Englishmen in the French Revolution/Chapter III

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At the Bar of the Assembly.

"All hearts were open, every tongue was loud
With amity and glee; we bore a name
Honoured in France—the name of Englishman,
And hospitably did they give us hail,
As their forerunners in a glorious course."
WORDSWORTH, The Prelude.



Pigott—Watt—Cooper—Paul Jones—Gay—Burns—Anderson—
Mrs. Freeman Shepherd—Potter—Lydia Kirkham.

England was represented not merely at the capture of the Bastille, but at every stage of the Revolution, in its festivities and its tragedies, in the Convention and in the Commune, in the clubs and in the armies, in the prisons and on the scaffold. She was represented on Cloots's "Deputation of the Human Race," and at the Feast of Pikes, to which that deputation solicited admission, by Robert Pigott, who had been an opulent country gentleman. The Pigotts claimed descent from a Norman named Picot, and had for eleven generations owned an estate at Chetwynd, Shropshire. They had been strongly attached to the Stuarts, and heirlooms still preserved in the family include a ring, said to have been one of four given by Charles I. on the eve of his execution, a fragment of the Royal Oak, and a portrait on ivory of the Pretender, presented by himself to Robert Pigott's father at Rome in 1720.[1] This Jacobite Pigott died in 1770 and his death gave rise to a very singular lawsuit. Some hours after he had expired at Chetwynd, his son and the son of Sir William Codrington, dining at Newmarket without any idea of what had occurred, "ran their fathers' lives one against the other" for five hundred guineas. Such bets were not uncommon in those times, and were not apparently thought indecorous.[2] The elder Pigott was seventy years of age, the elder Codrington only fifty. When Pigott learned that his father's death had occurred prior to the wager, he maintained that the bet was off; but Codrington, or rather Lord March (afterwards Duke of Queensberry), to whom he had assigned the money, insisted on payment. The case came before Lord Mansfield, who held that the impossibility of a contingency did not preclude its being the subject of a wager, if both parties were at the time unaware of that impossibility. He consequently gave judgment against Pigott.

In 1774 Pigott was High Sheriff of Shropshire, as his grandfather had been before him. Two years later, sharing the belief of croakers that England was on the brink of ruin, he disposed of Chetwynd, as also, probably, of the manor of Chesterton, in Huntingdonshire. If, as is alleged, estates worth £9000 a year realised only £70,000, he must have sold them for much less than their value. Retiring to the Continent, he lost a considerable portion of the money, through the failure of the persons to whom he had intrusted it, but was still in easy circumstances. He lived for a time at Geneva, where he appears to have known Voltaire, but shortly before the French Revolution was staying in London, where Brissot made his acquaintance. A man of "fads," as we should now say, Pigott was a vegetarian—a Pythagorean was then the term—and an ardent admirer of Graham, the notorious charlatan, brother of Mrs. Macaulay's young second husband, with whose "electric beds" the future Lady Hamilton was then associated. Graham too was a vegetarian, and had perhaps made a proselyte of Pigott. The latter had, moreover, an antipathy to hats, cocked or chimney-pot, as the invention of priests and despots, and wore a cap which at the Feast of Pikes made him the observed of all observers.[3] When Royalist deputies, suspecting the genuineness of Cloots's deputation, sent an usher who spoke English—probably Rose, a man of Scotch extraction—to test the English representative, he was answered by Pigott in "good Miltonic English," and retired in confusion. We may imagine Pigott receiving from Cloots a certificate of his presence at the Feast of Pikes, couched, with a simple alteration of name and nationality, in these terms, and entitling the bearer to a federal ribbon and diploma:—

"Capital of the globe, February 5, year 2.—I certify and make known to all the free men of the earth that Joseph Cajadaer Chammas, member of the oppressed sovereign [the people] of Mesopotamia, had the honour of attending the Federation of July 14, by virtue of a decree emanating from the august French Senate, June 19, year one. Anacharsis Cloots, orator of the human race in the French National Assembly."[4]

What a contrast between the High Sheriff of Salop paying the honours to the judges of assize and the cap-headed man at the bar of the National Assembly!

