French Revolution: 1688 Versus 1789
Burke did not initially condemn the French Revolution. In a letter of 9 August 1789, Burke wrote: "England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud! The thing indeed, though I thought I saw something like it in progress for several years, has still something in it paradoxical and Mysterious. The spirit it is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner". The events of 5–6 October 1789, in which a crowd of Parisian women marched on Versailles to compel King Louis XVI to return to Paris, turned Burke against it. In a letter to his son Richard on 10 October he said: "This day I heard from Laurence who has sent me papers confirming the portentous state of France—where the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it—where Mirabeau presides as the Grand Anarch; and the late Grand Monarch makes a figure as ridiculous as pitiable". On 4 November Charles-Jean-François Depont wrote to Burke, requesting that he endorse the Revolution. Burke replied that any critical language of it by him should be taken "as no more than the expression of doubt" but added: "You may have subverted Monarchy, but not recover'd freedom". In the same month he described France as "a country undone". Burke's first public condemnation of the Revolution occurred on the debate in Parliament on the Army Estimates on 9 February 1790, provoked by praise of the Revolution by Pitt and Fox:
Since the House had been prorogued in the summer much work was done in France. The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures... an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy... 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; which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.
In January 1790 Burke read Dr. Richard Price's sermon of 4 November 1789 to the Revolution Society, called A Discourse On the Love of our Country. The Revolution Society was founded to commemorate the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In this sermon Price espoused the philosophy of universal "rights of men". Price argued that love of our country "does not imply any conviction of the superior value of it to other countries, or any particular preference of its laws and constitution of government". Instead, Englishmen should see themselves "more as citizens of the world than as members of any particular community". The debate between Price and Burke was "the classic moment at which two fundamentally different conceptions of national identity were presented to the English public". Price claimed that the principles of the Glorious Revolution included "the right to choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, and to frame a government for ourselves". Immediately after reading Price's sermon, Burke wrote a draft of what eventually became the Reflections on the Revolution in France. On 13 February 1790, a notice in the press said that Burke would shortly publish a pamphlet on the Revolution and its British supporters, however he spent the year revising and expanding it. On 1 November he finally published the Reflections and it was an immediate best-seller. Priced at five shillings, it was more expensive than most political pamphlets but by the end of 1790 it had gone through ten printings and sold approximately 17,500 copies. A French translation appeared on 29 November and on 30 November the translator, Pierre-Gaëton Dupont, wrote to Burke saying 2,500 copies had already been sold. The French translation ran to ten printings by June 1791.
What the Glorious Revolution had meant was important to Burke and his contemporaries, as it had been for the last one hundred years in British politics. In the Reflections, Burke argued against Price's interpretation of the Glorious Revolution and instead gave a classic Whig defence of it. Burke argued against the idea of abstract, metaphysical rights of men and instead advocated national tradition:
The Revolution was made to preserve 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. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon alien to the nature of the original plant.... Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta. You will see that Sir Edward Coke, that great oracle of our law, and indeed all the great men who follow him, to Blackstone, are industrious to prove the pedigree of our liberties. They endeavour to prove that the ancient charter... were nothing more than a re-affirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom.... In the famous law... called the Petition of Right, 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.
Burke put forward that "We fear God, we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected". Burke defended prejudice on the grounds that it is "the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages" and superior to individual reason, which is small in comparison. "Prejudice", Burke claimed, "is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit". Burke criticised social contract theory by claiming that society is indeed a contract, but "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born".
The most famous passage of the Reflections was his description of the events of 5–6 October 1789 and Marie Antoinette's part in them. Burke's account differs little from modern historians who have used primary sources. His use of flowery language to describe it, however, provoked both praise and criticism. Philip Francis wrote to Burke saying that what he wrote of Marie Antoinette was "pure foppery". Edward Gibbon however reacted differently: "I adore his chivalry". Burke was informed by an Englishman who had talked with the Duchesse de Biron that when Marie Antoinette was reading the passage she burst into tears and took considerable time to finish reading it. Price had rejoiced that the French king had been "led in triumph" during the October Days but to Burke this symbolised the opposing revolutionary sentiment of the Jacobins and the natural sentiments of those like himself who regarded the ungallant assault on Marie Antoinette with horror, as a cowardly attack on a defenceless woman.
