in which a monarch may be found, that certain people about him will not make more hazardous and invidious from their own sinister and selfish views and impulses.26

  • 27 Ibid., 261. Original emphasis.

34On another occasion, while lauding the transparency and accountability of deputies in the National Convention, Perry asserts, “The members had not sat long enough to forget the limits of the authority given to them by their diplomas”.27 He hints that in other instances, where assemblies had more historical legitimacy or at least the advantage of longevity, clearly by implication the British parliament, representatives of the people were no longer instilled with a notion of public service and had become divested of their vocation and duty to serve. This was a key part of the British reforming platform, the re-establishment of true representative government in the place of what was seen as the corrupt British establishment.

35Equally, Perry focuses on a key event of the Revolution, the establishment of the Estates General. He puts forward the protests of different deputations against the Cour Plenière, seen as a body which would usurp the rights of Commoners:

  • 28 Ibid., 20. Original emphasis.

The parliaments all cried out against this new institution; and that of Britanny [sic], sent up a deputation to protest against it as illegal, upon the principle that the nation was dissatisfied with the government; that it insisted upon a reform, but that the government had no right to reform itself; that it was unnatural to expect it would be done effectually, as it was presumptuous to attempt it at all.28

36Once again there is a striking echo of British radical discourse in the 1790s and in particular of Thomas Paine. In his Letter Addressed to the Addressers of September 1792, Paine had stated:

  • 29 “Letter Addressed to the Addressers,” in P. Foner, op.cit., 477.

I consider the reform of Parliament, by an application to Parliament, as proposed by the Society, to be a worn-out, hackneyed subject, about which the nation is tired, and the parties are deceiving each other. It is not a subject which is cognizable before Parliament, because no government has the right to alter itself, either in whole or in part. The right, and the exercise of that right, appertains to the nation only, and the proper means is by a national convention, elected for the purpose, by all the people.29

37Paine had been one of a number of reformers who insisted that a political system could not be changed from within. Perry, a friend and proponent of Paine’s ideas, was trying to perpetuate a Paineite discourse of radical reform in wartime Britain through the lens of revolutionary France.

  • 30 S. Perry, op. cit., 21.

38Perry’s view of the French people revises that put forward by antagonists of the Revolution who represented the French as a bloodthirsty and violent mob. He insists on their constancy and hunger for freedom, their anxiety to establish their rights and dignity. The spirit of the nation fuelled a determination for popular representation. He states, “nothing less than calling a national council seemed likely to satisfy the people.”30 The implicit references to the British state of affairs are patent. Not only had notable radicals been sentenced to transportation for attempting to establish such a national council, in the form of a British Convention, but Perry’s fellow associates from the London Corresponding Society had only just been released from Newgate after being charged with treason for wanting to establish an alternative seat of power. Perry consistently chastised the British people for their want of robustness and constancy in campaigning for greater popular representation.

  • 31 Ibidem, 180.
  • 32 Ibid., 184.

39Perry also uses techniques of authorial distanciation, selecting key speeches from the National Assembly which were heavily critical of the British political system and inserting them verbatim in his tract. To give one example, in the outline of the 1791 debate about whether the king should have an absolute or a suspensive veto over decisions made in the Assembly, Perry purports to step back, letting the voices of the actors speak for themselves. While disclaiming ownership of the arguments, he selects the material which undoubtedly fitted with his own radical sentiments. He quotes a contribution by Chevalier de Lameth who argues, “The example of English is held out to us; but that France should once have sighed after her form of government is no proof of its perfection […].”31 He also cites Rabaud de St. Etienne who states, “Let us cast our eyes on England, the upper chamber is only a remnant of the feudal government; whilst the house of commons presents us with the result of national liberty, respecting even the impotent relics of an usurped power […].”32 Perry thus cleverly shields himself from direct association with denunciations of kingship.

  • 33 Albert Boime, “The Sketch and Caricature as Metaphors for the French Revolution,” Zeitschrift für K (...)