In this same year 1790, Pigott sent or presented an address to the Assembly on Sieyes's press bill. He spoke in it of his loving France as warmly as if he had been a native, and of his having hastened over with a multitude of other foreigners to enjoy the rights of man in all their fulness. He dissuaded the Assembly from taking English legislation as a model, for the shameful war with America had shown how people could be misled by a press which the Government could persecute or coerce. England, he said, was not really free, but had only a semblance of freedom. This address was read at the Lyons Club, 10th February 1791, and printed in its journal.

In the autumn of 1790, Pigott, as it appears from Madame Roland's letters to Bancal, was living alternately at Geneva and Lyons, and was desirous of buying a confiscated or private estate in the South of France. He was, however, as fickle as the wind, and Madame Roland predicted that unless he was taken by surprise and forced into a decision, he would be looking about all his life, and would build only in the air. At the beginning of 1792 he seems to have been back in Paris, and published a plea for caps, which I have been unable to find, but passages from which appeared in Brissot's paper, the Patriote Français. It urged that the cap allowed the face to be well seen, and could have various shapes and colours, whereas the hat was gloomy and morose. It denounced the uncovering of the head as a servile and ridiculous salutation, and appealed to Greek, Roman, and Gaulish usage, as also to Voltaire and Rousseau, in favour of caps. The effect of the appeal was electrical. For a few weeks caps were the rage, and Grangeneuve, a Girondin deputy, wore one in the Assembly, though it is not clear that they were used out of doors, any more than by Voltaire and Rousseau. When, on the 19th March 1792, Pétion wrote to the Jacobin Club so strong and sensible a remonstrance against external signs of republicanism that the president pocketed his cap, his assessors following suit, it cannot be supposed that they went home bare-headed. These caps must have been confined to indoor use; and at the club they seem to have been restricted to the president, the assessors or secretaries, and the speakers while on their legs. Pigott, however, was plainly the introducer, if not of the bonnet rouge, yet of the bonnet; for the Chateauvieux mutineers, to whom it is generally attributed, did not enter Paris till June, three months afterwards. It is true that the cap of liberty had been a symbol employed from the outset of the Revolution, but it was Pigott who made it an article of dress. He had probably quitted Paris by the summer, when it was revived, and this time undoubtedly worn outdoors, sometimes placed on the back of the head, like that of a Zouave of the present day, sometimes placed on the top of the head with the end slightly lapping over in front. Of Pigott nothing more is heard till his death at Toulouse, July 7, 1794, three weeks before Robespierre's fall. He was fifty-eight years of age, is said to have had a son who predeceased him, and left a widow, Antoinette Bontau, possibly the Mrs. Pigott who was living at Geneva in 1807–15.

There were two other Pigotts who sympathised with the Revolution, but what relation they were to Robert is not clear. Charles, the author of some plays and pamphlets, including a reply to Burke, died in London a fortnight before Robert, and was buried at Chetwynd. A John Pigott, dining at the London Coffee-house, September 30, 1793, in company with Dr. Hudson, drank "Success to the French Republic over all Europe." Other diners thereupon toasted "The King," and an altercation ensued, the result being that Pigott and Hudson were taken before a magistrate, shouting sedition from the coach windows on the way. They were committed for trial, and five days afterwards applied for release on bail, which was fixed at £250, but I find no record of any further proceedings. This Pigott may have been the "Jean Picotte" who was imprisoned in Paris from October 1793 to October 1794.

Let us pass from the franc original, as Madame Roland styles the Shropshire Pythagorean, to James Watt, junior, son of the great inventor, who likewise represented his country in a cosmopolitan procession. This young man of twenty-two had formed an intimacy at Manchester with an ardent politician, Thomas Cooper, a druggist, and towards the end of 1791 the Constitutional Society of that town deputed both of them to carry an address of congratulation to the Jacobin Club. Watt[5] was the hero of the dramatic sitting of the 18th December, so vividly depicted in Carlyle's Essays, when the British, American, and French flags were suspended from the ceiling, and when a deputation of ladies presented to the "Constitutional Whig" an ark of alliance containing the new map of France, the cap of liberty, the new Constitution, a civic crown, some ears of wheat, three miniature flags, and the national cockade. After a very effusive scene "le Député Wigh" spoke of his unpreparedness for such a reception, of his having sent home an account of a previous welcome, of a letter from his society to Pétion having miscarried, and so on. The heroics thus ended in platitudes. Carlyle aptly indexes this episode as "the Jacobin Club in its early days of moral sublime," for the club had not then the sinister reputation it eventually acquired.

