Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Revolutions: An Introduction

An earlier post provided a sketch of Edmund Burke's “conservatisms.” In his writings and speeches, he articulated a sophisticated and nuanced conservative conception of social and political change. And in the positions he took as a member of the House of Commons, he also manifested a conservative ideology about social and political order that could be described as aristocratic. Burke mad his most famous statement of principles that became known as conservative in his Reflections on the Revolution in France

The French Revolution resembled other conflicts in a broad way.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) began as a conflict between aristocratic dominated Parliament and the monarchy over finances, turned into a civil war, and ended in a middle class revolution that established a republic. In 1660, a conservative, aristocratic reaction restored the monarchy. And in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament and the aristocracy established their supremacy over the monarchy and England became a constitutional monarchy.

The American Revolution followed this course in very broad, somewhat superficial outlines. England's North American colonies, dominated largely by provincial elites and  "the middling sort," revolted against Parliament's attempt to reorganize imperial relations. The new United States established a republic under a constitution called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (1783-1789). Financial problems, among other issues, brought in a somewhat conservative reaction establishment of the Constitution of 1787 (1789-present).

The French Revolution (1789-1815), like the English, began as a conflict between the monarchy and the aristocratic order over financing and taxation. Although the aristocrats attempted to assert themselves against the monarchy to maintain their privileges, they opened the door for the middle and lower orders of French society to involved themselves and inject their own grievances into the constitutional struggle. An aristocratic resistance to royal absolutism turned into another middle class revolution. The revolution eventually degenerated into violence, terror, and a quarter century of world war. After the defeat of Napoleon, the monarchy and the aristocracy resumed their historic role in the triumph of conservatism.

What happened in France that moved Burke to publish his opposition? Why did Burke, who like most Whigs celebrated the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, oppose so vociferously the revolution of 1789 in France?

The next post will explore that question.

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