40Perry’s account is subversive in its explicit defence of the Revolution, in its implicit call for a transformation of British political culture, and in his biased selection of extracts from Assembly debates, but equally in the written form chosen to explore these themes. This is not a History, but an Historical Sketch. As Albert Boime has argued, the sketch is a hasty piece, open to amateurs, without the claim to perfection of great works of art.33 Perry had no pretensions to excellence and insisted that the merit of his account was to be found in the quickness of its publication rather than its intrinsic authorial qualities. He denies the possibility of compiling a complete history of the Revolution:

  • 34 S. Perry, op. cit., 1-2.

I have not presumed to call this a History of the French Revolution, but am contented in giving it the title of a Sketch. […] Many such sketches, under the denomination of Remarks, Observations, &c. will be required to the forming a perfect history; and, indeed, many partial histories of the different portions of the great whole, will doubtless be offered to the world ere the inquisitive, in search of the whole truth, will sit down contented […].34

41In sculpting his account as a sketch, Perry was undoubtedly undermining Burke’s argument that writing the Revolution based on immediate events was tantamount to misrepresentation.

42Perry’s Sketch was undoubtedly subversive on an explicit level through its alternative reading of the Revolution, rare for its time and radical in the extent of its defence of what had become a stigmatised event in Britain. Yet it seems undeniable that the text also expressed dissent in less overt ways. The echoes of core British reforming platforms permeate the text. In purporting to allow the voices of key figures of the Revolution to be included in an unmediated fashion, Perry refrains from engaging in direct criticism of the British political structure, while at the same time actively selecting the arguments put forward to undermine the legitimacy of the status quo. And finally, the very medium he chooses, the sketch, an immediate reading based on feeling, subverted establishment claims that true history could only be written based on studied enquiry and distance.

  • 35 See M. Scrivener, op.cit., 11-13.

43Perry’s Historical Sketch, though not mobilising the mass readership of Paine’s Rights of Man, its 1,200 dense pages not being conducive to the cultivation of an extensive reading public, particularly in the wartime climate of 1795-96, was a spirited defence of the French Revolution as well as a covert attack on the weaknesses of the British state. Perry was not the only radical to continue a tradition of dissent through veiled channels. John Thelwall, also an inmate of Newgate prior to Perry’s arrival, had been famed for his public lectures on political topics which drew large crowds. In the wake of the treason trials, Thelwall stepped back from political lecturing, choosing instead to deliver a course of historical lectures on subjects from classical antiquity. Yet despite the apparently harmless historical focus of his speeches, Thelwall made considerable use of allegory in his lecture series, which contained, according to Michael Scrivener, transparent but legally deniable seditious references.35 The use of covert mechanisms of dissent and dissemination was seemingly widespread in the repressive context of wartime Britain and illustrates the ways in which radical activists were able to carve out creative opportunities within the repressive framework of wartime Britain.

44While Britons began to define themselves in opposition to the French, and this negative self-definition was essential to the forging of a particular British identity, some individuals, undeniably on the margins and hounded for their outspoken views, held the advent of and continuity of revolution in France in an entirely different regard. Many of those in exile in Paris or locked up in Newgate jail would engage in creative endeavours in response to censorship or repression. Perry used the example of France to inspire the emergence of a spirit of cultural and civic renewal. Yet his subversiveness was no longer expressed through open defiance in the radical press but in the choice of publishing projects which through their subject matter, style and form, maintained a discourse of opposition despite the undeniable constraints in place by the turn of the century. Though, by 1795, portraits of the French Revolution generally converged around the notion of horror, Perry persisted in presenting the event from a different angle, one which encompassed an alternative vision of British political life.

