EDMUND BURKE, who died in 1797, is best known for his late writings on the French revolution. The 18th-century member of Parliament, who was a Whig, was one of the first to decry the revolt as the dangerous work of a swinish multitude. In a polemic that has echoes in the present day, he concludes: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”, which was published in 1791, is a direct riposte to Burke; indeed, Paine’s tract is subtitled, “Being An Answer to Mr Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution”. In what was to become one of the definitive treatises of the Enlightenment, Paine argues that rebellion and civic disobedience are permissible if a government violates its citizens’ rights. His arguments influenced and inspired Trotsky, Gandhi, Fidel Castro and, of course, Nelson Mandela.
Burke is therefore remembered (a little unfairly) for a belief in order over freedom, in tradition over revolution. Jesse Norman, a Tory MP and recent biographer of Burke, calls him the father of conservatism. So a reappraisal of his early works is welcome. David Bromwich, a professor at Yale University, has written a history of Burke’s thought until American independence; a more liberal Burke emerges from this book.
Although wary of the tumult that “extreme liberty” could cause, early on Burke campaigned for liberty. He spoke out against the increasingly tyrannical rule of George III in favour of John Wilkes, a radical publisher and libertine. Wilkes was not an easy man to support. He repeatedly libelled the king, inflamed the passions of the London mob and was, at the same time, a notorious lecher. He was damned even by libertine Samuel Johnson and liberty-loving William Pitt.
But Burke coolly defended him on the principle that the king had abused his power. The government had issued arbitrary warrants for Wilkes’s publications, censored him, arrested him, forced him to flee the country, and denied him permission to take his seat in the House of Commons. Wilkes was sent to trial and jailed for libel. Burke was indignant at MPs who voted to bar Wilkes from Parliament. The first duty of MPs, he wrote, was “to refuse to support government until power was in the hands of persons who were acceptable to the people”.
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