Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2011
The French Revolution began with the astonishing events of 1789, but it has to be seen as an intense and profound process that changed and developed dramatically over the following decade and more. Its political and social experiments changed a great many aspects of French life, and these changes also had a major impact on all of France's neighbours, including Great Britain. The Revolution led to a bitter dispute across Europe about the French principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, and, because the French revolutionaries sought to export these principles to the rest of Europe, it helped to provoke a war that posed an enormous challenge to France and all its neighbours. The French Revolution and the French Revolutionary war were the most discussed issues in British politics and the British press. The Revolutionary debate of the 1790s in Britain had a profound influence on the political, religious and cultural life of the country, while the French war produced almost unprecedented economic and social strains, and forced Britain to make a huge military, naval and financial effort to counter French ambitions. For a great many Britons the 1790s were a decade of crisis that polarized British society into the friends and enemies of the French Revolutionary cause. To understand the nature of this crisis, we need to appreciate the ideological disputes in Britain about French Revolutionary principles, to explore how these disputes encouraged Britons to support or oppose these principles, and to examine how these disputes strengthened the party of government, and seriously undermined the opposition in Parliament.