rasmus Darwin's scientific works cannot be separated from his poetry Likewise his radical social and political ideas cannot be separated from his evolutionary ideas: all were expressed in his poems, especially The Botanic Garden and Temple of Nature.
Darwin was a political radical at a time when it was dangerous to be one. He supported parliamentary reform and the abolition of slavery long before such positions became popular. An expression of his opposition to slavery appears in lines added to the end of The Botanic Garden. He also published a book advocating for the education of women at a time when most women in Britain and the Continent were denied formal education. His own daughters, who received a full education, later ran their own schools. He believed in other forms of progress and improvement, encouraged no doubt by his observations of the changes in agriculture and technology happening all around him. Optimistic that these changes would inevitably lead to a better society from which poverty and deprivation were swept away, he was also aware that wider political and social changes were required for this to happen. His radical social and political positions derived from the fact that he did not believe the world had been created by God and fixed for eternity, but saw it as a dynamic and progressively changing place. He nonetheless thought that Christian teaching formed a sound basis for a moral code that should apply to all members of society, irrespective of their social rank:
'IN LIFE'S DISASTROUS SCENES TO OTHERS DO
WHAT YOU WOULD WISH BY OTHERS DONE TO YOU'
-- Winds! Wide o'er earth the sacred law convey,
Ye Nations, hear it! And ye Kings, obey!
[The Temple of Nature, Canto III: lines 487-490, original capitalisation]
Darwin’s idea that kings should be subject to the same legal and moral codes as anyone else was very radical, some would have said revolutionary, at a time when challenges to monarchy were frequent and bloody, especially in France. Conservatives in Britain were well aware of their own history: the English had themselves anticipated French regicide and radical reform one hundred and forty years earlier, under Oliver Cromwell during the Interregnum. They accordingly feared that any attempts to compromise with reformers would precipitate chaos. In 1792 Darwin, who was privately was a republican, founded the Derby Society for Political Information, one of a number of late eighteenth-century corresponding societies formed for the purpose of agitating peacefully for parliamentary and social reform. These societies, which were based in towns and cities, held meetings which were mostly attended by merchants, craftsmen, tradesmen, and other literate individuals who were generally prevented from voting or taking part in government. These societies debated ideas for reform and wrote manifestos outlining their demands. In order to co-ordinate these groups in an age before electronic communication or a national postal system, they wrote letters to each other which were then read aloud and discussed. They also exchanged news and current affairs. The Derby Society's particularly radical programme for reform which had been developed by Darwin. In 1792 it published its manifesto addressed "To the Friends of free Enquiry and the general Good," which spelled out what the members considered to be the justification for, and purposes of, "true government." It accused the government of Pitt, then Prime Minister, of "deep and alarming ABUSES," but nonetheless argued that that even such abuses did not justify "riot and confusion." Well aware of the tendency of angry mobs to damage property and to attack targeted individuals, they did not want to be associated with riots or be accused of causing them. Therefore the last clause of the manifesto read:
We invite the friends of freedom throughout Great Britain [...] to act with unanimity and firmness, till the people be too wise to be imposed upon; and their influence in the government be commensurate with their dignity and importance. THEN WE SHALL BE FREE AND HAPPY.
The manifesto also called for old age pensions, among other social welfare benefits, and universal male suffrage. Pitt and his government saw universal male suffrage as inciting rebellion, the more so because calls for it followed the publication of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Common Sense, both deeply radical polemic tracts that had also argued for political reform and universal male suffrage precisely at a time when the French had just executed their king and war had broken out between republican France and monarchist Britain. When the Morning Chronicle published the declaration on 25th December 1792, the publisher James Perry and the printer John Lambeck were arrested and tried for seditious libel, part of a wider campaign of intimidation by the government. In Edinburgh a lawyer, Thomas Muir, had already been found guilty by a rigged jury on similar charges and sentenced to transportation.
In order that a similar verdict be reached in London, the case was to be heard by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Kenyon, before a rigged jury in December 1793. Kenyon accused the two men of "gross and mischievous libel" with "wicked, malicious intent," and it was clear to all who would be the next to be arrested once the required guilty verdict had been passed. However, to the disgust and fury of Kenyon, the jury returned a verdict of "publishing," and so were ordered to be detained until they reached a "proper" verdict. Forced by Kenyon to sit during the night, the jury got their revenge by waiting until five in the morning when it roused the judge from his bed to inform him that the accused were not guilty. History does not record the judge's response to this unwelcome verdict, but Britain had just managed to avoid its own reign of terror. In 1795 Darwin, realising how close he had come to being sent to the Tower of London, wrote to his friend Edgeworth that "the only safe place is America." He nonetheless chose to stay in England where he continued working on Zoonomia and Phytologia. Darwin's opponents continued to link his evolutionary ideas to his radical politics in order to discredit both.
Darwin E. Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools. London: J. Johnson, 1797.
Darwin E. The Temple of Nature, or The Origins of Society. London: J. Johnson, 1803.
Last modified 23 April 2018