Edmund Burke's Defense of Order Indulged Racism and AntisemitismRoundup
tags: conservatism, Edmund Burke, Political Philosophy
Aidan Beatty teaches at the Frederick Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Private Property and the Fear of Social Chaos.
In 1789, Charles-Jean-François Depont, an aristocratic French liberal, wrote to the Irish-born British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, asking him his views of the emerging revolution in France. Burke had been a cautious sympathizer of the American Revolution a decade earlier, and Depont hoped that he would now also lend his support to the French Revolution. Depont was to be sorely disappointed.
Even before Depont’s letter, Burke was becoming increasingly uneasy about the events of the French Revolution. He was especially disturbed by the looming threat that Jacobinism would cross the English Channel and upset the supposed social harmonies of Britain. When the radical preacher Richard Price used a public meeting at the Old Jewry Meeting House in London in November 1789 to welcome this importation of French radicalism, Burke was truly horrified (an emotional response that only intensified when Price’s speech began to circulate nationally as a pamphlet). As he drafted his increasingly long response to Depont, Burke began to zero in on the “Jewish” location of Richard Price’s speech.
By November 1790, Burke’s response had expanded into a book-length work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written as an extended letter to his French correspondent, Burke’s polemic found a receptive audience; in its first seventeen days, 5,500 copies of the book were sold, with a total of twelve thousand in the first month. King George III is said to have seen in Burke’s Reflections “a good book, a very good book; every gentleman ought to read it.” At the University of Oxford there were debates about awarding an honorary degree to Burke, “in consideration of his very able Representations of the True Principles of our Constitution Ecclesiastical and Civil.” The Times praised the book as an antidote to “all those dark insidious minds” who would wish to “level” the “manly” British constitutional order. The popular historian Edward Gibbon tasted in the Reflections “a most admirable medicine against the French disease.” Even Pope Pius VI praised Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France has since come to be seen as the founding text of modern conservatism. It is also a markedly racist and antisemitic text.
There is a free-flowing thrust to the text, and it requires some reconstruction to identify Burke’s central concerns about the Jacobin mob and about the looming collapse of private property. Much of the book is taken up with a quasi-sociological claim that the class structure of France had irreparably changed, with a new class of financiers leading the revolution, according to Burke, and undermining an older, landed aristocracy, whom Burke takes for the natural rulers of the country.
Riffing again and again on the “Jewish” location of Richard Price’s original speech, Burke makes a repeated series of claims that the revolutionaries are “Jews,” a word that for him seems to mean those who make their money from usury and do not have the requisite respect for landed property.
People like Price, Burke claims, are “[w]holly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling.” They are inexperienced and overly excited. In addition, Price does not expound properly British political values. Rather, he speaks only “the confused jargon” of “Babylonian pulpits.”
This is a trope that resurfaces throughout the text (and throughout conservatism more broadly): radical politics cannot trace its roots back to native soil. Rather, it is always foreign and dangerous. Radical politics, a threat to private property, is a product of Babylon, not of Britain. Price’s ideas are nothing but “delusive gypsey [sic] predictions”. Burke makes much of the location of Price’s sermon, Old Jewry. He talks of Richard Price speaking “from the Pisgah of his pulpit”, Pisgah being the name traditionally given to the mountain from which Moses first viewed the Promised Land, suggesting this “Jew” is gazing longingly upon the Promised Land of Jacobin France.
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