The French Revolution Spawns the Terror—and the Classic Conservatism of Burke
It can seem that every battle Edmund Burke fought became epic, remembered by history: his attempts to head off the war with the American colonies, his defense of representative democracy, his opposition to the British East India Company, and his critique of the corn laws on principles of economic liberalism.
But the clash that defined him was over the French Revolution of 1789. That should not surprise us. The Revolution rang down the curtain on the European Enlightenment. Its initial promise—under the banners of the rights of man, reason, individual liberty, the secular society, and equality rooted in human nature—ignited the imagination to an almost unimaginable degree. Burke did not condemn the Revolution at the outset. He later said that he saw “a spirit it is impossible not to admire,” but “the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner."
Burke’s correspondents in Paris reported to him. By October 10, 1789, he wrote to his son, Richard, “the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it.”
Burke’s condemnation became public in Parliament on February 9, 1790, when praise of the Revolution by leaders in Parliament provoked Burke to say that the French had shown themselves to be the ablest architects of ruin that had ever existed in the world—tearing down the monarchy, church, nobility, law, revenue, army, commerce, arts, and manufactures. And, he said, in religion, “the danger of their example is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind.”
The debate became divisive when Richard Price published his sermon on the universal “rights of man,” arguing that Englishmen must view themselves as “citizens of the world.” It is reported that Burke finished reading the pamphlet and then seized his pen and drafted one of his most famous statements: Reflections on the Revolution in France. He seems to have intuited its importance. He took a year to revise and expand it before, on November 1, 1790, he published it to immediate acclaim. It became a “best seller” at five shillings, and, although that was pricey, as political pamphlets go, by the end of the year it had gone through ten printings and sold 17,500 copies. Within a month, a French translation was selling out.
Burke asserted that Price’s interpretation of England’s Glorious Revolution in terms of abstract ideals and principles—metaphysical rights of humans—failed to account for its impact. That impact owed to tradition, “our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty. . . . The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror. We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.”
Responding to the Revolution that first inspired, then appalled, his countrymen, Burke emerges as the “father” of philosophical, reasoned conservative doctrine. It is a conservatism not of mood or temperament—but of approaching proposed change with caution. It valorizes the evidence of experience, settled custom, and revered tradition. And warns in the direst terms against that “fabrication” of new ideals, including blueprints for society and government, proceeding from philosophical (“metaphysical”) speculation.
Burke referred to jurists from Sir Edward Coke to Blackstone who sought proof of “the pedigree of our liberties” in “nothing more than a re-affirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom.”
“The parliament says to the king: ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom,’ claiming their franchises not on abstract principles ‘as the rights of men,’ but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers.”
"We fear God,” said Burke, “we look up with awe to kings; with affection to Parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.”
“Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected." Again, it is Burke the Enlightenment man calling upon the “moral sentiments” of Smith and other thinkers. Burke defended this benign “prejudice” as "the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages"—by comparison to which individual reason is small.
There is much more in the Reflections, including a famous description of the events of October 5 and 6, 1789, with a gallant defense of Marie-Antoinette, whom Burke portrays as a defenseless woman shamefully attacked. Marie-Antoinette, it is said, read Reflections and wept; Louis XVI translated it into French.
Reflections ignited one of history’s famous “pamphlet wars,” with rejoinders to Burke fired off by Mary Wollstonecraft and by Thomas Paine in “The Rights of Man,” among the premier pamphlets of all time.
The Revolution’s monstrous offspring, the Terror, brought an end to the European Enlightenment. The date is usually given as 1815, with the Treaty of Paris after the defeat and second abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. The exaltation and (later embarrassing) glorification of the Revolution by so many leading intellectuals, and the historic nightmare that replaced limitless optimism within less than a decade, clouded the brilliant day of reason, the philosophy of individualism and rights, and hope in the new sciences of society, government, and economics.
Long before, however, Burke had begun to emerge as a prophet of a new worldview and leader of a faction of a Whig party ruptured by disagreement over France. Burke, in 1791, advocated invasion to reverse the Revolution. He attacked French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the personality around which the cult of revolution fermented. (He had met Rousseau at the home of David Hume, a lifelong friend of Burke’s.) Burke could not fathom the reasoning of those Whigs who rejected the supposed principles of their party in favor of French principles—and who attacked Burke for jettisoning his Whig principles. In August 1791, he put forward yet another pamphlet, an Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, to champion what he viewed as Whig Party tradition.
In time, most Whigs found their way to Burke. They followed him in support of the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger, who responded to France’s declaration of war against Britain with a British declaration of war (1793) on France’s revolutionary government. Burke encouraged that war and opposed offers of peace that he viewed as appeasement.
In these years, he lost his son, Richard, who had but recently taken over Burke’s seat in Parliament. It was a heavy blow. Burke continued to fight for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, a cause in which Richard had achieved some early successes. Burke thus returned to the agenda of the Irish Enlightenment.
He became involved in 1795 with one of Parliament’s long series of clashes over the corn laws (“corn” in Britain referring not to American maize but various grains used in fermentation), opposing government regulation. He set forth his view of the proper limits of government, arguing that “the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to everything that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity.”
For this articulation of Enlightenment liberal economic reasoning, he earned from Adam Smith the compliment that he was “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us." It seems extravagant praise, but we can speculate that Smith is factoring in the prominence of the man espousing these principles in the face of obvious political pressure.
Other issues engaging Burke later in life were pernicious aspects of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and what he called the “corporate tyranny” of the British East India Company. Still, he continued to name “Jacobinism” as “the greatest evil.”
By 1796, Burke knew he was dying, his stomach “irrecoverably ruind.” Till the end, he rebuffed attempts by colleagues like Fox to reestablish friendships sundered by the debates over France and his defense of Irish Catholics and Indian victims of the British East India Company. Burke would have no part of it. He often had been isolated in Parliament by men who impugned the sincerity of his convictions. He wrote now that he believed that “the principles which he has endeavoured to maintain are necessary to the welfare and dignity of his country, and that these principles can be enforced only by the general persuasion of his sincerity.”
He did not make the concession of communicating this directly to Fox but presented it through Mrs. Burke.
On July 9, 1797, at age eighty-eight, Burke died at his mansion, Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, and is buried there beside his son and brother.
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