Most people know that Edmund Burke wrote in response to the French Revolution and is universally admired for his criticisms of Democratic Republicanism. They often are not clued in to what he actually said. Rather most intellectual conservatives refer to him in code. When conservatives quote Burke they usually first quote his earlier writings and speeches supporting the US Colonies revolt against the Crown. They rarely quote “Reflections on the Revolution” directly. Instead they refer to it obliquely. I’ve come to realize why, over time.
Burke was ostensibly arguing against the French Republicans, Jacobins and revolutionaries in Paris. But in reality he also was arguing with his own previous generation of Whigs and John Locke. He was arguing with the very notion of democratic republicanism.
The intellectual founder of the Enlightenment in the English Speaking world is most certainly John Locke. His Treatises on Government define the vision for what Government should be. He invents the word “commonwealth” as a translation of the word “Republic” but with added sensibility from English History and experience in his choice of words. And John Locke defined the parameters of what a just commonwealth should look like. For that reason John Locke is often quoted by conservatives extensively, and selectively.[http://holtesthoughts.blogspot.com/2014/09/commonwealth-according-to-locke.html]
Burke's opposition to Locke
The reason they don’t quote Burke is that Burke wasn’t arguing with his contemporaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Paine, but was arguing with his own mentor and intellectual father, John Locke. (what I consider a subversion and betrayal of Lockean principles)
Arguing with John Locke
Paine wrote his “Rights of Man” [http://www.ushistory.org/paine/rights/] in response to “Reflections on the Revolution in France” [http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm]. Not only that but Mary Wollenstonecraft wrote “Vindication of the Rights of Men”[http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/991] also in reaction to Burke. Both wrote in defense of basic human rights and the enlightenment.
Attacking the Basis of Democracy
Edmund Burke wasn’t really arguing solely with Paine or Mary Wollenstonecraft. He was arguing with John Lock.
Attacking the Principles of Electoral Republican Democracy
When he attacked the Federalist notion that people have the rights:
(1) “to choose our own governors.”(2) “to cashier them for misconduct.”(3) “to frame a government for ourselves.”
Edmund Burke was attacking the rights of the people to representative democracy! His modern day admirers know this, so when they refer to him as their hero, they are using coded and abstract language to say that they are against republican principles. Which is odd, because most of these admirers of Burke claim to be Republicans in the USA.
Attacking Republican Principles Indirectly
Now, he couldn’t go at this directly, so he writes a long lawyerly, rhetorical exercise in sophistry to do it. He had to pay lip service to the Glorious revolution in order to attack and demolish Locke’s concepts. In order to accomplish his end he first attacks the notion that people have a right to choose their own governors. And he does by conflating the reality that when the Whigs who put in place the Hanover line, they paid lip service and accepted the long traditions of royalty in Britain. He notes that they tried to avoid even the appearance of an election:
“They knew that a doubtful title of succession would but too much resemble an election, and that an election would be utterly destructive of the "unity, peace, and tranquillity of this nation", which they thought to be considerations of some moment.”
Arguing with Himself – Wollenstonecraft
“You were so eager to taste the sweets of power, that you could not wait till time had determined, whether a dreadful delirium would settle into a confirmed madness; but, prying into the secrets of Omnipotence, you thundered out that God had hurled him from his throne, and that it was the most insulting mockery to recollect that he had been a king, or treat him with any particular respect on account of his former dignity…. I have, Sir, been reading, with a scrutinizing, comparative eye, several of your insensible and profane speeches during the King's illness. I disdain to take advantage of a man's weak side, or draw consequences from an unguarded transport—A lion preys not on carcasses! [emphasis Wollstonecraft's]”
“To provide for these objects and, therefore, to exclude for ever the Old Jewry doctrine of "a right to choose our own governors", they follow with a clause containing a most solemn pledge,taken from the preceding act of Queen Elizabeth, as solemn a pledge as ever was or can be given in favor of an hereditary succession, and as solemn a renunciation as could be made of the principles by this Society imputed to them:
And here he continues:The Lords spiritual and temporal, and Commons, do, in the name of all the people aforesaid, most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities for ever; and do faithfully promise that they will stand to maintain, and defend their said Majesties, and also the limitation of the crown, herein specified and contained, to the utmost of their powers, etc. etc.
And as Thom Paine would say
“I am contending for the rights of the living.” None of us should obligate our children to anything that amounts to tyranny and bondage. But Burke doesn’t stop there. He goes on to attack the right to cashier bad governors. Something that again, Mary Wollenstonecraft would gleefully point out he had done with the temporary removal of George III during his madness.
Trust versus “mere misconduct.”
“199. As usurpation is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage. When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.”
“This was more than misconduct. A grave and overruling necessity obliged them to take the step they took, and took with infinite reluctance, as under that most rigorous of all laws. Their trust for the future preservation of the constitution was not in future revolutions. The grand policy of all their regulations was to render it almost impracticable for any future sovereign to compel the states of the kingdom to have again recourse to those violent remedies.”
It was more than misconduct because it was a violation of his trust for the sake of personal “private, separate advantage”.
And the early Whigs did it by forcing the crown to recognize that it’s power was by the trust of the people. The crown was allowed to claim that trust came from God, only because John Locke had established that the trust of God (of heaven to use Eastern Terminology) and the trust of the people are one and the same. Locke argued powerfully that the basis of rule for kings was neither Primogenitre or mere inheritance:
§95. If God, by his positive grant and revealed declaration, first gave rule and dominion to any man, he that will claim by that title, must have the same positive grant of God for his succession: for if that has not directed the course of its descent and conveyance clown to others, nobody can succeed to this title of the first ruler. Children have no right of inheritance to this, and primogeniture can lay no claim to it, unless God, the Author of this constitution, hath so ordained it. Thus we see the pretensions of Saul’s family, who received his crown from the immediate appointment of God, ended with his reign; and David, by the same title that Saul reigned, viz., God’s appointment, succeeded in his throne, to the exclusion of Jonathan, and all pretensions of paternal inheritance: and if Solomon had a right to succeed his father, it must be by some other title than that of primogeniture.
149 “For all power given with trust for the attaining an end being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish or so wicked as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject. For no man or society of men having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another, whenever any one shall go about to bring them into such a slavish condition, they will always have a right to preserve what they have not a power to part with, and to rid themselves of those who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation for which they entered into society. And thus the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power, but not as considered under any form of government, because this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved.”
And of course people have the right to frame their own governments. But Burke writes:
“THE third head of right,asserted by the pulpit of the Old Jewry, namely, the "right to form a government for ourselves", has, at least, as little countenance from anything done at the Revolution, either in precedent or principle, as the two first of their claims. The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient,indisputable laws and liberties and that ancient constitution of governmentwhich is our only security for law and liberty.”
But of course the revolution that occurred when the Parliament brought back William and Mary was a change of Government. The first two Georges could barely speak English, and Parliament ruled. Burkes arguments were disingenuous, and that is why his followers love him so much.
First published 4/13/2013 updated with minor corrections 9/12/2014, grammar corrections 2018