The French Revolution has to be one of the most fascinating and terrible events in modern history, modern meaning since
the Renaissance era. The level of anger and frustration reached by the common people of France during this time must have been like a pots of boiling oil. After they beheaded
their king and queen, they proceeded to behead each other, by the thousands and thousands, unabated until it finally just burned itself out, (and of course
Napoleon took over the leadership of the country). The thing is, hypothetically, something of this magnitude could happen again, and the U.S.A.
certainly could be one of the contenders, as the anger against our own government, military, police force, and financial institutions continues to
foment. When unrest reaches a tipping point, a single event could trigger total and long-term chaos. It is not a pleasant scenario to contemplate.
Back in 1790, Edmund Burke did contemplate this scenario, a few years before it actually broke loose in France. Burke was an Irish statesman, a Whig who served in the House of Commons. He lived from 1729 to 1797, and witnessed the Reign of Terror unfolding in France. But he saw signs of it years before. Though considered conservative, many of his ideas were liberal in nature, for instance he championed the Americans in their fight for independence, according to Wikipedia, and saw the French Revolution as a disaster—the revolutionists as a "swinish multitude." In 1789, (after the fall of the Bastille), a French aristocrat, Charles-Jean-Franҫois Depont sought his opinion, of which he replied with two letters. The second was published as this present book, and became a bestseller, according to Wikipedia, selling thirteen thousand copies in five weeks. This preceded the beheading of the king and queen by three years, which began the Reign of Terror which lasted until 1794.
In this review, I will share some of Burke's perceptions and theories. So many of them are just plain sensible for any time, any place, in any country. Here, he is speaking about being unwilling to congratulate the French people for their new-found liberty (after storming the Bastille, but before the beheading of the king and queen), until he sees what direction it all goes. He makes it clear that there must be a well thought out plan for what will take the place of that which has been overturned:
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 solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.
Of course, as we know now, France failed on all of the above during their terrible transition. He goes on to say:
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, which may be soon turned into complaints.
And much worse than complaints, as we can see as we look back.
Keep in mind that the French Revolution followed on the heels of our own war for freedom here in the States. And while things have certainly reached a
crucial level of social, financial, governmental and moral decay here in 2016, back in 1776, at least we had a well thought-out plan for governance after our
freedom had been won. And keep in mind, also that when a country as large as France goes through such turbulence, it must certainly spill over into other
countries. And it is that which concerns Burke, since the ties between England and France were so strong.
Burke continues to voice his concerns for the Revolution Society, a London-based organization that supported the Revolution in France. He is particularly critical of Doctor Richard Price, one of the leading members of this group, who wrote a sermon which played into the hands of French radicals:
For my part, I looked on that sermon as the public declaration of a man connected with literary caballers, and intriguing philosophers, with political theologians and theological politicians, both at home and abroad. I know they set him up as a sort of oracle; because, with the best intentions in the world, he naturally philippizes, and chaunts his prophetic song in exact unison with their designs.
He later comments that "No sound ought to be heard in the
church but the healing voice of Christian charity," then continues to question Doctor Price's theories on religion, and the qualification of kings including
Britain's own. But what has him most distressed about the doctrine of the Revolution society concerns their attitude toward the established laws that
determine who is on the throne. They state that Britain has acquired a right:
1. To choose our own governors.
2. To cashier them for misconduct.
3. T frame a government for ourselves.
Clearly this was not the case in England in the 1700s, although English citizens certainly elect their own government now, and the royalty has little power other than appearances. But in Burke's time, the King or Queen was the ruler, and was not elected, but inherited the throne through bloodlines. He spends a great many pages expounding the laws of England and how they define governance, and how failure to adhere to these laws would be disastrous. The Revolutionaries in France, of course, did choose to do away with the ruling monarchs—to execute them, in fact—a horrible event, even to those of us who are not fond of royalty. Burke further states, concerning the citizens of England:
They look upon the legal hereditary succession of their crown as among their rights, not as among their wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for their liberty, not as a badge of servitude.
He then goes on for numerous pages to extol the constitutional laws of England which had been in place for ages, and how England has been able to grow and change while still keeping true to her laws:
Thus , by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.
He suggests that, had France adopted a similar attitude, they
would not have had to go through such extremes to establish a fair government that served its citizens, and lists, point by point all the aspects of their
lives that would have been strengthened.
