Debunking William Hazlitt’s Liberal Myth: Public Print Culture in the Long Counterrevolution

Humberto Garcia
Vanderbilt University

Ever since William Hazlitt’s The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1828, 1830), many literary critics and political theorists have been too readily prone to ascribe a liberatory power to “the press,” uncritically rehashing a “Whiggish” narrative about the rise of liberal progress.   Kevin Gilmartin’s ground-breaking new book, Writing Against Revolution: Literary Conservatism in Britain, 1790-1832 (Cambridge, 2007), rewrites this narrative from the perspective of England’s Long Counterrevolution.

According to Hazlitt, the “invention of the art of printing” has created a differentiated public sphere, which, being free from state and church interference, has “aided” and “promoted” the Protestant Reformation and catalyzed the events from 1789 onward.[1]   Hazlitt’s account of print culture can today be categorized as a species of what Herbert Butterfield dubs “The Whig interpretation of history,” a tendency among many modern historians to imagine that the Protestants and Whigs of earlier periods are their “liberal” predecessors while conservatives and counterrevolutionaries are depicted as reactionary, backward, and anti-modern.[2]
  Gilmartin’s book resists this celebratory Whig (or liberal) attitude, debunking Hazlitt’s self-congratulatory mythology and challenging progressivist biases in Romantic literary criticism influenced by Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.[3]   By focusing on the productive and innovative aspects of “counterrevolutionary expression” (the analytic term he prefers over the anachronistic use of “conservative”), from John Reeve’s loyalist pamphleteering in the 1790s to the anti-Jacobin writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey in the 1810s and 1820s, Gilmartin’s five chapters call into question an entrenched Hazlittian (Whiggish) paradigm that encodes counterrevolutionary publicity as “outmoded institutions and residual social forms” (11) and privileges “the progressive affiliation of literature” as the sign of modernity (1).

In Chapter One, Gilmartin’s nuanced reading of William Paley’s loyalist pamphlet, Reasons for Contentment; addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public (1792), explores counterrevolutionary expression within the loyalist organization in which this pamphlet first achieved wide circulation: Reeve’s Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levelers.   This organization was part of an early 1790s counterrevolutionary print campaign that–as rhetorically enacted in Paley’s pamphlet–deploys “public reason” to mitigate class inequality, persuade the plebian reader to remain content with the socio-economic order, and forestall the possibility of revolutionary uprising.   For Gilmartin, this political and rhetorical strategy results in a “crisis”: the Association–which saw itself as working in concert with William Pitt’s ministry to crush “Public assembly” and to police “public debate”–invokes that which it seeks to disavow, namely vernacular argumentation, civic assembly, and public correspondence, which are typically associated with radical modes of publicity.   According to Gilmartin, this loyalist organization not only “shifted the terms of political participation and transformed the public arenas in which it operated” (23), but also has the capacity to render the state obsolete by invoking “a more dynamic public enterprise than the government was prepared to allow” (41).   Paradoxically, Reeve’s Association results in “advancing the authority of public opinion in its loyalist form” (53).

Chapter Two considers Hannah More’s active involvement in her Evangelical print campaign, the Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-98), placing her two CR tracts, The History of Tom White (1795) and its sequel, The Way to Plenty, at the center of an analysis of Evangelical counterrevolutionary expression in order to argue for the innovative aspects of the Evangelical moral reform movement while also emphasizing the pro-elitist and conformist impetus driving More’s religious and political campaign.   He characterizes the politics of the Cheap Repository Tracts as an “aggressive revisionism” rather than as Burkean nostalgia for a ready-made “tradition” (63), because More’s print campaign implemented, above all, innovative literary and rhetorical techniques in a reformist effort to discipline irregular (“Jacobin”) reading practices among the poor, inculcate social habits of class and gender deference, and persuade middle-class supporters and subscribers of the need to secure England against revolution.   For Gilmartin, More’s politics are better understood as a project of social renovation.   As such, he casts her as an innovative author whose print campaign is more closely related to Thomas Paine’s print politics than most scholars have been willing to admit. In this context, her work should not be treated as anti-Paineite propaganda against seditious print, a key point that becomes clear through Gilmartin’s rereading of Village Politics in light of her earlier CR tracts.   Moreover, he argues that her print campaign assumes the social functions of charity and education that were traditionally reserved for church and state (68).   In promoting civic virtues through self-reflective and inexpensive print forms, Evangelical reform politics “might appear to supersede rather than simply reinforce the original authority of scripture” (78).   However, Gilmartin eschews Anne Mellor’s feminist characterization of More as a “revolutionary reformer.”   Following Kathryn Sutherland’s lead, he instead argues that More’s tracts renegotiate the public/private, male/female social divide (61), while maintaining social, political, and religious controls on the lives of men and women–especially when it comes to “the rigorous subordination of the lower orders” (69).[4]

