Your RDA of Irony

Reflections on the Reflections in Edmund Burke’s Mirror

On this day in 1790, Edmund Burke was making the rounds of talk shows to plug his new book “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” (Larry King diverted the discussion by recounting the time he played golf with Voltaire.)  Burke contended that the French Revolution, then in its earliest and most gentle stage, would eventually fail for a fundamental reason:  the French weren’t English.

According to Burke, freedom was an English idiosyncrasy.  The English may have been a nation of idiot savants but their savoir happened to be parliamentary government.  Ironically, by the same Anglomaniac standards, Burke was optimistic about America’s democracy.  The Americans might affect an air of independence, but they remained English by heritage and culture.

While Burke was quoting aloud the Magna Carta or singing all forty verses of “Greensleeves”, you might overlook the obvious question:  “Since when is Burke an English name?”  Yes, or should I say “Faith and Begorrah”, Burke’s Anglophilia was based on wishful thinking.  Apparently, when Burke looked in the mirror, he saw Jude Law instead of Barry Fitzgerald.  No one else did, though.

Unkind people–invariably Whigs–might upset Mr. Burke by asking what he had given up for Lent: his brogue or his ancestry?  (Elderly Mother Burke certainly was an ethnic inconvenience, walking around Dublin with her rosary.)

Yet, whatever delusional pathology shaped his opinions, Burke was right about the French Revolution.  It did fail, and the underlying reason was a further justification for Anglophilia.  France’s royalty was even dumber than Britain’s.

Although the French Revolution began in 1789, for the first two years it was a polite affair (except for the hapless guards of the Bastille). The Estates General and then the National Assembly were intent upon establishing a constitutional monarchy: imagine England with a palatable cuisine.

Unfortunately, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were opposed to a constitutional monarchy; in a way, they got their wish. The royal idiots attempted to flee the country; they were caught when they lost time by having a picnic. Furthermore, they had invited–in incriminating letters–the monarchies of Europe to invade France and restore absolutism. Somehow, those gestures did not improve their popularity or lifespans.

In the face of the foreign invasion, France initially was in peril. The army seemed on the point of dissolution; half of the officer corp (more loyal to their aristocratic class than to France) had defected. Of course, the French populace responded by slaughtering any aristocrat in its grasp. Any thought of monarchy was killed, along with the monarchs.

The French army reconstituted itself with a few radical reforms. First, conscription produced massive armies, vastly outnumbering the forces of the invaders. Second, to command the conscripts, officers were chosen for their ability rather than their lineage. (That really was revolutionary!) So, with large armies commanded by competent officers, France defeated the invaders and then proceeded to invade the invaders’ countries. Lieutenant Bonaparte was to have a very exciting career.   

 And Edmund Burke could have said, “I told you so.” (Gloating, however, might have seemed suspiciously Irish.)

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene –

    I’m never quite sure how far your tongue is in your cheek. You may have just been exercising your considerable talent for being witty. But I think you’ve been a bit unfair to Burke, who is one of my heroes.

    You say that Burke produced his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” during the Revolution’s “earliest and most gentle stage.” I fear that “gentle” is a relative term when applied to even the early stages of the French Revolution. True, the Reign of Terror had not yet begun, but you overlook the fact that Versailles had been invaded by a bloodthirsty mob, and the royal family taken back to Paris as prisoners. The mob left the palace, in Burke’s words, “swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewn with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses.” Not very gentle, I would say.

    Second, Burke did not say that the French Revolution would fail because the French weren’t English. He said it would fail because the revolutionaries did not attempt to reform France’s traditional institutions, but rejected them utterly in favor of philosophical abstractions. As he wrote: “You had all these advantages in your ancient states; but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society, and had to begin everything anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. You set up your trade without a capital.” Burke, in short, was not suggesting that the French be English, but rather that they use their heritage as Frenchmen as the basis for building their future.

    Third, you are right that Burke was right when he said that the French Revolution would fail, but it was for other reasons than the mental caliber of the French royals. Burke predicted that the revolutionaries would lurch from one political experiment to another, as popular unrest mounted, “until some popular general … shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself.” As early as 1790, he foresaw the rise of Napoleon.

    Maybe in a future posting you can give us your impressions of what Tom Paine might have been like, appearing on Larry King’s show to promote “The Rights of Man.”

  2. My Esteemed Mr. Gordon,

    “Swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewn with scattered and mutilated carcasses”…That description had nothing to do with the Revolution. Burke was depicting the normal state of French hygiene.

    However, you are correct in explaining Burke’s underlying philosophy. He believed in institutional evolution. England’s parliamentary system had developed over centuries. Could the French expect to graft an advanced and alien system onto their body politics. Of course, with the Bourbons encouraging foreign intervention, peaceful political development had no chance. If you try to strangle the babe in his cradle, expect the babe to be rather vindictive.

    I notice that your erudite refutation did not extend to Mr. Burke’s “Irish Problem”. Would his Anglophilia make him an Uncle Tim?


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