From the moment when France declared war against England Pitt's power was at an end. His pride, his immoveable firmness, and the general confidence of the nation still kept him at the head of affairs; but he could do little save drift along with a tide of popular feeling which he never fully understood. The very excellences of his character unfitted him for the conduct of a war. He was in fact a Peace Minister, forced into war by a panic and enthusiasm which he shared in a very small degree, and unaided by his father's gift of at once entering into the sympathies and passions around him, and of rousing passions and sympathies in return. Around him the country broke out in a fit of frenzy and alarm which rivalled the passion and panic over-sea. The confidence of France in its illusions as to opinion in England deluded for the moment even Englishmen themselves. The partizans of Republicanism were in reality but a few handfuls of men who played at gathering Conventions, and at calling themselves citizens and patriots, in childish imitation of what was going on across the Channel. But in the mass of Englishmen the dread of revolution passed for the hour into sheer panic.
Even the bulk of the Whig party forsook Fox when he still proclaimed his faith in France and the Revolution. The " Old Whigs," as they called themselves, with the Duke of Portland, Earls Spencer and Fitzwilliam, and Mr. Windham at their head, followed Burke in giving their adhesion to the Government. Pitt himself, though little touched by the political reaction around him, was shaken by the dream of social danger, and believed in the existence of "thousands of bandits," who were ready to rise against the throne, to plunder every landlord, and to sack London. "Paine is no fool," he said to his niece, who quoted to him a passage from the "Rights of Man," in which that author had vindicated the principles of the Revolution; "he is perhaps right; but if I did what he wants, I should have thousands of bandits on my hands to-morrow, and London burnt." It was this sense of social danger which alone reconciled him to the war. Bitter as the need of the struggle which was forced upon England was to him, he accepted it with the less reluctance that war, as he trusted, would check the progress of "French principles" in England itself. The worst issue of this panic was the series of legislative measures in which it found expression.
[Authorities. - To those mentioned before we may add Moore's Life of Sheridan; the Lives of Lord Castlereagh, Lord Eldon, and Lord Sidmouth; Romilly's Memoirs; Lord Cornwallis's Correspondence; Mr. Yonge's Life of Lord Liverpool; the Diaries and Correspondence of Lord Malmesbury, Lord Colchester, and Lord Auckland. For the general history of England at this time, see Alison's "History of Europe;" for its military history, Sir William Napier's "History of the Peninsular War."]
The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, a bill against seditious assemblies restricted the liberty of public meeting, and a wider scope was given to the Statute of Treasons. Prosecution after prosecution was directed against the Press; the sermons of some dissenting ministers were indicted as seditious; and the conventions of sympathizers with France were roughly broken up. The worst excesses of the panic were witnessed in Scotland, where young Whigs, whose only offence was an advocacy of Parliamentary reform, were sentenced to transportation, and where a brutal judge openly expressed his regret that the practice of torture in seditious cases should have fallen into disuse. The panic indeed soon passed away for sheer want of material to feed on. In 1794 the leaders of the Corresponding Society, a body which professed sympathy with France, were brought to trial on a charge of high treason, but their acquittal proved that all active terror was over. Save for occasional riots, to which the poor were goaded by sheer want of bread, no social disturbance troubled England through the twenty years of the war. But the blind reaction against all reform which had sprung from the panic lasted on when the panic was forgotten.
For nearly a quarter of a century it was hard to get a hearing for any measure which threatened change to an existing institution, beneficial though the change might be. Even the philanthropic movement which so nobly characterized the time found itself checked and hampered by the dread of revolution.
At first indeed all seemed to go ill for France. She was girt in by a ring of enemies; the Empire, Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Spain, and England were leagued in arms against her; and their efforts were seconded by civil war. The peasants of Poitou and Britanny rose in revolt against the government at Paris, while Marseilles and Lyons were driven into insurrection by the violent leaders who now seized on power in the capital. The French armies were driven back from the Netherlands when ten thousand English soldiers, under the Duke of York, joined the Austrians in Flanders in 1793. But the chance of crushing the Revolution was lost by the greed of the two German powers. Russia, as Pitt had foreseen, was now free to carry out her schemes in the East; and Austria and Prussia saw themselves forced, in the interest of a balance of power, to share in her annexations at the cost of Poland. But this new division of Poland would have become impossible had France been enabled by a restoration of its monarchy to take up again its natural position in Europe, and to accept the alliance which Pitt would in such a case have offered her.
The policy of the German courts therefore was to prolong an anarchy which left them free for the moment to crush Poland: and the allied armies which might have marched upon Paris were purposely frittered away in sieges in the Netherlands and the Rhine. Such a policy gave France time to recover from the shock of her disasters. Whatever were the crimes and tyranny of her leaders, France felt in spite of them the value of the Revolution, and rallied enthusiastically to its support. The revolts in the West and South were crushed. The Spanish invaders were held at bay at the foot of the Pyrenees, and the Piedmontese were driven from Nice and Savoy. The great port of Toulon, which called for foreign aid against the government of Paris, and admitted an English garrison within its walls, was driven to surrender by measures counselled by a young artillery qmcer from Corsica, Napoleon Buonaparte. At the opening of 1794 a victory at Fleurus which again made the French masters of the Netherlands showed that the tide had turned. France was united within by the cessation of the Terror and of the tyranny of the Jacobins, while on every border victory followed the gigantic efforts with which she met the coalition against her.