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Political economy to the fore: Burke, Malthus and the Whig response to popular radicalism in the age of the French revolution

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In the face of new forms of popular radicalism in the 1790s, British Whigs turned increasingly hostile to the French Revolution and doctrines of radical social improvement. Yet, rather than turn to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France to frame their anti-radical arguments, Whiggism took up the claims of Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. By eschewing the voluntarist idiom of Burke's Reflections in favour of a Newtonian rhetoric which resonated with the discursive traditions of radicalism itself, Malthus provided a powerful anti-radical weapon which became a central pillar of the emerging ‘science’ of political economy. Debates in political economy thus moved to the forefront of the contest between Whigs and popular radicals.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Political Science, York University, Toronto, Canada.

Publication date: March 1, 2000


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