Edmund Burke condemned the French Revolution as a “digest of anarchy.” What relevance does his critique have for the modern libertarian movement?

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke’s spectacular best‐​seller that was published in November 1790, was probably the greatest single factor in turning British public opinion against the French Revolution – a momentous and complex series of events that had begun sixteen months earlier and was destined to change the political and intellectual landscape of Europe. The influence of Burke’s Reflections outlived the events it criticized. As the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986):

Conservatism did not become a part of political speech until around 1830 in England. But its philosophical substance was brought into being in 1790 by Edmund Burke in his Reflections of the Revolution in France. Rarely in the history of thought has a body of ideas been as closely dependent upon a single man and a single event as modern conservatism is upon Edmund Burke and his fiery reaction to the French Revolution. In remarkable degree, the central themes of conservatism over the last two centuries are but widenings of themes enunciated by Burke with specific reference to revolutionary France.

Most of the major conservative themes alluded to by Nisbet are something I shall discuss in a later series on Edmund Burke (1729–97). In the two parts of this essay I shall confine myself to Burke’s savage assault on the intellectuals of his day, specifically, those “men of letters,” or philosophes, whom Burke believed had conspired with the “monied interest” to bring about the French Revolution. Although Burke did not use the label “intellectuals” – among the labels he did use were political men of letters, literary caballers, intriguing philosophers, political theologians, theological politicians, apostolic missionaries, and atheistical fathers – the essentials of his critique have been parroted by many modern conservatives in their criticisms of “intellectuals.”

In The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (p. 110), I described Burke’s Reflections as “a rambling mixture of maudlin sophistry and stunning brilliance unique in the history of political thought.” I formed this opinion during the mid‐​1980s, while I was writing a lengthy manuscript on Reflections for an audio presentation by Knowledge Products – a project that required not only a close study of Reflections but also a working knowledge of Burke’s other published writings. It was at that time that I arrived at a conclusion that I have repeated many times to students and others, namely, that any libertarian defender of natural rights must come to terms with Burke’s criticisms, which remain the most formidable objections to natural‐​rights theory ever written.

It should be noted that Burke did not expressly criticize natural rights. On the contrary, he claimed to subscribe to a version of natural‐​rights theory, though his comments are so vague as to leave most readers scratching their heads about what he meant. Rather, Burke targeted what he called abstract rights, and he linked this theory to those intellectuals who wished to apply this abstraction to the real world of politics without regard to circumstances. It is in this sense that my discussion of the Burkean critique of intellectuals should be understood.

The most illustrious disciple of Burke in this regard was Alexis de Tocqueville. Except for its lack of vitriol, this passage from The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856) – a better book, in my opinion, than Democracy in America – could have been written by Burke himself.

When we closely study the French Revolution we find that it was conducted in precisely the same spirit as that which gave rise to so many books expounding theories of government in the abstract. Our revolutionaries had the same fondness for broad generalizations, cut‐​and‐​dried legislative systems, and a pedantic symmetry; the same contempt for hard facts; the same taste for reshaping institutions on novel, ingenious, original lines; the same desire to reconstruct the entire constitution according to the rules of logic and a preconceived system instead of trying to rectify its faulty parts. The result was nothing short of disastrous; for what is a merit in the writer may well be a vice in the statesmen and the very qualities which go to make great literature can lead to catastrophic revolutions.

Some modern quasi‐​libertarians with a conservative slant, such as F.A. Hayek, have taken a similar approach in their criticisms of socialism and other utopian schemes, so it is vital to understand at the outset that Burke’s target was not (or at least not solely) the brutal and bloodthirsty Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who did not attain political dominance until well after Burke published Reflections in 1790. Indeed, the French Constitution of 1791 established a constitutional monarchy, not a democratic republic, and most members of the National Assembly hoped to work with Louis XVI. It was only after it became clear that the king hoped to gain the assistance of foreign powers to destroy the Revolution that he was convicted of treason and executed in January 1793 – a sentence that passed by only a handful of votes in the National Assembly.

