Paul L Dawson, Fighting Napoleon at Home (Frontline, 2023)
Historical wars were seldom as popular as later ‘patriots’ would have you believe. All wars have dissenters, some against the war on principle, some who are opportunists furthering their causes. When wars coincide with economic and political crises at home, that dissent can turn revolutionary. If you follow Paul Dawson’s thesis on unrest in Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, you will see how close Britain came to an epoch-changing revolution.
Dawson sets up a dichotomy between Loyalists and Radical reformers that came into political conflict during the American Revolution. Many of the Radicals in that war continued their opposition into the Napoleonic Wars via the French Revolution. Loyalists, such as Edmund Burke, were vehemently opposed to events in France, inspiring actions against reformers. Undaunted, notes Dawson, the reformers established Jacobin clubs, particularly in the new urban, industrial centres. As they grew in popularity and became a perceived threat to the establishment, these clubs were soon infiltrated by Loyalist spies. Loyalists formed groups too, then came government oppression under the guise of fighting sedition. Free speech was curtailed along with the free press, and with the power of the judiciary against them, there was little the reformers could do. Loyalists also hounded reformer Thomas Paine out of the country, burning him in effigy. Dawson follows the career of noted Radical Henry Redhead Yorke who operated mostly out of Sheffield. Yorke would later recant, but before then the Loyalists saw him as a clear threat along with other Radicals. When the reformers were linked to a French-backed revolution in Ireland and armed rebellion in England, the government acted by rounding up Radicals on charges of high treason.
In 1795, loyalists formed volunteer military units to ‘aid magistrates in clamping down on radical societies’, according to Dawson. This came at a time of high unemployment and food shortages, leading to riots. The government introduced the 1795 Gagging Acts as retribution. Subsequent treason trials resulted in a split amongst reformers, leaving a hard core of Radicals. They formed the United Englishmen, a secretive group with radical links to France and the United Irishmen movement. But French inaction in 1796 failed to incite an English revolution. A new wave of repression followed in 1798 in response to alarms over revolutionary fervour in England.
Dawson moves onto Luddism, a movement inspired by the ban on Trade Unions in 1799 along with a ban on reform societies while famine again swept the country. Machine breaking began in 1799 too, then it erupted in 1811 – this is covered in more detail in Dawson’s companion volume, The Battle Against the Luddites (Pen & Sword, 2023). Widespread food riots occurred in 1800, and alarmingly, the Volunteer Corps in Sheffield refused to put down that town’s unrest. Disease accompanied famine and a full scale revolution seemed on the cards. Dawson notes the unpopularity of the war with France in 1801, the same year that the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act expired, and protests intensified into planning for a revolution. Magistrates broke up seditious meetings and made arrests, often with military support. Hopes of widespread revolution faded, however, with falling food prices and no immediate expectation of French support.
Dawson switches to the Despard Coup amidst rising tensions in Ireland and England in 1802. Plans were laid to seize the Tower of London and overthrow the government with the aid of disaffected soldiers, but it never happened. In a show trial, Despard and others were sentenced to death on flimsy evidence. That did not end radical activism but dampened latent enthusiasm for revolution. War broke out with France again in 1803 and protests continued with the possibility of a French landing. Despite a new famine, however, support for the war increased. Dawson concludes by arguing that the French wars were matched on the home front by competing ideologies, a battle for the soul of the nation, that set the scene for a hundred years of working class struggle.
Paul Dawson has written a strident account of political unrest that will surprise many readers fed on a diet of unwavering British opposition to France. Dawson bases his narrative firmly in the primary sources and his thesis is clearly mapped out, though he seems to give too much credit to the accounts of spies who had much to gain from exaggerating the threat posed by Radicals. Without digging too deeply into Dawson’s argument, be prepared for a by-the-book Marxist interpretation, pitching the working class against the ruling elites. That sometimes drifts into polemic, with Dawson outraged at the reaction to political demands we now take for granted and his habit of making historical comparisons with modern events. This book is also somewhat mistitled, with most of the action taking place before the wars against Napoleon. Nevertheless, in exposing the dark underbelly of British politics, Dawson makes an interesting and useful contribution to the history of this important period.