Watt was not only the anonymous Constitutional Whig of December 1791, but figured with Cooper in the triumphal procession of April 15, 1792, when the forty mutinous soldiers of the Chateauvieux regiment marched through Paris. The two Manchester delegates carried the British flag, together with a bust of Algernon Sidney.

Burke, in the House of Commons nearly a year afterwards, vehemently denounced them as having thus applauded mutiny and murder, and as having exchanged embraces with Marat. The Jacobin Club, on April 13, 1792, had invited the two Manchester delegates to attend all its sittings as long as they remained in Paris. Watt's biographer, Muirhead, speaks of him as horrified by the storming of the Tuileries and the September massacres; but he was so far from reprobating the former, that on August 14 he waited on the Assembly, together with Gamble and Rayment—Didot, the paper-maker, had married a Miss Gamble, and this was probably her brother—to present 1315 francs for the families of the combatants. The September massacres, however, certainly horrified Watt, and so little did he make a secret of it, that Robespierre denounced the two Manchester delegates to the Jacobins as Pitt's emissaries. Watt, whom three years' schooling at Geneva had made fluent in French, was equal to the occasion. Springing on the platform, he pushed Robespierre aside, and "in a short but vehement speech completely silenced his formidable antagonist, carrying with him the feelings of the rest of the audience, who expressed their sense of his honest British spirit in a loud burst of applause," I have found no mention in Paris newspapers of this episode, nor of a challenge between Robespierre and Danton, when Watt acted as second to the latter, and on the ground effected a reconciliation by urging the loss to the cause of liberty if either combatant fell; but Southey must have had good authority for these statements.[6] On going back to his lodgings, Watt had a warning that his life was not safe, and we know that the incorruptible Robespierre was also the unforgiving Robespierre. He immediately left Paris without a passport, and with some difficulty made his way to Italy. On his return to England in 1794 his father had serious apprehensions lest he should be prosecuted, and contemplated shipping him to Northern Europe or America; for though young Watt (by this time twenty-five years of age) had broken off correspondence with France, he was still a Radical, and deemed it an honour to dine with two of the "acquitted felons" of the 1794 trials. He was, however, left unmolested, went back after a time to Birmingham, succeeded to his father's business, and in 1817 was the first to cross the Channel and ascend the Rhine to Coblenz by steam. He lived till June 1848, thus hearing of the proclamation of the second Republic, after having witnessed the virtual establishment of the first.

His old colleague. Cooper, emigrated to America, was the neighbour there of Dr. Priestley, and edited a newspaper. Its attacks on the American Administration were mistakenly attributed to Priestley, who consequently incurred some danger of expulsion as an alien. Cooper, with truly American versatility, ultimately became a judge, and died in 1829, at the age of sixty-nine.

Paul Jones, as a Scotchman by birth, should not be passed over, albeit he appeared before the Assembly as an American. He was one of a deputation of Americans who, on the 10th July 1790, offered their congratulations; but the spokesman was Vernon, of Newport. Gouverneur Morris had vainly dissuaded Jones, in the previous November, from coming over from Warsaw. He was in pecuniary difficulties, and on his death from dropsy, 18th July 1792, Blackden, also one of the deputation, opened a subscription for the funeral expenses. The Assembly was invited to send delegates to the interment, and among the number was Gay Vernon, Bishop of Limoges. This was certainly the first time that a French prelate had attended a Protestant funeral, and until the Revolution, indeed, Protestants in Paris were buried at night or dawn by the police authorities. Gay Vernon, it is true, was not an ordinary bishop, for he voted for the death of Louis XVI., abjured the priesthood, and under the Empire became a consul. Jones had played many parts, and this posthumous part, the inauguration of religious toleration at funerals, was not the least singular of them. Morris had drawn up his will, which made his sister, a Mrs. Taylor, universal legatee. She went over from Scotland, is said to have been in danger during the Terror, and returned home with Jones's papers. She may be the Mrs. Taylor who figures in the list of prisoners.

