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Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 12.52.06 PMOne the things that Robert Nisbet made perfectly clear in the 1950s is that we could never understand the West and the new Western character under democracy and democratic influences without understanding the nuanced and complex thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. One of the things that Russell Kirk made perfectly clear in the 1950s, as well, is that we could never understand the West and the old Western character under a res publica and commonwealth influences without understanding the nuanced and complex thought of Edmund Burke. In response, Nisbet agreed with Kirk, but then proceeded to show that we could never understand Burke or de Tocqueville without understanding each and the influence Burke had over de Tocqueville. To put it rather simply, de Tocqueville was de Tocqueville in very large part because he was, perhaps, France’s greatest Burkean.

This semester, I have the grand privilege of teaching the American History Survey, 1807-1848, the Jefferson Embargo to the Imperialist Takeover of Northern Mexico, or the democratization of America, or, more popularly, “Jacksonian America.” As I approach the semester (classes begin in just a few days, as I write this), I have decided to go back to first principles. I am rereading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France for—the Good Lord knows—how many times, and I’m, of course, rereading de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which is also serving as the main text for my autumn 2016 course.

Over a series of essays here at The Imaginative Conservative, I would like to re-examine Burke and his arguments. The present moment in Western Civilization seems right to do so as well, especially since the two major political parties have embraced a sort of neo-populist imperialism vs. a neo-populist isolationism. At this moment, at least, there is no voice that represents at any serious level the conservatism of Burke and de Tocqueville. Indeed, each party more or less embodies exactly what Burke and de Tocqueville feared and despised. And, The Imaginative Conservative seems the right place to consider not only the first principles of conservatism but its modern deviations as well. As a historian and as a conservative, I am fully convinced that the great American political movements of Goldwater and Reagan found their animating principles in the thought of Burke and de Tocqueville, and any future successful conservative movements must, at least at some level, do the same.

Three things must be noted at the very beginning of any discussion on Burke and the French Revolution. First, while Burke is responding to a number of supporters of the revolution (in whatever form it will take), he is also deeply reliant upon a whole host of figures from the past. Indeed, it would be impossible to see Burke as a great Western figure without his embrace of a line of thinkers from Plato through the Stoics to Polybius and Cicero to Sts. John, Paul, and Augustine, to Thomas More and Thomas Hooker. Further, Burke also draws upon the work of his contemporary and close friend, Adam Smith. One might argue that Smith is more Burkean than Burke is Smithian, but the two dramatically shaped one another.

Second, despite the arguments of men such as Thomas Paine, Burke did not go crazy and lose his sensibilities in late 1789 and 1790. Many of Burke’s most ardent critics—unable to explain how the great Irishman could have defended so adamantly the rights of Catholics, Irish, Asian Indians, and Americans—believed that his attack on the French Revolution was the result of some kind of insanity or dementia. Indeed, a careful reading of Burke’s arguments clearly reveals his consistency of thought regarding the Americans as well as the French and other oppressed peoples.

Third, contra many of Burke’s current supporters, Burke never rejected the doctrine of Natural Rights. Indeed, he fully embraced the concept of natural rights. His criticisms of the doctrine had nothing to do with the essence of the doctrine, but the assertions made on its behalf. That is, as much as Burke believed in rights, he did not believe that any single man or even group of men could declare—as would Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence or the French would in their Declaration of the Rights of Man—that, so to speak, this was a right and this wasn’t. Burke, a God-fearing man, believed rights so powerfully divine that we could not—nor should we presume to attempt—to define or delimit what a right is. Nor could we list rights beyond what the common law tradition had taught us. It is one thing to assert (properly, as Burke argued) that one had a right to a trial by jury. Experience beyond human memory had taught us this. To claim, equally, that we had a right to “happiness” seemed presumption of the highest kind to Burke. To claim such a thing, man was pretending to be a god. This would prove neither good for neither the man nor the god!

It is worth quoting Burke on this matter at some length.

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct. I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without enquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the gallies, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.

In these words, it becomes quite clear that Burke has not rejected the notions of rights and liberties; rather, he merely rejected the claims to define—specifically—rights and liberties, as they denied the context of struggle, virtue, and history. While I have used the long quotation above to back up my third point, it really backs up all three. Burke loves liberty, but he also loves humanity, and he does not believe that one trumps the other. Instead, the two must work in a harmony that brings the best and most important out of the other.

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1 reply to this post
  1. With all due respect, neither the extended quotation nor the elucidation that follows thereupon confirm the notion that “Burke never rejected the doctrine of Natural Rights. Indeed, he fully embraced the concept of natural rights. His criticisms of the doctrine had nothing to do with the essence of the doctrine, but the assertions made on its behalf.” Either a cursory or a close reading of the Reflections on the Revolution in France affirms quite the opposite.
    Prof. Birzer is here conflating subjective and natural rights. The former are by no means the same as the latter. What Burke was defending was prescriptive rights, the notion of rights as inheritance, gained through the slow upward march of historical progress, rather than a natural a priori. In other words, the rights of Englishmen, not the rights of man. Both the quotation and the elucidation back up this point, not the point Prof. Birzer tries to make.

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