Maybe, maybe not. Burke wasn't an oppressed French citizen, so he really couldn't know all the personal events that finally triggered the Revolution. There had to be something terribly wrong being suffered by enough citizens in order to basically dissolve the entire order of the country in the hopes of changing what, to them was so intolerable. People do not start revolutions for the fun of it. Everyone ultimately suffers. Keep in mind that Burke was voicing a strongly conservative philosophy here, especially concerning the monarchy, although, as mentioned above, he was more well known in the House of Commons as a liberal Whig. He says (concerning France):
She has sanctified the dark suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust; and 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; as traitors who aim at their destruction, by leading their easy good-nature, under specious pretences, to admit combinations of bold and faithless men into a participation of their power. This alone (if there were nothing else) is an irreparable calamity to you and to mankind.
From the history books I have read, easy, good-nature would
never be an accurate way to describe a great many of these royal tyrants. And if I may also insert my personal opinion here, concerning the current fomenting
discontent, not only in the U.S. but in many parts of the world, I can see an explosion scenario as this possibly happening again—uncontrolled violence for
the sake of violence to vent anger and frustration, and the establishment of leaders who turn out to be just as greedy and power-obsessed as the current government.
In my opinion, peaceful non-compliance is the only way to true freedom. When enough people refuse to cooperate with a system that is irreparably corrupted,
it will die of starvation. I realize this is a review of a history book, but all history should be perceived as a lesson for current times.
Certainly one reason for the common people's discontent before the French Revolution was that serfdom was still being practiced, (as it was in England, too). Not exactly slavery, but lands were held by the privileged few and the peasants were taxed, and often stuck in inescapable poverty. Keep in mind that, since Burke was a member of the House of Commons, he would have been one of those few. They were technically elected, (but very few people had voting rights), and nearly all were landed gentry. This had to have influenced his opinions that common people did not have the rights to choose their own government.
He spends quite a bit of time discussing the Tiers Etat, (Third Estate), a pamphlet written by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès before the outbreak of the Revolution. It states, according to Wikipedia, "that the third estate—the common people of France—constituted a complete nation within itself and had no need of the 'dead weight' of the other two orders, the first and second estates of the clergy and aristocracy." Burke is appalled that "common people" are the ones who represent this order—lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, and so on.
Of course, it is those people, and even more "common" ones who represent the people in a democracy such as ours (at least in theory), so we think it is right to have common people represent common people. But it was certainly a radical break for the way France and Britain were ruled at the time. And though the Revolution was a terrible event for France and much of Europe, it began the breakdown of governance by landed gentry and nobility—a hard pill to swallow for those who fell into those categories. He is even more appalled at the thought of these "common people" drafting legislation that would replace the old rules of governance.
Sieyès argues that the common people make up most of France (and pay the taxes), yet they have had no representation in governance. Obviously, changes in legislation, pretty drastic ones, would have to happen in order for a new equality for all the people of France to be set in place.
Burke accuses these "common people" with new-found power as knowing little about governance and caring even less—being in it for only the wealth that it would bring into their own pockets. That may very well be true, but why is that worse than people such as the king and queen, and aristocracy living off the labors of the peasants? Burke sees what is happening in France and uncomfortably perceives it as the possible future of England. He says, concerning the ideals of the Revolution Society (London):
The Revolution Society has discovered that the English nation is not free. They are convinced that the inequality in our representation is a "defect in our constitution so gross and palpable, as to make it excellent chiefly in form and theory." That a representation in the legislature of a kingdom is not only the basis of all constitutional liberty in it, but of "all legitimate government: that without it a government isnothing but a usurpation;"—that "when the representation is partial, the kingdom possesses liberty only partially; and if extremely partial it gives only a semblance; and if not only extremely partial, but corruptly chosen, it becomes a nuisance."
I agree with that. However, he does say (and I agree with this also) that, if change must be made, do it in a noble way which will exult the country and bring about a higher good, and to do that, there must be a well thought out plan, (which there definitely was not in France). Of heroic conquerors, he says:
These disturbers were not so much like men usurping power, as asserting their natural place in society. Their rising was to illuminate and beautify the world. Their conquest over their competitors was by outshining them.