One of the most striking features of the Revolutionary Assemblies was the stream of deputations, donors and suppliants, who formed interludes in the debates. It was picturesque to see children taken by their parents to offer the nation the contents of their money-boxes, a girl of twelve giving her watch, pensioners renouncing their annuities, and officers handing in their decorations; but to allow speechifying at the bar was ruinous to business, and eventually to freedom of deliberation. Frenchmen resident abroad sent or brought their contributions, and Englishmen, like other foreigners, caught the infection.

Bryan Edwards, M.P., the historian of the West Indies, forwarded a quarter of his French revenues (December 1789). Samuel Swinton, proprietor of the Courier de l'Europe, for which Brissot formerly wrote, offered 415 francs, the profits of the sale of the paper in France in 1789, and promised a larger sum next year; but there is no record of a second remittance. Nicholas Gay, F.R.S., waited on the Assembly (January 1792) to present 1000 francs towards the war. Amidst the plaudits which greeted his eulogy of the Constitution, a deputy objected to money being accepted from foreigners; but another deputy replied that Gay generally spent the winter in France, and might be considered naturalised, while a third remarked that all free men were brothers. Gay, too liberal even for his ample means, the author in 1799 of a pamphlet against the union with Ireland, died at Margate in 1803. Jones—probably the Hugh Jones, wine merchant, destined to imprisonment under the Terror—presented ten pieces of ordnance (October 23, 1792), on condition of their being returned at the peace, as his own country might need them. A deputy suggested the conferring of French citizenship on him, but the Convention simply voted thanks. Captain Wilson, a half-pay officer, perhaps the Scotchman who ultimately married Wolfe Tone's widow, offered a seven-barrelled gun, all the barrels of which could be discharged simultaneously. The poet Burns (February 1792) sent some guns, the equipment of a smuggling vessel which he had helped to capture, and had bought at the auction; but both letter and guns were stopped at Dover. Burns was in danger of dismissal from the Excise for this, but escaped with a reprimand.[7] Professor John Anderson, founder of the Institute at Glasgow, went over in 1791 to offer the Assembly "a cannon the recoil of which was stopped by the condensation of common air within the body of the carriage:"—

"Of warlike engines he was author,
Devised for quick dispatch to slaughter."

The Assembly accepted the model of it, and experiments with a six-pounder were made near Paris, Paul Jones being an approving spectator. Anderson also suggested that, to frustrate the seizure of revolutionary journals at the German frontier, small paper balloons, varnished with boiled oil, should be sent up when the wind was favourable, freighted with manifestoes, which would fall and circulate among the Germans. This idea is said to have been acted upon. Anderson witnessed the King's return from Yarennes and the second 14th July celebration.

A poor English gardener, apparently living in France, gave a six-franc piece for the war (September 1792). Another anonymous Englishman offered a pair of silver buckles (May 1792), regretting his inability to do more. Some English schoolgirls contributed 111 francs for the war (September 1792). An English officer sent a sword. William Beckett of London, in token of universal brotherhood having effaced the frontiers traced by despots, sent 200 francs (January 1791). Irishmen in Paris brought 145 francs to equip a volunteer (September 1792). Friends of Liberty at Newry sent 6850 francs. John Baptist Seymour, silk manufacturer at Rheims, gave 56 francs (July 1792). Vickery, a London tradesman, presented 160 francs for the widows and orphans of the stormers of the Tuileries (September 1792). Henry Montfort Power, born in London, but thirty-three years in the French army, had repeatedly asked for active service, but, disabled by gout, he deposited his military decorations on the altar of his adopted country, pending the time when he should be able to take the field (November 1792).

Robert Rayment, economist and statistician, offered his treatise on English finances (August 1792). Eight days later he joined with Watt, Gamble, and Anviside (Handyside?) in a gift of 1315 francs for the families of those who fell in the attack on the Tuileries. Major Cartwright sent a bundle of political tracts to the committee which was drafting the Constitution (August 1789). Cartwright was grievously disappointed at the excesses of the Revolution. Jeremy Bentham sent his book on prisons (December 1791), expressing a wish to come over and establish a prison on his own system, and to act gratuitously as keeper. The Revolution was destined to multiply prisons, but not on Bentham's system. Dr. George Edwards, an admirer of Franklin's theories of medicine, presented the Convention in 1793 with his political and economic works, and with an outline of a Constitution. Sir Joseph Banks is said to have presented as a tree of liberty the bean-tree which, till about five years ago, flourished in the quadrangle of the Paris National Library. I have not been able to verify this statement, but in 1802, when elected an Associate of the Institute, Banks scandalised his colleagues of the Eoyal Society by a letter of acknowledgment, in which he stated that France, during the most frightful convulsions of the Revolution, had never ceased to possess his esteem, his firm conviction being that she contained many good citizens, who would infallibly get the upper hand, and restore the reign of virtue, justice, and honour.

