Edmund Burke, Tom Paine, and the French Revolution of 1789 (pp11)



                                                                                                                                                          Links:          Imagining Other Index page


                                                                                                                                                                             Political Philosophy Contents Page

Additional Sources:


Ball, T. and Dagger, R. – Ideals and Ideologies, a Reader – Harper-Collins 1991. 0 321 00539 2: has extracts from Burke, Paine, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the French declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens.





These two writers are taken together, since they quarrelled in their reaction to the French Revolution. They also represent two opposing ideologies: conservatism (Burke) and radical liberalism (Paine). Some would say that Burke is more a true philosopher than Paine, but in my view this is not fair, and both are important: Burke for warning of the dangers of trying to shape society according to abstract concepts and ideals, and as a representative of traditional English Conservatism; Paine for foreseeing the welfare state, as well as American independence from Britain.


(i) Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797.



Burke was born in Ireland, and went to London in 1750. He became an MP in 1765, as a Whig politician. The Whig/Tory split originated in 1688: Tories stood for the divine right of kings and therefore opposed the settlement; the Whigs, though landed and aristocratic, were more radical. Though Burke was a harsh critic of the French Revolution, he – surprisingly perhaps – supported the right of America to gain independence from Britain.



1. he supported the Americans because, firstly, he believed revolution to be justified in order to regain or “restore” something lost: Americans were being taxed, and their payments were benefiting the British exchequer, but they had no votes – they had therefore, as Burke saw it, lost their rights as English citizens. The slogan “no taxation without representation” was based on his arguments.


2. He not only opposed the French Revolution but was deeply shocked by it: here was the overthrow of a long-established government of a type that was widespread. 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. In 1790 he wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France.


3. 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” – to demand their fulfilment is very likely to lead to violence. “By having a right to everything they want everything.” (See the Extracts from Reflections, first paragraph, and 8 below on Burke’s ideas on natural rights).


The important question is not the “right to food” but how to ensure people get food (See the Extracts from Reflections, second paragraph).  The revolutionaries were using “reason” in an arrogant way (perhaps the English are less “philosophical” than the French, and more pragmatic?).


4. The ideas of the “philosophes” and revolutionaries had no background, no tradition; but collective experience builds up tradition and we know what “works” because of this. These points (and others) are very much a part of conservative thinking: whatever has been developed and tried over a long period of time - custom, tradition - should not be rashly discarded. For Burke, the English institutions of Monarchy and Parliament had evolved since at least the 11th century, and thus were legitimate.


5. The art of establishing the constitution of a state is complex and intricate, and requires “delicate complicated skill” and deep knowledge of human nature, and how to provide for human needs, etc. (See the Extracts, second paragraph). The state is not an association for expediency (like a commercial organisation) but it is an “overarching entity” that keeps historical continuity going. This is an organic model: all the parts in society are inter-dependent, and play their natural roles.


6. For Burke (in complete contrast to Paine!) it was “natural” to feel awe at monarchs, “reverence to priests” etc. The reverse of this is a tendency, which Burke shared, to view ordinary citizens as fallible, or ignorant; each has only a little reason and cannot envisage the whole of society. We can only draw on experience, and “prejudice”, not on individual abstract “reason”. Burke’s advocating “prejudice” may seem strange to our modern ears, but what he argued was that the word meant to “pre-judge” in the light of our previous experience. In contrast, “reason” need not be based on experience at all (for example, Aquinas’s belief was that our reason is derived from God’s will).  (See the Extracts, final column).


7. Moreover, our “natural” condition is dependency and the need for security and leadership. Our “natural rights”, he argued, are derived from society – the natural rights the revolutionaries demanded were not derived from tradition or existing culture, and it was dangerous – and brutal - to try to impose them on society. He condemned their views as “ideology”. As regards Rousseau, he pointed out that “freedom” and “equality” are rights which we gave up when we joined civil society: surely the revolutionaries are asking to go back to pre-civil society (an impossibility!)?


8. Burke identified “concrete” rights, derived from society and experience, to:

- justice (though he didn’t define this);

- the fruits of one’s industry (and though we all have equal freedom that doesn’t mean equal entitlement);

- continuity and inheritance;

- education and religion – and Burke believed that religion was the most useful and powerful guide to how to run society.


He also seems to have supported Hobbes’s argument that there was a “residual” right to rebel, in order to ensure that government was doing its duty to protect the citizens.


9. As regards who should govern, Burke’s argument is consistent: only those who have experience and background are able to govern – thus the “aristocracy” is literally the “best”. Their role is also more important because they have more “invested” in society.


