Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first year of the French Revolution provoked a scathing denunciation in England by the Whig politician Edmund Burke. Although his lengthy Reflections on the Revolution in France was not aimed at establishing a systematic political philosophy, Burke nevertheless produced what is widely thought to be the manifesto of modern political conservatism.

Summary of Event

In Reflections on the Revolution in France Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke) (1790), a 150-page letter purportedly sent to a very young gentleman at Paris, the British parliamentarian Parliament;British Edmund Burke shared his reflections on the first year of the revolution in France (1789) and, by doing so, established the intellectual framework for modern political conservatism. At the time, conservatism did not even exist as a political term or concept, so it was not Burke’s intention to found a new political philosophy Political conservatism (as the French were doing). [kw]Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism (1790) [kw]Conservatism, Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern (1790) [kw]Foundations of Modern Conservatism, Burke Lays the (1790) [kw]Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism, Burke (1790) Conservatism;foundations of French Revolution (1789-1796);Edmund Burke[Burke] [g]England;1790: Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism[2890] [g]France;1790: Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism[2890] [c]Philosophy;1790: Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism[2890] [c]Government and politics;1790: Burke Lays the Foundations of Modern Conservatism[2890] Burke, Edmund Paine, Thomas Fox, Charles James Wollstonecraft, Mary

Burke was also an unlikely individual to write a polemic against the French Revolution. He had defended the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had advocated a policy of reconciliation when Britain’s American colonies launched a revolution in 1775. Moreover, as a Whig member of Parliament, he championed many liberal and reform causes of the day, such as granting religious toleration to all but atheists, gradual abolition of slavery, reform of the British East India Company, curbing royal patronage because it contributed to corruption, and liberalization of British policies in Ireland.

Burke’s diatribe against the French Revolution also came at an unlikely time. In 1790, the French Revolution was controlled by moderates. France became a constitutional monarchy with a parliament Parliament;French and bill of rights (much like England). In addition, neither Burke nor most other Englishmen had any liking for the Bourbon Bourbon Dynasty monarchy or appreciated the almost continual warfare between England and France that spanned the past century. Besides, the leader of Burke’s own party, Charles James Fox, and even Burke’s close political friends were enthusiastic about the changes in France. In their minds, France was merely trying to institute reforms that were already part of England’s history.

Nevertheless, Burke chose a lengthy letter to denounce the French Revolution while in its infancy and to assert English values. His powerful use of written words and the fact that the French Revolution became increasingly radical after the publication of his letter—leading to regicide, general warfare, and the Reign of Terror—cast Burke in the role of a prophet. He had articulated in the most sinister tones the horrors of a new order, springing from Enlightenment rationalism, which challenged the entrenched interests of an aristocrat-dominated old regime. The themes embedded in the lengthy letter were organized after the end of the French Revolution in 1815 as the basis of a new political concept termed conservatism.

What particularly infuriated Burke, as is seen in the early part of his letter, was the misplaced universalistic belief that Britain had anything to learn from France and that the French Declaration of the Rights of Citizen and Man Declaration of the Rights of Citizen and Man (France) had any sort of relationship to new liberties to be enjoyed by Englishmen. This Burke attributed to the unrestricted rationalism in human affairs spread by French Enlightenment Enlightenment;France Enlightenment;England thinkers—principles that had absolutely nothing to do with English laws, values, or beliefs. Burke argued that the French philosophes Philosophes and their mediocre political offspring brought to power by the revolution, had no wisdom to offer. Free from all past restraints, and believing they could remodel society any way they wanted, these rationalists had nothing but destruction to offer. In contrast, Britain had its own tradition of order and liberty passed down through the ages as a national inheritance. In turning away from the universal and toward the particular and in stressing English national Nationalism;England pride, Burke established an important pillar of later conservative belief, and he dramatically portrayed this belief by arguing that real people are not abstractions but Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Indians. He argued that human beings love their kin above strangers and their nationals above foreigners.