Louis XVI translated the Reflections "from end to end" into French. Fellow Whig MPs Richard Sheridan and Charles James Fox disagreed with Burke and split with him. Fox thought the Reflections to be "in very bad taste" and "favouring Tory principles". Other Whigs such as the Duke of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam privately agreed with Burke but did not wish for a public breach with their Whig colleagues. Burke wrote on 29 November 1790: "I have received from the Duke of Portland, Lord Fitzwilliam, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord John Cavendish Montagu and a long et cetera of the old Stamina of the Whiggs a most full approbation of the principles of that work and a kind indulgence to the execution". The Duke of Portland said in 1791 that when anyone criticised the Reflections to him he informed them that he had recommended the book to his sons as containing the true Whig creed. In the opinion of Paul Langford, Burke crossed something of a Rubicon when he attended a levee on 3 February 1791 to meet the King, later described by Jane Burke:
On his coming to Town for the Winter, as he generally does, he went to the Levee with the Duke of Portland, who went with Lord William to kiss hands on his going into the Guards—while Lord William was kissing hands, The King was talking to The Duke, but his Eyes were fixed on who was standing in the Crowd, and when He said His say to The Duke, without waiting for 's coming up in his turn, The King went up to him, and, after the usual questions of how long have you been in Town and the weather, He said you have been very much employed of late, and very much confined. said, no, Sir, not more than usual—You have and very well employed too, but there are none so deaf as those that w'ont hear, and none so blind as those that w'ont see— made a low bow, Sir, I certainly now understand you, but was afraid my vanity or presumption might have led me to imagine what Your Majesty has said referred to what I have done—You cannot be vain—You have been of use to us all, it is a general opinion, is it not so Lord Stair? who was standing near. It is said Lord Stair;—Your Majesty's adopting it, Sir, will make the opinion general, said —I know it is the general opinion, and I know that there is no Man who calls himself a Gentleman that must not think himself obliged to you, for you have supported the cause of the Gentlemen—You know the tone at Court is a whisper, but The King said all this loud, so as to be heard by every one at Court.
Burke's Reflections sparked a pamphlet war. Thomas Paine penned the Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke; Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men and James Mackintosh wrote Vindiciae Gallicae. Mackintosh was the first to see the Reflections as "the manifesto of a Counter Revolution". Mackintosh later agreed with Burke's views, remarking in December 1796 after meeting him, that Burke was "minutely and accurately informed, to a wonderful exactness, with respect to every fact relating to the French Revolution". Mackintosh later said: "Burke was one of the first thinkers as well as one of the greatest orators of his time. He is without parallel in any age, excepting perhaps Lord Bacon and Cicero; and his works contain an ampler store of political and moral wisdom than can be found in any other writer whatever".
In November 1790 a member of the National Assembly of France, François-Louis-Thibault de Menonville, wrote to Burke, praising the Reflections and requesting more "very refreshing mental food" that he could publish. This Burke did in April 1791 when he published A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly. Burke called for external forces to reverse the Revolution and included an attack on the late French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a personality cult had developed in revolutionary France. Although Burke conceded that Rousseau sometimes shows "a considerable insight into human nature" he was mostly critical. Although he did not meet Rousseau on his visit to Britain in 1766–7 he was a friend of David Hume, with whom Rousseau had stayed. Burke said Rousseau "entertained no principle either to influence of his heart, or to guide his understanding, but vanity", which he "was possessed to a degree little short of madness". He also cited Rousseau's Confessions as evidence that Rousseau had a life of "obscure and vulgar vices" that was not "chequered, or spotted here and there, with virtues, or even distinguished by a single good action". Burke contrasted Rousseau's theory of universal benevolence and his sending his children to a foundling hospital: "a lover of his kind, but a hater of his kindred".
These events, and disagreements that rose from them within the Whig party, led to its breakup and to the rupture of Burke's friendship with Fox. In debate in Parliament on Britain's relations with Russia, Fox praised the principles of the Revolution, though Burke was not able to reply at this time as he was "overpowered by continued cries of question from his own side of the House". When Parliament was debating the Quebec Bill for a constitution for Canada, Fox praised the Revolution and criticised some of Burke's arguments, such as hereditary power. On 6 May 1791, during another debate in Parliament on the Quebec Bill, Burke used the opportunity to answer Fox and condemn the new French Constitution and "the horrible consequences flowing from the French idea of the rights of man". Burke asserted that those ideas were the antithesis of both the British and the American constitutions. Burke was interrupted, and Fox intervened to say that Burke should be allowed to carry on with his speech. However a vote of censure was moved against Burke for noticing the affairs of France, which was moved by Lord Sheffield and seconded by Fox. Pitt made a speech praising Burke, and Fox made a speech both rebuking and complimenting Burke. He questioned the sincerity of Burke, who seemed to have forgotten the lessons he had taught him, quoting from Burke's speeches of fourteen and fifteen years before. Burke replied:
It certainly was indiscreet at any period, but especially at his time of life, to parade enemies, or give his friends occasion to desert him; yet if his firm and steady adherence to the British constitution placed him in such a dilemma, he would risk all, and, as public duty and public experience taught him, with his last words exclaim, "Fly from the French Constitution".
