Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2011
This chapter approaches the British radical movement in the 1790s as a cultural and not simply a political phenomenon. Inspired by events in France in 1789, many Britons certainly hoped that their country would become a more enlightened nation, even if opinions differed as to what might constitute enlightenment. Across these differences, there persisted an aspiration to participate in a new literary and political culture, especially among many of those who had previously been excluded. Over the previous few decades the spread of print culture, the rise of literacy, and the development of a tessellation of societies, clubs and urban entertainments had produced what might be termed a popular enlightenment across Britain and Ireland. Debating clubs and newspapers habituating those excluded from the franchise to the discussion of political and public matters fed into the official meetings and penumbra of debating clubs and other groups surrounding the London Corresponding Society and its older and more respectable ally the Society for Constitutional Information.
Given the focus of this Companion on writing about the French Revolution, my account of radical culture will have an emphasis on print, but on print as part of this larger aspiration to social and political participation represented by the interacting careers of a selection of radical writers and publishers. Circulation was central to the meaning of writing in this context (and key to whether it was prosecuted or not), and printers, booksellers and readers were as important as writers. Without wishing to overlook the importance of the English provinces, not to mention the quite distinctive responses to the French Revolution in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, this chapter concentrates on the formation of a radical culture in London, partly out of the exigencies of space and partly because the capital and its bookshops, newspapers and coffee houses acted as such a magnet for many of those wishing to rewrite the republic of letters.