Whatever its own stated purposes and desired ends, the French Revolution never sought to better the condition of humanity or even of France. The Revolutionaries, as Edmund Burke stressed, were radicals, seeking civil war not only in France, but also in all of Christendom.
The grand Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) spent much of his last eight years dwelling upon the French Revolution as well as trying to define its most important elements. If the British failed to understand the “armed doctrine” of the Revolutionaries as a religious sect, with the French looking for nothing less than a re-doing of the most violent aspects of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, they would fail miserably to understand the movement as a whole. They could not pretend it was merely a political party or a new way of thinking about government. They must understand that the Revolution would never rest without conquering the entire world. In this, Burke states with some shock value, they were superior to their enemies, as they knew what kind of war they waged.
It is a dreadful truth, but it is a truth that cannot be concealed; in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors. They saw the thing right from the very beginning. Whatever were the first motives to the war among politicians, they saw that it is in its spirit, and for its objects, a civil war; and as such they pursued it. It is a war between the partisans of the ancient, civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists with means to change them all. It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France. The leaders of that sect secured the centre of Europe; and that ensured, they knew, that whatever might be the event of battles and sieges, their cause was victorious. Whether its territory had a little more or a little less peeled from its surface, or whether an island or two was detached from its commerce, was of little moment to them. The conquest of France was a glorious acquisition.
Success in France, it seems, was merely the beginning of world-wide revolution.
Yet, this still left “Jacobinism,” the official theology and philosophy of the Revolutionaries, somewhat vague. Well, possibly vague. Those who advocated it were nothing less than monsters, with the Revolution itself being the “mother of monsters.” In his attempt to understand the Revolution, Burke—in Letters on a Regicide Peace I—had tried to define three different terms. First, he labeled the remnants of the French Revolutionary “state” as a “Regicide Republic.” It decreed all governments unlike itself usurpations, thus challenging the very fabric of Christendom.
Second, Burke defined “Jacobinism” as
the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property. When private men form themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the pre-existing laws and institutions of their country; when they secure to themselves an army by dividing amongst the people of no property, the estates of the ancient and lawful proprietors; when a state recognizes those acts; when it does not make confiscations for crimes, but makes crimes for confiscations; when it has its principal strength, and all its resources in such a violation of property; when it stands chiefly upon such a violation; massacring by judgments, or otherwise, those who make any struggle for their old legal government, and their legal, hereditary, or acquired possessions—I call this “Jacobinism by Establishment.”
Finally, Burke defined the new French Revolutionary state—by its insane focus on humanity and its driving desire to undo the laws of nature—as “atheism by establishment.”
When, in the place of that religion of social benevolence, and of individual self-denial, in mockery of all religion, they institute impious, blasphemous, indecent theatric rites, in honour of their vitiated, perverted reason, and erect altars to the personification of their own corrupted and bloody Republic; when schools and seminaries are founded at public expense to poison mankind, from generation to generation, with the horrible maxims of this impiety; when wearied out with incessant martyrdom, and the cries of a people hungering and thirsting for religion, they permit it, only as a tolerated evil—I call this “Atheism by Establishment.”
The Revolution wanted nothing less than the complete abolition of God, and it would do so by making the new state the only state, a church in the form of a political and social leviathan.
The design is wicked, immoral, impious, oppressive; but it is spirited and daring: it is systematic; it is simple in its principle; it has unity and consistency in perfection. In that country entirely to cut off a branch of commerce, to extinguish a manufacture, to destroy the circulation of money, to violate credit, to suspend the course of agriculture, even to burn a city, or to lay waste a province of their own, does not cost them a moment’s anxiety. To them, the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of Government. The state is all in all. Every thing is referred to the production of force; afterwards every thing is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects; dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.
The shortest letter of the four, by far, Letter II continued these definitions, expounding upon them, finding a way to round them and their implications out.
They who do not love religion, hate it. The rebels to God perfectly abhor the Author of their being. They hate him “with all their heart, with all their mind, with all their soul, and with all their strength.” He never presents himself to their thoughts but to menace and alarm them. They cannot strike the Sun out of Heaven, but they are able to raise a smouldering smoke that obscures him from their own eyes. Not being able to revenge themselves on God, they have a delight in vicariously defacing, degrading, torturing, and tearing in pieces his image in man.
Thus, whatever its own stated purposes and desired ends, the Revolution, by its very essence, must rain inhumanity upon itself and the world.
Additionally, Burke reminded his audience, never did the Revolution seek to better the condition of humanity or even of France. Rather, it sought nothing less than pure, unadulterated power.
The Revolution was made, not to make France free, but to make her formidable; not to make her a neighbour, but a mistress; not to make her more observant of laws, but to put her in a condition to impose them. To make France truly formidable it was necessary that France should be new-modelled. They who have not followed the train of the late proceedings, have been led by deceitful representations (which deceit made a part in the plan) to conceive that this totally new model of a state in which nothing escaped a change…
Again and again, Burke stressed, the Revolutionaries would never be content with mere revolution in France. They were radicals, seeking civil war not only in France, but also in all of Christendom. Britain, in alliance with other European powers, must eradicate the Revolution. There can be no compromise with such an infection.
From all this, what is my inference? It is, that this new system of robbery in France, cannot be rendered safe by any art; that it must be destroyed, or that it will destroy all Europe; that to destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts; that war ought to be made against it in its vulnerable parts. These are my inferences. In one word, with this Republic nothing independent can co-exist.
There is, Burke lamented, no France anymore. Rather, what was France is long gone, and those who control it now do so as an occupying force. Should the British fail to stop this, such will be the fate of the world.
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The featured image is “The Decapitation of Louis XVI”, an engraving from the 17th century by an unknown artist, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.