In place of revolution, Burke praised the importance of continuity Political progress and conservatism in political experience. The specific form of a particular society at any given time represented the wisdom of the ages. The present was always composed of a complex mesh of institutions, laws, and mannerisms that moved society Social progress and conservatism over time from primitive savagery to increasingly higher levels of culture. Even strange British habits and prejudices existed for a reason. For Burke, change was slow and organic, like the passing of seasons.

In this argument, Burke established the basis of modern conservatism as the acceptance of slow, organic change. Liberals might move too quickly into the future and stumble along the way; however, absolute disaster would befall revolutionaries Revolutionaries;Edmund Burke[Burke] who blindly plunged into the darkness of the future without the light of the past. History;and tradition[tradition] The simple message was that the past provided a solid foundation for the present. The complex theory that Burke used to tie his invectives, sarcasms, and allegories together was that the past, present, and future were one. For Burke, society was composed of those who had lived and those yet to be born, with those living in the present having the imperative of transmitting a slightly improved present as a solid legacy for the future. Hence, he put the “conserve” in conservatism, but he did not make the future a static re-creation of everything from the past. For Burke, the nation was a permanent body composed of transitory parts.

An important part of a nation’s legacy was its religious Religion;and conservatism[conservatism] beliefs, which were transmitted through the ages. For Burke and many later conservatives, values flowed from religion and not from the egoistic and opportunistic attempts by individuals to institute new systems of morality. Those in power were there for a reason, evolving from a long and tested historical past. Kings ruled through powers evolving from a nation’s historic past and could not be viewed as popularly elected officials in a nation’s present.

Those who had power, authority, and wealth (the aristocracy, in other words) had obtained this position from the wisdom of the past, which cast them in the role of the leadership elite. They could not be replaced in the present, as was the attempt in France, by mediocre hairdressers and shoemakers who used demagoguery and chicanery to gain power in the present. The worst chicanery for Burke in his view of the French Revolution was the concept of equality, which he viewed as against nature and subversive to the very existence of order in society. Later conservatives would embrace Burke’s elitism and view the stratification of society in terms of power and wealth as an integral part of the natural order.


Burke’s ideas were embraced first by French émigrés (those who left France in opposition to the revolution) and then by a wide spectrum of Europeans revolted by the increasing excesses of the revolution. He encountered much wrath for his early opposition in England, including well-publicized denunciations by Thomas Paine Paine, Thomas and Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, Mary His own Whig Party turned against him.

Burke retired from politics in 1795, at a time when the Jacobin Reign of Terror reached its height, thus validating his prophecies about what happens when a nation cuts its ties to traditional restraints. He fell victim to stomach cancer on July 9, 1797, yet his conservative beliefs were firmly planted in the Congress of Vienna (1815), Vienna, Congress of (1815) which attempted to restore Europe (following nearly a quarter century of conflict against the military forces of the French Revolution) to the stability it had had before the revolution.

After 1815, antirationalist thinkers would attempt to return their individual societies to some romanticized point in the past and form movements designated by historians as “reactionary.” However, Burke as a conservative would have criticized a rapid leap back into the past as being as dangerous as a radical plunge into the future. Those who equate Burkean conservatism with reactionary doctrines miss entirely the basic difference in attitude toward the direction and rate of societal change.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and the breakup of the Tory and Whig Parties in England, Burke’s philosophy became embedded in the newly formed Conservative Party, which competed for power with the Liberal Party. Conservative and centrist political parties formed throughout Europe, trying to maintain stability and slow evolutionary change in the midst of threatening revolutionary upheavals produced by the Industrial Revolution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayling, Stanley Edward. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A scholarly biography and study of the evolution of Burke’s political views. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Michael. Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A study of Burke’s role in the reaction against the radicalism of the French Revolution. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997. An assessment of the life and influence of Burke on conservatism by a leading conservative. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sack, James J. From Jacobite to Conservative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. An interpretive study of the formation of British conservative thought in the pre-1832 world, before the term was part of any political vocabulary. Index and bibliography.

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