Letter to Philip Francis
February 20, 1790
Burke grew increasingly alarmed over his colleagues’ favorable view of the French Revolution. His friend and political ally Philip Francis apparently gave credence to the poisonous propaganda that had been issuing for a decade about the sexual appetite of the Queen of France—the ironic result of her attempt to act in a more “natural” and less regal manner—as if a great civilization should be razed if the queen were found guilty of fornication. Other interpreters compared the events in France to Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 in order to serve contemporary revolutionary purposes. On November 4, 1789, the Revolution Society, formed originally to commemorate the Glorious Revolution, heard this comparison made by Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister and promoter of the American War of Independence. Price is mentioned in the letter below, along with William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and Marquis of Lansdowne, who was an old antagonist of Burke and the Rockingham Whigs.
Burke had known Philip Francis since at least 1770, and from 1785 Francis had assisted Burke in the prosecution of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India. Burke had sent Francis a short portion of the Reflections in draft form, and Francis had written back disapprovingly. He believed that the best hope of dissuading Burke from proceeding with the Reflections was to argue that combat with the English admirers of the French Revolution was beneath him and to warn Burke of the pamphlet war that would ensue. Of the famous purple patch on Marie Antoinette, Francis’s comment was brutal: “pure foppery.” Burke responds by explaining the sympathies that a suffering queen should evoke in a properly educated gentleman. Those sympathies contrast markedly with the revolutionary sympathies that inspired Price, Shelburne, and their “set.”
Letter to Philip Francis
Gerard-street, February 20, 1790
My dear Sir,
I sat up rather late at Carlton-house, and on my return hither, I found your letter on my table. I have not slept since. You will, therefore, excuse me if you find any thing confused, or otherwise expressed than I could wish, in speaking upon a matter which interests you from your regard to me. There are some things in your letter for which I must thank you; there are others which I must answer; some things bear the mark of friendly admonition; others bear some resemblance to the tone of accusation.
You are the only friend I have who will dare to give me advice; I must, therefore, have something terrible in me, which intimidates all others who know me from giving me the only unequivocal mark of their regard. Whatever this rough and menacing manner may be, I must search myself upon it; and when I discover it, old as I am, I must endeavour to correct it. I flattered myself, however, that you at least would not have thought my other friends justified in withholding from me their services of this kind. You certainly do not always convey to me your opinions with the greatest tenderness and management; and yet I do not recollect, since I first had the pleasure of your acquaintance, that there has been a heat or a coolness of a single day’s duration, on my side, during that whole time. I believe your memory cannot present to you an instance of it. I ill deserve friends, if I throw them away on account of the candour and simplicity of their good nature. In particular you know, that you have in some instances favoured me with your instructions relative to things I was preparing for the public. If I did not in every instance agree with you, I think you had, on the whole, sufficient proofs of my docility, to make you believe that I received your corrections, not only without offence, but with no small degree of gratitude.
Your remarks upon the first two sheets of my Paris letter, relate to the composition and the matter. The composition, you say, is loose, and I am quite sure of it: I never intended it should be otherwise. For, purporting to be, what in truth it originally was, a letter to a friend, I had no idea of digesting it in a systematic order. The style is open to correction, and wants it. My natural style of writing is somewhat careless, and I should be happy in receiving your advice towards making it as little vicious as such a style is capable of being made. The general character and colour of a style, which grows out of the writer’s peculiar turn of mind and habit of expressing his thoughts, must be attended to in all corrections. It is not the insertion of a piece of stuff, though of a better kind, which is at all times an improvement.
