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Americomania and the French Revolution Debate in Britain, 1789-1802


Wil Verhoeven


Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xii+387 pp. ISBN 978-1107040199. £65.00


Reviewed by Rémy Duthille

Université Bordeaux–Montaigne


Was the French Revolution debate in Britain only, or even principally, about the French Revolution? Certainly not for Wil Verhoeven, who cogently argues that “America”, an idea that meant different things to different people, must be factored in if we are to understand the political and cultural controversies of the 1790s. He takes issue with the idea, defended by Gregory Claeys and others, that the 1790s were a watershed in British history because the French Revolution provoked a major controversy and thus made possible the emergence of a distinctly modern form of politics. Without rejecting this approach outright, Verhoeven complicates this narrative by examining how the American Revolution and the new state and federal constitutions contributed to the political and social debates in Britain in the 1790s. Republican America provided a blueprint for what Britain might become after a successful popular revolution. The debate on the significance of American independence and imperial dismemberment, however, was no mere continuation of the controversies that had raged during the War of American Independence. In the 1790s America was discussed in the light of the French Revolution and "French principles", and it came to constitute a utopian space offering a safe social and political model when France went into the throes of the Terror, and civil and foreign war. The idealisation of America as an asylum for the persecuted even “displaced” [16] earlier sympathy for the French Revolution.

Verhoeven proceeds to analyse the “War of Systems” pitting conservatives against “reformers” in Britain in the 1790s, paying due attention to the important semantic differences between partly overlapping terms such as “Jacobin”, “reformer”, “radical” on the one hand, “conservative”, “loyalist” or “anti-Jacobin” on the other. In this chapter, the author examines numerous primary sources, many of them familiar to specialists of the 1790s, and discusses arguments developed by major historians in the field, including E.P. Thompson, H.T. Dickinson, Ian Christie, Gregory Claeys, and J.C.D. Clark. Verhoeven steers a somewhat sinuous course amidst this massive historiography, now siding with Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson (e.g. on the “sub-political attitudes” of the working class), now with J.C.D. Clark (on the essentially traditional, aristocratic nature of the British polity). Unfortunately this opening chapter – parts of which were previously published in Verhoeven’s introduction to his 2005 multi-volume Pickering & Chatto edition of Anti-Jacobin Novels – fails to engage with recent scholarship.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the formation, in the pre-revolutionary decades, of the utopian image of America in literature and iconography. The discussion of Crèvecoeur is particularly illuminating. Verhoeven’s analysis of editorial intervention, in a European context involving Rousseau’s and Raynal’s influences, goes a long way toward explaining the apparent contradiction between Crèvecoeur’s loyalism during the American Revolution, and the radical, republican ideology of the Letters from an American Farmer. Central to the idealization of the Pennsylvania farmers was the concept of citizenship, participation in popular government – not American national identity [107]. The Letters, in the hands of its London editors, served to attack the government for its despotic tendencies in the British debates on the constitution and civil liberties.

By the mid-1780s, then, the image of the American freehold farm had crystallised into a “practiced utopia” in the minds of the British public, and Verhoeven goes on to examine the paradoxical alliance between greedy land speculators and utopian radical poets and publicists in the 1790s. The radical, libertarian, republican ideals, and the promise of an American utopia served to advertise for the lands, and enhance their monetary value, hence the seemingly unlikely collaboration between idealist poet Joel Barlow and the dodgy promoters of the Ohio Company (who managed to gull some 600 Parisian bourgeois into settling onto barren lands they did not even own). Verhoeven’s exploration of the “symbiosis of land and print” [122] is fascinating and his use of manuscript correspondence adds to our knowledge of transatlantic links and the English Dissenting community.

Chapter 4 further explores the relationship between land-jobbing and “Jacobin” ideology through the writings of Gilbert Imlay, an American publicist and novelist whose career exemplifies this trend. Verhoeven locates Imlay’s A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of America (1792) firmly within the British ideological debates of the period. His work goes far beyond mere topography, developing an ideological (physiocratic) vision of the agrarian future of the American West. Imlay constructs a specifically Western identity, contrasting the pastoral innocence of Kentucky to the corrupt states east of the Appalachians. Kentucky appears as a perfect state governed along Jacobin principles. Verhoeven then charts the reception of Imlay’s Topographical Description in Britain, where it fed into debates over Jacobinism and encouraged new visions of “practiced utopias”.

The following chapters further enrich our understanding of the nexus between political and financial speculation, printing, advertising, and mapping. Verhoeven does an excellent job combining various sources – manuscripts, maps, sermons, novels, pamphlets and other material both British and American – to show how the discourses on planned settlements like Ohiopiomingo, Kentucky, were specifically crafted to appeal to well-to-do British sympathizers of the French Revolution, and blurred “the boundaries between utopianism and topography, fiction and history” [235]. Here again, Imlay is a central figure in a transatlantic process of representations of national identities that also involved major novelists (William Godwin, Mary Hays) and much less famous ones (like Frances Jacson). For many “Jacobin” novelists, an idealised vision of America had come to compensate for disillusionment with France after the Terror while enabling social and political criticism of Britain.

