The year is 1790. The Old Regime in France has started to crumble in the face of popular protests. Yet France will not be the only battleground in this world-changing revolution. The country’s age-old enemy, Britain, will be sucked in, too. Just not in the way you might think.
When they received news of the outbreak of rebellion across the English Channel, the British were alarmed. How should they react to the chaos?
One longtime parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, argued against the violence of the French Revolution. His writings and speeches elicited harsh responses from some of Britain’s most prominent minds. London’s intellectuals descended into a pamphlet war, with Edmund Burke at its heart.
Edmund Burke’s Early Life
In order to gain an understanding of how and why the French Revolution led to a British pamphlet war, we need to put Edmund Burke’s life in context. Burke was born in 1729 in Ireland as the son of a prominent family. His mother had Irish Catholic roots, while his father belonged to the Anglican Church. As a young man, Burke studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. However, he didn’t find law particularly engaging and soon left to pursue writing and politics.
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Burke’s first written work was A Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756. In this satirical tract, he assailed the deism and anti-theism of an earlier British thinker, the Viscount Bolingbroke. He deliberately wrote in a style that mirrored Bolingbroke’s own, ridiculing the nobleman’s ideology. Burke viewed religion as an essential component to building a knowledgeable, productive country. He would continue to write extensively about philosophical and social issue until his death.
Although some scholars and authors today have labeled him the “father of modern conservatism,” Burke’s political and social views were more complex than that. He was a committed member of the Church of England, but he was also sympathetic to Catholic concerns in his native Ireland. He weighed in on the American Revolutionary War as it unfolded, supporting some of the colonists’ grievances like resistance to disproportionate taxation. That being said, Burke never supported complete American independence. The thought of Britain going to war with its colonies was repulsive to him.
Burke became a member of the British Parliament in December 1765. He would hold office until his retirement in 1794. As a lawmaker, he continued to write and deliver speeches about foreign policy concerns in North America, Ireland, and colonial India. He would even publish his own speeches on multiple occasions. Yet none of Burke’s writings would receive as much attention as his polemic against the 18th century’s grandest political event: The French Revolution.
The French Revolution Begins: Early British Reactions
The Storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and its aftermath captured British political and media attention. Within days of the event, newspapers in London were offering their own positions on the upheaval in Paris. Some were sympathetic, while others opposed the assault on the French monarchy. The London Chronicle offered a nuanced take: “In every province of [France] the flame of liberty has burst forth… [but] before [the revolutionaries] have accomplished their end, France will be deluged with blood.” Regardless of their partisan leanings, British observers quickly recognized the French Revolution’s chaotic potential.
Edmund Burke joined the Revolutionary discourse early on. His originally ambiguous position soon gave way to forceful condemnation. After writing letters to a French politician named Charles-Jean-François Dupont, Burke authored a pamphlet for British readers. This tract, titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published in November 1790 and received both acclaim and criticism.
Reflections on the Revolution in France
Today, Reflections on the Revolution in France is Edmund Burke’s most famous work. The text remains in print, having been republished ever since its creation. In book-length format, it functions simultaneously as a letter, a platform for Burke’s own musings, and a warning to the people of Great Britain.
A year after the French Revolution’s initial outbreak, Burke had come to believe the upheaval to be a mess of unenlightened chaos. While he had supported aspects of American demands for autonomy, he did not feel the same way about the French situation. The Reflections features a defense of the established order. In it, Burke is not always sympathetic to the French monarchy, but he does state his preference for stable institutions over popular violence. The revolutionaries’ quest to overturn all of the powers-to-be in France unnerved Burke.
Burke’s Core Arguments
The Reflections frequently veers into the polemical and sensational, given Burke’s lack of direct familiarity with the situation on the ground in France. Burke does delve into matters of French politics, but his pamphlet focuses even more on his own country of Britain. For the statesman, the French Revolution was just as relevant to British affairs as it was to France’s own.
One of Burke’s major rhetorical strategies was to focus on the comparison between the French Revolution with Britain’s so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89. In this event, the English Protestant elites plotted to replace King James II, a Roman Catholic, with James’ daughter, Mary, and Dutch Prince William of Orange. With the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution recently behind them, some British observers liked to compare the French Revolution to their own revolt a century earlier. Edmund Burke was not one of those observers.
