As the American Revolution was winding to an end, Burke would be put in charge of investigating alleged British injustices in India in 1781, and he was a powerful advocate for the Indian people. Burke also came under fire from his own Whig party after he accused the Tories and their Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, of Treason against the Crown. These two things put some serious heat on Burke, making him feel as if this was the end of his career. However, such concerns would all be eclipsed by the events occurring in France.
In 1789, France was rioting due to economic issues between the third estate, made up of the commoners, and the first and second estate, made up of the nobility and clergy. These riots would lead the commoners to seek reforms through the National Constituent Assembly, but it didn’t stop there. These riots took on an entirely new radical spirit, a spirit of vengeance and revolution, creating new revolutionaries that were pushing for a universal ideology of brotherhood, equality, and liberty. They wished to go beyond reform and bring down the old established order of Europe that was built on Religion, Aristocracy, and Monarchy. The radical revolutionaries wanted to build a brand-new republican world that was established on reason and liberty. They wanted a world built on what Thomas Paine had called “the Rights of Man” …
Europe looked at the events happening in France and there were both hopes and fears that this revolutionary spirit would spread. There would be famous figures and groups in Britain like Richard Price, the Constitutional Society, and the Revolution Society which supported the ideals of the French Revolutionaries, hoping it would make the jump across the Channel. They connected the French revolution with Britain's Glorious Revolution in 1688. Others, like Edmund Burke, were horrified at what he saw and could find no similarities between the two.
When they heard his speech to the British Parliament addressing the situation, many people were shocked that such a moderate reformer as Burke was so critical of the French Revolution. Burke didn’t stop there though, deciding to put his ideas in writing when he was specifically asked for his opinion on the heated events in France by Charles-Jean-François Depont. What was supposed to be a simple letter became one of the most famous attacks on the French Revolution that took Burke months to design. Burke would publish his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 and it was designed to do two things. First, to defend Britain's traditional social order, and second, to warn the world against the ideas and horrors that would be brought about by the French Revolution.
Before we can look at these two parts, we have to go back to Burke’s world view. Remember that Burke highly valued tradition. For Burke, tradition is an ever-improving collection of historical wisdom that has been built through the generations and creates a certain continuity. This continuity was sort of a social contract, real rather than made up in thought, as with Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. The social order was a contract with our forebears and our descendants, not just an inheritance but a prospectus. This intergenerational obligation gave society stability while guiding its slow positive change. Burke believed that we should put our trust in our own countries' traditional social order because it particularly worked best for us and that is why we should not trust unproven scientific or abstract theories that drastically change it.
Burke States “By the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young; but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy.”
This brings us to the first part of Burke’s reflections, the defense and praise of Britain and its aristocratic social order. Burke states that Britain has developed its own stable social order through its own history that the British should put their faith in. This does not mean that they should accept everything about it but should have gratitude toward it. He shows that anytime the British people have drastically swayed away from their own historical continuity, it has brought death and destruction until things were set right. Burke also says that one country's social order won’t necessarily work for another due to the fact that the other country hasn’t developed the same history, beliefs, and manners as the first. Each country has something to admire and different to bring to the world.
Burke States, “You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance that we have from our forefathers and are to transmit to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, with no reference to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves its unity in the great diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.”
From this idea stems one of the most important claims that Burke ever made. It is the claim that Rights are not universal or the product of reason, but rather are inherited. They are not just the freedoms you have, but also the justice and benefits you are guaranteed by society. They are not what societies are built on but their outcome. For Burke, the reasoned-out idea of universal rights or a universal social order that works for everyone is silly and will inevitably lead to failure. Rights and certain civil obligations to maintain those rights are brought about by certain traditions with a long historical continuity that has modified itself to work overtime. Burke puts great emphasis on these obligations or manners.
For Burke, it’s those manners that have naturally developed through history, rather than any artificial laws or abstract theory, that will dictate what rights a people may or may not have. By relying on these manners, people won’t develop a weak sense of liberty that is susceptible to corruption, but they will have a mature “manly” liberty. And this is why Burke goes on to say…
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Most of Burke’s way of thinking here is a way to respond to his opponents' use of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain and the Declaration of Right that came out of it. He says the Glorious Revolution was not a revolution in the same sense as the French revolution. It was not a destruction of Britain's social order but an ordered return from the drastic changes brought about by King James the II. The Glorious Revolution’s Declaration of Right did not establish new rights deriving from human reason but served as a mechanism to preserve the historical continuity of British tradition. Burke believed in slow change in order to conserve as much as possible. In his eyes, the Glorious Revolution was not a revolution but a way to prevent a revolution. This was actually the opposite of what the French revolutionaries wanted.
