Burke Among and Beyond the Whigs

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is a classic of political thought and Western literature. The work, published in November 1790, is the Irishman’s most famous condemnation of the French Revolution that had erupted the previous year. As a response to a specific event, it is in many ways a pièce d’occasion. Much of its content is concerned with the details of the early stages of the French Revolution, including its assignat currency. But it is also a work of political thought, and arguably even political philosophy, as it endeavors to answer the central question of modern politics: What kind of association is the state?

In a sense, the state is an artificial association, as it is the product of human choices rather than a natural phenomenon. But against Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, Burke argues that the state should not be understood as having been created by a single act of agreement, whether theoretical or actual. It is neither to be regarded as a contract among the governed nor one between rulers and the ruled. Rather, it is a product of choices made by many generations over a long period of time. In other words, it is a historical association. Members are born into it, and it connects the living with the dead and those who are yet to be born.

Such an intergenerational partnership cannot be dissolved at pleasure, and a commercial contract is not a suitable analogy for it. We must look at it with greater reverence: “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place.”

While we admire the prose, such elevated rhetoric will not persuade all modern readers. Yet Burke’s answer is arguably more convincing than many of its competitors, including the view of the state as a more “natural” association corresponding to the elusive concept of “nationality.” Rightly understood, a nation is also a historical community. But far from being homogenous “nation-states,” all modern states began as multi-national communities with several languages spoken, and many if not most remain as such. The British state Burke lived in, for instance, was a composite kingdom encompassing four separate nationalities at the center—English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish—and ruling over many more imperial territories. At least for the time being, the United Kingdom remains a union of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, a majority of the members of the French state did not speak French. The examples are endless, but the key point is that one can be skeptical of nationalism without being committed to stateless cosmopolitanism, since state and nation are different concepts.

Burke’s theory also represents an advance on the idea that the state should be thought of as having been created in a single event for a single purpose, even if this purpose is taken to be as acceptable and general as the pursuit of peace, as Hobbes held. For Burke, the state cannot be reduced to a single purpose: “It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue; and in all perfection.”

It is true that Burke denied a share of political power to be a human right. But his own list of what he termed the real rights of man is more ambitious than he is sometimes given credit for. It places particular emphasis on core values of almost any recognizable form of what has become known as liberalism: the right to an equal distribution of justice, as well as the right to do what one wants as long as it does not interfere with the freedom of others.

If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many, the Reflections represents a turning point in Burke’s career, as the liberal Whig—who had spent most of his career in opposition and defended the oppressed in his native Ireland, America, and India—allegedly became a conservative and a defender of the old order. Whether this makes him a hero or a villain depends on one’s political persuasion. Regardless, this familiar picture is to a great extent misleading, and the real history is more complicated. The reception of the Reflections was certainly controversial, but it was arguably not a volte-face on Burke’s part, nor did everyone perceive it as such. In order to fully understand the reception and fallout of the Reflections, we must place it in the context of Burke’s political career and background.

The Rockingham Whigs

It is of course true that Burke was a Whig and emphatically not a Tory. But what did that mean at the time? More specifically he was a member of the Rockingham Whig party connection. This was not a “radical” party on any understanding of the term, but a political group led by great landowners who took themselves to be the heirs to the Whigs of the Glorious Revolution, and the Old Corps of Whigs who had been in government for much of the period between the Hanoverian Succession in 1714 and the accession of George III in 1760. Above all, they regarded themselves as the custodians of the Revolution Settlement, and as a constitutional party that was equally suspicious of royal as of popular overreach.

George III came to the throne convinced that the Whig aristocracy had turned his predecessors into mere figureheads. In his reign, the great Whig families were eventually removed from office and became more or less a permanent opposition party. Burke emerged as the most eloquent spokesperson of this party, both in the House of Commons from 1765, and in print. Since the Rockingham Whigs repealed the Stamp Act when briefly in office in 1765–66, they could pose as the friends of America. But the same administration also passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament could theoretically make laws binding the American colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

Catharine Macaulay believed that Burke had addressed the passions instead of the reason of mankind, and emphasized that her pamphlet was written to convince rather than to captivate.

In the context of the American crisis, a movement for political reform emerged in Britain in the 1760s. The relationship between Burke and his Whig party on the one hand and the new political reformers on the other was uneasy at best. They did collaborate occasionally, but they were mutually suspicious. This is exemplified by the republican historian Catharine Macaulay’s pamphlet against Burke’s Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in 1770. Burke’s text, a defense of the Rockingham Whig party connection, has become canonical for his analysis of British politics and especially his defense of the utility of political parties. But Macaulay argued that Burke’s “fine turned and polished periods carry with them a poison sufficient to destroy all the little virtue and understanding of sound policy which is left in the nation.” For her, what he promoted was nothing less than “Aristocratic faction and party, founded on and supported by the corrupt principle of self-interest.” As Burke pointed out in his correspondence, the bitterest attacks on his pamphlet did not come from the court but from a section within the opposition: “the republican faction” or “the Bill of rights people.” Burke called this segment “a rotten subdivision of a Faction amongst ourselves.”