And yet Gilmartin remains silent about More’s abolitionist propaganda in the CR; indeed, anti-slavery tracts, such as her popular and frequently reprinted CR ballad, The Sorrows of Yamba; or the Negro Woman’s Lamentation (1795), not only complemented her other CR tracts on “the poor” of England, but also reveals how counterrevolutionary Evangelical rhetoric developed in conjunction with anti-slavery print expressions and forms–a process of literary cross-fertilization that, as both Clare Midgley and Anne Stott have suggested, played a significant role in the way that More mobilized and renegotiated women’s relative agency in the private/public divide.[5]   Although this glaring omission does not undermine Gilmartin’s insightful interpretation of More’s print enterprise, it does represent a missed opportunity to resituate More’s Evangelical reform campaign in relationship to the transatlantic slave trade.   Indeed, Gilmartin’s overall analysis of counterrevolutionary expression remains insolated within English domestic affairs, rarely (with the exception of the French Revolution, of course) considering the crucial effects of social, religious, economic, and historical forces beyond England’s national borders.   For instance, in his reading of Mrs. Bullock’s Dorothea; or, A Ray of the New Light (1801), Gilmartin does not pursue the racial and imperialist implications of the “Jacobin” picaresque plot in the Irish periphery (165) and, later on, he mentions Elizabeth Hamilton’s Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1799) as a vivid example of counterrevolutionary rationality without taking into account Anglo-Indian relations and, more specifically, “Hindu” modes of public argumentation (175).   English imperialist interests in the West Indies, Ireland, Africa, and India are not taken up anywhere in his book.

But, to be fair to Gilmartin, this Anglo-nationalist bias should not be considered a “flaw” in his argument.   In fact, his introduction makes it clear that his aim is to remain restrictive and selective in terms of historical scope, literary forms, and the authors and organizations to be discussed (10).   By doing so, he is capable of offering a historicized and balanced account of public print culture during England’s revolution controversy that overcomes the historical centrality of the Burke-Paine polemic, a narrow prism that tends to homogenize other crucial currents of the counterrevolutionary movement that strongly deviate from Edmund Burke’s nostalgic and reactionary politics (indeed, Gilmartin self-consciously excludes Burke from his analysis for this reason).   As such, his holistic yet selective approach to counterrevolutionary print resists the “Whiggish” attempt to cast More as either a Burkean conservative or a progressive feminist.

Gilmartin’s approach also allows for an in-depth analysis of the much-neglected prominence of periodical reviewing.   Chapter Three rewrites the history of the 1790s periodical review, arguing that this popular form did not begin with the Anti-Jacobin of 1797 and 1798, nor could it be understood as secondary or derivative in comparison to the pamphlet warfare that was initiated by Burke’s Reflections (1790) and Paine’s Rights of Man (1791, 1792).   By examining a range of monthly and quarterly reviews (such as the British Critic and the Gentleman’s Magazine), Gilmartin argues that the counterrevolutionary periodical was the most reliable print form in developing self-reflective, critical strategies for managing political risks, policing literary taste and cultural transmission, and imagining public forms of engaged sociability that promote deference to the legitimate authority.   His close readings of various anti-Jacobin reviews, particularly Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and “The Warder” series, do an excellent job of exposing the paradoxical nature of a counterrevolutionary social imaginary that invokes an abstract and “democratic” reading public in the process of seeking to align itself with state surveillance and the unreformed electorate.   In this regard, Gilmartin contests Terry Eagleton’s “Whiggish” claim that the democratic practices of Western periodical criticism were born in radical opposition to the state (136-37).[6]

The anti-Jacobin novel is another much-neglected counterrevolutionary print form that Gilmartin takes up in Chapter Four.   Here he argues that, unlike other modes of counterrevolutionary expression, the form of the anti-Jacobin novel directly appeals to reader’s emotional response, a sense of what went wrong with the post-revolutionary world and how to rectify it.   As such, the anti-Jacobin novel is “a kind of nationalist fantasy” (161), since this counterrevolutionary form seeks to protect private “English” virtues from foreign revolutionary threats.   This experimental form “mobilizes private life as an alternative form of publicity” that, in its opposition to radical print culture, seeks to safeguard social hierarchies “as a matter of easy civility within the home” (177).   In his analysis of the counterrevolutionary novels of George Walker and Henry James Pye, Gilmartin argues that anti-Jacobin domestic romances are “remedial if not overtly reformist fictions” in their reliance on critical reflection rather than inherited virtue (179).   By pursuing this line of argumentation, Gilmartin sheds light on counterrevolutionary female agency in the works of two female novelists: Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) and Jane West’s A Tale of the Times (1799), two often-neglected anti-Jacobin novels that, as in More’s tracts, address the ambiguity of women’s charitable, public activities in a reconstituted domestic sphere.   Gilmartin not only challenges negative stereotypes that privilege the experimental form of “Jacobin” fiction (i.e. William Godwin’s Caleb Williams) over counterrevolutionary fiction, but also reveals how the narrative and ideological tensions of the anti-Jacobin novel negotiate the limits of female authorship.

