Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Academic Reason for Going to Oxford

.:The following text (except the essay) was written 8 March 2011 after I finished my final Oxford tutorial:.

Below is the paper that I came to Oxford to write. At least, it was the one (topic-wise) that I had envisioned. Getting to this paper took a lot of reading and ate a lot of hours of sleep. It is certainly not my best writing (I wrote the whole paper in 3-1/3 hours before my tutorial this morning), but the essence of this paper is the question I wanted an answer to when I had to pick my primary topic for Oxford "way back" in November.

The paper was well-received, my final tutorial went well, and I am sitting in disbelief realising that the term is over. It is a day of bittersweet feelings and thoughts. It is a day of sunshine and a few tears. I am very pleased, and very humbled at the kindness of the LORD.

And now, my final History essay for Hilary 2011:

Revolutionary Reflections

Why Did Edmund Burke Aid the American Colonies but Oppose the French?

“The fresh ruins of France, which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the devastations of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.”1 This says Edmund Burke early in his treatise, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Over and again in this work Burke chastises the French for the revolution they are staging. His above testimony is an incrimination of their deficient cause for revolt, something Burke decries loudly. Throughout Reflections he criticises the French on many points, chiefly the following: replacing the government without sufficient cause; lacking a moral and religious foundation needed for any sustainable government; and rejecting the rule of law, erecting instead the rule of man.

Burke’s reasons for denouncing the French Revolution are sound, yet they raise a valid question: why did he assist the American Colonies in their War for Independence but reject the French Revolution? The answer to this question lies precisely in Burke’s arguments given in his Reflections. Let us now consider those arguments more in depth.

Firstly, Burke is adamant that a nation’s government not be changed for ‘light and transient causes’2. He says, “The speculative line of demarcation, where obedience ought to end, and resistance must begin, is faint, obscure, and not easily definable. It is not a single act, or a single event, which determines it. Governments must be abused and deranged indeed, before it can be thought of; and the prospect of the future must be as bad as the experience of the past.”3 Here Burke is asserting that if one wishes to change their government there must be something vastly wrong with the government or with the individual. All other resources must be expended, other options pursued, and the future must look at least as bleak as the past before the thought of revolution should even be entertained. To underscore his point, Burke says that, “A revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good”4.

Was the French Revolution founded upon such an egregious break in trust that the only response was revolt? Looking at the events leading up to the Bastille and the action at Tuileries Palace one would be hard pressed to find a series of offences worthy of rebellion. The elite resented their exclusion from the government of the country, the peasants felt the strain of an outmoded feudal system, crop failure led to the further poverty of the poor, all while the revolutionary ideas of humanist philosophers rang in the ears of the people. None of these things, separately or collectively, constituted a justifiable reason to overthrow the monarchy. France failed the first test of legitimacy for a revolution.

The second criterion for establishing or reshaping a government is a moral and religious underpinning. “All other nations have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing originally, or by enforcing with greater exactness some rites or other of religion.”5 This, at least, is the case of lasting governments. During the Revolution those in power took vengeance upon the church, executing the clergy and appropriating parish land. Though Burke could not see around the bend in the course of history, France would soon dispense with traditional religion to worship a Supreme Being with pagan ceremonies. More subtlety, the French had already traded the glory of God for the glory and adoration of man. Yet again, the foundation for erecting a new or altered government was made of sand.

The third thing Burke eschews in France’s Revolution is the replacement of the rule of law with the rights of man. As we have already seen, these rights of man superseded religion, it is only logical that they would displace law as well. Though France was ruled by many factions after deposing her king - some of whom penned a constitution and The Rights of Man and of the Citizen - the ‘law as supreme’ postulate was displaced. Yet Burke clearly says of a people that, “It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.”6 A good portion of Burke’s treatise is dedicated to the importance of law being transcendent, not created by the will of man, as if such a thing were possible.

From the above points, one finds a deplorable lack of legitimacy in France’s Revolution. It is no wonder that Burke opposes their uprising. Further, it becomes clear that the very points Burke states as warranted grounds for resistance and the institution of a new form of government are precisely the foundation of America’s War for Independence. The Colonies had grounds for separation, clearly stating them in the Declaration of Independence. This declaration was only given after multiple pleas to the law were made, many attempts to reconcile were sought, and a final outright refusal to obey unjust requirements brought more penalties. Finally, the Declaration of Independence appeals to God as the One who endows men with rights. From letters, speeches, and other historical documents, we see that the Founding Fathers based their decisions - and the governing Constitution - on the law of God. This dichotomy between the French and the American colonists is clearly why Burke fought for the colonists in Parliament but rejected the French Revolution.


1. Burke, Edmund: Reflections on the Revolution in France Dover Publications Copyright ©2006; page 37
2. This phrase is from the Declaration of Independence, obviously showing how the Americans felt about the gravity of a change in government
3. Burke; page 28
4. ibid
5. Burke; page 35
6. Burke; page 93

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