Transatlantic radical connections

Colin Bonwick, English Radicals and the American Revolution, 1977

Bonwick mentions
Christopher Wyvill early in the story, but keeps him in the background. More prominent is Major John Cartwright, whose “first reform tract, Take Your Choice! (published in 1776) advocated universal manhood suffrage and...anticipated the Chartists by more than fifty years.” (6) Granville Sharp and Thomas Brand Hollis were acquaintances of John Adams, and corresponded with him and other Americans after Adams returned to America. Catharine Macaulay was one of the few early radicals who did not soften her position as time went on.

Before fighting broke out, Benjamin Franklin and
Arthur Lee made significant contributions to British radical thought, Bonwick says. Lee wrote newspaper articles he signed as “Junius Americanus,” which he compiled in The Political Detection: On the Treachery and Tyranny of Administration Both at Home and Abroad. In 1774, he published An Appeal to the Justice and Interests of the People of Great Britain as “An Old Member of Parliament;” which he followed a year later with a Second Appeal and A Speech Intended to Have Been Given in the House of Commons. Franklin wrote under his own name, and his articles were reprinted as “Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces” by his friend Benjamin Vaughan. (41-2) The Declaration of Independence “arrived in England in August 1776 and immediately was reprinted in almost every newspaper, as a broadsheet, and in the various documentary collections.” (42)

Friendships and personal connections were at least as important as publications. When Franklin arrived in Paris in 1775, he asked Joseph Priestley to relay to their friend Richard Price his observation that “Britain, at the expense of three millions, has killed one hundred and fifty Yankees this campaign, which is twenty thousand pounds a head...during the same time sixty thousand children have been born in America.” (83) After the war ended, the Americans‘ prestige with radicals only increased, says Bonwick. “Whereas Franklin had been admitted to the radical circle [including the Lunar Society and the Royal] initially as a scientist, Adams was welcomed as an American.” His elitist
Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he hoped would communicate his Federalist ideals to “some of the Enlightened Friends of Liberty here,” was embraced by the more conservative Commonwealthmen as a rational and very recognizable approach to government. (174) Older radicals like Brand Hollis clung to the idea that America had taken a step away from complete democracy, Bonwick says, especially after 1789. “Priestley thought that the Americans were imitating the English civil constitution and adopting a form of government similar to the British.” (184) “Adams arguments brought the American model closer to the structural forms of English constitutionalism...Radicals... believed...the American example demonstrated the feasibility of political reform in their own country.” (187)

“Catharine Macaulay [was] the only English radical to have visited the United States since its independence.” (182) She stayed with the Washingtons, and corresponded with them after her return. “After reading some Antifederalist pamphlets sent by
Mercy Warren here reservations grew stronger” that America had retreated too far from “the rights for which Americans had fought.” Only her faith in Washington convinced her that as president he would safeguard those rights.

The French Revolution changed everything. In Bonwick’s narrative, it caused Commonwealth radicals to reevaluate their reform agenda, even as it sparked a new radical generation that expanded much more widely into the artisan communities of London and other cities. Many older radicals “continued to attach greater importance to [America’s] libertarianism,” Bonwick says, while “the new men were particularly impressed with the egalitarianism they believed to be inherent in American society.” (217) Bonwick is unclear exactly what the difference between these two positions is; the only significant difference seems to be that “When the Birmingham Society for Constitutional Information told readers of a broadsheet, ‘
You have rights equal to all,’ they were saying nothing that was in itself new, what was remarkable was that they were addressing workmen.” (218)

“The new generation of radicals was born in December 1791...[when] a group of artisans formed a Constitutional Society in the new industrial town of Sheffield...Shortly afterward, and partly in emulation...the
London Corresponding Society (LCS), ‘composed chiefly of tradesmen and shopkeepers,’ was founded.” (217-8) “Thomas Hardy, shoemaker, secretary, and organizer of the LCS, had read extensively in the earlier tracts of the SCI (given him by Brand Hollis) and pamphlets by Sharp, Cartwright, Jebb, and Price.” (220) While the older radicals like Hollis and Sharp continued corresponding with John Adams and Benjamin Rush, the younger men focused on Thomas Paine and Joel Barlow of Connecticut. Barlow had arrived in London in 1788, shortly after his pamphlet The Vision of Columbus. In 1792, Barlow “reached prominence” with the publication of Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe, which discussed “principles enunciated by Price in his notorious Discourse on the Love of Our Country.” (225)

Paine “arrived in England with a ready-made reputation based on
Common Sense and had quickly made contacts with a wide range of politicians from Edmund Burke...[to] Brand Hollis.” (226) Quoting E.P. Thompson, Bonwick says Paine gave English people “a new rhetoric of radical egalitarianism, which touched the deepest responses of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ and which penetrated the subpolitical attitudes of the urban working people.” (227) “The second part of Rights of Man was an even greater success than its predecessor. It circulated with extreme rapidity among the radical groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich, and elsewhere and was warmly welcomed as a work of the highest importance...A proclamation against seditious writings was intended to suppress the pamphlet, but had the opposite effect, and when Paine learned that a prosecution was immanent he arranged for the publication of a cheap edition” and moved to France. “Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within a few years. To supplement them, five editions and ten variants of Common Sense were published between 1791 and 1793, and the SCI distributed twelve thousand copies of his Letter to Secretary Dundas.” (231)

So, the American Revolution remained very present in the minds of British radicals, although there was wide variation in their response to it. LCS co-founder
John Thelwall, “who claimed to speak for the desperately poor...remarked that the American people had too much veneration fro property, religion, and law.” (231) Joseph Gerrald, a leading LCS “theoretician,” saw “a garden of Eden...whose structure and values were the antithesis of...England.” (232) “By the middle of the [1790s] many old radicals were appalled by the ‘horrible excesses‘ of the French Revolution [and] used American experience to redress these extremist tendencies.” (234) “Christopher Wyvill...strongly disapproved of the prosecution of Paine but feared that the extremists would take over the SCI...Cartwright shared some of Wyvill’s suspicions and worked hard to counteract Paine’s republicanism, while Brand Hollis denied rumors that he saw Rights of Man prior to publication and reportedly refused Paine financial help when he was in difficulties.” (235) “Commonwealthmen saw America in light of their own needs...following the Adams model in preference to the Pennsylvania model of a unicameral legislature.” But “shortly before her death Catharine Macaulay told Washington that she had abandoned her preference for the American system in favor of the French unicameral model.” (237)