45Repression muted the expression of dissent in Britain, sometimes forcing it outside the physical boundaries of the country. Yet the very act of prosecuting writing or publishing could precipitate the politicisation and radicalisation of its victims, in some cases enhanced through proximity with revolutionary France. Such convergences ultimately generated new and vibrant political discourses which were no less vehement in their criticism of British political culture. In the case of Sampson Perry, persecution and imprisonment in both France and Britain prompted innovative attempts to bypass censorship, the forging of new networks of defiance, political radicalisation, tenacious defence of the spirit of revolution, a wealth of textual production, stubborn refusal of conformity and an unerring defiance towards government attempts to regulate the written word.

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Bibliographie

BLACK Jeremy, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1991.

BOIME Albert, “The Sketch and Caricature as Metaphors for the French Revolution,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 55 Bd., H. 2, 1992: 256-267.

COLLEY Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, London: Yale University Press, 2009 [1992].

CONWAY Moncure D. (ed.), The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. 3, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

EPSTEIN James and David KARR, “’Playing at Revolution’: British Jacobin Performance,” The Journal of Modern History 79, September 2007: 495-530.

FONER Philip S. (ed.), The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, New York: Citadel Press, 1945.

McCALMAN Iain, “Newgate in Revolution: Radical Enthusiasm and Romantic Counterculture,” Eighteenth Century Life 22, February 1998: 95-110.

MORTON Timothy and Nigel SMITH, (eds.), Radicalism in British Literary Culture, 1650-1830: From Revolution to Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

PERRY Sampson, An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution; Commencing with its Predisposing Causes, and Carried on to the Acceptation of the Constitution, in 1795, London: Symonds, 1796.

PLAYFAIR William, The History of Jacobinism, Its Crimes, Cruelties and Perfidies: Comprising an Inquiry Into the Manner of Disseminating, under the Appearance of Philosophy and Virtue, Principles Which are Equally Subversive of Order, Virtue, Religion, Liberty and Happiness, Philadelphia: Cobbett, 1796.

SCRIVENER Michael, Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall & Jacobin Writing, Penn: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

WERKMEISTER Lucyle, A Newspaper History of England, 1792-1793, Lincoln: U. of Nebraska Press, 1967.

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Notes

1 See for example the work of Iain McCalman on Newgate prison, “Newgate in Revolution: Radical Enthusiasm and Romantic Counterculture,” Eighteenth Century Life 22, February 1998: 95-110 and Michael Scrivener’s study of John Thelwall, Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall & Jacobin Writing, Penn: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

2 James Epstein and David Karr, “’Playing at Revolution’: British Jacobin Performance,” The Journal of Modern History 79, September 2007: 530.

3 Thomas Paine, “Letter Addressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation,” in Philip S. Foner (ed.), The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, New York: Citadel Press, 1945, 486.

4 The full title of Burke’s piece was Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event in a letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Paris, by the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, London: J. Dodsley, 1790.

5 The Society of the Friends of the People, a group of more progressive Whig politicians and sympathisers with the cause of parliamentary reform, began to draw back from its initial support for the Revolution during the course of 1792.

6 The first meeting of the London Corresponding Society took place in January 1792. Unlike existing reform societies such as the Revolution Society and the Society for Constitutional Information, the LCS was accessible to artisans and mechanics for a negligible membership fee.

7 For a detailed assessment of the “Proclamation against Seditious Writings” and the impact on opposition newspapers, see Lucyle Werkmeister, A Newspaper History of England, 1792-1793, Lincoln: U. of Nebraska Press, 1967, 79-85. Werkmeister also pieces together the early history of Sampson Perry’s prosecutions.

8 “Letter to Onslow Cranley,” 21st June 1792, in Moncure D. Conway (ed.), The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. 3, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

9 Ibidem, 460.

10 TNA Treasury Solicitor’s Papers (TS) 11 962 3508, record of meetings of the London Society for Constitutional Information.

