Today (November 1) is the date in 1790 when Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It’s a book that is still worth close study, because Burke’s insights into politics have proven to be perennial, maybe permanent.
But the book itself was provoked, as the title says, by a political event in another country. Don’t let the title fool you into thinking of the whole French Revolution, though: almost nothing that we now remember as the major events of the Revolution had happened yet when Burke published his book. Heads had not yet begun to roll, the King and Queen of France had not yet been captured and killed by the mob, and The Terror was not yet unveiled.
Burke didn’t need to wait around for the details to develop. He saw all of those consequences in his first glance at the principles of the Revolution. Those principles were all wrong; so the consequences were bound to be bad. The way the revolutionaries talked about authority, about their right to lay hold of kings, about the rational perfection that was possible for pure democracy, about the need to put all aspects of life under the control of those who know best, about the rights of small-minded country lawyers and merchants to assume the highest rank of national government… Burke knew this could only lead to trouble. He was especially upset that Englishmen were speaking in praise of the French principles. He knew the Revolutionary fire could jump the channel instantly, in the form of ideas and attitudes.
Burke’s detractors thought his warnings were alarmist. But the situation in France rapidly developed into something as bad as Burke’s darkest premonitions. Guillotines? –No surprise to Burke. Regicide? –Obvious. Napoleon? –Duh. What did you expect when you argued that way, mes frères? And what, fellow members of parliament, do you think this portends for England if she follows the French course and turns her back on her own history of law?
Reflections is a remarkable book, and its appearance still provokes questions. How did Burke manage to see so deeply into the first movements of the Revolution? Part of the answer is that he had already written, 34 years previously, his Vindication of Natural Society, which did the foundational work well in advance by spoofing political freethinkers.
The other big question raised by Burke’s book is about its influence: When Burke published, all the cool kids knew the French Revolution was the happening thing, and they were all over it like hippies were all over weed. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the “free love” of the 1790s. Young romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge confessed that while it was always great to be young, to be young during the French Revolution was “very heaven.”
But then Burke published the Reflections, and a large group of the young romantics turned on a dime. Burke set forth the radically conservative case in a way that turned the heads of poets and dreamers. How? Mostly by his principles, but with help from his prose. Listen to his voice:
But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general and as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity.
Burke convinced a generation of young romantics that putting a mass of cold-hearted policy wonks in place, the self-proclaimed “best and brightest” with their hands on the levers of power, would lead to the ruin of a civilization much older than any nation currently living.
To those who had begun to call society a “social contract,” Burke snorted that it was indeed a contract, but not of the mechanical or mercantile sort, “nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco.” It was a contract that deserved reverence, “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”
As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes 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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place.
Though Burke was a political liberal in the classical sense, conservatives routinely point to him as the greatest spokesman for the conservative tradition. A particular constellation of the American conservative movement of the 20th century has carried out all of its best debates with Burke in mind: Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley and their ilk have all kept Burke in mind and in print for a public that can still learn from Burke the counter-revolutionary.
You probably don’t know anybody who has exactly Burke’s political views, unless they are an uncommonly thoughtful person. Pure Burkeanism is not represented by any party or movement that I know of. Edmund Burke is not running for office this November, at least not on any ballot I get to vote on. But these local elections in particular states and nations are links in a chain which the French Revolution did not manage to break.