London Revolution Society (act. 1788–1793)
by Rémy Duthille

London Revolution Society (act. 1788–1793) was an association of political reformers who came together to commemorate the revolution of 1688—when the English and Scottish crowns had been transferred from James II to William and Mary—and to provide a forum for radical ideas at the close of the following century. The society's anniversary dinners, held annually on 4 November, caught the public attention and stirred political controversy between 1788 and 1793. Members claimed that the Revolution Society had been in continuous existence since its establishment ‘soon after the Revolution’ of 1688, ‘though no records have regularly been preserved’. In fact the earliest mention is in the society's minute book, now in the British Library (BL, Add MS. 64814), which begins on 16 June 1788.

The minute book includes the name of 140 members who were admitted to the London Revolution Society between mid-1788 and early 1793. At no time did the society comprise more than a few dozen members, though its anniversary dinners attracted several hundred guests. In 1789 the society described its membership as the ‘very respectable inhabitants of [London], consisting partly of Members of the Establishment, and partly of Protestant dissenters’, with the recent addition of ‘persons of rank and consequence from different parts of the kingdom’ (Abstract of the History, 14). The tone was set by a phalanx of dissenting ministers, including Richard Price, Joseph Towers, Andrew Kippis, Abraham Rees, and Edmund Calamy of Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, though it was dissenting merchants and tradesmen who formed the bulk of the society's membership. Many prominent reformers, such as John Horne Tooke, Thomas Brand Hollis, Capel Lofft, and John Cartwright, belonged to both the Revolution Society and the Society for Constitutional Information; these members provided a vital link between the two societies, which were similar in terms of social composition, ideology, and campaign methods. The Revolution Society was also in touch with the Whig Club through Richard Brinsley Sheridan, though Charles James Fox, another Whig Club member, distanced himself from the new group.

At the society's meeting of 19 December 1788 it was agreed that future newcomers should be presented by two existing members and elected at a subsequent meeting, the aim being ‘to promote the grand objects of the Society, and to give it permanence and respectability’. The high subscription price (at least half a crown every year from July 1790, with an entrance fee of 1 guinea for new members) and the cost of anniversary dinner tickets (half a guinea) further precluded poor men from membership. By late 1789 the society boasted among its number two men of noble rank (Charles Stanhope, third Earl Stanhope, who became its chairman, and Lord John Russell, later sixth duke of Bedford) as well as six members of the House of Commons: Henry Hanbury Beaufoy, Joshua Grigby (1731?–1798), MP for Suffolk, Sir Watkin Lewes (1740?–1821), MP for London, James Martin [see under Martin family], John Sawbridge, and William Smith. The society's activities were guided by a committee of twenty members initially chaired by Earl Stanhope; the secretary between November 1788 and November 1789 was one Henry Smithers who was replaced from late 1789 by Benjamin Cooper of Clements Lane, London. The committee met at least every two months and sometimes more frequently at the London Tavern, Bishopsgate, or occasionally at St Paul's Coffee House. Topics for discussion among committee members included the printing and distribution of political material, correspondence with other societies, and, especially, the organization of the annual commemoration of 1688, which was the major event in the society's calendar.

