Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

This is part of a series

Apr 4, 2014

Edmund Burke, Intellectuals, and the French Revolution, Part 4

Smith explains the defense of rights and other abstract political principles given by James Mackintosh, one of Burke’s most effective critics.

In the second volume of his extensive work, Edmund Burke (Oxford, 2006), F.P. Lock estimates that twenty-eight substantive criticisms of Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared within six months of its publication in November 1790. Of these, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, the first part of which was published in February 1791, is widely regarded as the best. But a close competitor (and better in some ways) is Vindiciae Gallicae (1791), written by the radical whig James Mackintosh.

Both Paine and Mackintosh expressed their frustration with attempting to respond to Burke’s Reflections. Paine put it this way:

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr. Burke’s three hundred and sixty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

At the conclusion of Part One, Paine presents “some observations…thrown together into a Miscellaneous Chapter.” This was necessary, according to Paine, because “Mr. Burke’s Book is all Miscellany.” Instead of criticizing the French Revolution in an orderly, coherent fashion, Burke “has stormed it with a Mob of ideas, tumbling over and destroying one another.”

Mackintosh, a twenty-five-year-old Scot, similarly complained that Burke “interrupts, dismisses, and resumes argument at pleasure” as he engages in “miscellaneous and desultory warfare.”

[Burke] can cover the most ignominious retreat by a brilliant allusion. He can parade his arguments with masterly generalship, where they are strong. He can escape from an untenable position into a splendid declamation. He can sap the most impregnable conviction by pathos, and put to flight a host of syllogisms with a sneer. Absolved from the laws of vulgar method, he can advance a group of magnificent horrors to make a breach in our hearts, through which the most undisciplined rabble of arguments may enter in triumph.

As part of my criticism of Burke’s repudiation of abstract theories in politics, I shall examine what Mackintosh had to say on this matter. Although Paine also had significant criticisms in this area (which I may discuss in the next part), it was Mackintosh who, in his exploration of the relationship between principles, experience, and practice, confronted Burke head-on. But first a sidebar before we proceed.

Readers familiar with this controversy may know that Mackintosh later changed his mind about the French Revolution, moving from a defender (though not an unqualified one) to a severe critic. This led some Burkeans to chortle in victory, claiming that Mackintosh had abandoned his (essentially) libertarian principles in favor of conservatism. The best response to this allegation came from the celebrated Whig historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was scarcely a flaming radical.

In July 1835, Macaulay published a lengthy essay on James Mackintosh in the Edinburgh Review, the leading Whig periodical of its day. Yes, Macaulay admitted, Mackintosh changed his mind as the French Revolution degenerated into terror and bloodshed, but so did almost every reasonable observer who had defended the Revolution in its early stage. This did not mean, however, that Mackintosh changed his fundamental principles; rather, he applied those principles to different circumstances, as the Revolution moved through different stages. Macaulay wrote:

It is our deliberate opinion that the French Revolution, in spite of all its crimes and follies, was a great blessing to mankind. But it was not only natural, but inevitable, that those who had only seen the first act should be ignorant of the catastrophe, and should be alternately elated and depressed as the plot went on disclosing itself to them. A man who had held exactly the same opinion about the Revolution in 1789, in 1794, in 1804, in 1814, and in 1834, would have been either a divinely inspired prophet, or an obstinate fool. Mackintosh was neither. He was simply a wise and good man; and the change which passed on his mind was a change which passed on the mind of almost every wise and good man in Europe. In fact, few of his contemporaries changed so little. The rare moderation and calmness of his temper preserved him alike from extravagant elation and from extravagant despondency.

For our purpose, the significance of this passage lies in its implicit denial of the Burkean thesis, according to which the French Revolution was doomed from the start because it supposedly relied on abstract principles about the Rights of Man. The complex events that eventually brought about the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon were not the historical unfolding of a logically necessitated outcome, one foreseen by a prophet named Edmund Burke. (The prediction that democracy will inevitably end in the political chaos of “anarchy” is found in Aristotle, whom Burke greatly admired.)

