Letters on a Regicide Peace
By Edmund Burke
This volume includes Burke’s four
Letters on a Regicide Peace, his last published writings on the French Revolution and the policy toward it that he would have Great Britain follow. There is no need to explain here the historical circumstances in which Burke wrote these works or the details of their composition and publication, since E. J. Payne has so thoroughly done that in his Introduction. A few comments will be enough—possibly more than enough…. [From the Editor’s Foreword by Francis Canavan.]
E. J. Payne, ed.
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Compiled and with a foreword and notes by Francis Canavan. Vols. 1-3 originally published Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874-1878. E. J. Payne, Ed. Foreword and notes by Francis Canavan.
Portions of this edited edition are under copyright.
by Francis Canavan
VOLUME 3. LETTERS ON A REGICIDE PEACE
This volume includes Burke’s four
Letters on a Regicide Peace, his last published writings on the French Revolution and the policy toward it that he would have Great Britain follow. There is no need to explain here the historical circumstances in which Burke wrote these works or the details of their composition and publication, since E. J. Payne has so thoroughly done that in his Introduction. A few comments will be enough—possibly more than enough.
As Payne says, there were contemporaries of Burke, “chiefly among the Foxite Whigs, who saw in the ‘Reflections’ the beginnings of a distorted view of things which in the ‘Regicide Peace’ letters culminated and amounted to lunacy.” It is a criticism that has often been repeated since then: Burke’s attack on the Revolution became simply hysterical. But Payne thinks otherwise and holds that in the letters Burke expressed “a far bolder, wider, more accurate view” than that expressed in the
Reflections and wrote “as a statesman, a scholar, and a historical critic.” The
Letters on a Regicide Peace, he concludes, are entitled “to rank even before the ‘Reflections,’ and to be called the writer’s masterpiece.”
Nonetheless, Payne maintains that, although Burke was substantially right in his judgment of the French Republic under the Directory, he was wrong in his defense of the ancien régime as it existed not only in France but also throughout Europe. “That political system of Europe,” he says, “which Burke loved so much, was rotten to the heart; and it was the destiny of French republicanism to begin the long task of breaking it up, crumbling it to dust, and scattering it to the winds. This is clear as the day to us.”
*2 Without nostalgia for that political system, however, we may once again note a touch of nineteenth-century optimism in Payne’s remark. For one could also point to the difficulty France has had in establishing a stable democratic regime. One might also agree that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the following years destroyed a system that was rotten to the heart and deserved to perish. But are we willing to assign a historical destiny to Leninism and Stalinism? Our experience with revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggests that we should maintain a certain caution about historical destiny and the ideologies that foster belief in it.
John Gray, a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, has warned us not to neglect “the oldest lesson of history, which is that no form of government is ever secure or final.” The liberal democratic regime, he believes, suffers from a weakness that derives from “the cultural sources of liberal self-deception that emerged from the French Revolution,” which in turn was a product of the Enlightenment. But he wonders whether “the Enlightenment cultures of the West can shed these disabling utopias without undergoing a traumatic loss of self-confidence.” It would be highly optimistic, he believes, to hope for “Enlightenment without illusions.”
It was the illusion of a secular utopia, proclaimed by such of his contemporaries as the Marquis de Condorcet and Joseph Priestley, that Burke feared in the Revolution. As the French political scientist Bertrand de Jouvenel was to say in the twentieth century, “there is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.”
*4 Burke was right in pointing out the danger of political utopianism. His mistake was to tie the causes of civilization and Christendom too closely to the political regime of monarchy and aristocracy that existed in his time. The flaw in the democratic revolution that began at that time was that it justified itself with a political theory rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Today it would seem that the future of democracy depends on developing and adopting a sounder political philosophy than one based on what is, to an increasing degree, an intellectually and morally bankrupt liberalism. To that project Burke, for all his devotion to a social and political order that was dying as he wrote, can make a valuable contribution.
Vol. 3, Introduction, by E. J. Payne
The following notes are by Payne.
Vol. 3, Two Letters…
The following notes are by Payne