“Even when I changed, it should be to preserve,” Edmund Burke writes in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France. These were not idle words of a political metaphysician but a sober, concise description of Burke’s governing philosophy as a leading voice in the British Parliament. In Burke’s day, Great Britain’s greatest rival, France, was undergoing a soon-to-be catastrophic revolution. Divisions and animosity ran high, and the revolutionaries, called Jacobins, were out for blood. The French monarch had failed to satisfactorily address the growing discontent among his subjects and now it was far too late to negotiate a quick end to the crisis.
But Burke’s interests in the internal affairs of France were more than those of an academic observer. There were powerful voices within his own country who were preaching the same message of revolutionary fervor and were sympathetic to the Jacobin cause. In fact, the entire European continent and even the newly formed United States of America would soon be dealing with similar revolutionaries in their midst. Burke described the Jacobins as ruthlessly seeking to set the world aflame:
“What is Jacobinism? It is the attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich.”
Burke had been seen as an ally to the American colonists seeking to assert the rights they believed were due them as loyal British subjects. While he did not support the American Revolution explicitly, his efforts to support the American cause of liberty and work out a compromise that might avoid war is a large part of the reason there’s a statue of Edmund Burke in Washington D.C. today. Thus, when the French Jacobins began to rebel with rhetoric that was similar to America’s fight for “liberty”—yet far different in its method, scope, and understanding of liberty—there were some who thought Burke might again be an ally to the cause.
Much to their dismay, however, Burke became their most fierce and powerful opponent. His Reflections are arguably the most persuasive and eloquent anti-revolutionary text ever written, and this moderating voice of reason who worked tirelessly to avert war with America became a strong advocate of war with revolutionary France. As Russell Kirk explained, in Burke’s view, “since the rightful leaders of France could not regain authority by themselves…the fanatics of the Revolution must be put down by force from without.”
Why was Burke so accommodating towards one group demanding liberty and so opposed to another? While Burke was a fierce defender of the French monarchy, he was not advocating rigidity in the face of calls for reform or denying that the Jacobins had valid grievances—“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”—rather, he was exercising the same principles in both the case of America and France. Yet the circumstances were so different that the application of those principles would also differ.
In the case of America, the colonists were seeking to exercise their rights as they understood them within the British tradition. In the case of France, the Jacobins were seeking to invent for themselves previously undiscovered rights by tearing down the traditions that stood in their way. Burke recognized that the traditions themselves were the lifeblood of the order and liberty both nations sought, but they could survive only if they had the flexibility to bend to the needs of its people. When traditions became so inflexible that gradual, contemplative change was not possible, there was a grave danger they would break in two.
And once a tradition has snapped in two, true productive, progressive change is nearly impossible. As Burke notes:
“Early reformations are amicable arrangements with a friend in power; late reformations are made under a state of inflammation. In that state of things the people behold in government nothing that is respectable. They see the abuse and they will see nothing more. They fall into the temper of a furious populace provoked at the disorder of a house of ill-fame; they never attempt to correct or regulate; they go to work by the shortest way: to abate the nuisance, they pull down the house.”
While the Burkean conservative might advocate gradual reform, this should not be mistaken for complacency. There’s typically only a limited window of opportunity where gradual reforms might be tolerated before an impatient populace begins to demand increasingly radical change.
Take, for example, immigration policy. Throughout much of the George W. Bush administration the American people—and the Republican base in particular—grew increasingly concerned about mass immigration. We can argue the merits of immigration some other time. The reason I bring it up here is because the Republican party failed to deliver immigration reforms that might have satisfied at least some of the concerns. And those concerns only grew among the Right during the eight years of Barrack Obama’s presidency.
Fast forward to 2016 and an angered Republican base nominates a candidate for president offering alarmingly simplistic, bigoted solutions to immigration. “Build the wall, deport them all” fits easily onto t-shirts and bumper stickers, but Trump’s bombastic, offensive rhetoric was bereft of the sort of clear-eyed, nuanced approach needed to handle the situation. Yet the Republican base was no longer tolerant of those offering clear-eyed, nuanced solutions. They wanted someone who was as angry as they had become to speak on their behalf. Thus, the wall was never built, our immigration policy was never reformed in any meaningful sense, and the problems have been left to fester, likely leading to demands for rhetoric and actions that are even more extreme in the future.
“[Burke] is alert,” argues Yuval Levin, “to the danger of appearing to be merely opposed to change—of seeming to defend the status quo for no other reason than that it is the way things are.” This variant of “conservatism” leaves society vulnerable to radical changes that create more problems than they solve. “On the contrary, Burke argues, he is not defending the status quo but is rather defending an effective means of reform against an ineffective one that threatens to cut society off from the possibility of real improvement.” To Burke, the most effective means of reform is to operate within the forms and structures already in existence. True, they may slow change down, but they will also soften the rough edges as changes are enacted. “Constructive change requires stability, so reformers always have to be careful.”
And just why is stability so important? Because lasting reform can only take place within tradition. “When a nation has no tradition to appeal to but a ‘tradition of revolution,’ it has confessed bankruptcy;” explains historian Garry Wills, “it can no longer marshal the potentials of the populace to serve the common stake, the constitution. When artists and philosophers and church-men cannot find a meaningful area of mutual enrichment, then politicians must supply the social cohesion ex nihilo, and enforce it by militant centralization of power.” Thus, reforms that work within a tradition have the advantage of being sticky whereas revolutions that destroy a tradition are held together by coercion.
It does not matter how important we might agree a change may be. It does not matter how rational or reasonable the change may be. If the change itself obliterates the tradition we should not expect any lasting reform. As Russell Kirk explains: “Men do not submit long to their own creations. Standards erected out of expediency will be demolished soon enough, also out of expediency. Either norms have an existence independent of immediate utility, or they are mere fictions. If men assume that norms are merely the pompous fabrications of their ancestors, got up to serve the interests of a faction or an age, then every rising generation will challenge the principles of personal and social order and will learn wisdom only through agony.”
Thus, far from being its opposite, a sense of permanence is actual needful to achieve any true progression. Tradition is the vehicle whereby we might hope to enact lasting change for the better. It is the conduit where Providence guides humanity towards a brighter tomorrow.