The Conservative Reaction to the Revolution
Edmund Burke published his most renowned work in 1790. Using his position as a Member of Parliament, Burke became the opponent to the Revolution with his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France. The time in which it was published is also critical for Reflections. When published, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had only recently been imprisoned, and the Terror had not yet begun its reign. Reflections is an accurate description of the interim period of time between the Deposition of the King and the Reign of Terror. Burke, through Reflections, was hailed as the champion of “principled conservatism.” His reaction was the same as most Conservatives and Royalists in
Reflections describes the atmosphere of the Revolution as:
Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.
Burke depicts the Revolution as a “melting pot” of dichotomies. With this statement comes a prediction of failure. Burke states, and is later proven right, that such an amalgamation of peoples, though united by a hatred for the Ancien Regime, can overcome their numerous, skewed beliefs and needs. At the close of this tragicomedy, as Burke seems to predict, patriot would turn on patriot.
Burke’s “principled conservatism” sought to maintain the continuity of the monarchy. This is classical conservatism. Principled conservatism wanted to maintain the status quo. Through idealizing the past and revering continuity, Burke defended the moral authority of a nation’s institutions. These institutions were the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church, and the constitutions guaranteeing their right to lead. Because of his philosophy, Burke felt outrage at an attack on a King, even a French King. Coleridge once remarked, “Burke never shows his powers, except when he is in a passion. The French Revolution was alone a subject fit for him.” He opposed it tirelessly. Many “Children of the Enlightenment,” like Wollstonecraft and Paine, rebutted him with their own essays. However, when the Terror began, many who had supported the ideals of Paine and Wollstonecraft then praised the “Genius of Burke.”
Burke has the unique position among essayists of past centuries in which a presentist view strengthens his views and arguments. Burke, from his own observations, noticed the same schisms that are now obvious. Though, we see these schisms only with access to knowledge Burke could not have had. Burke was proven correct in his own time and in our own. This demonstrates the accuracy of his observations of the French Revolution.