The Rockingham Whigs, under Burke’s guidance, were highly distrustful of constitutional reform that was advocated by Catharine Macaulay and her ilk. Burke’s party wanted Parliament to limit the power of the crown, but they believed that this could be most effectively done through party solidarity and later by “economical reform” to curtail and supervise the crown’s budget. This approach was insufficient for Macaulay and her circle with members on both sides of the Atlantic, who often referred to themselves as “the Friends of Liberty” and Patriots. The Patriot program was effectively summarized by John Adams in a letter to Macaulay: “Shorter parliaments, a more equitable Representation, the abolition of Taxes and the Payment of the Debt, the Reduction of Placemen and Pensioners, the annihilation of Corruption, the Reformation of Luxury, Dissipation & Effeminacy, the Disbanding of the Army.” This was not Burke’s politics.

The Fallout of the Reflections

Several of those who reacted negatively to Burke’s Reflections were not disappointed friends but old adversaries. Eight months before her death in June 1791, Macaulay defended the French Revolution in her final publication, Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France (1790). Like Mary Wollstonecraft’s better-known and quickly written riposte to Burke, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Macaulay accused Burke of prioritizing the art of composition at the expense of substance. She believed that Burke had addressed the passions instead of the reason of mankind, and emphasized that her pamphlet was written to convince rather than to captivate. More substantially, Macaulay defended the principle of abstract right in opposition to prescription and historical right.

Macaulay’s pamphlet was addressed to the political reformer Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753–1816), the chairman of the Revolution Society. We should note that the full title of Burke’s book was Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event. The two main London-based societies that Burke had in mind were the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) and the Revolution Society. Reflections was indeed a direct response to the substantial Protestant Nonconformist section within the broad Whig landscape and especially to Richard Price’s Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789). In this sermon, delivered to the Revolution Society to commemorate the Glorious Revolution, Price compared the French Revolution to England’s Revolution of 1688–89 and seemed to be calling for general uprisings across Europe.

By taking on these political societies, Burke was speaking to his own Whig tribe, as he had become increasingly concerned with some of his colleagues’ sympathetic attitudes toward the French Revolution. Charles James Fox, the party’s leader in the House of Commons, periodically praised the French Revolution publicly, and in private said that the storming of the Bastille was the “greatest” and “best” event in world history. Fox and Burke fell out dramatically in parliament during the debates on the Quebec Bill in May 1791, which moved Fox to tears. The French question arose when parliament debated the establishment of a constitution for a French province under British dominion. In the debate, Fox “condemned [the Reflections] both in public and private, and every doctrine contained in it.”

Burke replied to Fox that “there was not one step of his conduct, nor one syllable of his book, contrary to the principles of those men with whom our glorious revolution originated, and to whose principles as a Whig, he declared an inviolable attachment.” Six months earlier, when the Reflections had been first published, Burke had received from “the old Stamina of the Whiggs a most full approbation of the principles in that work and a kind indulgence to the execution.” Lord John Cavendish had written to Burke on the publication of the Reflections, thanking Burke “for the real service which I think it will do: all men of sense must I think feel obliged to you, for shewing in so forcible a manner, that confusion is not the road to reformation.” Earl Fitzwilliam, Rockingham’s heir and nephew, wrote that the book was “almost universally admired and approved” at the time of its publication. The Duke of Portland, the party leader in the House of Lords, would later refer to the Reflections as “the true Whig Creed.” But to his disappointment, when Burke clashed with Fox in the House of Commons in May 1791 “not one of the party spoke one conciliatory word.”

Fox accused Burke of inconsistency in supporting the Americans against Britain and not the French struggle against absolute monarchy. “It was evident the American states had revolted, because they did not think themselves sufficiently free,” Fox told the Commons during the Quebec debate. Burke disagreed, clarifying in the chamber that “he was favourable to the Americans, because he supposed they were fighting, not to acquire absolute speculative liberty, but to keep what they had under the English constitution.”

The clash with Fox led to Burke’s break with his Whig party. He would defend his Whig principles in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, published later in 1791. Burke was convinced that his old party eventually had to follow his lead. As he told his son: “They agree with me to a title—but they dare not speak out for fear of hurting Fox.” But for a while, it looked as if Burke was the only discontented Whig from the Portland-Fox connection, which he had now left. Things would slowly change as the French Revolution entered its more violent phase. In the opening months of 1792, political societies dedicated to reform proliferated in Britain, many drawing on plebeian support. The forming of the Association of the Friends of the People by younger Whig parliamentarians caused particular alarm among the Whig aristocrats. The Portland Whigs supported Pitt’s proclamation against seditious writings in May 1792. A self-styled “Third Party”—led by Burke’s disciple William Windham—eventually broke away, and the old Whig alliance began to crumble. After Fox openly supported the Friends of the People in May 1793, and pushed for peace with France in June, the Portland Whigs moved closer to the “Third Party.”

