Insurrection: The British Experience 1795-1803 by Roger Wells

This impressive book is one of the two (!) that came out of Roger Wells’s PhD in the early 1980. Its re-edition was most necessary as it is a fountain of knowledge on Britain in the 1790s.

Wells wants to challenge the assumption that Britain did not experience a revolution because public opinion, or the ‘masses’, were not disaffected and remained loyal in the late 18th century.

Quite the contrary, Wells, with an impressive range of sources, demonstrates that the British were as much included in the upheavals of the period as the Americans, the French or the Irish, the latter being crucial in the development of the insurrectionist tendency within the disaffected movements. He also challenges the assertion by Marianne Elliott that the Irish component was the most important one within the British revolutionary underground. Finally, he demonstrates that opposing the insurrectionist movement with the reformist one is groundless and obscures the very important fact that the two movements were conducted by the same people who navigated between the ‘reformist’ societies (the LCS, the Sheffield society, the Manchester society, etc.) and the ‘revolutionary’ ones. These societies were often one and the same and constantly transformed themselves, adapting and reacting to the policies of the government. Faced with repression, the reform movement evolved into a revolutionary one, much like in Ireland. In 1797-8, there was a convergence between the revolutionaries, the reformists and the parliamentary opposition of the foxites that might have tackled down government. Indeed, this reformist/ revolutionary movement, as Thompson had proved before, because of the repression it was subject to from the establishment, was one of the key-constituents of the class movement that emerged in the first half of the 19th century.

My conundrum with the book comes precisely from the dialectic between the reform and revolutionary movement. While I concur with Wells that these two movements were two faces of the same coin, I regret that he began his study in 1795, that is to say, just after the first massive wave of repression by government (the famous ‘Treason Trials’ which ended in acquittal for most of the accused, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and others). In so doing, Wells credits the idea that the revolutionary movement began only after this rupture of 1794-5, and while there is indeed a move from the British government who tried to take down this internal threat once and for all, by no means the revolutionary dimension did appear only after this event. It was present before, from 1792 at least.

My other regret is that while Wells, much like Elliott did with Ireland, uses an impressive number of sources, he doesn’t really manage to give us a clear picture of the insurrection that might have been (and often took place, though only locally and sporadically). The sheer number of names is staggering, and one feels often lost because we only get an impressionist view of the dynamics, actors and evolutions of the movements and the societies behind them. It is of course due to the nature of the sources he uses (they emanate from the repression and from spies) but also to the fact that by trying to give us a picture of all the different societies, unions and friendly societies, we are left with more empty holes than with filling dots in the overall, pixelized picture. To his credit, Wells does not try to fit all the vastly different strands of discontents into one narrative that would be misleading (as Elliott did, somehow). Yet, by choosing no to do so, he does not help the reader to get a sense of what exactly was this British experience of insurrection.

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