How does a Conservative differ from a Radical? Part 2 (A Tale of Two Revolutions)
Updated: Mar 28
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Thus begins Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The novel contrasts the cities of London and Paris during the upheaval threatening to turn the world upside down in the Age of Revolution. Most notably during the period, the American and French Revolutions would birth a new nation and forever change the character and structure of the other, respectively. The world was forever changing.
Some would resist the change, while others welcomed it with open arms. The resisters—London, as it were—warned of dire consequences for those who rushed recklessly into uncharted territories while the revolutionaries—represented by Paris—saw the rapid changes as an opportunity gift humanity with the liberty, equality, and fraternity they had lacked since the dawn of civilization.
The French Revolution began, in earnest, shortly after America had won its own revolution against the British Empire. There were many Americans who saw little distinction between the revolution in France and our own. Both sought to free the people from their monarch. Both fought in the name of liberty and insisted that the only legitimate government was the one that protected liberty. Both established new governments which boldly sought to put the ideas expressed in The Enlightenment into practice.
But there were others who insisted that the two revolutions were not at all alike and were actually fighting for entirely different ends and using entirely different means. At the risk of over simplifying—for there are many, many caveats to the story—we might say that the American Revolution represents the conservative worldview whereas the French Revolution better exemplifies the radical worldview. Since this series is exploring the difference between conservatism and radicalism, and since the Age of Revolution is where much of our understanding of these concepts begins to take shape, I believe the key to understanding their difference is to look closer at the revolutions themselves.
19th Century Bittersweet Frenemies: Burke and Paine
While there is an impressive array of 19th century public figures who stood on either side of the revolutionary debates, National Affairs editor Yuval Levin pits British statesman Edmund Burke against American political activist Thomas Paine to epitomize the political divide of the day in his brilliant book The Great Debate.
Thomas Paine was a revolutionary provocateur who got so caught up in the revolutionary spirit in America that he moved to France after the American Revolution to help ignite the process all over again. Paine’s deeply impactful pamphlet Common Sense arguably did more to persuade the American colonists to challenge the authority of their British monarch than the actions of any other public figure of the time.
At first, these two great rivals were political allies. “Burke and Paine were in effect on the same side of the American question, the side (eventually) of independence for the colonies,” writes Levin. “[Burke] was deeply involved in the British debate over America and was quite possibly the most prominent and vocal of the friends of America in Parliament.” But while Paine was driven by ideological passions that fought for the Rights of Man over the unjustified and arbitrary rule of monarchs, Burke had other motives.
As we’ve explored in Part 1, conservatives offer no universal blueprint—no political ideology–for how to structure a society. Instead, they look to the unique circumstances, culture, and history of the society in question and seek to understand how a precarious balance between order and liberty might be established in each particular situation. In my view, Burke himself was the most articulate and forceful advocate of this approach and it was his writings on the matter that shaped what eventually became modern conservatism.
So, what did Burke believe was unique and circumstantial about America that justified their independence? Levin continues, “Living apart from Britain for several generations, the Americans, he says, have developed a powerful attachment to personal liberty and, an insatiable entrepreneurialism, which their political institutions will inevitably reflect, while the British at home are more attached to firm and stable authority.” This view is hardly controversial. We Americans, as a people, have long had a certain tenacious entrepreneurial attitude and a dogged streak of independence. It’s not a question of whether these attributes are good or bad, but that they very much are; and further, any political arrangement must take these peculiarities into account if it is to survive and function.
But at the same time, Burke recognized Americans had not completely divorced themselves from British customs. In fact, much of what upset the colonists was the startling realization that their mother country no longer saw them as British subjects to be afforded British privileges. “In [Burke’s] view,” continues Levin, “it was the English, not the Americans, who had broken with prescription in the name of merely speculative theoretical claims about government by imposing an unprecedented regime of taxation and limits on commerce in America on the premise that Parliament had an unlimited authority to govern colonial affairs directly. The Americans, in his view, merely sought to continue and preserve the traditions of the English constitution and the privileges they had always enjoyed.” Russell Kirk echoed this view in saying that the, “American Revolution, substantially, had been a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation…[It] was not an innovating upheaval, but a conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives.”
