Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Burke on the French Revolution

Burke's conservativism appeared in its most systematic form in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The work is formally a letter in response to a French correspondent who wrote in 1789 inquiring about Burke's opinion on that summer's revolution in France. In it Burke expressed both his conservative views of change as well as his conservative social and political ideology.

Burke early expressed some reservations about offering an assessment without seeing how the new regime operated:

I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners.”

Burke followed, however, with a lengthy and hostile condemnation of the Revolution. Burke distinguished the radicalism of the French Revolution from the conservatism of the England's Glorious Revolution of 1688. Burke approached the subject this way because he had recently read a sermon by Rev. Richard Price praising the revolution in France and likening it to England's own revolution. Burke took exception to Price's analysis. He devotes much of the early sections of his essay refuting Price.

First, Burke argued for the conservatism of the England's Glorious Revolution. That revolution, according to Burke, preserved English liberties rather than attempted to introduce new ones.

 “The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.”

Second, he rightly argued that a state must be willing to change in order to conserve:
A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the Constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The two principles of conservation and correction operated strongly at the two critical periods of the Restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without a king.”
The English liberties that the revolution conserved, however, consisted of inherited liberties that differed according to social status:
You will observe, that, from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our Constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity,—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our Constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.”
Burke criticised the French for not conserving and improving what they already possessed.

Your Constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations.”

Instead, “You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you” and instead made an “unforced choice, this fond election of evil.”
Then he turned to the social dimensions of the revolution. Read as he fawned over the royal personage of Marie Antoinette and lamented her fall:

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 an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall . . . .Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom!”

Burke followed this with expression of contempt for the lawyers, physicians, writers, and lower level “country curates” who filled the National Assembly, especially the “dealers in stocks and funds, who must be eager, at any expense, to change their ideal paper wealth for the more solid substance of land.”

Burke correctly recognized the challenge faced by the aristocrat in the new aggressive middle-class, which he described as “the moneyed interest:”

In this state of real, though not always perceived, warfare between the noble ancient landed interest and the new moneyed interest, the greatest, because the most applicable, strength was in the hands of the latter. The moneyed interest is in its nature more ready for any adventure, and its possessors more disposed to new enterprises of any kind. Being of a recent acquisition, it falls in more naturally with any novelties. It is therefore the kind of wealth which will be resorted to by all who wish for change.”
It is no surprise that Burke followed his attacks on the overthrow of France's heirarchical social order with attacks on the reform of the heirarchical Catholic Church. These reforms included reduction of number of bishops, the redrawing of church jurisdictions to conform to new civil jurisdictions, seizure of church lands, and abolition of tithes. Burke expressed his resentment the new regime reduced the church to dependence on “alms.”
As he neared his conclusion, Burke offered this summary:
All these considerations leave no doubt on my mind, that, if this monster of a Constitution can continue, France will be wholly governed by the agitators in corporations, by societies in the towns, formed of directors in assignats, and trustees for the sale of Church lands, attorneys, agents, money-jobbers, speculators, and adventurers, composing an ignoble oligarchy, founded on the destruction of the crown, the Church, the nobility, and the people. Here end all the deceitful dreams and visions of the equality and rights of men.”

 Edmund Burke portrait

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