The real goal of political society, Edmund Burke claimed in his arguments against the French Revolutionaries, is not to create new laws or new rules, but “to secure the religion, laws, and liberties, that had been long possessed.” If one creates a law out of theory, he will explain much later in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, those laws will be supported only by their own terrors and not because of justice or nature or right make it good. The true revolutionary—that is, the conservator of moral and ethnical norms—will reclaim and reform rather than overturn. He sees not what could be, but what has been. In particular, he wants to re-secure that which “had been lately endangered.” A real revolution, therefore, prevents tyranny rather than merely paving the way toward uncertainty.
Burke, who considered himself an Old Whig, found the best expression of a proper revolution in the English tradition of 1215 and 1688.
You will observe, that from the Magna Charta [sic] to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.
Yet, we must be cautious when reading Burke. He does not mean for us to accept these two dates as the only two dates that establish liberty, but rather as dates that reveal the most blatant expressions of English Liberty in a long line of quiet, and sometimes not obvious, expressions of the same. They matter vitally, but they do not matter merely.
It is also worth noting here that Burke does not—as modern Americans do—think of a constitution as something written. Instead, it is imperfect, by absolute necessity. Because man is not perfect, he cannot create the perfect constitution at a single moment or even over a grand sweep of time. Instead, a proper constitution will have gaps, errors, and even, at times, contradictions. It will be—as Burke and the Romantics who followed him understood—gothic. Just as Burke believed in Natural Rights but rejected the objectification, clarification, and delineation of such, he believed the same to be true of a proper constitution. The constitution, for Burke, is a body of accumulated wisdom and experience taken and understood over vast periods of time. It will have moments—such as the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution—in which it will reform and be clarified, but the norm of a constitution is slow, gradual, and incremental growth and change.
On the matter of constitutions, Burke is far closer to the ancients and especially to Livy and Polybius in understanding the norms and mores of political society than he is to his own (relatively speaking) contemporaries, such as Locke and Montesquieu, who focused much more on the actual founding of a constitution or on the founding of a political society. One can rightly consider Burke’s understanding of history as very Catholic, a long-term process almost entirely unpredictable and unknowable. By the same light, one can also consider Locke’s view as essentially Protestant: a series of moments strung together, one after another. For Burke, time and history are fluid, while for Locke, they are immediate and demonstrable.
As Burke understood it, a proper constitution—such as that of the English which ably protected and secured liberties—was rooted in nature herself, rather than in man. It was rooted in the nature of creation, the nature of nature, and the nature of man— something that transcended anyone or any group of men, no matter how small or large. For man to presume that he could readily create a political society or a constitution is to presume that which only a god can presume. Disaster would be the unhappy result of such egoism. “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views,” Burke wrote. Those who do not offer due piety to those of the past will never find any real concern for their children or grandchildren.
“Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts,” the Irishman explained. And, as with all living things, a constitution must be understood both in isolation and in context, as it is the “mounding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young.” It is, however, always in a state of “perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.” Thus, only by focusing on that which is eternally true, can man guide himself (though, still darkly) through the tumult of the world.
The nature of eternal things and our focus on such eternal things allows us “to fortify the feeble contrivances of our reason.” By giving due piety to the wisdom of our ancestors in all of their failings and glories, we temper our arrogance “with an awful gravity,” thus leading, hopefully, to a “noble freedom” rather than mere Liberty. “All your sophisters cannot produce any thing better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.” Again, in his distrust of immediacy and relevance and reason, Burke strikes a mystical and Catholic note. Much of our liberty resides in the realm of faith and experience, rather than in abstraction and wishes.
Had the French followed the example of nature rather than reason, they would have stood with the Americans and the English as great examples of manly virtue and Liberty. Instead, hating all that came before and dreaming of every possibility the mind can conjure, they have captured, ironically, nothing “beyond the vulgar practice of the hour,” they behave not as civilized men but as savages, shielding their lust under the name of reason. Had they behaved according to eternal truths, they would “have shamed despotism from the earth.” Instead, by despising what has come before, the French Revolutionaries have prostituted their culture and their very being. Thus, France has “sanctified the dark suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust.”