The notion of abstract rights that Burke attacked with such vehemence was the same idea that many libertarians defend today, so many libertarian intellectuals qualify as the type of intellectual that Burke despised. This is what gives Reflections an immediate relevance to the modern libertarian movement. An effective reply to Burke would simultaneously serve to rebut the many conservatives (and neoconservatives) who, in their attacks on libertarianism, have done little more than echo Edmund Burke.

Now for a little background on the early stage of the French Revolution.

On 26 August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the National Assembly of France. Also called the Constituent Assembly, owing to its self‐​appointed task of framing a constitution for the French nation, this body began as one of three estates, or orders (traditional, legally established classes), within the Estates‐​General, which had been convened earlier that year (May 5) by Louis XVI. These three orders were the nobility, the clergy, and all other French citizens, known collectively as the Third Estate.

This remarkable gathering – the first Estates‐​General since 1614 – was precipitated by the bankruptcy of the French government, a financial crisis that had been greatly aggravated by the aid provided by the French government to Americans during their war with Britain. The need to raise revenue generated a power struggle between the crown and the nobility (especially the reform‐​minded Parlement of Paris), and both sides decided they had something to gain by convening an Estates‐​General. But events soon took on a life of their own as both the king and the aristocracy found themselves unable to control the course of events.

The Third Estate became a revolutionary body on June 17, when, by a majority of 491 to 89, it christened itself the National Assembly. Although many deputies from the other two orders voluntarily joined the National Assembly, the assumption of political sovereignty by the Third Estate signaled that ancient legal privileges would not be permitted to stand. Indeed, many members of the nobility and clergy supported the abolition of feudal privileges and other radical reforms that were soon to follow.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was intended to serve as a preamble to the French Constitution of 1791, which (as I said) established a constitutional monarchy. Historians continue to debate the extent to which the French Declaration was influenced by American precedents, such as George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and various state constitutions adopted during the 1780s. The Marquis de Lafayette, who emphasized the need for a Declaration of Rights and played a prominent role in its drafting, was among the 8000 Frenchmen who had participated in the American Revolution and returned to France brimming with enthusiasm for American ideals. Moreover, key American documents, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and various state constitutions, had been translated into French and were widely read.

Some historians maintain that this is a case of correlation rather than causation. As the historian George Rudé observed, “both Americans and Frenchmen acknowledged a common debt to the ‘natural law’ school of philosophy, in particular to Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.” At the very least, however, the American experience provided an inspiration and example, if not an exact model, for the French Declaration of Rights. According to John‐​Joseph Mounier, a member of the National Assembly who contributed to the Declaration, the American Revolution had instilled in the French “a general restlessness and desire for change.” Americans had shown that it was possible to begin anew and construct a government on rational principles.

Consider these two planks (out of seventeen) in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man:

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

Although Burke condemned the French Declaration of Rights as a “digest of anarchy,” it is important to understand that he was no reactionary Tory; far from it. Burke was a liberal Whig who advocated the free trade policies of Adam Smith, who roundly condemned British policies in the American colonies, who (though an Anglican) advocated the legal emancipation of Irish Catholics, who usually (though not always) called for greater religious freedom in Britain, and who assailed British imperialism in India.

It was owing to Burke’s support of the American cause that many Americans were shocked to learn of his intense opposition to the French Revolution – a shock that led Thomas Paine to write his two‐​part rebuttal, Rights of Man. Were not the principles of the French Revolution essentially the same as those that had animated the American Revolution? Burke didn’t think so. The American struggle against Britain, he insisted, was a conservative revolution (if it deserved the appellation “revolution” at all) because it sought to conserve traditional American institutions and traditions against British innovations. The French Revolution, in contrast, was a radical revolution that sought to overthrow traditional French institutions and traditions, and build a new society from the ground up.

Few Americans agreed with Burke’s assessment. According to Jefferson and others, the American Revolution had set the precedent for establishing a new constitution based on reason and the rights of man. Even the conservative John Adams, while referring to the four decades after 1775 as the “age of revolutions and constitutions,” stated, “We began the dance.”

In Part 2 I shall turn to Burke’s no‐​holds‐​barred attack on the intellectuals of his day.