French Revolution, and Consequent War with France

The country had for several years experienced the utmost prosperity and peace, when it was roused by a series of events which took place in France. The proceedings of the French nation for redressing the political grievances under which they had long labored, commenced in 1789. and were at first very generally applauded in Britain, as likely to raise that nation to a rational degree of freedom. Ere long, the violence shown at the destruction of the Bastile, the abolition of hereditary privileges, the open disrespect for religion, and other symptoms of an extravagant spirit, manifested by the French, produced a considerable change in the sentiments of the British people. The proceedings of the French were still justified by the principal leaders of Opposition in Parliament, and by a numerous class of the community; but they inspired the government, and the propertied and privileged classes generally, with great alarm and distrust.

When at length the coalition of Austria and Prussia with the fugitive noblesse had excited the spirit of the French people to a species of frenzy, and led to the establishment of a Republic, and the death of the king, the British government and its supporters were effectually roused to a sense of the danger which hung over all ancient institutions, and a pretext was found (January 1793) for declaring war against France. A comparatively small body of the people were opposed to this step, which was also loudly deprecated in Parliament by Messrs. Fox and Sheridan; but all these remonstrances were drowned in the general voice of the nation. At such a crisis, to speak of political reforms in England seemed the height of imprudence, as tending to encourage the French. All, there fore, who continued to make open demonstrations for that cause, were now branded as enemies to religion and civil order. In Scotland, Mr. Thomas Muir, a barrister, and Mr. Palmer, a Unitarian clergyman, were tried for sedition, and sentenced to various terms of banishment. Citizens named Skirving, Gerald, and Margarot, were treated in like manner by the Scottish criminal judges, for offenses which could only be said to derive the character ascribed to them from the temporary and accidental circumstances of the nation. An attempt to inflict similar punishments upon the English reformers, was defeated by the acquittal of a shoemaker named Hardy; but the party was nevertheless subjected, with the apparent concurrence of a large and influential portion of the people, to many minor severities.

After alliances had been formed with the other powers hostile to France, the British ministers despatched an army to the Netherlands, under the command of the king's second son, the Duke of York, to cooperate in reducing the fortresses in possession of the French, while the town of Toulon, being inclined to remain under the authority of the royal family, put itself into the hands of a British naval commander. At first, the French seemed to fail somewhat in their defenses; but on a more ardently republican party acceding to power under the direction of the famous Robespierre, the national energies were much increased, and the Duke of Brunswick experienced a series of disgraceful reverses. The Prussian government, having adopted new views of the condition of France, now began to withdraw its troops, on the pretext of being unable to pay them; and though Britain gave nearly a million and a quarter sterling to induce this power to remain nine months longer upon the field, its cooperation was of no further service, and was soon altogether lost. On the 1st of June 1794, the French Brest fleet sustained a severe defeat from Lord. Howe, with the loss of six ships; but the republican troops not only drove the combined armies out of the Netherlands, but taking advantage of an unusually hard frost, invaded Holland by the ice which covered the Rhine, and reduced that country to a Republic under their own control. The successes of the British were limited to the above naval victory, the temporary possession of Corsica and Toulon, the capture of several of the French colonies in the West Indies, and the spoliation of a great quantity of the commercial shipping of France; against which were to be reckoned the expulsion of an army from the Netherlands, the loss of 10,000 men and 60,000 stand of arms, in an unsuccessful descent upon the west coast of France, some considerable losses in mercantile shipping, and an increase of annual expenditure from about fourteen to nearly forty millions.

In the course of the year 1795, the lower portions of the community began to appear violently discontented with the progress of the war, and to renew their demands for reform in the state. As the king was passing (October 29) to open the session of Parliament, a stone was thrown into his coach, and the interference of the horse guards was required to protect his person from an infuriated mob. The ministers consequently obtained acts for more effectually repressing sedition, and for the dispersion of political meetings. They were at the same time compelled to make a, show of yielding to the popular clamor for peace; and commenced a negotiation with the French Directory, which was broken off by the refusal of France to restore Belgium to Austria. In the ensuing year, so far from any advance being made towards the subjugation of France, the northern states of Italy were overrun by its armies, and formed into what was called the Cisalpine Republic. The celebrated Napoleon Bonaparte made his first conspicuous appearance as the leader of this expedition, which terminated in Austria submitting to a humiliating peace. At the close of 1796, a French fleet sailed for Ireland, with the design of revolutionizing that country, and detaching it from Britain; but its object was defeated by stress of weather. At this crisis, a new attempt was made to negotiate with the French Republic; but as the events of the year had been decidedly favorable to France, a renewed demand of the British for the surrender of Belgium was looked upon as a proof that they were not sincere in their proposals, and their agent was insultingly ordered to leave the French territory. To add to the distresses of Britain, while Austria was withdrawn from the number of her allies, Spain, by a declaration of war in 1797, increased in no inconsiderable degree the immense force with which she had to contend.