Ruth Scurr

A vanishing vision

England’s radicals of the 1790s championed Pantisocracy, or equal government by all. Of course, it never materialised

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were undergraduates when they met in June 1794, Coleridge at Cambridge university and Southey at Oxford. One of their earliest conversations concerned the political implications of the passions. A month later, on 28 July, the French Revolutionary Terror climaxed in the guillotining of the Incorruptible, Maximilien Robespierre. Evidence from across the Channel notwithstanding, Coleridge and Southey were certain that

the passions are not vicious — ’tis society makes the indulgence of them so. They resemble an assemblage of waters, destructive if they run wildly over the country, but the source of abundance if properly guided.

With youthful utopian optimism they theorised an imaginary community with the silly name of ‘Pantisocracy’ (derived from the Greek pan and isocratia, meaning ‘equal government by all’).

At first, Coleridge and Southey hoped their Pantisocracy could be established in America, which sounded to them an ideal place for a colony that would reform the passions by radically redistributing private property. ‘I have done nothing but dream of the system of no property every step of the way since I left you,’ Coleridge wrote to Southey in July. A land agent claimed that £2,000 would buy them 1,000 acres across the Atlantic and cover the costs of passage. They calculated that they would need at least 16 ‘gentlemen’ subscribers paying £125 each to realise Pantisocracy in Pennsylvania. Southey was already planning his packing — two or three pairs of ‘common blue trowsers’, six brown Holland pantaloons and two nankeen — when the project had to be scaled back to Wales.

Until 1794, America was neutral in the French Revolutionary Wars, but
by the autumn of that year Southey thought that America’s relations with both France and Britain were deteriorating, and crossing the Atlantic would be too dangerous.

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