The voluntary offerings, both from natives and foreigners, show a marked falling off as the Revolution progressed, or rather deteriorated. Towards the end of the list comes Mrs. Freeman Shepherd, in all probability the Harriet Augusta Freeman who in 1797 translated Mercier's fanciful picture of Paris in the year 2440. She had been a boarder at the English Benedictine nunnery. Two letters addressed to her there, confiscated with other papers and preserved at the National Archives, show that she solved problems in geometry, and in a playful vein discussed metaphysical questions. She was a warm admirer of Robespierre, and in January 1792 wrote him a letter chiding him for not having cashed a cheque which she had forwarded him.

"I do not like dissimulation," she said. "I never practise it on any occasion towards anybody, and I do not tolerate its being practised towards me. You have used it, sir, with me; you have deceived me. You made me believe that you accepted for public purposes a small offering, and you have not accepted it. The debtor and creditor account just transmitted to me by my banker, according to his usual custom, proves this."

Robespierre, it appears, had called on her and told her what he intended to do with the money.

"Do not thus distrust the English; do not treat with this humiliating disparagement the stammering accents of good-will of an Englishwoman towards the common cause of all nations. The French were formerly famous for their politeness to the weaker sex, thereby the more sensitive to affront. Alas for us if the Revolution, deprives us of this precious privilege. But I claim a juster right: do not to others as you would not be done by."[8]

It is odd to find the golden rule enforced by a philo-Jacobin on the incorruptible Robespierre. He was apparently still obdurate, for a month later la Citoyenne Freeman, patriote anglaise, presented the Convention, through Beurnonville, with 200 francs towards buying shoes for the volunteers. This may, however, have been a second gift. It is the last English subscription down to the end of the Terror. Robespierre, even if he declined the gift, paid the writer the attention of preserving her letter, for it was found among his papers. It was not published in the selection issued by his enemies immediately after his fall, but was printed in 1828, the signature, however, being travestied into "Theeman Shephen," a blunder repeated by his biographer Hamel. Either the original or a duplicate figured in a sale of autographs at Paris in 1874. Mrs. Freeman seems to have escaped the incarceration which befell English residents, but I cannot ascertain when she returned to England. Her translation of 1797 is dated London, and is dedicated to Sir John Cox Hippisley, also, as we have seen, an eye-witness of the beginning of the Revolution.

If there is an element of vanity in some of the gifts I have enumerated, many show a touching sincerity and enthusiasm. But what are we to say of the thousand pairs of soldiers' shoes sent in November 1792 by the London Constitutional Information Society, to be followed by six weekly cargoes of the same kind? Lewis Goldsmith alleges,[9] on the authority of Talleyrand, that France paid for these shoes, as also for the expenses of the deputations who in 1792 congratulated the Convention on the abolition of monarchy. Neither Goldsmith nor Talleyrand bears a high character for veracity, but it is not easy to see why they should invent such a statement, which would render even more burlesque President Grégoire's reply, "The shades of Pym, Hampden, and Sidney hover over your heads, and the moment is doubtless approaching when Frenchmen will go and congratulate the National Convention of Great Britain." Anyhow, it appears that the shoes were seized in the Thames by the English Government.