10. The people, on the other hand, should be “tractable and obedient” – if they do not get rewards in this life, they will in Heaven. The most important goal for society is good order (“the foundation of all things”), and government can bring this provided it acts to restrain “human passions”. (Extracts, first paragraph).


11. Government is “a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants” (See the Extracts, first paragraph). Burke supported a balance of powers in government, as was the practice in England.


12. Burke is not opposed to change, but argues (like Sir Karl Popper in the 20th century) that it should be “piecemeal” – the more sweeping a change is, the more difficult it is to control, and the more likelihood of violence.


Burke’s influence on modern political thought:


The strand in modern conservatism that Burke leads onto is “one nation” Toryism (and until Macmillan the Conservative Party was aristocratic). However, in his view that revolutions have historical causes (and are not just a result of new ideologies) he is in agreement with Marx (who acknowledged Burke’s point). The “New Right” was a departure from Burke’s viewpoint, in its hostility to tradition…


(Notes primarily from lectures given by John Moore at University of East London).



(ii) Tom Paine 1737 – 1809.


Life and Writings:


Tom Paine had the most extraordinary life – as an active political figure in Revolutionary America and Revolutionary France, and even spending time in prison! So these notes will start with a fair amount of biography.


He was born, however, in “ordinary circumstances” in Thetford, Norfolk, the son of a stay-maker. In Norfolk he saw the effects of the enclosures. His Parents were Quakers, and seem to have been somewhat puritan: his father would not allow him to study Latin as the Roman authors were thought not to be good examples.


After trying a number of different trades (including as a customs officer, from which post he was dismissed) he served as a Councillor in Lewes (Sussex). He saw himself as a radical Whig.


He became a pamphleteer, and one of his early pamphlets made the case that the excise-men’s pay should be improved: here he argued that the rich could not understand the poor and so should not represent them.


From a writer of pamphlets he became incredibly influential both in America and France, in support of the Revolutions. 


Paine went to America in 1774 (age 37) when war was beginning with Britain. At first the war was not aimed to gain independence. Paine was one of the first to argue that independence was the solution to the crisis.


While serving as a drummer in the American revolutionary army, Paine wrote a series of pamphlets (one on his drum-skin!) such as The American Crisis; one of the earliest attacks on slavery (1775) – in which he drew an analogy with the position of the Americans: why did they complain of “slavery” to the British when they held slaves themselves?


In 1776 he wrote Common Sense, which defended America’s right to self-rule. Thousands of copies were sold, but Paine refused to make any money from it.


His writing is powerful: “we have it in our power to begin the world over again… and every opportunity to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.”


He was the first to predict the “United States of America”, and helped to set up a bank, which later became the Bank of America. His politics were centralising, and he supported protectionism – whilst at the same time advocating revolution! He also supported Latin Americans who wanted freedom from Spanish rule.


In 1777 he was made Secretary of the Congress Committee of Foreign Affairs.  He went to France in 1787, then back to England in 1790.


In 1791 his book the Rights of Man (Part I) was published, with Part II following in 1792. Note that although the work was published after Burke’s Reflections, it was written before Burke published – it is often thought that Paine was replying to Burke but this is not the case!


Part I deals with general principles of government, and argues in support of: popular sovereignty, universal suffrage, natural rights, and the French revolutionary slogan: “liberty, equality, fraternity”.


He also makes the significant point that in politics one generation cannot bind the next – which has implications for the “social contract” idea. (see point 7 below).


In Part II he continues, with an attack on monarchy – describing it as “a silly and contemptible thing”. He called the Bill of Rights a “bill of wrongs and insults” and said that British politics could not be based on a constitution since this was unwritten, and nobody could therefore refer to it. In Part II there are also strikingly modern suggestions for progressive taxation which would be used to pay for social services (from the cradle to the grave!).


In Britain his ideas were condemned – especially by Burke, who called for him to be tried for seditious libel. (See the quotes on monarchy, point 7 below). Paine was advised (by the poet William Blake) to flee to France, and whilst there he was declared an outlaw in Britain.


In France he was elected as a member of the Convention. However, when he spoke out against the execution of King Louis XVI he was imprisoned by the Jacobins (in Luxembourg prison). He was so well-known abroad that a petition was drawn up for his release. However, when Robespierre and the Jacobins fell, in 1793/4, he was released – though he had been dangerously ill in prison.


He immediately published The Age of Reason (which he had started writing before his imprisonment): this was an attack on religious superstitions and false systems of theology and government based on them. Part III was very anti-clerical. He was accused of atheism – but it is clear that this is not justified (his ideas are “deist”).


In 1797 he published Agrarian Justice, which advocates inheritance tax, and argues that civilisation thus far has increased poverty not decreased it.


