After almost exhausting himself in his war against the East India Company, Burke took on the French Revolution as his personal enemy, and in the course of this new campaign he made a major contribution to political philosophy.

He had predicted the Revolution twenty years before its coming. “Under such extreme straitness and distraction labors the whole of French finances, so far does their charge outrun their supply in every particular, that no man, … who has considered their affairs with any degree of attention or information, but must hourly look for some extraordinary convulsion in that whole system; the effect of which on France, and even on all Europe, it is difficult to conjecture.”136 In 1773 he visited France; at Versailles he saw Marie Antoinette, then dauphine; he never forgot that vision of youthful beauty, happiness, and pride. He formed a favorable opinion of the French nobility, and still more of the French clergy. He was shocked by the anti-Catholic, often antireligious, propaganda of thephilosophes, and on his return to England he warned his countrymen against atheism as “the most horrid and cruel blow that can be offered to civil society.”137

When the Revolution came he was alarmed by the acclaim it received from his friend Fox, who hailed the fall of the Bastille as “the greatest event that ever happened in the world, and … the best.”138 Radical ideas stemming from the campaigns of Wilkes and the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights had slowly spread in England. One obscure writer, in 1761, proposed communism as a cure for all social ills except overpopulation, which, he feared, might cancel all attempts to relieve poverty.139 A Society for Commemorating the Revolution (of 1688) had been formed in 1788; its membership included prominent clergymen and peers. At its meeting on November 4, 1789, it was so stirred by a Unitarian preacher, Richard Price, that it sent an address of congratulations to the National Assembly at Paris, expressing the hope that “the glorious example given in France” might “encourage other nations to assert the inalienable rights of mankind.”140 The message was signed by the third Earl Stanhope, president of the society and brother-in-law of William Pitt.

That sermon and that message aroused Burke to fear and wrath. He was now sixty years old, and had reached the right to be conservative. He was religious, and owned a large estate. The French Revolution seemed to him not only “the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world,”141 but the most outrageous attack upon religion, property, order, and law. On February 9, 1790, he told the House of Commons that if any friend of his should concur in any measures tending to introduce into England such democracy as was taking form in France, he would renounce that friendship, however long established and dearly cherished. Fox soothed the orator with his famous compliment to Burke as his best educator; the break between the two was postponed.

In November, 1790, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, in the form of a letter (365 pages long) to “a gentleman in Paris.” Leader of the liberals during the American Revolution, Burke was now the hero of conservative England; George III expressed his delight with his old enemy. The book became the bible of courts and aristocracies; Catherine the Great, once the friend and darling of the philosophes, sent her congratulations to the man who had set out to dethrone them.142

Burke began with a reference to Dr. Price and the Society for Commemorating the Revolution. He deplored the entry of clergymen into political discussions; their business was to guide souls to Christian charity, not to political reform. He had no trust in the universal male suffrage that Price pleaded for; he thought the majority would be a worse tyrant than a king, and that democracy would degenerate into mob rule. Wisdom lies not in numbers but in experience. Nature knows nothing of equality. Political equality is a “monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel, in the obscure walks of laborious life, serves only to aggravate that real inequality, which it never can remove.”143 Aristocracy is inevitable; and the older it is, the better it will fulfill its function of silently establishing that social order without which there can be no stability, no security, and no liberty.144 Hereditary monarchy is good because it gives to government a unity and continuity without which the legal and social relations of the citizens would fall into a hectic and chaotic flux. Religion is good, because it helps to chain those unsocial impulses which run like subterranean fire beneath the surface of civilization, and which can be controlled only by the constant co-operation of state and church, law and creed, fear and reverence. Those French philosophers who undermined religious belief in the educated ranks of their people were foolishly loosing the reins that had kept men from becoming beasts.

Burke was revolted by the triumph of the mob at Versailles over “a mild and lawful monarch,” treating him with “more fury, outrage, and insult than ever any people” raised “against the most illegal usurper and the most sanguinary tyrant.”145 Here came the famous page that thrilled our youth:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy. Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall!* Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.146

Sir Philip Francis laughed at all this as romantic moonshine, and assured Burke that the Queen of France was a Messalina and a jade.147 So thought many patriotic Englishmen; Horace Walpole, however, affirmed that Burke had pictured Marie Antoinette “exactly as she appeared to me the first time I saw her when Dauphiness.”148