The Revolution Society's anniversary celebration took place on 4 November (William III's birthday) instead of 5 November (the date of William's landing at Torbay), because the society wished to dissociate itself from the Gunpowder Plot, which took place on 5 November 1605. The day's celebration began around noon with a sermon (usually preached at the Old Jewry dissenting chapel) and ended, usually at the Crown and Anchor tavern on the Strand, with a grand dinner, enlivened with patriotic songs and toasts, during which the report of the preceding year's activities was read and the society's business transacted. The society's inaugural celebration, held on 4 November 1788, was notably successful and was attended by some 800 members and guests, among them Francis Osborn, marquess of Carmarthen. Andrew Kippis preached the sermon (Richard Price had been approached, but had declined for reasons of health), and Joseph Towers delivered an oration. The sermon, the oration, the proceedings, and the songs and poems composed for the occasion were published and distributed by the society. All paid homage to the leading whig families who had effected the revolution of 1688, affirmed whig principles including the right of resistance, and defended the merits of the British constitution based on government by consent and limited monarchy. They also expressed universal values and welcomed the first signs of revolution in France and Brabant. Before the evening's celebrations on 4 November 1788 the committee agreed on three ‘declaratory principles’ as a public profession of the beliefs to which newcomers must assent. These principles stated members' support of popular sovereignty, of the right of resistance when power was abused, and the defence of ‘the right of private judgment, liberty of conscience, trial by jury, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of election’ (Abstract of the History, 14). At the same meeting it was agreed that Henry Beaufoy should introduce in the Commons a bill to make 16 December—the date of the passage of the Bill of Rights (1689)—a day of national thanksgiving. Beaufoy presented his bill on 24 March 1789; despite being carried in the Commons, it was rejected at first reading by the Lords on 23 July.

In addition to commemorating and celebrating the events of 1688, the London Revolution Society advocated change in the current political system, with a particular focus on parliamentary reform, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and the abolition of the slave trade. In May 1791 the society passed a resolution against the slave trade, and sent its thanks to William Wilberforce and the other MPs (including Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and William Pitt) who had recently voted in favour of what would become a series of parliamentary bills that sought to abolish the trade. The society was also active in distributing political literature (including its proceedings, correspondence, and works written by its members) with the help of the Society for Constitutional Information, the Whig Club, and correspondents in the provinces, including John Cartwright in Nottinghamshire and Joshua Toulmin in Taunton. It also exchanged views with provincial revolution societies in Cambridge, Norwich, and Taunton. In March and April 1790, and following Horne Tooke's prompting, the society worked with the Society of Constitutional Information to draft and sponsor Henry Flood's programme of moderate parliamentary reform in the Commons.

By this date the London Revolution Society was attracting wider public attention due principally to proceedings on its second anniversary (4 November 1789) when Richard Price preached the sermon, published soon after as A Discourse on the Love of our Country. The sermon reinterpreted the principles of 1688–9 and praised the French Revolution. That evening the society's dinner saw expressions of traditional British patriotism combined with support for the French Revolution, and for enlightened and cosmopolitan values. The Revolution Society called for correspondence with similar groups across Britain and accepted a motion by Price to send to the French national assembly a congratulatory letter in which the society, ‘disdaining national partialities’, expressed the hope that people in all despotic countries might imitate the French and regain their liberty. Lord Stanhope signed the letter and Price sent it to the duc de La Rochefoucauld, who read it to the national assembly. The assembly's president, Jean de Boisgelin, archbishop of Aix, sent a reply to Lord Stanhope, in which he applauded the spirit of ‘humanity and universal benevolence’ that characterized the London Revolution Society (Correspondence, 3–6).

This letter prompted an extensive correspondence between the Revolution Society and the French national assembly and with various Jacobin clubs in France, the first of which—a congratulatory note from a patriotic society in Dijon—arrived on 30 November 1789. On 9 December the society set up a ‘committee of correspondence’ to answer letters received from French sources. This eight-man group comprised the society's most committed members: John Lodge Batley, Benjamin Cooper, Michael Dodson, barrister and biblical scholar, Samuel Favell (1759/60–1830; clothworker and future co-founder of Mill Hill School), Richard Price, Henry Smith, and Henry Smithers. The committee met in Clements Lane at the house of the society's secretary, Benjamin Cooper, who played an increasingly prominent role in the group's activities as its correspondence increased.

