Jesse Norman. Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. New York: Basic Books, 2013. vii + 325 pp. $27.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-05897-6; $16.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-465-06293-5.
Reviewed by Richard Whatmore (University of St Andrews)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
The Curse of Edmund Burke
Jesse Norman’s elegantly written and highly accessible summary of Edmund Burke’s life, thought, and times is an excellent guide to eighteenth-century British intellectual history, especially for those who normally turn away from academic tomes. Norman guides the reader through Burke’s complicated speeches and published works, and sets each in their contemporary setting. As is to be expected, he is especially good in describing Burke the politician, Burke’s defense of parties and of civil liberties, and Burke’s assault on corruption. The sense of a man concerned by enthusiasts and projectors is nicely conveyed; Burke felt that those who wanted to recreate the greatness of Rome in the present were mad, that those who wanted to set the people free by making them political agents were crazed, and that anyone who imagined that a better society could easily be created by legislative fiat was an idiot. Like Montesquieu, Burke believed that change had to be adapted to circumstance: a law that worked in one society would never work the same way in another place with a different history and distinctive mores. Like Adam Smith, Burke was an adept of the science of the statesman or legislator, the complicated natural jurisprudence that taught that the passions had to be manipulated, that men had to be presumed to be knaves, and that the production of the balanced personality characterized by prudence and moderation was the ideal goal of any statesman. Above all, and again following Smith, politics was always to be conducted in accordance with the wisdom of Solon: the second-best world of imperfection and unintended consequences, where perfection was never to be found.
Norman’s book might be assumed to be Whiggish from the subtitle, anachronistically reading back into the past ideas from subsequent times. The argument is not that Burke was the first true conservative and that politicians, if they are to truly be “conservative,” ought to follow Burke’s policies and ideas to the letter. Rather, Norman’s claim is that Burke’s attitude to Britain and how to maintain it led him to a mind-set that can usefully be described as conservative, and that this mind-set is still worth following. There are ad hoc statements in the text that do not make sense because they go further than this, making assertions about Burke’s originality and his being the first to do this or to think that, but these can easily be set aside. The fact is that Burke was not original and that his approach to the political world was akin to that of David Hume or Smith or Montesquieu, being founded on the natural jurisprudence described above.
What is not fully covered in Norman’s book is what might be termed Burke’s curse. This was that he lived longer than fellow philosophical writers like Smith and that he was forced in consequence to adapt fully his ideas to the French Revolution. The French Revolution changed Burke. The argument can be made that he ceased to be a conservative, largely because he came to believe that across much of Europe there was nothing left to conserve.
Let me explain. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, was positive about the future. Events at Paris were altogether intolerable, releasing in modern times historic forms of barbarism. At the same time, the Revolution, Burke believed, was about to burn itself out. The revolutionaries had assaulted the aristocracy, monarchy, and church. In so doing, they had ineradicably weakened the French state. The violence in increasing evidence across France was a sign of the collapse of normal politics, and of a shuddering state barely able to survive. In consequence, when the Duke of Brunswick invaded France with a combined force on August 19, 1792, and quickly took Longwy and Verdun, Burke anticipated a speedy victory. When Brunswick was defeated at the Battle of Valmy on September 20, and then turned his forces around and departed French soil, Burke was astonished. He could not believe that professional soldiers had been vanquished by “a troop of strolling players with a buffoon [Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez] at their head.” Remarkably, and against all expectation, “vigour and decision, though joined with crime, folly and madness, have triumphed.” The French then successfully took Nice and Savoy. Invasion of the Austrian Netherlands followed, which fell before the middle of November. Burke now felt that all of Europe was under threat. Even the mountains of the Swiss, he wrote to his son, would not protect them from the revolutionaries.
With the proclamation of the First French Republic in September 1792, Burke abandoned the surety and confidence that had marked the Reflections on the Revolution in France. Revolutionary France was violating all of the inherited rules of political behavior. The French economy had collapsed, and yet the state was employing resources to fight wars on every front. Invaders, rather than being assaulted by the peoples whose lands they were taking, were being welcomed, and indeed were being acclaimed as liberators. Anarchy at Paris might continue, but it did not seem to matter because the Republic was impregnable. In a brilliant summation of 1796, Burke explained his fear and incomprehension. He also warned contemporaries in Britain that they could not afford to lie down with the leopard and make peace with the French Republic: “The Republic of Regicide with an annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce, with an uncultivated and half depopulated country, with a discontented, distressed, enslaved, and famished people, passing with a rapid, eccentric, incalculable course, from the wildest anarchy to the sternest despotism, has actually conquered the finest parts of Europe, has distressed, disunited, deranged, and broke to pieces all the rest; and so subdued the minds of the rulers in every nation, that hardly any resource presents itself to them, except that of entitling themselves to a contemptuous mercy by a display of their imbecility and meanness.”
Burke was increasingly sure that the French Revolution could easily be followed by a similar revolution across Britain. This was one of the lessons of the naval mutinies of 1797. Many politicians were embracing revolutionary ideals. Ireland, always dear to Burke, was likely to be the place where violent revolution commenced. Burke’s solution to the problem was to abandon any sense of conserving what had gone before. The world had changed because a contagion of mistaken ideas was spreading everywhere. A false god had been erected and had quickly destroyed much that was glorious about Europe. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace, Burke advised war to the death with the French Republic. Liberties and traditional tolerances in Britain had to be put to one side until the cancer of French republicanism had been routed out. Burke died convinced that his world had been eroded to the point of death; a new politics had to be formulated to combat the kinds of enthusiasm that promised perfectibility and ceaseless improvement. What such a politics would look like, Burke could not imagine, so great was his sense of desperation about the future. As Burke wrote to French Laurence, his friend and member of Parliament, less than two months before his death, “the times are so deplorable, that I do not know how to write about them.”
Burke was sure that what he had learned about politics was found wanting when faced with the French Revolution. Whatever can be said about Burke the conservative, he died convinced that the political doctrines he had espoused had failed. We still live in a world where projectors and enthusiasts promise a perfected world, where we do not have to worry about manipulating or balancing the passions in the manner of the natural jurists, because the free market does it all for us. In many respects, free market conservatives, in abandoning both history and the wisdom of Solon, are the true inheritors of the French Revolution. Norman’s book explains why we should return to Burke’s perspective on politics and history. The broader story, how a doctrine rejecting all forms of government intervention, and promising improvement for all, came to be associated with Smith, remains to be told.
. Edmund Burke to Richard Burke, October 17, 1792, The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 7, January 1792-August 1794, ed. P. J. Marshall and John A. Woods (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 271-272.
. Edmund Burke, Two Letters Addressed to a Member of the Present Parliament on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France (London: F. & C. Rivington, 1796), 7.
. Edmund Burke to French Laurence, May 12, 1797, Letters of Edmund Burke: A Selection, ed. Harold J. Laski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922), 414-415.
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Richard Whatmore. Review of Norman, Jesse, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative.
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