At this point Fox whispered that there was "no loss of friendship". "I regret to say there is", Burke said, "I have indeed made a great sacrifice; I have done my duty though I have lost my friend. There is something in the detested French constitution that envenoms every thing it touches". This provoked a reply from Fox, yet he was unable to give his speech for some time since he was overcome with tears and emotion, he appealed to Burke to remember their inalienable friendship but also repeated his criticisms of Burke and uttered "unusually bitter sarcasms". This only aggravated the rupture between the two men. Burke demonstrated his separation from the party on 5 June 1791 by writing to Fitzwilliam, declining money from him.
Burke was dismayed that some Whigs, instead of reaffirming the principles of the Whig party he laid out in the Reflections, had rejected them in favour of "French principles" and criticised Burke for abandoning Whig principles. Burke wanted to demonstrate his fidelity to Whig principles and feared that acquiescence to Fox and his followers would allow the Whig party to become a vehicle for Jacobinism. Burke knew that many members of the Whig party did not share Fox's views and wanted to provoke them into condemning the French Revolution. Burke wrote that he wanted to represent the whole Whig party "as tolerating, and by a toleration, countenancing those proceedings" so that he could "stimulate them to a public declaration of what every one of their acquaintance privately knows to be...their sentiments". Therefore on 3 August 1791 Burke published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he renewed his criticism of the radical revolutionary programmes inspired by the French Revolution and attacked the Whigs who supported them as holding principles contrary to those traditionally held by the Whig party. Burke owned two copies of what has been called "that practical compendium of Whig political theory", The Tryal of Dr. Henry Sacheverell (1710). Burke wrote of the trial: "It rarely happens to a party to have the opportunity of a clear, authentic, recorded, declaration of their political tenets upon the subject of a great constitutional event like that of the Revolution". Writing in the third person, Burke asserted in his Appeal:
...that the foundations laid down by the Commons, on the trial of Doctor Sacheverel, for justifying the revolution of 1688, are the very same laid down in Mr. Burke's Reflections; that is to say,—a breach of the original contract, implied and expressed in the constitution of this country, as a scheme of government fundamentally and inviolably fixed in King, Lords and Commons.—That the fundamental subversion of this antient constitution, by one of its parts, having been attempted, and in effect accomplished, justified the Revolution. That it was justified only upon the necessity of the case; as the only means left for the recovery of that antient constitution, formed by the original contract of the British state; as well as for the future preservation of the same government. These are the points to be proved.
Burke then provided quotations from Paine's Rights of Man to demonstrate what the New Whigs believed. Burke's belief that Foxite principles corresponded to Paine's was genuine. Finally, Burke denied that a majority of "the people" had, or ought to have, the final say in politics and alter society at their pleasure. People had rights but also duties, and these duties were not voluntary. Also, the people could not overthrow morality derived from God.
Although Whig grandees like Portland and Fitzwilliam privately agreed with Burke's Appeal, they wished he had used more moderate language. Fitzwilliam saw the Appeal as containing "the doctrines I have sworn by, long and long since". Francis Basset, a backbench Whig MP, wrote to Burke: "...though for reasons which I will not now detail I did not then deliver my sentiments, I most perfectly differ from Mr Fox & from the great Body of opposition on the French Revolution". Burke sent a copy of the Appeal to the King and the King requested a friend to communicate to Burke that he had read it "with great Satisfaction". Burke wrote of its reception: "Not one word from one of our party. They are secretly galled. They agree with me to a title; but they dare not speak out for fear of hurting Fox. ... They leave me to myself; they see that I can do myself justice". Charles Burney viewed it as "a most admirable book—the best & most useful on political subjects that I have ever seen" but believed the differences in the Whig party between Burke and Fox should not be publicly aired.
Eventually most of the Whigs sided with Burke and voted their support for the conservative government of Pitt, which, in response to France's declaration of war against Britain, declared war on the revolutionary government of France in 1793.