19th Century Cage Match: Burke v. Paine
Because Burke had been sympathetic to the American cause, many believed he would extend those sympathies to the French when they sought independence from their monarch. They were soon to be gravely disappointed. Shortly into the French Revolution, the French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depont asked Burke for his impressions on the matter. What followed was Burke’s most famous work—his Reflections on the Revolution in France—which represented not only a powerful critique of the revolution, but one of the greatest counter-revolutionary arguments of all time.
In fact, Burke’s critique was so powerful that none other than his former ally Thomas Paine busily worked on his own rebuttal—his Rights of Man—which was destined to be one of his most famous works and provided the foundation for revolutionary thinkers and advocates for generations to come. Strange though it may seem, much of the political history of the West over the past two centuries has been a tale of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces battling it out over ideas originating from Burke and Paine.
But what was so different about the revolution in France that caused Burke to react so strongly? To Burke, the French Revolution was an entirely different kind of flying altogether. “It is true that [Burke] never condemned the American Revolution, as he did the French,” wrote Irish historian Conor Cruise O’Brien, “but then the secession of a group of colonies is not an event similar to the overthrow of the settled order of a major state, even though the word ‘revolution’ is used for both.” Levin further clarifies that “in the American crisis, which he never called a revolution, Burke believed the colonies rebelled against British misrule. But the French were rebelling, he thought, out of zeal for a new theory of man and society and in the process were overturning far more than political structures.”
It's important to note, however, that the differences between the revolutions were not merely a matter of size or scale, but a difference of kind. And the differences extended far beyond mere political arrangements and even delved into rival understandings of humanity’s spiritual nature. That’s a subject far broader than we have time to fully explore in this series, but I trust just two excerpts from conservative thinkers on the subject will help establish the difference.
First, from Russell Kirk:
“A principal difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was this: the American revolutionaries in general held a biblical view of man and his bent toward sin, while the French revolutionaries in general attempted to substitute for the biblical understanding an optimistic doctrine of human goodness advanced by the philosophes of the rationalistic Enlightenment. The American view led to the Constitution of 1787; the French view, to the Terror and to a new autocracy.”
And second, from Irving Kristol:
“The French Enlightenment was shot through with romantic visions of a new political community in which all previous religions would be replaced by a new civic religion: the religion of rationalist humanism, in which the civic bonds themselves would constitute a kind of religious association.”
A Not So Revolutionary Revolution
One of the reasons American conservatives are so enamored with the American Revolution is because it’s one of the astoundingly few revolutions in history that actually accomplished its stated goals and ultimately left the nation and the people better off than they were before. And much of what made the revolution so successful was that it wasn’t—ironically—all that terribly revolutionary.
“We Americans created our Federal Constitution by deliberate action, within the space of a few months,” remarked Russell Kirk, “But in actuality that formal constitution, and our state constitutions, chiefly put down on paper what already existed and was accepted in public opinion: beliefs and institutions long established in the colonies, and drawn from centuries of English experience with parliaments, the common law, and the balancing of orders and interests in a realm.” Far from some brilliant innovation, the foundation of our revolution was anchored in the slow accretion of thousands of years of trial and error.
But how was it that we managed to take such a deliberative, slow approach in a revolution of all things? After all, revolutions aren’t exactly known for reticent reflection and patient reform. “All revolutions unleash tides of passion,” argued Irving Kristol, “and the American Revolution was no exception. But it was exceptional in the degree to which it was able to subordinate these passions to serious and nuanced thinking about fundamental problems of political philosophy.”
Deep within human nature is the latent passion of the revolutionary but also the cautious contemplation of the counter-revolutionary. The “trick”, it would seem, is to somehow balance these dueling natures so that change is possible but not destructive. But to get there we have to leave history and turn to examining human nature. And that is where we’re heading in Part 3.