The Journal of British Studies

Research Article

In the Theater of Counterrevolution: Loyalist Association and Conservative Opinion in the 1790s

Kevin Gilmartin

Conservative movements have generally played a negative role in accounts of the history of political expression in Britain during the period of the French Revolution. Where E. P. Thompson and others on the Left tended to identify radicalism with the disenfranchised and with a struggle for the rights of free expression and public assembly, conservative activists have been associated with state campaigns of political repression and legal interference. Indeed, conservatism in this period is typically conceived in negative terms, as antiradicalism or counterrevolution. If this has been the view of hostile commentators, it is consistent with a more sympathetic mythology that sees nothing novel about the conservative principles that emerged in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. They represent an establishment response to alien challenges. Even where conservatives set about mobilizing the resources of print, opinion, and assembly in a constructive fashion, the reputation for interference has endured. John Reeves's Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers is a useful case in point, since it managed in its brief but enterprising history to combine fierce anti-Jacobinism with the later eighteenth century's rising tide of voluntary civic activism. The association came together at the Crown and Anchor Tavern when a group of self-professed “private men” decided “to form ourselves into an Association” and announced their intentions through the major London newspapers in November and December of 1792. The original committee then called on others “to make similar exertions in their respective neighbourhoods,” forming energetic local associations that would be linked by regular correspondence with the central London committee. In this way, the loyalist movement grew with astonishing speed.

Kevin Gilmartin is associate professor of literature at the California Institute of Technology. This article is taken from his book in progress on antiradical and antirevolutionary writing in romantic period Britain; another essay from the project, on Hannah More and evangelical moral reform, is forthcoming in ELH. For helpful responses to this article, he is grateful to James Epstein, Nicholas Rogers, James Chandler, John Barrell, Gabrielle Starr, Julie Carlson, and to audiences at the March 1999 Clark Library conference on British Radical Culture of the 1790s, Los Angeles, and the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies in Santa Barbara, Calif., in March 2000.