Edmund Burke on the French Revolution



THIS treatise on the French Revolution, of which the full title is Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event in a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris, was published in 1790. It is perhaps the noblest expression in literature of all that is noble in Conservatism. As Burke had stood for a true liberty in America so he took his stand against a false liberty in Europe. But history has not justified him so completely in the latter case. Revolutionism was not only, nor chiefly, libertinism; and modern France has largely falsified his predictions.

[THE MEANING OF FREEDOM - BURKE - FROM REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE]

DEAR SIR,--You are pleased to call again, and with some earnestness, for my thoughts on the late proceedings in France. You will see, sir, that though I do most heartily wish that France may be animated by a spirit of rational liberty, it is my misfortune to entertain great doubts concerning several material points in your late transactions. I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as anyone; but I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concerns, on a simple view of the subject, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.

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 the morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.

All these, in their way, are good things, too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit while it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations. It appears to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe.

All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. Everything seems out of nature in this chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; laughter and tears; scorn and horror.

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.

Our political system is placed in a just symmetry with the order of the world; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great, mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression. We have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domesticities; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres and our altars. Always acting as if in the presence of canonised forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.

[A LOST OPPORTUNITY]

YOU might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. 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. But you began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. By following wise examples you would have shamed despotism from the earth by showing that freedom is not only reconcilable, but auxiliary to law. You would have had a free constitution. You would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious and obedient people, taught to seek the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind, and not in that monstrous fiction which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it never can remove; and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in an humble state as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.

Compute your gains; see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves, until the moment in which they became truly despicable. By following those false lights, France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings. She has abandoned her interest that she might prostitute her virtue.

All other nations have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing, or by enforcing with greater exactness, some rites or other of religion. All other people have laid the foundations of civil freedom in severer manners and a system of a more austere and masculine morality. France, when she let loose the reins of regal authority, doubled the license of a ferocious dissoluteness in manners and of an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices; and has extended through all ranks of life, all the unhappy corruptions that usually were the disease of wealth and power. This is one of the new principles of equality in France.

FRANCE has utterly disgraced the tone of lenient counsel in the cabinets of princes, and has taught kings to tremble at what will hereafter be called the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians. Sovereigns will consider those who advise them to place an unlimited confidence in their people as subverters of their thrones. This alone is an irreparable calamity to you and to mankind.

The French have rebelled against a mild and lawful monarch with more fury, outrage and insult than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession; their revolt was from protection; their blow was aimed at a hand holding out graces, favours and immunities. They have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a Church pillaged and a state unrelieved; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence.





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