Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER I.: Of the general Principles of the French Revolution. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LETTER I.: Of the general Principles of the French Revolution. - 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 general Principles of the French Revolution.
I Do not wonder that the late revolution of the French government, has excited your attention, and that of a great part of the nation. “It is,” as you justly say, p. 11, “all circumstances taken together, the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.” It is, therefore, a most interesting object both to philosophical and practical politicians. It behoves them to consider the principles on which it has been made, that if the conduct of the leaders in the business has been right, and if the scheme promises to be beneficial to the country, it may, as far as their situations are similar, be imitated in other countries; and that, if their conduct has been wrong, and the result of it unpromising, the example may serve to deter others from any attempt of the like kind.
But though there is nothing extraordinary in this revolution having excited so much of your attention, I am surprised that you should be so much alarmed and disturbed at it. You appear to me not to be sufficiently cool to enter into this serious discussion. Your imagination is evidently heated, and your ideas confused. The objects before you do not appear in their proper shapes and colours; and, without denying them, you lose sight of the great and the leading principles, on which all just governments are founded, principles which I imagined had been long settled, and universally assented to, at least by all who are denominated whigs, the friends of our own revolution, and of that which has lately taken place in America. To this class of politicians, you have hitherto professed to belong, and traces of these principles may be perceived in this work of yours.
Notwithstanding “the sacredness,” as you call it, p. 29, “of an hereditary principle of succession,” in our government, you allow of “a power of change in its application in cases of extreme emergency;” adding, however, that “the change should be confined to the peccant part only.” Nor do you deny that the great end and object of all government, that which makes it preferable to a state of anarchy, is the good of the people. It is better for them, and they are happier in a state of government. For the same reason, you must allow that that particular form of govermnent, which is best adapted to promote the happiness of any people, is the best for that people.
If you admit thus much, you must also allow that, since every private person is justified in bettering his condition, and indeed commended for it; a nation is not to be condemned for endeavouring to better theirs. Consequently, if they find their form of government to be a bad one, whether it was so originally, or became so through abuse or accident, they will do very well to change it for a better. A partial change, no doubt, will be preferable to a total one, if a partial change will be sufficient for the purpose. But if it appear that all attempts to mend an old constitution would be in vain, and the people prefer a new one, their neighbours have no more business to find fault with them, than with any individual, who should think it more adviseable to pull down an old and inconvenient house, and build another from the foundation, rather than lay out his money in repairs. Nations, no doubt, as well as individuals, may judge wrong. They may act precipitately, and they may suffer in consequence of it: but this is only a reason for caution, and does not preclude a right of judging and acting for themselves, in the best manner they can.
“The very idea,” you say, p. 44, “of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror.” It is, no doubt, far from being a thing desirable in itself; but it may nevertheless be necessary; and for all the evils arising from the change, you should blame not the framers of the new government, but the wretched state of the old one, and those who brought it into that state. That some very material change was wanting in the old government of France, you cannot deny, after allowing, p. 195, that “in that country the unlimited power of the sovereign over the persons of his subjects, was inconsistent with law and liberty.” On other occasions, I believe you have expressed yourself in a stronger manner than this. If law and liberty were wanting in the old constitution, the peccant part must have been the very foundation of it; so that nothing effectual could have been done short of taking down the whole.
If these incontrovertible principles and facts be admitted, I can see no reason for your exclaiming so violently as you do against the late revolution in France. Besides, whatever has been done, and in whatever manner it has been done, if the nation itself, whom alone it concerns, do not complain, we have no business to complain for them, any farther than the interest we take in the welfare of others, may lead us to feel for the distresses which we apprehend their folly and precipitancy may bring upon them. I shall, however, briefly consider the principal of your objections to this revolution.
You consider the present National Assembly of France as usurpers, assuming a power that does not belong to them. “I can never,” you say, p. 242, “consider this assembly as any thing else than a voluntary association of men, who have availed themselves of circumstances to seize upon the power of the state. They have not the sanction and authority of the character under which they first met. They have assumed another, of a very different nature, and have completely altered and inverted all the relations in which they originally stood. They do not hold the authority they exercise under any constitutional law of the state. They have departed from the instructions of the people by whom they were sent, which instructions, as the assembly did not act in virtue of any ancient usuage or settled law, were the sole source of their authority.”
