Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PREFACE. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
THE PREFACE. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
OF the numerous readers, and answerers, of Mr. Burke’s long expected Reflections on the Revolution in France, the attention of the greater part will be chiefly drawn to those passages which more immediately relate to the civil constitution of that kingdom. These I have not neglected. But, what I have more particularly replied to, is what he has advanced on civil establishments of religion, which makes no small figure in his performance, and which appears to be a subject not generally understood.
It is with very sensible regret that I find Mr. Burke and myself on the two opposite sides of any important question, and especially that I must now no longer class him among the friends of what I deem to be the cause of liberty, civil or religious, after having, in a pleasing occasional intercourse of many years, considered him in this respectable light. In the course of his public life, he has been greatly befriended by the Dissenters, many of whom were enthusiastically attached to him; and we always imagined that he was one on whom we could depend, especially as he spoke in our favour in the business of subscription, and he made a common cause with us in zealously patronizing the liberty of America.
That an avowed friend of the American revolution should be an enemy to that of the French, which arose from the same general principles, and in a great measure sprung from it, is to me unaccountable. Nor is it much less difficult to conceive how any person, who has had America in his eye so long as Mr. Burke must necessarily have contemplated it, could be so impressed, as he appears to be, in favour of ecclesiastical establishments. That country he sees to flourish as much as any other in the annals of history, without any civil establishment of religion at all. There he must see the civil government goes on very well without it. It neither stands in need of religion, nor does religion stand in need of it. For America is so far from being a country of atheists and unbelievers, that there is, I doubt not, a stronger general sense of religion there than in any other part of the world.
In America also, and indeed in every other part of the known world, except the southern part of this particular island, Mr. Burke sees all civil offices open to persons of all religious persuasions without distinction, and without any inconvenience having been known to arise from it; and yet here he joins with a bigotted clergy, in rigorously confining them to the members of the established church. But even this is not so extraordinary as his not scrupling to class all the enemies of establishments with cheats and hypocrites, as if our opinions were so palpably absurd, that no honest man could possibly entertain them.
Some are disposed to ascribe this change in Mr. Burke’s views and politics, to his resentment of the treatment of the coalition by the Dissenters. And certainly so sudden an union of Mr. Burke and his friends with Lord North, with whom they had been in a state of violent opposition during the whole of the American war, did fill the Dissenters, but not the Dissenters only (for the shock affected the greater part of the nation) with horror. In this it is possible they might have judged wrong, listening to no reason against the effect of the first unfavourable impression; but they certainly acted from the best principles, an attachment to liberty, virtue, and consistency; and they lamented the fall of Mr. Burke, as that of a friend and a brother.
However, the question before the reader, is not the propriety or impropriety of any particular man’s conduct, but the wisdom of great measures of government; as whether it be right, and wise, to connect the business of religion with that of the state, in the manner in which it is done in this country, and whether the French nation is justifiable in their attempts to change their arbitrary form of government for another which they deem to be more favourable to their interests and natural rights.
The question also with respect to them, is not whether they have taken the very best methods possible to gain their end, but whether the thing itself was worth their aiming at, and whether they have been those very great fools that Mr. Burke makes them to be. After all, mankind in general will judge by the event. If they succeed in establishing a free government, they will be applauded for their judgment, as well as for the spirit that they have shewn; and if they fail, they will be condemned for their precipitancy and folly. Thus every successful revolt is termed a revolution, and every unsuccessful one a rebellion.
If the principles that Mr. Burke now advances (though it is by no means with perfect consistency) be admitted, mankind are always to be governed as they have been governed, without any enquiry into the nature, or origin, of their governments. The choice of the people is not to be considered, and though their happiness is aukwardly enough made by him the end of government; yet, having no choice, they are not to be the judges of what is for their good. On these principles, the church, or the state, once established, must for ever remain the same. This is evidently the real scope of Mr. Burke’s pamphlet, the principles of it being, in fact, no other than those of passive obedience and non-resistance, peculiar to the Tories and the friends of arbitrary power, such as were echoed from the pulpits of all the high church party, in the reigns of the Stuarts, and of Queen Anne. Let them, however, be produced again, and let us see in what manner they will be treated by the good sense and spirit of Englishmen at the present day.
After the first part of these letters relating more immediately to the French Revolution were printed, I had an opportunity of seeing the Memoir of the Com te De Lally Tollendal, of whose account of the transaction of the sixth of October, Mr. Burke has availed himself so much, p. 109, &c. calling him “one of the most honest, intelligent, and eloquent members of the National Assembly.” I have particularly compared his account of this Assembly, with that of Mr. Burke, p. 24, where he says, “I consider this Assembly as nothing else than a voluntary association of men who have availed themselves of circumstances to seize upon the power of the state, and that they have not the sanction, and authority, of the character under which they first met.”
Mr. Tollendal’s ideas were certainly very different from these of Mr. Burke. For, speaking of his being chosen a member of the Assembly, he says, p. 5, “it was, without doubt, a great occasion, and a great work, to concur in the regeneration of France, in founding liberty there, and in creating laws and manners* !” What, then, has the National Assembly done, or attempted to do, more than this, which Mr. Tollendal clearly conceived to have been the design of their meeting? Though he thought proper to leave this Assembly, yet he acknowledges, p. 45, that “the majority of the persons who composed it, had the purest intentions† ;” and he speaks in the highest terms of approbation concerning the declaration of Rights, which was their first Act. After making some objections respecting the form, more than the substance, he says, p. 125, “it contains all the great principles which are the guards of societies, which maintain the rights of man, and of his dignity, and which secure his tranquility and happiness* .” And these are those rights of men which Mr. Burke treats with so much ridicule.
In order to form a judgment whether the National Assembly had actually exceeded their commission, or had undertaken more than was required of them, I also looked into the King of France’s circular letter for the convocation of the States at Versailles, dated January 24, 1789, as it is contained in the New Annual Register, for 1789, p. 111. According to it, this Assembly was convened “to establish a steady, constant, and invariable order in every part of government, that interested the happiness of the people, and the prosperity of the kingdom; that an effectual remedy might be applied to the disorders of the state, and that abuses of every kind might be reformed and prevented, by good and solid means, proper to insure a permanency of the public happiness.” And lastly, it is said to be “for every thing that might concern the present and future wants of the state.”
Again, in the King’s letter to the President of the Assembly, dated May 28, 1789, he says, “I cannot see without pain the National Assembly, which I have called together, to be concerned with me in the new regulation of the kingdom, sunk into inaction; which if continued, would cause all the hopes which I have formed for the happiness of my people, and the benefit of the state to prove abortive.”
Certainly, therefore, in the opinion of the King, as well as that of the whole nation, there was a want of a total reform in the constitution of the French government, and this reform was expected from the National Assembly. This is the very thing which they are endeavouring to effect, and in which they have made considerable progress. What they have done gives the greatest pleasure to the friends of universal liberty, though unfortunately it gives pain to Mr. Burke, and some others.
[* ]C’étoit, sans doute, une assez grande occasion; c’étoit un assez grand travail, que de concourir à régénérer la France, à y sondre la liberté, & à y créer des lois & des mœurs.
[† ]Une très petite portion d’individus pourroit rendre inutiles les intentiones pures de la majorité.
[* ]Il est cependant vrai de dire, que tous les grandes principes, tous ces principes tutélaires des sociétés, conservateurs des droits de l’homme, & de sa dignité, protecteurs de son repos & de son bonheur, y sont renfermés. Je crois que cette declaration pourra être applaudie, le jour où les troubles qui s’élevoient, pendant que nous la rédigions, seront calmés.