In December 1791 Burke sent government ministers his Thoughts on French Affairs where he put forward three main points: no counter-revolution in France would come about by purely domestic causes; the longer the revolutionary government exists the stronger it becomes; and the revolutionary government's interest and aim is to disturb all the other governments of Europe. Burke, as a Whig, did not wish to see an absolute monarchy again in France after the extirpation of Jacobinism. Writing to an émigré in 1791, Burke expressed his views against a restoration of the ancien régime:
When such a complete convulsion has shaken the State, and hardly left any thing whatsoever, either in civil arrangements, or in the Characters and disposition of men's minds, exactly where it was, whatever shall be settled although in the former persons and upon old forms, will be in some measure a new thing and will labour under something of the weakness as well as other inconveniences of a Change. My poor opinion is that you mean to establish what you call 'L'ancien Regime,' If any one means that system of Court Intrigue miscalled a Government as it stood, at Versailles before the present confusions as the thing to be established, that I believe will be found absolutely impossible; and if you consider the Nature, as well of persons, as of affairs, I flatter myself you must be of my opinion. That was tho' not so violent a State of Anarchy as well as the present. If it were even possible to lay things down exactly as they stood, before the series of experimental politicks began, I am quite sure that they could not long continue in that situation. In one Sense of L'Ancien Regime I am clear that nothing else can reasonably be done.
Burke delivered a speech on the debate of the Aliens Bill on 28 December 1792. He supported the Bill as it would exclude "murderous atheists, who would pull down church and state; religion and God; morality and happiness". The peroration included a reference to a French order for 3,000 daggers. Burke revealed a dagger he had concealed in his coat and threw it to the floor: "This is what you are to gain by an alliance with France". Burke picked up the dagger and continued:
When they smile, I see blood trickling down their faces; I see their insidious purposes; I see that the object of all their cajoling is—blood! I now warn my countrymen to beware of these execrable philosophers, whose only object it is to destroy every thing that is good here, and to establish immorality and murder by precept and example—'Hic niger est hunc tu Romane caveto' .
Burke supported the war against revolutionary France, seeing Britain as fighting on the side of the royalists and émigres in a civil war, rather than fighting against the whole nation of France. Burke also supported the royalist uprising in La Vendée, describing it on 4 November 1793 in a letter to William Windham, as "the sole affair I have much heart in". Burke wrote to Henry Dundas on 7 October urging him to send reinforcements there, as he viewed it as the only theatre in the war that might lead to a march on Paris. However Dundas did not follow Burke's advice. Burke believed the government was not taking the uprising seriously enough, a view reinforced by a letter he had received from the Comte d'Artois, dated 23 October, requesting that he intercede on behalf of the royalists to the government. Burke was forced to reply on 6 November: "I am not in His Majesty's Service; or at all consulted in his Affairs". Burke published his Remarks on the Policy of the Allies with Respect to France, begun in October, where he said: "I am sure every thing has shewn us that in this war with France, one Frenchman is worth twenty foreigners. La Vendee is a proof of this".
On 20 June 1794 Burke received a vote of thanks from the Commons for his services in the Hastings trial and immediately resigned his seat, being replaced by his son Richard. However a terrible blow fell upon Burke in the loss of Richard in August 1794, to whom he was tenderly attached, and in whom he saw signs of promise, which were not patent to others, and which in fact appear to have been non-existent. The King, whose favour he had gained by his attitude on the French Revolution, wished to make him Lord Beaconsfield, but the death of his son had deprived such an honour of all its attractions, and the only reward he would accept was a pension of £2,500. Even this modest reward was attacked by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, to whom Burke replied in the Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). Burke wrote: "It cannot at this time be too often repeated; line upon line; precept upon precept; until it comes into the currency of a proverb, To innovate is not to reform". He argued that he was rewarded on merit but the Duke of Bedford received his rewards from inheritance alone, his ancestor being the original pensioner: "Mine was from a mild and benevolent sovereign; his from Henry the Eighth". Burke also hinted at what would happen to such people if their revolutionary ideas were implemented, and included a description of the British constitution:
But as to our country and our race, as long as the well compacted structure of our church and state, the sanctuary, the holy of holies of that ancient law, defended by reverence, defended by power, a fortress at once and a temple, shall stand inviolate on the brow of the British Sion—as long as the British Monarchy, not more limited than fenced by the orders of the State, shall, like the proud Keep of Windsor, rising in the majesty of proportion, and girt with the double belt of its kindred and coeval towers, as long as this awful structure shall oversee and guard the subjected land—so long as the mounds and dykes of the low, fat, Bedford level will have nothing to fear from all the pickaxes of all the levellers of France.
Burke's last publications were the Letters on a Regicide Peace (October 1796), called forth by the Pitt government's negotiations for peace with France. Burke regarded this as appeasement, injurious to national dignity and honour. In the Second Letter, Burke wrote of the revolutionary French government: "Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects—dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms". This has been seen as the first time someone explained the modern totalitarian state. Burke regarded the war with France as ideological, against an "armed doctrine". He wished that France would not be partitioned due to the effect this would have on the balance of power in Europe, and that the war was not against France but against the revolutionaries governing her. Burke said: "It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France".
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