Letters from the Revolution Society circulated among Jacobin clubs in France and, by the spring of 1792, some fifty-two clubs, from all parts of France, had entered into correspondence with the London society, which they took to be a semi-official organ for the celebration of the French Revolution. In May 1792 the society published its ‘complete’ correspondence, though some letters from and to correspondents in Britain, Germany, and France—present in the letter-book of the society (now lost)—were not included. In its early stages, the correspondence was characterized on both sides by enthusiasm and confidence that an open and friendly correspondence between the respective peoples would diminish national prejudice, leading to an alliance between Britain and France and, ultimately, to universal peace. The death in April 1791 of one of the Revolution Society's founders, Richard Price, also generated a number of condolence letters from France.

However, it soon became apparent that French revolutionary politicians were not imitating the British historical model of 1688. Letters from the Revolution Society pointed out the difference between the revolution of 1688 and that of 1789, distinguishing carefully between recent events in France—where a revolution was considered desirable and necessary to topple the ancien régime—and in Britain, where William and Mary's accession to the throne had prompted constitutional reform. Despite effusive professions of friendship, the correspondence betrayed a growing rift between advocates of increasingly radical change in France and the more cautious members of the Revolution Society. Dissenting voices were also heard in France: on 29 July 1790, for example, Dupont de Nemours criticized the national assembly's correspondence with the Revolution Society as a delusion and a waste of time (Pariset, 313). Despite these differences, and in collaboration with other English societies, the Revolution Society twice celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, on 14 July 1790 and 1791. The first of these Bastille dinners was attended by London's leading reformers and was marked by resounding speeches and toasts by Sheridan and Horne Tooke, among others. The society believed its actions would have a practical effect in promoting good relations between the two countries. Thus, Richard Price reassured the national assembly about the pacific intentions of Britain, a statement that might have helped defuse Anglo-French tension during the Nootka Sound crisis. The society's correspondence also led to proposals of visits. Price was invited by the duc de La Rochefoucauld to the festival of the federation (July 1790) and the Jacobins of Bordeaux invited an English delegation in the following year. Though neither of these visits took place, members of the Jacobin Société des Amis de la Constitution de Nantes did travel to London in 1790, where they were fêted by the society on 29 October, attended the anniversary dinner on 4 November, and discussed French and British politics with Lord Stanhope. The French delegates distributed brochures and were offered in return the proceedings and publications of the Revolution Society. Their letters and reports were widely publicized in the French press.

Events like these not only gained the London Revolution Society publicity, but also brought it criticism from loyalist writers increasingly alarmed at the course of events in France. Principal among these critics was Edmund Burke whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790) was provoked by Price's sermon on the society's second anniversary (1789) and in part by its correspondence networks. Burke's Reflections, which makes frequent reference to the Revolution Society, mocked it for ‘acting as a committee in England for extending the principles of the national Assembly’ and compared its members—these ‘fabricators of governments, the heroic band of cashierers of monarchs’—to the regicides of the seventeenth century (Writings and Speeches, 8.55, 117). In a later parliamentary debate (9 April 1793) Burke described the society as ‘the Mother of all Mischief’ (Goodwin, 195). Such opinions were also echoed and developed by other pamphleteers and caricaturists.

As its critics grew in number, the society's annual dinner became increasingly radical, with greater attention paid to praising the French Revolution and less to celebrating the events of 1688. On 4 November 1791 the Jacobin Jérôme Pétion, the newly elected mayor of Paris, was received as a guest of honour by the society's chairman, John Towill Rutt, and by such other Francophile committee members as Thomas Christie. Pétion noted that the toasts to the British royal family were drunk in gloomy silence, whereas those to the French Revolution roused the enthusiasm of the assembly. Cockades were displayed and an orchestra played the French revolutionary tune ‘Ça ira’ (Reinhardt, 53–5). For the 1792 dinner Lebrun, the French minister of foreign affairs, sent copies of the ‘Marseillaise’, which was heartily sung by the 500 guests. On this occasion the Revolution Society toasted the political and military achievements of France and praised the future French constitution as ‘a model for all nations’ (Goodwin, 247). Members also agreed to send a congratulatory letter to the French convention on ‘the late Revolution of the 10th of August’ which paved the way for a republic (Collection of Addresses, 7–8).

