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Fruit of the rotten tree

Fruit of the rotten tree


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Fruit of the rotten tree of liberty', 'the most miserable and degraded of any... to be found in any other part of the world'.

_The Age of Revolution_ (London, 1974), the third volume of T. H. O'Brien's biography of Burke, presents his radical and reforming ideals as 'the voice of the people'. 'The French Revolution was at its very heart an expression of universal rebellion against tyranny and its first and chief object... was to replace by force the existing order of society, based on the principles of monarchy and nobility, with the rule of the third estate.' His pamphlet of 1791, _The Present State of the Nation_ (1791), was written as a response to an English publication, _A Vindication of the French Revolution_ (1790) by Tom Paine, a radical American revolutionary. Paine had argued that the ideas of the French Revolution were the ideas of mankind, and that the French Revolution was simply the next step in the progressive movement of the human race, in accordance with the general laws of nature. To Burke, however, the French Revolution was simply an appalling tragedy. It was the child of a despot, the bastard of an aristocracy and a rabble. Its 'executive authority' was the 'puppet-government of France', set up by a set of 'monstrous usurpers' to make sure that the Revolution's aims were fulfilled. By the fall of 1793, the 'miserable banditti' who had hijacked the Republic's civil government had, in Burke's phrase, 'sworn the execrable lie'. It was in this context that Burke pronounced himself to be a Tory: 'There was no party on the other side, indeed there was no principle on which they stood. Some were against everything, others for everything. Most would have been very glad to have been in the right of neither.'

Burke's attack on Paine's views on the French Revolution was highly personal. Paine's _Rights of Man_ had been written in the same year as Burke's second _Reflections_ and at a time when Paine was writing against the policies of the French Revolution in France and the UK. In Paine's view, 'liberty of writing' and 'liberty of printing' were essential to the progress of civilization, and it was not for writers and printers to stand in judgement on the ideas of others. 'I know the rights of Man,' declared Paine, and 'I claim no other title to their protection than what I have had the happiness to attain to'. Thus, in his _Vindication_ , Paine set out to point out why 'the ideas of the _rights of man_ , and the principles of the _French Revolution_ , are perfectly coincident'. They were the ideas of liberty, the principles of progress, and they were the principles of reason. The French Revolution was above all a movement of Enlightenment, and the principles of the Rights of Man could not be denied in Britain: the nation had been founded on them.

Paine was right. His _Rights of Man_ had been published in 1791, and 1792 was a crucial year in the history of the French Revolution. On 10 July 1792, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and, on 10 August, all of France witnessed the storming of the Bastille. The Revolution was not simply a matter of political reform and the elimination of monarchy. It was also an assault on the past, on the entire system of religion and government that had governed France for centuries. This was the most radical break with the past since the Renaissance. As a result, it was also a challenge to the established clergy and church, who were still powerful and influential figures.

Burke's attack on Paine's _Rights of Man_ was a direct response to this challenge to the existing order, and he made it clear that he did not intend to allow any further such assault to take place. In his speech on 26 April, he said that Paine's book was 'a very silly and trifling performance, written in a style totally different from anything he has hitherto given to the world, a style as it would seem, quite foreign to his genius, and not his own'. His response was to write a pamphlet, _The_ _Refutation of the_ _Rights of Man_ , which was published on 14 May 1791.

Burke was not simply an unsympathetic critic of the French Revolution. He was also an admirer of the work of Rousseau, and of the way in which Rousseau had been taken up by the French revolutionary elite.In an article in the _Edinburgh Review_ for 1793 he spoke of the value of the Revolution for all enlightened men: 'It is a general, universal system of principles which embrace all the parts of civil society, which extend to the whole world of man and nature.' It was important to get rid of the tyranny of the feudal hierarchy, to ensure equality for all and to extend education to all people. Rousseau was the ideal author to speak on these subjects: 'Rousseau's _Social Contract_ and _Duties of Man_ contain the highest and purest ideas which have been formed upon the general rules of morality and of social intercourse. It would be strange if this author, whom Montesquieu so highly commends, had said nothing useful upon the general laws of political liberty.'

By the end of the 1790s Burke had formed a view about the French Revolution that differed from his earlier opinions. He still thought that the revolution had been badly managed, and did not see the advantage of a government led by a monarch, as he had believed was appropriate for Britain, but he was no longer so opposed to the revolutionary values of the French. Burke's main objection had always been the way in which the revolution had been conducted, but it seems that his arguments could not prevail over the more extreme positions taken by other Tories and by some in the Whig party. He continued to argue against what he saw as French foreign policy and for a continued balance of power, but he was increasingly persuaded that what was right for the continent might not be right for Britain.

This was not simply a change of mind by an old man. Burke gave evidence in the House of Commons on 20 January 1795 that his change of view had come about because he had been given more accurate information about the Revolution. He had had discussions with people he trusted, including William Smith, who had provided him with a copy of the _Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen_ which he had been given in 1791. Smith's copy of the declaration was said to have been 'brought to light by a young Irish gentleman who was sent to England as the companion of his brother, and died at Calais'. It would later be said that the brother of the young Irishman had been sent to England to give a copy of the declaration to Burke as part of a deal between Smith and his publisher, Joseph Johnson. What is clear is that Smith knew Burke and had agreed to provide him with a copy of the declaration. Burke claimed that his views had been strongly influenced by what he had read in the declaration and on 3 February 1795 he told the House that 'this document... not only gives the substance of those great principles... to which we owe that great revolution [i.e. the Revolution], but is... more than three times as long as the preamble. The latter, by omitting the preamble, left a blank in it.' He was now saying what he had always believed, but the evidence suggests that he had already come to believe it before he started to study the _Declaration of the Rights of Man


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