Leading members of the Portland Whigs finally took the plunge and joined Pitt’s administration in the early summer of 1794. Portland was now convinced that “the true Spirit of Aristocracy and the true Principles of Whiggism may be revived and re-established” if his party joined the coalition. Fitzwilliam agreed that a coalition could become “the cause of the renewal of power in an Aristocratic Whig party.” Like Burke, Portland and Fitzwilliam understood the importance of the principle of aristocratic party. Burke, having stood down from parliament in June 1794, played no official role in the new coalition, but he supported it and would offer advice on Irish politics in particular, which came under the Portland Whigs’ remit. On the news of naval victories in June 1794, Portland wrote to Burke that the British were finally “advancing to restore Order Religion and Law to that unhappy Country and tranquillity and security to the rest of the civilized World.”

The Pitt-Portland coalition turned out to be a disappointment. In a letter to Fitzwilliam in September 1796, Burke argued that the coalition had destroyed the principle of party, which he had given a philosophical defense in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. In this text, he had defined party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” In short, parties could be contrasted with factions competing merely for power and their own particular interests.

Burke’s reputation was rehabilitated among Whigs and Liberals in the nineteenth century before he became a hero among Conservatives.

He now told Fitzwilliam: “I was in serious hopes that party which was at last rallied under its proper standard … might, either in Ministry, or out of Ministry … become some sort of Asylum for principles moral and political.” Instead, politics had evolved into a straight choice between Pitt and Fox. “This extinguishes party, as party. … Every thing is forced into the shape of a mere faction, and a contest for nothing short, in substance and effect, than the sovereign authority, for one or the other of the chieftains,” lamented Burke.

Notwithstanding the disappointing result, the key point is that the mainstay of Burke’s Whig connection did accept his interpretation of the French Revolution as set out in the Reflections, and they eventually left the Foxites to pursue the course of action Burke had long recommended.

Burke’s Reputation

Unlike Burke, who died in 1797, Catharine Macaulay did not live to see the extremely violent phase of the French Revolution. Her earlier death meant that she did not witness the executions of her friend Brissot; her admirer Jeanne-Marie Roland, who wanted to become “the Macaulay of [her] country”; and the publisher of her works in French, François-Charles Gattey, during the Reign of Terror. The bloody development of the French Revolution, and the crackdown on reformist politics which followed in its wake in Britain, may indeed go some way toward explaining the relative eclipse of Catharine Macaulay in the nineteenth century.

By contrast, Burke was certainly not eclipsed. He eventually became a hero of leading Conservatives, including Benjamin Disraeli. But as Emily Jones has recently shown in a study of the 1830–1914 period, Burke’s reputation was rehabilitated among Whigs and Liberals in the nineteenth century before he became a hero among Conservatives. However, as Jones stresses, many of these Whigs and Liberals, including Lord John Russell and Thomas Babington Macaulay, believed that Burke had become insane in the 1790s, and they preferred to cite his earlier writings, especially the Present Discontents.

But that was not the way things looked in the 1790s. It was not insanity that had convinced the Portland Whigs to come “into office on Mr. Burke’s principles,” as even Burke’s enemies recognized. Fitzwilliam, Windham, and other Whigs joined Pitt to give more ideological energy to the war effort and to insist on a Bourbon restoration as a sine qua non for peace. Fitzwilliam and Windham both continued to insist on this principle in the nineteenth century, even after they had reunited with the Foxite Whigs, in Windham’s case until his death in 1810, and in Fitzwilliam’s case until the restoration of the monarchy was achieved in 1814–15. Moreover, Fitzwilliam and his son, Viscount Milton, continued to appeal to the authority of Burke, even when they took opposite positions on the question of parliamentary reform in the 1820s.

Already in his own lifetime, Burke was unexpectedly vindicated by James Mackintosh, who had earlier written one of the most extensive responses to Burke’s Reflections, Vindiciæ Gallicæ. The violence of the French Revolution changed Mackintosh’s mind. In November 1796, Mackintosh defended Burke’s Third Letter on a Regicide Peace in the Monthly Review, which led to a correspondence and acquaintance between the two Whigs in the last months of Burke’s life. Mackintosh wrote in a letter to Burke: “I can with truth affirm that I subscribe to your general principles, and am prepared to shed my blood in defence of the laws and constitution of my country.” In 1818, Mackintosh defended Britain’s unreformed suffrage in the Whig Edinburgh Review against the reformist agenda of Jeremy Bentham and his followers. From this perspective, it appears as if Burkean Whiggism survived into the nineteenth century because of, and not in spite of, the position he took on the French Revolution in the Reflections in opposition to Jacobins abroad and political reformers at home.

From 1832 onward, however, parliamentary reform became the order of the day in British politics. Yet Burkean political philosophy survived, and has been continuously revived, because it was not the extreme theory his detractors accused him of advocating, but rather a theory that was pertinent for the modern state. By understanding the state as a historical community, the product of the choices of several generations over an extended period of time, and an association that could not be reduced to a single purpose, Burke outlined a theory of the state that was both eloquent and moderate. As the political philosophy of the Reflections cannot be reduced to the ideology of one particular political tradition, it proved influential for moderate Whigs and Tories, liberals and conservatives.