The criticisms levelled by Burke and others did not immediately discredit the Revolution Society, though the publication of his Reflections certainly accelerated its decline in the early 1790s. Thomas Paine's impassioned defence of Price's sermon in the first volume of his Rights of Man (1791) also embarrassed some moderate members who did not wish to be associated with Paine's iconoclastic republicanism. Although Lord Stanhope, Capel Lofft, and others wrote to vindicate the society, with the correspondence being published in 1792 as a response to Burke's Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), the society never recovered the popularity of its first two years. From 1791 it was forced to abandon the 4 November sermon because none of the clergymen approached were prepared to participate. Attendance at meetings declined and the moderate members, among them Lord Stanhope, left to be replaced by men of more radical principles; these included Thomas Walker of the Manchester Constitutional Society and Basil William Douglas, Lord Daer, members of the London Corresponding Society and of the Scottish Friends of the People, who joined in December 1791 and April 1792 respectively. Eighteen new members joined the society in the autumn of 1792, though probably more departed at that time.

By 1793 the London Revolution Society no longer kept official records and the government did not consider it necessary to prosecute the society, probably because it was by now in disarray and serious decline. The last mention of the society's activities is the anniversary dinner on 4 November 1793 when the first toast was ‘the rights of man’. John Horne Tooke then proposed a toast that bordered on sedition and was mentioned at his subsequent trial for treason. Long before this many Revolution Society members appear to have turned their attention towards a rejuvenated and more organized Society for Constitutional Information, which continued to advocate reform until its own effective disbandment in 1794.

RéMY DUTHILLE

Sources  

Revolution Society minute book, 16 June 1788 – 4 Nov 1791, BL, Add. MS 64814 · correspondence with the national assembly, Archives Nationales, Paris, C 36/307; C 42/379; C 120/357 · Revolution Society, An abstract of the history and proceedings of the Revolution Society in London, to which is annexed a copy of the Bill of Rights (1789) · R. Price, A discourse on the love of our country, delivered on Nov. 4, 1789, at the meeting-house in the Old Jewry, to the society for commemorating the revolution in Great Britain, 4th edn (1790) · Revolution Society, The correspondence of the Revolution Society in London, with the national assembly, and with various societies of the friends of liberty in France and England (1792) · A vindication of the Revolution Society against the calumnies of Mr Burke: by a member of the Revolution Society (1792) · A collection of addresses transmitted by certain English clubs and societies to the national convention of France, 2nd enl. edn (1793) · Rapport des députés de la Société des Amis de la Constitution, à Nantes, aupres de la Société de la Révolution, à Londres, suivi d'un recueil de pièces traduites de l'anglais et relatives à la députation (Nantes, 1790) · Morning Chronicle (5 Nov 1793) · The Times (16 July 1790) · Revolution de France et de Brabant, 45, 47 (1790) · Journal de la Correspondance de Nantes, 27 (1790) · P. Langford and L. G. Mitchell, eds., The writings and speeches of Edward Burke, 8: The French Revolution, 1790–1794 (1989) · A. Goodwin, The friends of liberty: the English democratic movement in the age of the French Revolution (1979) · A. Stephens, Memoirs of John Horne Tooke, 2 vols. (1813) · G. S. Veitch, The genesis of parliamentary reform (1913); repr. (1964) · M. Fitzpatrick, ‘Patriots and patriotisms: Richard Price and the early reception of the French Revolution in England’, Nations and nationalisms: France, Britain, Ireland and the eighteenth-century context, ed. M. O'Dea and K. Whelan (1995), 211–30 · E. Pariset, ‘La Société de la Révolution de Londres dans ses rapports avec Burke et l'assemblée constituante’, Révolution française, 29 (1895), 297–325 · M. Reinhardt, ‘Le voyage de Petion à Londres’, Revue d'Histoire Diplomatique, 84 (Jan–June 1970), 1–60


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