In Burke’s mind, William and Mary’s coup had been a correction of traditional English notions of liberty. He declared that, while James II was “not a usurper,” his Catholicism had endangered English freedoms. In France in 1789, Burke reasoned, the situation was fundamentally different. He told his friend Depont, “[Your country’s] constitution was suspended before it was perfected; but you had the elements of [one] very nearly as good as could be wished.” Burke feared dramatic, all-encompassing social change, preferring more gradual and deliberated motions.
Burke spends significant time in the Reflections criticizing a speech by Richard Price from a year earlier. Price, a Unitarian minister, had delivered A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, applauding the French Revolution. The minister had compared the revolt to both the Glorious Revolution in England and the American Revolution, championing their notions of freedom. Burke noted that Price’s sermon “gave [him] a considerable degree of uneasiness,” fearing that Price was endorsing a dangerous movement. The French Revolution was “unnatural” chaos, rather than some sort of societal triumph.
Social order lay at the core of Burke’s philosophy. Burke was a major proponent of British national unity under the monarchy. Although he did not subscribe to the earlier doctrine of the “divine right” of the monarchy, he did accept the existence of different social ranks and classes. He strongly supported legal and historical precedent, finding these to be the basis of English rights and freedoms. Stemming from this conviction, he was aghast at the news of France potentially factionalizing. “Do you seriously think,” he asked Depont, “that the territory of France, upon the republican system… can ever be governed as one body…?” France had jettisoned its social order too hastily, Burke argued. Its punishment would be the collapse of social order, with ramifications for Britain and the rest of Europe.
Burke’s Opponents: Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine
Almost immediately after Edmund Burke published the Reflections, other leading figures in London attacked his stances. One of the first to respond was Thomas Paine, a staunch supporter of the American Revolution.
Like Burke, Paine had connections inside France. However, they seem to have been more intimate than Burke’s. In 1791, Paine published the Rights of Man, a two-part defense of natural rights philosophy and the French Revolution. He had spent time in France the previous year, where he agitated against the monarchy. At one point in 1791, Paine and his French collaborators even plastered pro-republican posters across Paris, earning him local ire. Paine would also face trial in Britain for the Rights of Man, being charged with seditious libel in December 1792.
Another of Burke’s fiercest critics was writer Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of pre-Gothic novelist Mary Shelley). Directly responding to Burke, Wollstonecraft authored Vindication of the Rights of Men. She assailed Burke’s endorsement of monarchism and social class in favor of innate human rights. The French Revolution was just, she reasoned, because the French people were reclaiming their rights from an unjust sociopolitical system. In 1792, Wollstonecraft would follow up her original work with Vindication of the Rights of Women. She argued that, like men, women were rational beings, who could cultivate virtue through greater education. In this regard, she can be considered a precursor to early feminism.
Other intellectuals, including Wollstonecraft’s future husband, William Godwin, would enter the controversy as well. However, the British pamphlet war over the French Revolution largely subsided after 1794-95. The French Jacobins’ “Reign of Terror” left many Londoners disillusioned with affairs in France.
Conclusion: The British Pamphlet War and Evaluating Edmund Burke
No one truly “won” in the French Revolution controversy, and Edmund Burke held firmly to his beliefs. He would continue to write about France even after his retirement from Parliament. Burke died in 1797 — a controversial politician in his own time and an even more complicated character today.
Given Burke’s defense of monarchy, tradition, and the unitary state, are writers correct to label him as the forefather of political conservatism? In some ways, yes. Burke undoubtedly believed in precedent and order and despised sudden upheaval. Yet he could also be a practical thinker. He rejected more metaphysical notions of rights in favor of rights derived from historical and cultural precedent. And as shown by his earlier support for the American colonists, he was not entirely resistant to change. Ultimately, Edmund Burke remains a complex, widely studied figure who continues to appeal to political theorists today.
Burke, Edmund, and Jesse Norman, ed. Reflections on the Revolution in France, And Other Writings. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.