Far from creating peace, Edmund Burke contended, the French Revolution had generated the greatest despotism the world had yet seen, politicizing all things and enslaving the vast majority of the population. The Revolution itself was monstrous and had created only monstrous things.
Of Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) four Letters on a Regicide Peace—his final work, written while he rested on his deathbed—the fourth is, by far, the weakest. Unlike the other three, it was written out of order, and it is unclear whether Burke himself ever intended to include it. It was more of a personal letter written to Earl Fitzwilliam than it was a letter for the public. It did not appear in Burke’s works until after the author’s death, and so we are left with it as somewhat of an interesting mystery and enigma. Despite these caveats, though, it is a letter written by Edmund Burke, and this means, of course, that there are fascinating aspects to it.
In it, Burke stressed his constant theme that no matter what pretty or desirous words the French Revolutionaries employed, they were thugs, murderers, and pirates. Burke is worth quoting at great length here.
I hear another inducement to fraternity with the present Rulers. They have murdered one Robespierre. This Robespierre, they tell us, was a cruel Tyrant, and now that he is put out of the way, all will go well in France. Astraea will again return to that earth from which she has been an Emigrant, and all nations will resort to her golden scales. It is very extraordinary, that the very instant the mode of Paris is known here, it becomes all the fashion in London. This is their jargon. It is the old ‘bon ton’ of robbers, who cast their common crimes on the wickedness of their departed associates. I care little about the memory of this same Robespierre. I am sure he was an execrable villain. I rejoiced at his punishment neither more nor less than I should at the execution of the present Directory or any of its Members. But who gave Robespierre the power of being a Tyrant? and who were the instruments of his tyranny? The present virtuous Constitution-mongers. He was a Tyrant, they were his satellites and his hangmen. Their sole merit is in the murder of their colleague. They have expiated their other murders by a new murder. It has always been the case among this banditti. They have always had the knife at each other’s throats, after they had almost blunted it at the throats of every honest man. These people thought that, in the commerce of murder, he was like to have the better of the bargain, if any time was lost: they therefore took one of their short revolutionary methods, and massacred him in a manner so perfidious and cruel, as would shock all humanity, if the stroke was not struck by the present Rulers on one of their own Associates. But this last act of infidelity and murder is to expiate all the rest, and to qualify them for the amity of an humane and virtuous Sovereign and civilized People. I have heard that a Tartar believes, when he has killed a Man, that all his estimable qualities pass with his clothes and arms to the murderer. But I have never heard that it was the opinion of any savage Scythian, that if he kills a brother villain, he is ipso facto absolved of all his own offences. The Tartarian doctrine is the most tenable opinion. The murderers of Robespierre, besides what they are entitled to by being engaged in the same tontine of Infamy, are his Representatives; have inherited all his murderous qualities, in addition to their own private stock. But it seems, we are always to be of a party with the last and victorious Assassins.
All things, Burke argued correctly, must be understood by their morality. In true Socratic fashion, he continued, one can never do wrong in the name of a good. A wrong done in the name of a good only contaminates all things, but especially those who would perpetrate the act itself.
After the murder of Robespierre, the Revolutionaries claimed, there would be peace. But exactly what kind of peace comes from murder? Only a regicide peace, a good built upon evil and thus not a good at all. In reality, the actions of the Revolutionaries resemble a willful anarchy at home, desperately wanting to be an anarchy abroad.
Far from creating peace, Burke contended, the French Revolution had generated the greatest despotism the world had yet seen, politicizing all things and enslaving the vast majority of the population. Indeed, no country in the history of the world had yet practiced a slavery akin to the slavery of the French people. “The Helots of Laconia, the Regardants to the Manor in Russia and in Poland, even the Negroes in the West Indies know nothing of so searching, so penetrating, so heart-breaking a slavery,” Burke lamented.
The Revolution itself was monstrous and had created only monstrous things.
The noble Lord insists on very little more, than on the excellence of their Constitution, the hope of their dwindling into little Republicks, and this close copartnership in Government. I hear of others indeed that offer, by other arguments, to reconcile us to this peace and Fraternity; the Regicides, they say, have renounced the Creed of the Rights of Man, and declared Equality a Chimera. This is still more strange than all the rest. They have apostatised from their Apostacy. They are renegadoes from that impious faith, for which they subverted the ancient Government, murdered their King, and imprisoned, butchered, confiscated, and banished their fellow Subjects; and to which they forced every man to swear at the peril of his Life. And now, to reconcile themselves to the world, they declare this Creed, bought by so much blood, to be an imposture and a Chimera.
Could a true and moral Britain truly look into its heart and see justice in such a wretched creature? Those who even contemplate a regicide peace have forsaken their ancestors. “Would that when all our manly sentiments are thus changed, our manly language were changed along with them; and that the English tongue were not employed to utter what our Ancestors never dreamed could enter into an English heart!” Burke exclaimed.
Even if the British managed to make “peace” with the Revolutionaries, it could never be a real peace.
It is not peace with France, which secures that feeble Government; it is that peace, which, if it shall continue, decisively ruins Spain. Such a peace is not the peace, which the remnant of Christianity celebrates at this holy season. In it there is no glory to God on high, and not the least tincture of good will to Man. What things we have lived to see! The King of Spain in a group of Moors, Jews, and Renegadoes, and the Clergy taxed to pay for his conversion! The Catholick King in the strict embraces of the most unchristian Republick! I hope we shall never see his Apostolick Majesty, his Faithful Majesty, and the King, defender of the faith, added to that unhallowed and impious Fraternity.
Instead, the British must look deep into their hearts and souls, and, if they are honest, recognize that the Revolution must be utterly destroyed. Its beginnings, its middles, and its ends. All of it must be wiped from the face of the earth. Should Britain survive—which Providence did not guarantee—such a war, the British would surely find again their best and true selves, that which governed the highest nature, the greatest things, the most profound of things. At the heart of everything, the British would find their Christian selves. In Burke’s rousing conclusion, he wrote:
That the Christian Religion cannot exist in this country with such a fraternity, will not, I think, be disputed with me. On that religion, according to our mode, all our laws and institutions stand as upon their base. That scheme is supposed in every transaction of life; and if that were done away, every thing else, as in France, must be changed along with it. Thus religion perishing, and with it this constitution, it is a matter of endless meditation what order of things would follow it. But what disorder would fill the space between the present and that which is to come, in the gross, is no matter of doubtful conjecture. It is a great evil, that of a civil war. But in that state of things, a civil war which would give to good men and a good cause some means of struggle, is a blessing of comparison that England will not enjoy. The moment the struggle begins, it ends. They talk of Mr. Hume’s Euthanasia of the British Constitution, gently expiring without a groan in the paternal arms of a mere Monarchy. In a Monarchy! Fine trifling indeed! There is no such Euthanasia for the British Constitution—
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The featured image is “The royal carriage of king Louis Philippe is burned in front of the Chateau d’eau during the French revolution of 1848” by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.