As the Revolution proceeded Burke continued his attack with a Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (January, 1791). In this he suggested that the governments of Europe should unite to check the revolt, and to restore the King of France to his traditional power. Fox was alarmed at this proposal, and in the House of Commons, on May 6, the friends who had fought shoulder to shoulder in so many campaigns came to a dramatic parting of the ways. Fox reiterated his praise of the Revolution. Burke rose in protest. “It is indiscreet,” he said, “at any period, but especially at my time of life, to provoke enemies, or give my friends occasion to desert me. Yet if my firm and steady adherence to the British constitution place me in such a dilemma I am ready to risk it.” Fox assured him that no severance of friendship was involved in their differences. “Yes, yes,” answered Burke, “there is a loss of friends. I know the price of my conduct. … Our friendship is at an end.”149 He never spoke to Fox again, except formally in their constrained union in the Hastings trial.

In his writings on the French Revolution Burke gave a classical expression to a conservative philosophy. Its first principle is to distrust the reasoning of an individual, however brilliant, if it conflicts with the traditions of the race. Just as a child cannot understand the reasons for parental cautions and prohibitions, so the individual, who is a child compared with the race, cannot always understand the reasons for customs, conventions, and laws that embody the experience of many generations. Civilization would be impossible “if the practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual.”150 Even “prejudices” have their use; they prejudge present problems on the basis of past experience.

So the second element of conservatism is “prescription”: a tradition or an institution should be doubly reverenced and rarely changed if it is already written or embodied in the order of the society or the structure of the government. Private property is an example of prescription and of the apparent irrationality of wisdom: it seems unreasonable that one family should own so much, another so little, and even more unreasonable that the owner should be allowed to transmit his property to successors who have not lifted a hand to earn it; yet experience has found that men in general will not bestir themselves to work and study, or to laborious and expensive preparation, unless they may call the results of their efforts their own property, to be transmitted, in large measure, as they desire; and experience has shown that the possession of property is the best guarantee for the prudence of legislation and the continuity of the state.

A state is not merely an association of persons in a given space at a given moment; it is an association of individuals through extensive time. “Society is indeed a contract, … 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”;151 that continuity is our country. In this triune whole a present majority may be a minority in time; and the legislator must consider the rights of the past (through “prescription”) and of the future as well as those of the living present. Politics is, or should be, the art of adjusting the aims of clashing minorities with the good of the continuing group. Moreover, there are no absolute rights; these are metaphysical abstractions unknown to nature; there are only desires, powers, and circumstances; and “circumstances give to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.”152 Expediency is sometimes more important than rights. “Politics ought to be adjusted not to [abstract] human reasonings but to human nature, of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.”153 “We must make use of existing materials.”154

All these considerations are illustrated by religion. The doctrines, myths, and ceremonies of a religion may not conform to our present individual reason, but this may be of minor moment if they comport with the past, present, and presumed future needs of society. Experience dictates that the passions of men can be controlled only by the teachings and observances of religion. “If we should uncover our nakedness [release our instincts] by throwing off that Christian religion which has been … one great source of civilization amongst us, … we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.”155

Many Englishmen rejected Burke’s conservatism as a cult of stagnation,156 and Thomas Paine answered him vigorously in The Rights of Man (1791-92). But the England of Burke’s old age generally welcomed his ancestor worship. As the French Revolution went on to the September Massacres, the execution of the King and the Queen, and the Reign of Terror, the great majority of Britons felt that Burke had well predicted the results of revolt and irreligion; and for a full century England, though eliminating her rotten boroughs and widening her suffrage, kept resolutely to its constitution of king, aristocracy, Established Church, and a Parliament thinking in terms of imperial powers rather than of popular rights. After the Revolution France returned from Rousseau to Montesquieu, and Joseph de Maistre rephrased Burke for the repentant French.

Burke continued to the end his campaign for a holy war, and he rejoiced when France declared war on Great Britain (1793). George III wished to reward his old enemy for recent services with a peerage, and with that title of Lord Beaconsfield which Disraeli later graced; Burke refused, but accepted a pension of £ 2,500 (1794). When talk arose of negotiations with France, he issued four Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797 f.), passionately demanding that the war go on. Only death cooled his fire (July 8, 1797). Fox proposed that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but Burke had left instructions that he should have a private funeral and be interred in the little church at Beaconsfield. Macaulay thought him the greatest Englishman since Milton—which may have slighted Chatham; and Lord Morley more prudently called him “the greatest master of civil wisdom in our tongue”157—which may have slighted Locke. In any case Burke was what conservatives had longed for in vain throughout the Age of Reason—a man who could defend custom as brilliantly as Voltaire had defended reason.

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