He later goes on to say:
But your present confusion, like a palsy, has attacked the fountain of life itself. Every person in your country, in a situation to be actuated by a principle of honor, is disgraced and degraded, and can entertain no sensation of life, except in a mortified and humiliated indignation.
And this was all written before the king and queen were
guillotined, and the Reign of Terror began.
I want to point out that the French Revolution was extremely complex, and though I've been studying it for several years, my understanding of it is just at the tip of the iceberg. My personal comments reflect my current perceptions, which may or may not be fully accurate.
Another interesting point about Burke's pamphlet (letter), is that it received a quick response from Mary Wollenstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She was a British Feminist and her response, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, attacks Burke's support of the aristocracy.
A great portion of this pamphlet is not so much directly about the Revolution, but Burke's philosophies on morals and the role of religion in society, and manners in general. He speaks more about England than France, and continually refers back to the fact that the method in governing their country has endured for centuries, so why change it? And all the way through, it is clear that he supports the monarchy.
As far as France, keep in mind that it wasn't that their current King, Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were particularly bad or any worse than their predecessors—they just happened to be the rulers at the moment when the French people had had enough. Burke obviously thinks highly of her:
I hear, and I rejoice to hear, that the great lady, the other object of the triumph, has borne that day (one is interested that beings made for suffering should suffer well) and that she bears all the succeeding days, that she bears the imprisonment of her husband, and her own captivity, and the exile of her friends, and the insulting adulation of addresses, and the whole weight of her accumulated wrongs, with a serene patience, in a manner suited to her rank and race, and becoming the offspring of a sovereign distinguished for her piety and her courage: that like her she has lofty sentiments; that she feels with the dignity of a Roman matron; that in the last extremity she will save herself from the last disgrace, and that if she must fall, she will fall by no ignoble hand.
He goes on to say:
But the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. 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 also laments that France was once the epitome of good manners, and believes that England learned from her. However, he sees not only a reversal, but looming disaster.
I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the Assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.
This certainly proved to be correct. And it worsened:
They would soon see that criminal means once tolerated are soon preferred. They present a shorter cut to the object than through the highway of moral virtues. Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge, could satiate their insatiable appetites.
Again, all this came to pass. The guillotine was invented for the victims of the Revolution, and some sources estimate that
40,000 were executed in this manner. After the nobility, aristocracy, and clergy were executed, the common people turned on each other. The most innocent incident
might have someone declared a traitor. One day's leader would be the enemy of tomorrow, including his followers. Add to that hundreds of thousands more
deaths due to wars and conflicts that ensued. This was certainly a terrible time in the history of Europe.
Unfortunately, war teaches no lessons, as we see in modern times all the horrific slaughter going on in the middle east and other parts of the world.
By no means does Burke ever say that reform wasn't needed. France was deeply in debt at the time. The clergy and aristocracy did not pay taxes. What he opposed was the total upheaval instituted by men who were themselves not fit to rule.
Is it true, then that the French government was such as to be incapable or undeserving of reform; so that it was of absolute necessity the whole fabric should be at once pulled down, and the area cleared for the erection of a theoretic experimental edifice in its place?
But he also spends pages discussing the fine and prosperous
aspects of France. And he spends even more concerning the treatment of the clergy—the seizing of their property, along with the property belonging to the
aristocracy, with no differentiation between members of either of those groups who were corrupted, and those who were upstanding members of their order or
society. He also discusses the new proposed divisions of France for purposes of voting, and points out serious flaws.
The last subject he covers is that of finance, and his comments on credit and the worthlessness of paper money sound alarmingly contemporary, especially regarding the United States.
This is just a smattering of his material—great food for thought, which Burke has recorded for posterity. But as I've said, there is so much also to disagree with. In fact, even in his own time many strongly disagreed with him. He lost his popularity and was voted out of the House of Commons.
But despite that, this book is fascinating reading, and not that difficult to understand, although it helps if you have done some research on the French Revolution. I personally find it intriguing, though horrifying, and have read up on it. In fact it is one of my favorite historical interests. As I was reading this book, I did quite a bit of additional online research. To the best of my ability, I believe this to be an accurate review, but I admit, because of the complexities of the situation, I may have misperceived some statements. My apologies, if this is so.
For more information on the French Revolution, please see the France, French Revolution Index Page. Recommended reading.
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