Sleeping on gunpowder

From Letters from England
(1807), by Robert Southey

These extracts from Robert Southey’s Letters from England (1807) find the poet and former collaborator of Coleridge and Wordsworth firmly rooted in the period of his ideological reaction. Here Southey touches on a subject with which I am currently engaged: namely, the distinction between town and country, or commercial (manufacturing) vs. territorial (agricultural) wealth.

There is no longer a party in the country who are desirous of a revolution, and as eager as they were able to disseminate the perilous principles of Jacobinism, Bonaparte has extinguished that spirit; he has destroyed all their partiality for the French government, and Mr. Addington has conciliated them to their own. Never was there a time when the English were so decidedly Anti-Gallican, those very persons being the most so who remedy regarded France with the warmest hopes. Whence then can have arisen this disposition in the populace, unless it be from the weight of taxation which affects them in the price of every article of life — from a growing suspicion that their interest and the interest of their rulers are not the same, and a disposition to try any change for the chance there is that it may be for the better?

Two causes, and only two, will rouse a peasantry to rebellion; intolerable oppression, or religious zeal either for the right faith or the wrong; no other motive is powerful enough. A manufacturing poor is more easily instigated to revolt. They have no local attachments; the persons to whom they look up for support they regard more with envy than respect, as men who grow rich by their labor; they know enough of what is passing in the political world to think themselves politicians; they feel the whole burden of taxation, which is not the case with the peasant, because he raises a great part of his own food: they are aware of their own number, and the moral feelings which in the peasant are only blunted, are in these men debauched. A manufacturing populace is always ripe for rioting. The direction which this fury may take is accidental; in 1780 it was against the Catholics, in 1790 against the dissenter. Governments who found their prosperity upon manufactures sleep upon gunpowder.

Storming of the Bastille, July 14 1789

Storming of the Bastille, July 14 1789

Do I then think that England is in danger of revolution? If the manufacturing system continues to be extended, increasing as it necessarily does the number, the misery, and the depravity of the poor, I believe that revolution must come, and in its most fearful shape.

That [manufacturing] system certainly threatens the internal tranquility and undermines the strength of the country. It communicates just knowledge enough to the populace to make them dangerous, and it poisons their morals. The temper of what is called the mob, that is, of this class of people, has been manifested at the death of [Colonel] Despard, and there is no reason to suppose that it is not the same in all other great towns as in London. It will be well for England when her cities shall decrease, and her villages multiply and grow; when there shall be fewer streets and more cottages. The tendency of the present system is to convert the peasantry into poor; her policy should be to reverse this, and to convert the poor into peasantry, to increase and to enlighten them; for their numbers are the strength, and their knowledge is the security of states.

It is certain that the English government must adopt a strict system of economy, thereby effectively preventing revolution by reform, or that sooner or later a national bankruptcy must ensue.

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