Your main objections are, however, of a much deeper nature, and go to the political opinions and moral sentiments of the piece; in which I find, though with no sort of surprise, having often talked with you on the subject, that we differ only in every thing. You say, “the mischief you are going to do yourself, is to my apprehension palpable; I snuff it in the wind, and my taste sickens at it.” This anticipated stench, that turns your stomach at such a distance, must be nauseous indeed. You seem to think I shall incur great (and not wholly undeserved) infamy, by this publication. This makes it a matter of some delicacy to me, to suppress what I have written; for I must admit in my own feelings, and in that of those who have seen the piece, that my sentiments and opinions deserve the infamy with which they are threatened. If they do not, I know nothing more than that I oppose the prejudices and inclinations of many people. This I was well aware of from the beginning; and it was in order to oppose those inclinations and prejudices, that I proposed to publish my letter. I really am perfectly astonished how you could dream, with my paper in your hand, that I found no other cause than the beauty of the queen of France (now, I suppose, pretty much faded) for disapproving the conduct which has been held towards her, and for expressing my own particular feelings. I am not to order the natural sympathies of my own heart, and of every honest breast, to wait until all the jokes of all the anecdotes of the coffee-houses of Paris, and of the dissenting meeting-houses of London, are scoured of all the slander of those who calumniate persons, that, afterwards, they may murder them with impunity. I know nothing of your story of Messalina. Am I obliged to prove juridically the virtues of all those I shall see suffering every kind of wrong, and contumely, and risk of life, before I endeavour to interest others in their sufferings, and before I endeavour to excite horror against midnight assassins at back-stairs, and their more wicked abettors in pulpits? *What! Are not high rank, great splendour of descent, great personal elegance and outward accomplishments, ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of men? The minds of those who do not feel thus, are not even systematically right. “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?” Why, because she was Hecuba, the queen of Troy, the wife of Priam, and suffered, in the close of life, a thousand calamities! I felt too for Hecuba, when I read the fine tragedy of Euripides upon her story; and I never inquired into the anecdotes of the court or city of Troy, before I gave way to the sentiments which the author wished to inspire; nor do I remember that he ever said one word of her virtue. It is for those who applaud or palliate assassination, regicide, and base insult to women of illustrious place, to prove the crimes (in sufferings which they allege, to justify their own. But if they have proved fornication on any such woman, taking the manners of the world, and the manners of France, I shall never put it in a parallel with assassination! No: I have no such inverted scale of faults, in my heart or my head.
You find it perfectly ridiculous, and unfit for me in particular, to take these things as my ingredients of commiseration. Pray why is it absurd in me to think, that the chivalrous spirit which dictated a veneration for women of condition and of beauty, without any consideration whatever of enjoying them, was the great source of those manners which have been the pride and ornament of Europe for so many ages? And am I not to lament that I have lived to see those manners extinguished in so shocking a manner, by means of speculations of finance, and the false science of a sordid and degenerate philosophy? I tell you again, that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the queen of France, in the year 1774, and the contrast between that brilliancy, splendour, and beauty, with the prostrate homage of a nation to her, and the abominable scene of 1789, which I was describing, did draw tears from me and wetted my paper. These tears came again into my eyes, almost as often as I looked at the description; they may again. You do not believe this fact, nor that these are my real feelings; but that the whole is affected, or, as you express it, downright foppery. My friend, I tell you it is truth; and that it is true, and will be truth, when you and I are no more; and will exist as long as men with their natural feelings shall exist. I shall say no more on this foppery of mine. Oh! by the way, you ask me how long I have been an admirer of German ladies? Always the same. Present me the idea of such massacres about any German lady here, and such attempts to assassinate her, and such a triumphant procession from Windsor to the Old Jewry, and I assure you, I shall be quite as full of natural concern and just indignation.
As to the other points, they deserve serious consideration, and they shall have it. I certainly cannot profit quite so much by your assistance, as if we agreed. In that case, every correction would be forwarding the design. We should work with one common view. But it is impossible that any man can correct a work according to its true spirit, who is opposed to its object, or can help the expression of what he thinks should not be expressed at all.
I should agree with you about the vileness of the controversy with such miscreants as the “Revolution Society,” and the “National Assembly”; and I know very well that they, as well as their allies, the Indian delinquents, will darken the air with their arrows. But I do not yet think they have the advowson of reputation. I shall try that point. My dear sir, you think of nothing but controversies; “I challenge into the field of battle and retire defeated, &c.” If their having the last word be a defeat, they most assuredly will defeat me. But I intend no controversy with Dr. Price, or Lord Shelburne, or any other of their set. I mean to set in full view the danger from their wicked principles and their black hearts. I intend to state the true principles of our constitution in church and state, upon grounds opposite to theirs. If any one be the better for the example made of them, and for this exposition, well and good. I mean to do my best to expose them to the hatred, ridicule, and contempt of the whole world; as I always shall expose such calumniators, hypocrites, sowers of sedition, and approvers of murder and all its triumphs. When I have done that, they may have the field to themselves; and I care very little how they triumph over me, since I hope they will not be able to draw me at their heels, and carry my head in triumph on their poles.
I have been interrupted, and have said enough. Adieu! Believe me always sensible of your friendship; though it is impossible that a greater difference can exist on earth, than, unfortunately for me, there is on those subjects, between your sentiments and mine.