1794, so much to answer for

I’m not sure where this is pointing, but I think it’s the future.

A strange cast of people have occupied my reading in recent months – English and French, writers and scientists, aristocrats and hackers. Now, like a Heroes season finale, I find them converging on a single year.

To keep track of the people and places I scribbled a map. On the right, my six-year-old son has added, with relish, a depiction of the Battle of Fleurus. More on that further on.

The story goes like this.

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Demain au Palais-Royal!

Tuesday is France’s Fête Nationale, and @cdesmoulins1789 will be live tweeting the Revolution. Can social media change the course of history?

One song to the tune of another: the 18th Century prophet of social media revealed

A few weeks ago there was a “Twitter Makes Us Better People” meme doing the rounds. It reminded me why I’m suspicious of claims about technology changing behaviour.

In particular some social media evangelists seem to appropriate the language of radical politics to describe the alleged impact of Facebook, Twitter and the rest in some way turning the tables on big government and business. Yet, as Evgeny Morozev says,  “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life.

It prompted me to re-read the writing of John Thelwall, the 18th Century radical orator I studied for my final year history dissertation.

Thelwall was a colourful, controversial character, a romantic poet and friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He was radicalised by Britain’s war against revolutionary France, being tried and acquitted of treason as a leader of the London Corresponding Society. His writings in 1795-96 are seen as significant in their focus on the economic as well as political condition of the common people in wartime Britain. And he wore a cudgel-proof hat as protection against ruffians loyal to the Government, which I always thought was rather cool.

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“Whatever presses men together…”

The words of radical orator and writer John Thelwall, 1796:

“The fact is that the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands, like all diseases not absolutely mortal, carries, in its own enormity, the seeds of a cure. Man is, by his very nature, social and communicative – proud to display the little knowledge he possesses, and eager, as opportunity presents, to encrease his store. Whatever presses men together, therefore, though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse.”

“Now, though every workshop cannot have a Socrates within the pale of its own society, nor even every manufacturing town a man of such wisdom, virtue and opportunities to instruct them, yet a sort of Socratic spirit will necessarily grow up, wherever large bodies of men assemble. Each brings, as it were, into the common bank his mite of information, and putting it to a sort of circulating usance, each contributor has the advantage of a large interest, without any diminution of capital.”

Rights of Nature, Against the Usurpations of Establishments.  A Series of Letters to the People, in Reply to the False Principles of Burke. Part the Second. London, 1796.

More follows.