Reviews: Books of General Interest

Resisting Napoleon: the British Response to the Threat of Invasion, 1797-1815

Edited by Mark Philp.


Resisting Napoleon: The British Response to the Threat of Invasion, 1797-1815. Edited By Mark Philp. Aldershot , UK / Burlington , VT : Ashgate Publishing, 2006. 248 pages. ISBN# 0754653137. ISBN-13# 978-0754653134. Hardcover. $99.95.


This book is a collection of essays published in hardback with black and white illustrations of contemporary political cartoons and of monuments. The authors are mainly British; there are two chapters contributed by French writers. It is an academic, or - since that word now carries pejorative overtones - a scholarly work, aimed at readers who already know a great deal about the period. Even the dating of the title is precise, there is no careless confusion of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars here: 1797 refers to Bonaparte's command of the army of England in 1797-98. The main period covered is 1803-05, when the invasion threat was at its height.


The theme is the examination of the evidence for British attitudes to the wars, at several levels. There is a discussion of the political opposition to the war, and the different nature of the opposition in the 1790s and after 1803. In the 1790s liberal politicians had a conflict between patriotism and liberal principles, which Napoleon conveniently simplified for most of them by 1803. There were many other problems: it was difficult to criticise the conduct of the war without appearing to support the anti-war party.


William Wilberforce faced a difficult decision when Pitt decided to buy slaves for army service in the West Indies : as a fervent anti-Jacobin, and a friend of Pitt's, he kept silent on the subject. There were party loyalties and the balance of power between Parliament and the Crown to be considered, and the fear that attacking corruption at high levels might be an encouragement to revolutionary elements. The later chapter on the military preparations made by Addington and the Duke of York in 1803-04 concludes that Addington has been unfairly criticised by historians, that his preparations were sound and that Pitt, having manouevred to replace him, actually undid much of his good work. It was necessary to attack Addington's military policies to find a reason for getting him out of office: such were the priorities of the politicians in a time of crisis!


There are three chapters on propaganda of different types: the political caricatures of 1803, the early development of the anti-Napoleonic 'Black Legend', and the patriotic propaganda supplied by the elaborate monuments to fallen soldiers and sailors.  There is a good selection of the cartoons printed in the book, but, as inevitable, never enough. It is frustrating to have works referred to which one cannot look at. This chapter does raise that important question: do these cartoons reflect public opinion or were they designed to shape it? Also: who was responsible for them and who was actually reading them? 


The 'Black Legend' was the work mainly of French, Corsican and Genevan writers, though published in Britain . Sir Robert Wilson was the most significant British contributor, having published an exaggerated account of Bonaparte's atrocities in Egypt which provided useful material for his successors. The process does not seem to have required any encouragement from the British Government before 1803, in fact it was encouraged by the opposition during the Peace to annoy the First Consul. After the outbreak of war in 1803 this material proved useful, and the government began to spread it in Britain and through Europe .


The building of monuments, making in St Paul 's Cathedral Britain's answer to the Pantheon, was expressly stated to be an encouragement to patriotism and an aid to national defence. The monuments were voted by Parliament and the design was chosen by public competition: the (largely pagan) symbolism was intended to inspire heroism and loyalty and to boost national morale:  it must have been considered effective, judging by the number of such works produced during the following century.


The chapter on music and politics has four authors, with an introduction and three sections, which makes it, to my mind, the least successful chapter, certainly the least memorable. Seditious songs were banned in the 1790s and after 1803 performances of patriotic music became fashionable, to the detriment of the words. The quoted verses at the end can only make the sensitive reader wince: there were some great poets around in that era, but Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) was not one of them. Forming military bands seems to have been the most useful function of the volunteer regiments.


The question of the suppression of seditious activity is illustrated by a chapter on the trial of the poet and painter William Blake for sedition in Sussex . The event itself is rather trivial (he was acquitted) but it raises interesting questions about the anti-sedition laws and about the relationship between the local people and the soldiers. Blake's accuser was a soldier who alleged that he uttered seditious words in the course of a dispute, the fact that a local jury acquitted him and that this was greeted with enthusiasm suggests that the defenders of the nation were not as popular in the locality as they might have been. Fortunately for Blake, being tried in Sussex meant that his defenders were able to avoid the information about his radical associates in London coming to the attention of the court. It is ironic that Blake's best known poem ' Jerusalem ' is now sung as a patriotic anthem!


The most obvious expression of patriotism was the formation of militia regiments and the enthusiasm for joining the sea fencibles and volunteers: this may not have been all that it seemed though, the evidence suggests that volunteering may have been a way of dodging the press gang or compulsory militia service— the Navy certainly thought so. There are three very interesting chapters covering sea fencibles, volunteers and the militia, their organisation and motivation. If I have a quibble it is that the chapter on Addington, which explains the formation of the volunteer and militia regiments, comes later in the book and I would have found it helpful to have read this first.


In Manchester , the commanders of two local volunteer forces tried to fight a duel over the question of seniority; it is shown here that this represented a clash between the Tory-Anglican elite which dominated local politics and society and a Dissenter of radical tendencies. The problems raised by local factions and interests is also raised by the argument over the defence of Liverpool; in 1803 the Duke of Gloucester recommended extensive, and expensive, fortifications for the port, but the need to raise the money locally led to a clash between the Tory corporation and the Parish committee, which had a Whig-Dissenter composition. The works were never built: fortunately they were never needed, but the case suggests that the national interest could not be relied on to outweigh local rivalries, at least in the area furthest from the French. How Napoleon, in the event of a successful invasion, would have managed to govern this lot, is a question not raised by the authors


The two final chapters are slightly off the subject and are written by French authors. One has analysed the records of the départements of le Nord and Pas de Calais for evidence of anti-English sentiment among the authorities (less of it than one might have supposed) and  looked at the local response to the arrest and internment of British subjects from 1803. Some of the British captives seem to have become sufficiently well-accepted to marry local women. The cross-channel movement of people during the period around the Peace of Amiens is the subject of the last chapter: there is an explanation of the passport system, its complications and its limitations, and an analysis of the travellers whose passports were issued by the British plenipotentiary in Paris to allow them to leave France .  Not surprisingly, the majority were gentry and the second class their servants. One group of travellers which raised concern in Britain were the manufacturers and craftsmen, since it was feared that they would take their skills, and possibly equipment to set up rival industries in France: it can be shown that the French encouraged this movement, the British tried to obstruct it and to encourage the return of skilled workers by providing amnesties for their original illegal departure.


The book is, for the most part quite readable, though it requires concentration in places, and contains much more of interest than I have managed to describe. It cannot be faulted on the provision of references, placed after each chapter. It does remain a collection of essays though, rather than providing a coherent narrative. The most useful lessons that I took from it were the reminder of the importance of  detailed local studies like this in sorting myth from fact, and the impossibility of making valid generalisations about the attitude or opinions of the British (or French) People.


Reviewed by Susan Howard
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2007


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