The Historical Journal


Conservative Political Thought in Britain in Response to the French Revolution

Thomas Philip Schofielda1

a1 University College London

In attempting to explain the stability of eighteenth-century Britain, and in particular the maintenance of political, social and economic supremacy by the landed aristocracy, scholars have begun to pay attention to the role of ideology and opinion. They see this not merely as providing an explanation of the way things were, but justifying and reinforcing them. The dominant ideological interpretation of society had emerged from the political and constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century, and in particular from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an interpretation which might be denominated ‘Whig’, and which faced its most serious challenge at the very end of the eighteenth century from the French revolution. Despite the more tangible threat of French arms, the ruling classes in Britain did not underestimate the danger to social order from the arguments advanced by adherents of the rights-of-man doctrine propagated by the revolutionaries. If, in reply to these views, the status quo could be shown not only to be necessary and inevitable, but also right and good, that is to say correspondent with the true nature of man, then the morality of the existing practices and institutions of civil society would be proven. The problem at its most fundamental level was ethical, and it was a problem which conservatives attempted to solve in a variety of ways.