Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. The French Revolution

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 9. The French Revolution

These words were spoken in 1783. In 1791, that friendship was formally terminated, and Burke and Fox met as strangers in the conduct of the long impeachment. It was not a private quarrel which alienated them. It was the French revolution. That great upheaval agitated Burke’s sensitive and passionate imagination certainly no less than the misgovernment of India, but it did so in a way that has left a more interesting record in his work, for it quickened and intensified the activity of his speculation. In judging of events and persons, his mind was, perhaps, not less prejudiced; but, in the main, the controversy which he waged was not forensic but deliberative, a discussion not of facts and proofs but of principles and the spirit that inspires or is inspired by principles. He was at war with the philosophy and with the temper of the revolution. He was driven back on first principles; and the flame which was kindled in his imagination served to irradiate and illumine every vein and nerve in the complex and profound philosophy of human nature and political society which had underlain and directed all that, since he entered public life and earlier, he had done or written as statesman and thinker.

It is a mistake to represent Burke as by philosophical principle and temperament necessarily hostile to revolution or rebellion. Politically, he was the child of the revolution of 1688, and an ardent champion of the principles of that revolution. He condoned and approved the revolution (for as such he regarded it) by which Ireland, in 1781, secured freedom of trade and legislative independence. He believed that the Americans had done right in resisting by arms the attempt to tax them directly. Moreover, the fundamental principle of Burke’s political philosophy, his conviction that behind all human law was a divine law which human authority could never override, carried with it, as the same principle did for the Calvinists of Holland or for the puritans of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the possibility that it might be a duty to rebel. Burke and Rousseau are agreed on one point, that force is not right, that no force majeure can justifiy a man in renouncing his liberty, or, what is the same thing, his responsibility to God. It was not a revolt against legitimate authority, it was not even any radical reconstruction of the machinery of the state (though Burke always distrusted the wisdom and, even, the possibility of radical reformation), which made him the enemy of the revolution. He admits, in his Reflections, that such reconstruction was required, and would have had the Assembly set to work with an eye upon their old constitution to guide them, and, where that failed them, on the British constitution. What roused Burke’s passionate antagonism was the philosophy of the revolution and the spirit of the revolution, an abstract philosophy which seemed to him false to the fundamental facts of man’s moral and political nature, a spirit which he detested as the relentless enemy alike of liberty and religion—of that religion which alone can teach men to subordinate power to duty, to accept the mysterious dispensation which assigns to each of us his place in society, which alone can guide us in life and console us in death. His foe was the same in this as in all his previous conflicts,—arbitrary power, not claiming legal right for its justification, as the British parliament had claimed it in the case of America, nor inherited absolute authority, as Hastings had in the case of Cheyte Sing and the begums, but asserting the indisputable authority of the people, of democracy. Compared with such a tyranny, every other seemed less deplorable.

  • Under a cruel prince men have the balmy consolation of mankind to assuage the smart of their wounds; they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under suffering; but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes are deprived of all external consolations. They seem deserted by mankind; overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), is the most important manifesto of Burke’s anti-revolutionary crusade. A critic has remarked, with some justice, that the writings on the revolution “are perhaps the worse written for not being speeches … they did not call out Burke’s architectonic faculty.” But Burke was not less a master of disposition than of invention, and there is an art in the loosely ordered sequence of his Reflections. Such an elaborate architecture as that of the speech On Conciliation would have been out of place in dealing with what was still fluid. None of the fatal issues of the revolution had yet emerged, but, studying its principles and its temper, the trend of its shifting and agitated currents, Burke foresees them all, down to the advent of the popular general as the saviour of society. Beginning with Price’s sermon, the occasion of his pamphlet, he endeavours to show that the revolution of 1688 did not involve any breach of the hereditary principle, or invalidate the inherited right of the king to govern independent of the choice of the people. He recurred at great length to this in the later Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. The argument is necessarily inconclusive, yet not without importance as establishing the fact that the success of the revolution was due to the skill with which its managers had succeeded in transferring unimpaired to the new government the authority of the old. This was just what the Assembly had failed to do; and, hence, the necessity for the authority of the guillotine and the sword. A brief contrast of the English revolution with the French leads, naturally, to just such a sketch of the personal factor in the Assembly—the classes from which it was drawn—as, at an earlier date, in the speech On American Taxation, when discussing the source of colonial discontent, he had given of English statesmen and the House of Commons. Recurring to Price’s eulogy of the French revolution, he is led rapidly on to what was the distinctive character of that revolution, the subject of Price’s approval and Burke’s condemnation. It lay in the fact that, unlike all other revolutions, the French started from no mere desire for the redress of grievances or shifting of the centre of gravity of government, but promulgated a new philosophy, a new gospel, judged by which all governments are usurpations, and that its watchword was “the rights of man.”

  • Against these there can be no prescription; against these no argument is binding: these admit no temperament and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.
  • The paragraphs on the abstract rights of man and the inevitable tendency of such a doctrine to identify right with power leads Burke back again to Price and his exultation over the leading in triumph of the king and queen from Versailles. And, thence, he passes to an impassioned outburst on the spirit of the revolution, the temper of those in whom the religion of the “rights of man” has “vanquished all the mean superstitions of the heart,” has cast out all the sentiments of loyalty and reverence which constitute “the decent drapery of life,” serving “to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation.” From these two sections, on “the rights of man” and the spirit of their devotees, naturally flows all that follows—the vindication of prejudice, the importance of religion in the state and defence of an established church, the review of the progress of democratic tyranny in France in the abolition of nobility and confiscation of the church and the examination of the constitution set up by the Assembly—the legislature, executive, judicature and army, their consistence with the doctrine of “the rights of man” and their probable doom.

    To the charge of inconsistency which the publication of Reflections and his speeches in the House brought upon him, Burke replied in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), published anonymously and written in the third person. From a general defence of the consistency of his denunciation of the French revolution with his defence of the American colonies and proposals for economic reform, Burke proceeds to elaborate his defence of the view he had put forward in Reflections of the revolution of 1688, as preserving, not destroying, inherited, prescriptive rights; and closes with an elaboration of his views on the prescriptive, inherited character of all the institutions and rights which constitute a state; the involuntary, inherited nature of all our most sacred ties and duties. Taken together, these two pamphlets form the most complete statement of Burke’s anti-revolutionary philosophy, which his other writings on the subject serve only to amplify and adorn.