Turning from donors to suppliants, we meet with Christopher Potter, who in 1791 petitioned the Assembly for a fifteen years' patent for his porcelain processes, promising a quarter of the profits to the nation. Though not a baker, he once contracted to supply the troops at Colchester with bread. He was an unsuccessful candidate for Cambridge in 1780, and in the following year headed the poll at Colchester, but the House of Commons seated his opponent, a naval officer, afterwards made a baronet. Sir Edmund Affleck. Jokes were cut on Potter's polling batches of electors after baking batches of bread. When the Revolution stopped the porcelain works at Chantilly, established by the Condé who succeeded Orleans as Louis XV.'s Prime Minister, Potter reopened them, and turned out 9000 dozen plates a month. He informed the Assembly that he had adopted France, the country of the arts, as his own, and was employing 500 workmen. His petition was referred to a committee, but nothing beyond compliments apparently came of it. Potter, however, prospered, and prosperity made him venturesome. He had invented new colouring processes, and he established other factories at Montereau and Porges. These did not pay, and in 1800 ruined Chantilly. The mayor reopened the works in order to give the villagers employment, but after nine years had to give them up, and it was not till the Restoration that the manufacture revived. Potter was doubtless the man who waited on Lord Malmesbury at Paris in October 1796 with an offer from Barras to conclude peace for a bribe of half a million. Malmesbury suspected a trap, and describes the scheme as insensé; but the venality of Barras is now so notorious that a different view may be taken. One Melville of Boston likewise offered to effect peace for £15,000,000, telling Malmesbury that he arranged peace between Portugal and France by giving the Directory ten or twelve millions. The treaty, however, was not ratified by Portugal. As for Potter, he ultimately returned to England, and died in 1817. He was very clever at mental arithmetic.

On the 22nd June 1792, François Bernet, vicar of Sainte-Marguérite, Paris, and chaplain of a section of the National Guards, waited on the Assembly with his wife, Lydia Kirkham, and three children, the youngest an infant in arms. Lydia, of English extraction but born in France, was first the wife of Thomas Lovesuch, a mercer and cap-maker at Popincourt, who fell one night into a sandpit, and died from the effects of the fall. The two elder children were his. Bernet had been twelve years a priest, but had previously been a soldier, and had written against priestly celibacy. Addressing the Assembly, he spoke of his affection for his wife, and said he had been rebuked by the Vicar-General, the Archbishop's deputy, for his marriage, but had replied that nothing would have been said if he had taken a housekeeper. He asked for the repayment of 330 francs which as chaplain he had expended in holding services. "I have married," he said, "this woman, who is a Protestant, but her religion does not impair mine."

He was admitted to the honours of the sitting, but does not seem to have obtained any grant, for at the end of 1792 a subscription was started for Lydia. The appeal stated that the family occupied a room in a cottage in Montmartre Quarries, and that Bernet was reduced to working on the land. Our old friend Nicholas Gay, "known for his love of liberty and as a worthy cosmopolite," had been one of the first to subscribe (40 francs), and it was proposed to buy a cottage and piece of ground, so that the children would be taught by this honest couple to study two books only, that of Nature and the French Constitution. Lafayette gave 25 francs, Cloots 20 francs, the actor Talma 10 francs, and Manneville of Boulogne 5 francs. Bernet is next heard of in December 1793 as vicar of Ecottes, near Calais. Questioned by Lebou or his satellites, he protested that he had long ago unfrocked himself by marrying a Protestant, and had no altar but Nature. He was nevertheless, in April 1794, denounced as one of the priests who had been clandestinely celebrating mass, but does not seem to have been arrested, and poor Lydia disappears from history.

Bernet was not the first priest to contract matrimony. In December 1791, a priest in the Hérault wrote a letter to the Jacobin Club, stating that in the previous August he petitioned the Assembly to abolish clerical celibacy; that nothing had been done, but that he had married, and that an expected infant would be named Mirabeau. He wished Brissot to be godfather, and the Assembly godmother.

  1. Hulbert's "History of Salop"
  2. In 1754 Lord Powerscourt's son made money by betting with many persons that his father, a miser, would outlive their fathers. See Mémoires de Dufort, Comte de
  3. "Anacharsie Cloots," by G. Avenel. Paris: 1876.
  4. "Lettre du Prussien Cloots au Prussien Hertzberg." Paris: 1791.
  5. As shown by a letter from the London Constitutional Society thanking the Jacobins for their reception of Cooper and Watt.
  6. "Danton," may, however, have been a slip of the tongue or pen for "Brissot," who undoubtedly had quarrels with Robespierre.
  7. His old schoolmaster, John Murdock, was in France prior to or at the beginning of the Revolution, and was intimate with Colonel Fullerton, secretary of the Embassy. He returned to London, taught French, and died in 1824, aged seventy-seven.
  8. "Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre," Paris, 1828.
  9. "Secret History of the Cabinet of Bonaparte," ii, 152.