Now, Sir, even allowing this to be true; admitting this National Assembly to have had no regular summons to meet, or to do any business at all; supposing them to have been men who rose out of the earth, or who dropped down from the clouds, or that no body could tell whence they came, and that, without any authority whatever, they took upon themselves to frame a new constitution of government for the French nation; if the nation really approve of it, acquiesce in it, and actually adopt it, it becomes from that time their own act, and the Assembly can only be considered as the proposers and advisers. It is the acquiescence of the people that gives any form of government its proper sanction, and that legalizes it. Changes of government cannot be brought about by established forms and rules, because there is no superior power to prescribe those rules. There are no supreme courts comprehending these great objects. Also, the cases occur so rarely, and they are so unlike to one another, that it would be to no purpose to look for precedents.
Now, that the French revolution is justifiable on this plain principle, is evident from the single circumstance of the National Assembly having continued their sittings without molestation, and from their decrees having been actually obeyed, for something more than a year at least. This Assembly does not consist, I believe, of more than about one thousand persons, and at first they had no army at their command; whereas at present the whole force of the state is in their hands. This force could not have been transferred from the king to them, without the consent both of the army, and of the nation which supports that army. As the nation does not complain of this translation of power, it is evident they do not think themselves aggrieved, and that the change has been made with their approbation. Here, then, we see all the marks of a legal government, or a government that is really the choice of the people. I do not say what difficulties may hereafter arise (which if they do, they will probably be the effect of their former government) to induce them to change their opinion. For neither that nation, nor any other, is omniscient and infallible.
Without examining into the former system of government, or the administration of it, we may take for granted, that it must have become extremely odious to the country in general, from the almost universal, and the very hearty, concurrence with which the revolution was brought about. A whole people is not apt to revolt, till oppression has become extreme, and been long continued, so that they despair of any other remedy than that desperate one. The strength of an established government, especially when it is in few hands, and has a large standing army at its command, is almost infinite; so that many nations quictly suffer every evil, and the country becomes in a manner desolate, without their making any attempt to relieve themselves. This is the case in all the Turkish dominions, and is said to be very nearly so in Spain and other countries. Whenever, therefore, we see a whole nation, or a great majority of it, rising as one man against an old government, and overturning it, we may safely conclude that their provocation was great, and their cause good.
An oppressed people do not, however, in general see any thing more than what they immediately feel. All they think of is to shake off the load which they can no longer bear; and having thought of nothing but the particular evil that galled them, they are very apt, in their future settlement, to guard against that only, without attending to the whole of their new situation, and the greater evils that may possibly arise from it. Whether the French have done so or not, time must discover. But if the people in general are well informed, and well disposed, they may make many experiments of new forms of government without much inconvenience; and though beginning with a very imperfect one, they may adopt a very good one at the last.
Was it not predicted that the Americans, on their breaking off from this country, would run into universal confusion, and immediately fall to cutting one another’s throats? But though that disruption was a violent one, and was effected by a war, which drained all their resources, they never suffered for want of government. When the war was over they bore very contentedly several imperfect and disjointed forms; and now, having taken much time to deliberate on the subject, they have adopted a more comprehensive one. But of this they only propose to make a trial, and if it should not answer, they will, no doubt, endeavour to improve upon it.
Now, why may not this be the case with the French, especially as they have no enemies to contend with, and interrupt their proceedings. I do not, I own, distinctly perceive the wisdom of several parts of the frame of government, at present adopted by the National Assembly, and many of the remarks that you have made upon it, may, for any thing that I know, be very just; but not being a judge of their circumstances, and consequently of all their reasons, I presume that they could not for the present do any better. In future time, however, whatever it be that is now deficient may be supplied. And considering the apparent strength of the ancient French government, and the great numbers that depended upon it (far more, I should imagine, than upon our court and ministry in this country) I wonder that the revolution was brought about with so much ease, and so little bloodshed.
I am, &c.