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Assessment of British radicalism during the period 1784 to 1815

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  1. Introduction
  2. Efforts to avoid pedantry
  3. Organic parliamentary and religious reform
  4. The radical movement and the reforming element in the revolution
  5. The relationship between 'the polity' and the radicals after 1789
    1. The Radical Movement as the 1790's progressed
  6. The period from 1784 to 1815
    1. Diviosin into two parts
    2. The most important change during this period
    3. The marginalization of radicalism after 1803
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bibliography

The assertion that the radical movement was never anything more than a ?marginal phenomenon in a broadly reforming polity? is certainly bold; it is easy enough to pick holes in such statements when they are removed from their context and surrounding qualifications. Bearing this in mind, this essay will aim to avoid pedantry, instead taking a broader interpretation of the general argument that the statement points towards. In so doing, it will show that it contains more than a grain of truth, but that equally there is much more to the story than it suggests.

Efforts to avoid pedantry notwithstanding, some analysis of the meaning of the statement are necessary simply because it is so multifaceted. It is easy enough to pick a few key points in the period and assess whether, at these points, the British polity was ?broadly reforming? and the Radical movement ?marginal?. In summing these up, it is possible to pronounce whether the general trend conforms to that described in the statement, or not. This will, indeed, be the main approach of this essay.

[...] Reform was taking place, quite apart from the ?radical? (parliamentary reform) movement: to argue otherwise would be to rely on a narrow and historical definition of reform. Indeed, where reform and radicalism are seen as separate entities, one might go so far as to argue that the term reform should only be used in reference to legislation with no linkage to the universalistic enlightenment ideals usually associated with radicalism. At any rate, it would appear that the situation described in the question was indeed the case before 1789, to some extent. [...]


[...] This helps to explain why radicalism was never a central pillar to British politics in the same way that conservatism was from the mid-1790s. There were clearly instances where it was a good deal more than ?marginal? to the British polity, and it is overly simplistic and indeed outright wrong to suggest that reformist measures were used as a weapon against it in the period concerned. The fact is, the circumstances were such that Pitt and subsequent leaders did not need to. [...]


[...] It will be shown that the radical movement is difficult to define this is indeed a fundamental conceptual problem underlying the analysis but one of its key characteristics came to be a universalistic perspective. This was hardly present among the Wilkesites if it had been, they would have strengthened their ties with American and Irish radical movements. It took until after the French Revolution for the movement to definitively adopt this trait. There was no radical movement before 1789; there was simply a movement for ?organic? parliamentary and religious reform. [...]

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