The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

REFERENCE DESK
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Burke, Edmund
Peter J. Stanlis - 06/30/11

In 1769, long before the French Revolution burst upon Europe, Burke had predicted that France was heading toward “some extraordinary convulsion” because of its serious financial problems. A visit to France early in 1773 made him acutely aware of the militant atheism among some of the philoso-phes, and on his return to England, in his first speech in Parliament on March 17, 1773, he noted that “under the systematic attacks of these people, I see some of the props of good government already begin to fail. . . .” Burke believed that the chronic financial crisis of France, and the radical ideology among its “intellectuals,” combined with economic and other causes, prepared the way for the great upheaval in 1789.

Burke’s immediate response to the French Revolution was not hostile. For almost a year he allowed events to determine the position he would assume toward France. He noted that when Louis XVI recognized a unicameral National Assembly on June 27, 1789, in which the corporate orders of nobility and clergy were obliterated in favor of a numerical body dominated by the Third Estate, France was thereby committed to a new and revolutionary political and social order. Mob violence spread throughout France from the time the Paris populace stormed the Bastille on July 14 until the end of 1789. In October more than 300 of the more moderate deputies to the National Assembly fled France; the Jacobins assumed control, and proceeded by edicts to demolish the entire traditional legal, political, social, and religious order of France. By then Burke was convinced that the revolution was an evil force, aimed not at reforming economic and political inequities but at destroying the inherited civilization of France and all Europe. Yet not until January 1790, when English radicals expressed strong approval of events in France and held up the National Assembly as a model for England, did Burke enter the public arena to do battle with the French Revolution.

Burke’s speeches in Parliament from February to June 1790 were a prelude to his Reflections on the Revolution in France (published later that year). Until his death in 1797, he continued his unrelenting attacks on the revolution in such works as A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), Thoughts on French Affairs (1791), Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793), A Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796). Burke’s Reflections provoked the greatest political controversy ever conducted in English on the social nature of man, on reform and revolution, and on the origins, foundations, nature, and objectives of government and civil society. More than 225 books and pamphlets were written in “reply” to his Reflections, and more than 400 works attacking or defending Burke’s writings on the revolution appeared before his death.

The most frequent charge of Burke’s critics has been that after decades of defending the oppressed—in America, Ireland, India, and England—he betrayed his love of liberty and justice by defending the old regime in France, and in so doing was inconsistent with the political principles he had always professed. This charge shows ignorance of Burke, the French Revolution, or both. John Morley disposed of the charge of inconsistency by noting that there was no difference in principles between Burke’s defense of the American colonies and his attacks on the French Jacobin revolutionaries. As Morley stated, Burke changed his front but never changed his ground. His consistency is most evident in his constant adherence to moral natural law and prudence as the ethical and legal standards and strategies for redress against political tyranny and injustice, whether that of kings or democrats.

Further Reading
  • Gandy, Clara, and Peter Stanlis. Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983.
  • Canavan, Francis. Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1987.
  • Fennessy, R. R. Burke, Paine and the Rights of Man. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963.
  • MacCunn, John. The Political Philosophy of Burke. London: Edward Arnold, 1913.
  • Stanlis, Peter J., ed. Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment and the Modern World. Detroit: University of Detroit Press, 1967.
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