In 1802 he went to America where he was warmly received: he carried from France the keys to the Bastille, which Lafayette gave him to take to General Washington. However, he was persecuted by clergy who wanted him to retract his “atheism”, which he refused. “When he died in 1809 in New York he was refused a burial where he wanted it. His private funeral was attended by the Catholic woman who had cared for him in hi sold age, a Quaker friend, and two Negroes. In 1819 William Cobbett brought his bones back to England, and also symbolically lost them.” (Nicholas Walter, Freedom 2nd Oct 1982)


In this adventurous life he therefore had an influence on the drawing up of both the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme, and the American Declaration of Independence.




Although Paine was not a systematic philosopher, it is possible to draw the following ideas from his writings:


1. “Common sense”: this is a fundamental attribute of human psychology. It is the ability to know whatever is spontaneously knowable. He also described it as the way the mind understands what the heart feels (combining feeling, moral intuition, and reason?). Common sense cannot be repressed for long, because if this happens the result (as in America) will be revolution.


Common sense also enables us to identify our natural rights (see below). When people become the property of others (slaves) then common sense is impaired (but not destroyed), and it can be impeded by prejudice (“the spider of the mind” spins cobwebs over it).


Therefore: “… reason (freed from impostures of tradition and absurdities of religion) could easily apprehend the natural laws of society and government.

          [Is this just a rhetorical argument?


2. Also, the science of government is “of all things the least mysterious and the most easy to understand”. What has happened is that it has been “enveloped... [with] mystery, for the purpose of enslaving plundering and imposing upon mankind”. 


“By the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires.” (But see point 12 below…)


The simplest form of government is the most easily “repaired when disordered.” (See Extracts from Common Sense).


          [This is contrary to Burke, in a sense, as the latter saw government and society as naturally complex… Also, ecology teaches us that complexity helps survival.


3. Paine drew a distinction between society and government: “society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness.” (See Extracts from Common Sense, opening paragraph). Society is therefore natural, and – presumably so long as people can cease being wicked - government should simply do those “few” things which society cannot do for itself. (See also point 12 below). Government is then, at best, a necessary evil.


4. Everyone has a common interest in pursuing safely their own interest, and a natural love of liberty. We all have “inextinguishable feelings to do good, and the right to reason for ourselves.” Therefore we all have natural rights to “act for our own comfort and happiness” which precede the establishment of government, so government has no right to interfere in them.


5. The rights of man comprise both natural rights and civil rights: the latter are acquired as a result of being a member of society, where our individual power is not enough to ensure our own rights. Rights are, “by reciprocity” duties: “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Consequently, Paine advocated freedom of opinion, religion etc.



6. “Sovereignty as a matter of right, appertains to the nation only, and not to any individual.” This is because the original social contract could only have been made among the people – the government did not exist at the time and so could not be a party to it!


7. A social contract can only bind the generation that agreed to it. It cannot “govern beyond the grave”, to bind one generation to what was agreed by a previous generation. (See the Extract from The Rights of Man).


(See also the last paragraph of the Extracts from Common Sense…)


So, hereditary monarchy is not natural: “all hereditary government is in its nature tyranny.”  “Monarchy is popery of government; a thing kept to amuse the ignorant, and quiet them into paying taxes.” Not only is hereditary government wrong in principle, it is harmful in practice, as had happened in America. It is superstitious, and not rational.

Whoever reveres kings has “given up the proper dignity of a man, [and] sunk himself beneath the rank of animals, and contemptibly crawls like a worm.”


To be a king requires only the animal figure of a man, a sort of breathing automaton… [kings are] monsters in the natural order.”


8. “…a nation has at all times an inherent and indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interests, disposition and happiness.” Society needs all its “parts” to be operating – which actually happens in a revolution! Revolutions are not exactly natural, but occur when a people’s feelings have been kept under for a long time, and their anger eventually raises their consciousness to do something about their condition.


9. A “balance of powers” is only needed if there are divisions within the ruling groups (monarchy, aristocracy etc).


10. All have rights to self-government, therefore in small states, direct democracy could be practised, and otherwise representative democracy is the only legitimate form. Moreover, property qualifications for voting are wrong.


11. Once government has been set up on the correct principles (the rights of man), there would be no war – “man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of government.


12. Without war there would be less poverty (as war is costly), and more money would be available for such welfare provisions as: maternity allowances, marriage grants, funeral grants, family allowances, unemployment relief and pensions. All these are actually proposed by Paine in Part II of The Rights of Man, published in 1792…


[This surely implies an active government – is this in contradiction to what Paine said about the simplest governments being the easiest to repair (points 2 & 3)?