Chapter 8, "Look before you leap", examines anti-emigration literature in the 1790s. Many Tory writers had long used mercantilist arguments to warn against emigration to America; from c.1793 ideological considerations predominated. It was the duty of loyal, law-abiding, patriotic Britons to remain in the country: only Jacobins and traitors, so conservative critics argued, could possibly want to flee to the United States, presented as a dystopian place blighted by poverty, religious strife and political anarchy (with, of course, terrifying Indian raids thrown in). The chapter also narrates the vicissitudes of radical polymath Joseph Priestley, who fled persecution in Britain in 1794, only to meet with a vicious defamation campaign in Pennsylvania, led by the then-Tory pamphleteer William Cobbett. “The utopian “America” to which [Priestley] thought he had emigrated simply no longer existed by 1797. In fact, it is doubtful it ever had” [292].

The last chapter is devoted to the negative representations of emigration and life in America in the anti-Jacobin novel of the 1790s. The genre is significant as “a mirror of the real social concerns of a large section of British society” [311]. The analysis focuses on two such novels, Berkeley Hall and The Vagabond. Saturated as they were with intertextual references and historical memory, they offered satirical visions of Jacobinism, but also of a wide range of social concerns, from religion and family life to mobs and riots. This very rich chapter demonstrates that the anti-Jacobin novel is less stereotypical and monolithic than could be expected, and even challenges the boundaries of the genre: Berkeley Hall does not contain any allusion to the French Revolution or any radical pamphleteer of the 1790s.

Verhoeven’s claims are ambitious: “Mapping the sociology of texts, authors, printers and readers participating in this debate, this book provides an integrated and interdisciplinary analysis of the transatlantic history of the book in Britain during the late eighteenth century” [10]. The book is original and brings to light a wealth of neglected texts and sources, revealing new facets of the cultural history of the period. Verhoeven is at his best in literary analysis: his treatment of the novel and other literary (and iconographic) forms is excellent. His handling of history and historiography, though, is less convincing. Apart from a few questionable assertions (like the enrolment of John Wesley as a “Dissenting friend of America” and a member of a “phalanx” led by Richard Price and Joseph Priestley [74]), strong objections can be made to the narrow focus on England. Scotland and Ireland are relegated to a footnote: “for reasons of space the analysis of the French Revolution debate in this study focuses on the English scene” [3]. This exclusion is all the more regrettable in a study that analyses literary representations of space and the transatlantic construction of national identities. Scotland is mentioned a few times, and we learn that “since the American Revolution, Welsh Baptists had been settling in North America in such vast numbers that the collective history of their exodus and settlement has been described as a ‘Baptist Atlantic’ ” [192].

This incidental remark raises a larger question: that of the connection between texts, or “discourse”, and social and economic reality. The existence of a “Baptist Atlantic” casts some doubt on Verhoeven’s liminal claim that emigration to the United States “was first and foremost a discursive phenomenon rather than a socio-historical or demographical process” [9]. Some statistics, and some firmer grounding in the socio-economic context, would have been helpful. Very little attention is paid to circulation numbers; when figures are advanced they are taken from contemporary conservative pamphlets, not sociological or historical literature (p. 50, 65 for example). This relative indifference to sales and distribution figures sometimes obscures the distribution of forces in public debates. Just one example: in his discussion of the image of America during the Independence War, Verhoeven acknowledges Richard Price’s rise to “meteoric fame”, but instead focuses on John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The Letters were indeed “one of the most influential tracts” in the period [74-75], but why pay so little attention to Price's Observations on... Civil Liberty, or to Paine’s Common Sense and other works, by far the best-selling pamphlets in the period? More generally, the emphasis on “discourse” is excessive: in the 1790s,

loyalists and reformists became so entrenched in their oppositional discourse […] that phrases such as “Revolutionary debate” and the “war of ideas” ultimately have only little value. […] Rather than a serious exchange of arguments […], the “war of ideas” was therefore fundamentally a kind of discursive performance. [59].

Was it really? The sedition trials and transportation sentences meted out to Scottish reformers, the harassment of radicals by loyalist informers and the 1791 Birmingham riots were much more than “discursive performances”. Verhoeven is aware of those facts, which he mentions when needed in his analysis. But this could have led him to go further in his criticism of the concept of the “French Revolution Debate”, especially as his book provides so much fresh evidence for the discussion.

This criticism does not invalidate Verhoeven's conclusions, and is rather offered as an invitation to further discussion of a rich topic. The author has demonstrated the richness of emigration and anti-emigration literature and their significance in the ideological debates in the 1790s. Thus, this cogently argued and elegantly written book is an important contribution to this field of studies.


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