French Revolution Controversy: Burke/ Paine

Topics: Edmund Burke, French Revolution, Liberalism Pages: 6 (1966 words) Published: May 31, 2013


During the French Revolution, two writers created an important controversy: Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. They represented two opposing ideologies: conservatism (Burke) and radical liberalism (Paine). The main idea of Burke was warning of the dangers of trying to shape society according to abstract concepts and ideals, and as a representative of traditional English Conservatism. For Paine, it was to foreseeing the welfare state.  

It was Edmund Burke who started the controversy. His Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in London on 1 November 1790, and created a sensation in the literary and political world. Newspapers such as The Times and The St. James Chronicle published extracts from it. "Within our remembrance" wrote The London Chronicle on 2 November, "no publication has excited more anxious curiosity." King George III was reported to have said that every gentleman should read it. Seven thousand copies of the book were sold in the first week, and it was reprinted several times before the end of the year. Notice that, the pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals are the only evidence of public reaction to these two famous books: Burke Reflections, and Paine Rights of Man, Part I.

But what exactly was the controversy about? The dispute might be considered as being primarily concerned with the merits and demerits of the French revolution. But it might also be interpreted as a discussion of rights and government. To understand this controversy, let’s take a look at the two authors and at their main ideas. First, I’m going to introduce Edmund Burke, and then Thomas Paine. We are going to see a short biography of them and go trough their main thoughts about the human rights and the French revolution. The thoughts and quotes of each author are taken from their respective books.

Comparison of Burke and Paine’s thoughts about French Revolution and Human Rights Edmund Burke was born in Ireland, and went to London in 1750. He was opposed to the French Revolution. In 1790 he published his book Reflections on the Revolution in France as a warning to many English reformers such as the Country Gentry, the Foxites and Wilkesites.

Edmund Burke said that the French were not having their own version of the Glorious Revolution but that events in France were something very different. He said that events in France would lead to conflict and blood, and that wars would result from the Revolution, ending in the establishment of a military dictatorship. Burke had been in France in 1773-1774 but had spent the time with the nobility and had been well-treated. He had not seen the oppression, the hard living and working conditions or the misery that existed in France. He had practical political reasons for his attitude to events in France and commented: “I reprobate no form of government upon abstract principles”. Burke saw no need for the violent changes in France and said it would lead to disaster because all the foundations of government had been swept away leaving nothing on which to build. Regarding the French revolution, he’s not only opposed to it, but it was deeply shocked by it. He agreed that the political elite (aristocrats) had not been carrying out their responsibilities well, but thought it would be better to return to an order which did work than to bring in a new, untried system.  

Plus Burke’s other objections to the French revolutionaries were that ideas of “natural rights” were dangerous, as they could be taken to extremes by anyone; they were too “abstract. “By having a right to everything they want everything.” This idea of “natural right” is a point on where Burke and Paine have an incompatible opinion.   

In his book, Burke said that, the ideas of the “philosophes” and revolutionaries had no background, no tradition; but collective experience builds up tradition and we know what “works”...
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