Now let’s see what Mackintosh had to say about abstract principles.

According to Mackintosh, Burke accused the revolutionary National Assembly of “having rejected the guidance of experience, of having abandoned themselves to the illusion of theory, and of having sacrificed great and attainable good to the magnificent chimeras of ideal excellence.” This indictment would be devastating if it were true; and if true, moreover, it would have been unworthy of Burke to expend “so much genius against so preposterous an insanity.” But the allegation is not true. Why? Because those abstract principles known as the Rights of Man are themselves based on experience. They are fundamental distillations of mankind’s experiences in regard to human nature, human conduct, and government. The real point of controversy is not the value of experience per se—only a fool would deny this—but whether reason can improve upon our knowledge of the past.

Experience, according to Mackintosh, is the indispensable foundation of both models and principles. We rely on models when we wish to replicate something that originated in the past. But to insist that we must rely on those models alone and never advance beyond them would be to “degrade man to the unimproveable level of the instinctive animals.” Fortunately, we are able, by reasoning from our experience, to formulate general principles that enable us to improve upon earlier models and thereby construct a new model that is better than any we previously knew. “In this sense all improvements of human life have been deviations from experience.”

History provides us with a vast arena of experience about governments, and this experience teaches us that some types of government are more beneficial than others, and that some are absolutely destructive. When we encounter a model of government that is partly good and partly bad, it would be foolish not to improve upon it by excluding the harmful features as much as we possibly can. This requires that we “compare and generalize; and, guided equally by experience,” imitate the good and reject the bad. And this process, in turn, requires the guidance of enlightened experience, as crystallized in “rights and the nature of man.” These principles are “the first guide, because they are founded on the widest experience.” In contrast to the wisdom embodied in this kind of experience, Burke would have us rely instead on “the puny and trammeled experience of a Statesman by trade, who trembles at any change in the tricks which he has been taught, or the routine in which he has been accustomed to move.” Mackintosh continues:

Legislators are under no obligation to retain a constitution, because it has been found [quoting Burke] “tolerably to answer the common purposes of Government.” It is absurd to expect, but it is not absurd to pursue perfection. It is absurd to acquiesce in evils, of which the remedy is obvious, because they are less grievous than those which are endured by others. To suppose the social order is not capable of improvement from the progress of the human understanding, is to betray the inconsistent absurdity of an arrogant confidence in our attainments, and an abject distrust of our powers. If indeed the sum of evil produced by political institutions, even in the least imperfect Governments, were small, there might be some pretence for this dread of innovation, this horror at remedy, which has raised such a clamour over Europe: But, on the contrary, in an estimate of the sources of human misery, after granting that one portion is to be attributed to disease, and another to private vices, it might perhaps be found that a third equal part arose from the oppressions and corruptions of Government, disguised under various forms.

As for the objection that theories are often impracticable, Mackintosh had this to say:

If by theory be understood vague conjecture, the objection is not worth discussion; but if by theory be meant inference from the moral nature and political state of man, then I assert, that whatever such theory pronounces to be true, must be practicable, and that whatever on the subject is impracticable, must be false.

In the next part of this series, I shall explain how Mackintosh viewed the relationship between rights and expediency (or utility)—this is perhaps the most important part of his approach—and then (space permitting) I shall examine how Thomas Paine dealt with Burke’s objections to abstract principles. Meanwhile, I offer the following passage by Burke for your consideration. In A Letter to M. Depont (1789) Burke explained to a French correspondent “what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled.”

[O]f all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice, ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions. [W]henever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe.

Given that Burke wrote this rousing passage shortly before he wrote Reflections, and given that the passage, with its emphasis on justice and equal freedom, appears thoroughly libertarian, we might wonder how all this can be reconciled with Burke’s hostility to abstract rights and his defense of privileged orders, such as the nobility and an established church. If this puzzles you, then welcome to the wonderful world of Burkean exegesis. Fortunately, as we shall see in my next essay, this puzzle is fairly easy to solve. Hint: The key may be found in the phrases “no body of men” and “any description of persons.”

This is part of a series