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  • Writer's pictureLiz Bowers

Edmund Burke, The Father of Conservatism

"But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?"

Edmund Burke, born January 12, 1729, in Dublin Ireland was a great Irish statesman and member of the Marquis of Rockingham's Whig Party, which was considered the more liberal party in British politics. He was, however, a politician, who defied categorization even in his own time renowned for defending the underdog until it came to the Jacobins of the French Revolution.

Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Reform According to Burke

Considering Burke's long history of defending marginalized groups many were stunned at his hostile opposition to the Jacobin Revolution in France.

  • In America, until the end of the Revolution Burke hoped for reconciliation between the Crown and the colonists.

  • He advocated for just reformation in the law to alleviate oppression over Irish Catholics.

  • He opposed the East India Company because of its tyrannical practices in India and argued that the rights and government of British citizens in England should be equally applied to citizens in India.

  • Burke supported a hierarchy which he believed was a critical part of the nature of man and natural law, but he was a staunch opponent of tyranny in all forms.

For Britain in the 18th Century, he was a progressive reformer, however, he believed in the good parts of the institutions and cultural heritage handed down from the dawn of Western Civilization and only believed in gradual change built upon that sure foundation. As for Natural Law and Natural Rights, Burke believed them to be of divine origin and intent.

The Jacobin View of Natural Law and The Rights of Man

So why not defend the French Revolution? It all comes back to Burke's view of Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the way in which countries should go about reformation.

The Jacobins of the French Revolution were a very different sort of reform group. They desired radical change and were willing to burn down all their institutions and national heritage to acquire this change. They viewed Natural Law through the lens of Rousseau believing that even if man was reduced to a savage state they would still live by this law. In this case, the natural law would support only the right of the stronger person, the weak would perish just as we observe in the animal kingdom.

It's easy to look back on history with a false sense of ethical superiority and wonder how the Jacobins thought their view of natural rights owed by strength would result in the equality and liberty they longed for. Edmund Burke's statements in "Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790" were so controversial in his lifetime that there were 400 works penned to critique him. The most famous among these would be Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man". Yet history proved his point with the bloody Reign of Terror.

Natural Law and Rights in America

For Americans, his stance hit particularly close to home. Thomas Jefferson supported the Jacobins' revolution in France their beliefs in the rights of man sounding very familiar to what he had written into the Declaration of Independence that,

"We consider these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Meanwhile, the Jacobins' declaration called for,

"the preservation of natural rights of liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."

The Federalists, John Adams chief among them, agreed with Burke's assessment of the French Revolution. This divide between Jefferson and Adams's ideals on government would define the first era of American politics.

The Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson's leadership would support foreign policy favorable to the new government in France and advocate for the American government to work in practice more as a democracy than as a republic. The Federalists instead favored Britain in foreign policy and staunchly supported strengthening the institutions of the newborn American Federal government. Consequently, after the War of 1812 with Britain, the Federalists lost favor with the American public and the party would never recover.

Where do you think natural law originates? How do you think America would look today if the Federalists had gained power instead of the Democratic-Republicans?


*All opinions expressed by WYO Conservative guests are theirs alone and may not represent the views of WYO Conservative’s Founder and Owner, Donna K. Rice, or any WYO Conservative affiliates.


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