11 TS 11 965 3510 A(1), informant reports of Charles Ross sent to undersecretary at the Home Office, Evan Nepean.

12 Werkmeister quotes a letter from William Augustus Miles to Charles Long on 24th September 1792 in which he claims to have had “several hints […] from Frenchmen in constant relation and intimacy with M. de Chauvelin [the French Minister Plenipotentiary] and his family, that the editors of the ‘Morning Chronicle’ and of the ‘Argus’ have received considerable sums of money, and that they have each of them a large monthly allowance,” op.cit., 113.

13 The Times, 5th January 1793, quoted in Werkmeister, op.cit., 197.

14 Most historians, including Guy Aldred, John Goldworth Alger, Lionel D. Woodward and chronicler of print journalism in the eighteenth century, Jeremy Black, have agreed that Perry’s flight was an attempt to escape prosecution and confinement. Black suggests that, “The Argus, a paper that had defended such radicals as Tom Paine, and was content to link its fortune ‘to the Revolution of France’, was ended, its printer Sampson Perry having been outlawed when he fled to France to avoid trial for libel.” The English Press in the Eighteenth Century, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1991, 185.

15 TS 11 965 3510 A(2) Wednesday 8th August 1792, Ross to Evan Nepean. Though we cannot be sure that the “P_” referred to in Charles Ross’s report is Paine, there is a strong chance that the notorious reformer and author of Rights of Man was the individual in question.

16 TS 11 965 3510 A(2) 9thOctober 1792, Ross to Nepean.

17 La Chronique du Mois: ou, les cahiers patriotiques, January 1793, 80.

18 McCalman suggests that Perry “may have been involved in efforts to found an ultraradical émigré newspaper, the Argus in Paris, later edited by Thomas Dutton and Lewis Goldsmith.” Entry on Perry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2005.

19 I. McCalman, op.cit., 2005.

20 My translation. Letter cited in the Affaire Marat, Archives Nationales, W 269 n° 16 folio 30: « un galant homme victime de son amour pour la révolution française il a fui son pays où sa tête est mise à prix pour avoir défendu les principes républicains dans une feuille qu’il rédigeait sous le nom de l’argus du people ».

21 Timothy Morton and Nigel Smith (eds.), Radicalism in British Literary Culture, 1650 - 1830: From Revolution to Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 19.

22 I. McCalman, op. cit., 107.

23 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, 1992, London: Yale University Press, 2009 [1992], 5.

24 William Playfair, The History of Jacobinism, Its Crimes, Cruelties and Perfidies: Comprising an Inquiry Into the Manner of Disseminating, under the Appearance of Philosophy and Virtue, Principles Which are Equally Subversive of Order, Virtue, Religion, Liberty and Happiness, Philadelphia: Cobbett, 1796, preface 19-20.

25 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, London: Symonds, 1796, preface v-vi.

26 Ibidem, 239.

27 Ibid., 261. Original emphasis.

28 Ibid., 20. Original emphasis.

29 “Letter Addressed to the Addressers,” in P. Foner, op.cit., 477.

30 S. Perry, op. cit., 21.

31 Ibidem, 180.

32 Ibid., 184.

33 Albert Boime, “The Sketch and Caricature as Metaphors for the French Revolution,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 55 Bd., H. 2, 1992.

34 S. Perry, op. cit., 1-2.

35 See M. Scrivener, op.cit., 11-13.

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Référence électronique

Rachel Rogers, « Censorship and Creativity: The Case of Sampson Perry, Radical Editor in 1790s Paris and London », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2013, consulté le 20 août 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5205 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5205

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Auteur

Rachel Rogers

Toulouse Le Mirail University, France. Rachel Rogers recently obtained her doctorate at the University of Toulouse Le Mirail, with a dissertation entitled “Vectors of Revolution: The British Radical Community in Early Republican Paris, 1792-1794.” She has given papers at the British Association of Romanticism Studies annual conference (Glasgow, 2011), the York Cultural History Conference on “Conspiracies Real and Imagined” (2011) and the “Locating Revolution: Place, Voice and Community 1780-1820” conference organised by the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth in July 2012. She currently teaches at the Teacher Training College in Toulouse.

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