By setting up his traditional framework and defending Britain’s social order, Burke was ready to move on to the second part of the reflections, attacking what the radical French revolutionaries have done and their reliance on abstract ideas.
Politics, for Burke, is not the science of trying to realize abstract ideas but the art of solving particular issues plaguing society. Burke believes a good way to solve these issues is to invite compromise among conflicting interests. The problem with the French is that compromise naturally makes a pure, abstract, ideal system impossible and so some sort of force or exertion of power is necessary to bring about said system. For Burke, it’s these abstract ideas and use of force that tend to create radicals who have more allegiance to their high-sounding ideas than to their fellow citizens. These radicals believe they cannot delay their political plans for a moment or allow themselves to be the subjects to compromise.
Burke warns… “These opposed and conflicting interests, which you considered as so great a blemish in your old and in our present Constitution, interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. They render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, forever impracticable.”
For Burke, these radicals are not only dangerous with their exertions of arbitrary power, but they also have no idea what they were even messing with. All of the preconditions for the liberty that they wanted in the Rights of Man either didn’t exist in France or were being destroyed by the radicals. The French were trying to create a system without the proper foundations to maintain the people’s rights and their liberty. This is why Burke says… “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”
The irony for Burke was that these French revolutionaries were destroying this trusted social order, which held in check oppression and dogmatism, and they were replacing it with inadequate atheistic and enlightenment alternatives that would become even more oppressive and dogmatic. This is because these alternatives offered no respect for authority and no moral restraints. He thought this new order that would arise from the old would exacerbate the country's issues and make it more barbaric. He connects the failures that were about to come to the French, to the ones that had come to the Romans.
“When all the good arts had fallen into ruin, they proceeded, as your assembly does, upon the equality of men, and with as little judgment, and as little care for those things which make a republic tolerable or durable. But in this, as well as almost every instance, your new commonwealth is born, and bred, and fed, in those corruptions which mark degenerated and worn-out republics. Your child comes into the world with the symptoms of death.”
Burke depicts these revolutionaries as inexperienced gangsters who had no idea how to deal with these complex affairs or had any right to. He felt as if their inventions would be its own tyranny, the tyranny of the mob. This democratic tyranny, which serves people's wants above all, leaving aside any restraint, would be worse than the tyranny of despots and kings. If this unchecked mob could execute the innocent Queen of France, and no one was chivalrous enough to save her, no one would be safe from this ruthless mob. These barbarous men would turn street riots and the disturbance of the French society into a bloody terror. Burke not only foresaw the violence and failures of the French Revolution, but he also predicted the rise of a figure like Napoleon Bonaparte…
“In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master—the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.” This was six years before Napoleon’s first victories.
Of course, Burke’s Reflections would draw attacks from the other side, most famously his old friend, Thomas Paine. Paine now understood that there were some serious differences between him and Burke. He would write his Rights of Man in 1791 and 1792 to defend the French revolution and its ideals against Burke’s attacks. He accused Burke of seriously misunderstanding what was happening in France and of dramatizing the French Revolution for British patriotic and financial reasons. This debate between Paine and Burke would turn global with the world supporting or critiquing one or the other. However, the radical Jacobins would take over, Paine would lose his hold in France, and Burke would be vindicated yet again.
Edmund Burke retired in 1794 and his son Richard Burke died the same year. Burke spent his remaining grieving years defending his beliefs on the French Revolution until his death in 1797. He asked to be buried in an unmarked grave so he would not be dug up by the Jacobins and desecrated. Like the American Revolution, Burke would almost be prophetic with his reflections and was right and wrong about each stage of the French Revolution. His writings inspired a new political thought process, used as a check against unstable progress: it came to be called Traditional Conservatism. Burke valued stability and cautious reform, respecting the existing institutions. It was better than revolutions that brought everything down. His reflections were not in opposition to liberty but a different way to realize it. This brings us to our question today. “Do you think that rights and liberty are best realized by tradition or by reason?” Let us know what you guys think in the comments below. Well, that’s all we have for today’s episode. If you like this video, hit that like button, if you want to learn more intellectual history and want to be a Founders Club member, hit that Subscribe button. And remember, history is a good story that needs to be told, so tell it.
Burke, Edmund. Bruk’s Conciliation with America. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1924.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. James Dodsley, Pall Mall,
Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Intercollegiate Studies Institute; 2nd
Kramnick, Isaac. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of An Ambivalent Conservative. Basic
Books, Inc., Publishers; New York, 1977.
Levin, Yuval, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Basic Books; New York, 2013.