No Trousers

Claude Rawson

  • The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Vol. VIII: The French Revolution 1790-1794 edited by L.G. Mitchell
    Oxford, 552 pp, £65.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 822422 2
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, edited by J.G.A. Pocock
    Hackett, 236 pp, $5.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 87220 020 5
  • A Philosophical Enquiry by Edmund Burke, edited by Adam Phillips
    Oxford, 173 pp, £4.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 19 281807 4

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was published on 1 November 1790. By then, Burke had long ceased to be the dominant intellectual influence in the Whig Party. He hoped the work would restore him to that position. Instead, it began the long process of his transformation into the patron saint of a later Toryism, rooted in nostalgia, in a feeling for the evolution rather than revolution of national structures, gradualist in reform, empirical rather than abstractly ideological, and moderate rather than extremist in its principles of political action. He would have loathed Thatcherism, as Tories of that sort seem to do. His best-known political champion today is probably Sir Ian Gilmour. The type, though not lately in the ascendant, is closer to the model which has evolved over time, as Burke might have seen it, who would certainly have seen Thatcherism as the convulsive aberration. It seems only yesterday that it was possible to think of Burke as a ‘natural Tory’, both for those who liked the label and those who didn’t.

To Burke himself, as J.G.A. Pocock points out in an outstanding introduction which should not be allowed to remain buried in a paperback textbook, excellent though it is, the word ‘Tory’ suggested an antediluvian extremism: ‘Jacobites ... or Anglican ultras who silently held that the monarchy of 1689 or 1714 enjoyed only a provisional authority ... partisans of exploded ideas of patriarchal monarchy and divine right’. Burke’s allegiances were to a Whig aristocracy, and it was only ‘after Burke’s time that “Tories” came to mean the last-ditch defenders of the 18th-century Whig regime, which Whigs themselves were then prepared to modify’. Nor, as Pocock compellingly suggests, were these aristocratic sympathies anti-bourgeois. They included a strong sense not only of the economic value but of the civilising properties of commerce. Burke held ‘that public virtue is nowhere better displayed than in the management of the public revenue,’ and ‘that there was no reason why a modern commercial economy should not be stabilised and rendered more dynamic through control by a landed aristocracy who knew their business.’ The Yeatsian mythology of a haughty-headed Burke unsoiled by burgherly instincts is an innocent fantasy which reveals more about Yeats than about Burke. Pocock is probably right to question even the somewhat less untenable idea ‘that aristocracy and “bourgeoisie” were at war in his mind or his world.’ He despised financial speculators, however, and was appalled to see in France ‘a monstrous paper-money despotism being installed on the ruins of the Church’. In this and in other ways, he wrote in a tradition of earlier literary ‘Toryism’ whose best-known spokesmen were Swift and Pope. Yeats had a point of sorts when he said Burke, and Swift, ‘hated Whiggery’, if Whiggery was ‘a levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind’: but Burke wouldn’t have called this Whiggish (though Swift might).

Stirrings of Burke’s posthumous metamorphosis into an official prophet of Toryism might, with the hindsight of history, be detected in 1790, when the sacred book first appeared. Immediate reactions were of surprise, on both left and right, that the friend of liberty and supporter of American rights had turned round. A Tory writer in the Critical Review praised the book while remarking that ‘revolutions, or the calamities of kings have not formerly been odious to Mr Burke.’ Thomas Jefferson, who had been an eye-witness in Paris as Burke had not, declared that ‘the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution of Mr Burke.’ Supporters of the Revolution like Paine and the Baron (‘Anacharsis’) Cloots had earlier assumed Burke to be on their side. There have been many later attempts to articulate an underlying consistency between the anti-Revolutionary Burke and the more libertarian spokesman of earlier times. His role in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, ‘my old conflict with the corruptions and oppressions which have prevailed in our eastern dominions’, ran concurrently with his counter-revolutionary activism in French affairs.

He was thought to be over the top on both issues. The latest volume of the Clarendon Press’s Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (which includes the nearest thing we have to a full-dress modern edition of the Reflections, somewhat disappointingly executed) is concerned to make this clear, and especially to deflate any suggestion that the Reflections made any significant impact. They had, L.G. Mitchell argues, some support in Pittite circles, but not from Pitt himself, who is reported by Wilberforce to have called them ‘rhapsodies in which there is much to admire, and nothing to agree with’. Burke’s hopes of securing a place in Pitt’s entourage after his momentous break with Fox were unsuccessful, and continued so when events in France began to match his apocalyptic forebodings, and even when, in 1792 and 1793, Pitt took counter-seditious measures in England and entered into armed conflict with France. Mitchell comments that at the end of the period covered by this volume, ‘as Burke withdrew to the seclusion of Beaconsfield in 1794, he had to recognise that his massive writings on the French Revolution had had a minimal impact on the nature of English policy, and had not restored him to that status in English politics which he believed his due. For him there was only the bitterness of the dishonoured prophet.’

He may be roughly right if ‘impact’ is measured in terms of immediate practical consequences, but his insistence that the book was widely derided by supporters of the Revolution, and did not cut much ice with the political Right, whether in England or France, seems overstated or overinterpreted. The recent Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution offers a contrary emphasis from a French perspective, claiming that the book instantly established Burke as the seminal theorist of counter-revolution: ‘all Europe seized upon his facts and assimilated his ideas.’ Two thousand copies were snapped up in Paris in two days, there were 11 editions in less than a year, it was one of the best-selling books of the age. The Dictionary concurs with Mitchell that the Reflections made some French monarchists uncomfortable, and Mitchell also reports big English sales. But his view that ‘Burke’s book was rarely taken seriously’ is hard to take seriously. Even the hostile answers, which included Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men, Paine’s Rights of Man and Mackintosh’s Vindiciae Gallicae, suggest the contrary.

A more balanced account of the critical reception in F.P. Lock’s study of the Reflections in the Unwin Critical Library lists a selection of reviews on both sides which took the book very seriously indeed. Lock says that ‘it was mainly those who differed from Burke who set down their opinions at length. Few who agreed with him felt the need to say so in print.’ Many said it in private. Mitchell follows Lock in citing some of them: Horace Walpole, though generally antagonistic to Burke, thought it ‘the wisest book I ever read in my life’, read it twice within ten days of publication, and praised it in letter after letter for having ‘given a mortal stab to sedition’, and for showing that ‘the savage Gauls’ and their ‘unmitigated and execrable injustices ... have made almost any state preferable to such anarchy and desolation’. Fanny Burney called it ‘the noblest, deepest, most animated, and exalted work that I think I ever read’. Gibbon said, ‘I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition.’

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