Your RDA of Irony

Reflections on the Reflection in Edmund Burke’s Mirror

November 1, 1790:  Another Classic To Quote But Not Read

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.  But the French, having been so rude as to win “The Hundred Years” war, had deprived themselves of the evolutionary benefits of English rule.  France could have had all the pleasures of being Wales.

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 such 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.

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