In Chapter Five, Gilmartin provides a revisionist account of Coleridge’s and Southey’s conservative, pro-establishment writings that resists the Hazlittian tendency among literary critics to cast their late careers as an example of two “apostates,” turncoats who abandoned their earlier ties to the radical cause.   Rather, Gilmartin argues that their combative literary enterprise resulted in “a reformist attack on radical reform” (207).   He also demonstrates how their differing views toward the state’s role in literary patronage is not simply an example of economic self-interest but rather of two opposing attitudes toward counterrevolutionary print culture: whereas Coleridge was invested in combating seditious print through his anti-Cobbett weekly subscription, The Friend (an unsuccessful print campaign that sought the patronage of the upper classes and, ideally, the crown), Southey considered this political move as inevitably ensnarled within a dangerous mode of radical publicity that required immediate state intervention as well ministerial (rather than crown) patronage for counterrevolutionary writers, like himself, pleading for harsher censorship measures.   Likewise, Gilmartin draws a key distinction between Coleridge’s and Southey’s programs for a national education under a renovated Anglican clergy: Coleridge pursued an innovative constitutional corrective by seeking to reconstitute Church property and the clergy as a “Third Estate” beyond the legal purview of Parliament, while Southey called for parliamentary legislation as a means of correcting the imbalance initiated by the English Reformation’s confiscation of Church property.   In the long run, Coleridge’s and Southey’s anti-Jacobin campaigns signal the end of counterrevolutionary expression.   For Gilmartin, their views represent a desperate and futile effort to safeguard the old regime in Britain against the corrosive effects of the “public” and thus end the crisis of the 1790s; with passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, their utopian dreams were dashed–the enfranchisement of the middle class proved that the “problem” of extra-parliamentary opinion was insurmountable.

Despite its rigid Anglo-nationalist perspective, I highly recommend Writing against Revolution to fellow Romanticists as well as those in other fields and disciplines.   Indeed, Gilmartin’s anti-Whiggish approach toward the Long Counterrevolution has rich implications for research on the eighteenth-century public sphere, transatlantic print forms, political and literary theory, feminist and gender studies, religious studies, and history.   After reading his book, one is left with a number of intriguing questions: how does one define “radicalism” between the years 1790 and 1832, considering that the English radical movement possessed no monopoly on public print culture, the language of opposition, the idea of critical rationality, and the project of “progressive” innovation?   Does counterrevolutionary expression allow for a certain type of female agency in the writings of More and Hamilton that would not be available in “radical” modes of feminist writing?   In the final analysis, Gilmartin concludes that More’s Evangelical print campaign “turned out to be the most enduring in part because it was the most willing to address ordinary readers” (252).   This revisionist account allows critics to rethink eighteenth-century Evangelical print culture, from George Whitefield to More, as a crucial element in the transatlantic public sphere.[7]   Thanks to Gilmartin’s book, debunking Hazlitt’s liberal myth means much more than that–this critical gesture offers an exciting opportunity to reread England’s literary and cultural history with a fresh pair of eyes.


[1]   William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 21 vols., ed. Percival Presland Howe (London and Toronto, 1930), 1:46.

[2]   Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1959), 11-12.

[3]   Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).   Habermas’s theory has inspired a number of works in Romantic literary studies that have sought to revise and expand his insights on Revolution and subversive print culture.   See Jon Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (Madison, 1987); Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1996); Paul Keen, The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, 1999); and Ian Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790-1860 (Cambridge, 2004).

[4]   See Anne Mellor, Mothers of Nation (Bloomington, 2000), 13-38; and Kathryn Sutherland, “Hannah More’s Counter-Revolutionary Feminism,” Revolution in Writing: British Literary Responses to the French Revolution, ed. Kelvin Everest (Milton Keynes and Philadelphia, 1991), 53-61.

[5]   See Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London and New York, 1992), 27-29; and Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford, 2003), 95.   Alan Richardson has shown that More’s edited version of Eaglesfield Smith’s The Sorrows of Yamba mitigates the radical aspects of the British anti-slavery movement, introduces authoritative male figures, and deploys the Evangelical rhetoric of conversion and reformation.   These revisions reflect More’s use of counterrevolutionary expression in her CR address to the poor of England.   See Richardson, “‘The Sorrows of Yamba,’ by Eaglesfield Smith and Hannah More: Authorship, Ideology, and the Fractures of Antislavery Discourse,” Romanticism on the Net 28 (2002), par. 1-22.

[6]   Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London, 1984), 9.

[7]   See Frank Lambert, “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, 1994).