The scene grew still more sinister in his eyes after the march of the mob from Paris to Versailles in October, and the violent transport of the king and queen from Versailles to Paris. The same hatred of lawlessness and violence which fired him with a divine rage against the Indian malefactors was aroused by the violence and lawlessness of the Parisian insurgents. The same disgust for abstractions and naked doctrines of right that had stirred him against the pretensions of the British parliament in 1774 and 1776, was revived in as lively a degree by political conceptions which he judged to be identical in the French assembly of 1789. And this anger and disgust were exasperated by the dread with which certain proceedings in England had inspired him, that the aims, principles, methods and language which he so misdoubted or abhorred in France were likely to infect the people of Great Britain.
In November 1790 the town, which had long been eagerly expecting a manifesto from Burke's pen, was electrified by the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event. The generous Windham made an entry in his diary of his reception of the new book. "What shall be said," he added, "of the state of things, when it is remembered that the writer is a man decried, persecuted and proscribed; not being much valued even by his own party, and by half the nation considered as little better than an ingenious madman?" But the writer now ceased to be decried, persecuted and proscribed, and his book was seized as the expression of that new current of opinion in Europe which the more recent events of the Revolution had slowly set flowing. Its vogue was instant and enormous. Eleven editions were exhausted in little more than a year, and there is probably not much exaggeration in the estimate that 30,000 copies were sold before Burke's death seven years afterwards. George III. was extravagantly delighted; Stanislaus of Poland sent Burke words of thanks and high glorification and a gold medal.
Catherine of Russia, the friend of Voltaire and the benefactress of Diderot, sent her congratulations to the man who denounced French philosophers as miscreants and wretches. "One wonders," Romilly said, by and by, "that Burke is not ashamed at such success." Mackintosh replied to him temperately in the Vindiciae Gallicae, and Thomas Paine replied to him less temperately but far more trenchantly and more shrewdly in the Rights of Man. Arthur Young, with whom he had corresponded years before on the mysteries of deep ploughing and fattening hogs, added a cogent polemical chapter to that ever admirable work, in which he showed that he knew as much more than Burke about the old system of France as he knew more than Burke about soils and roots. Philip Francis, to whom he had shown the proof-sheets, had tried to dissuade Burke from publishing his performance. The passage about Marie Antoinette, which has since become a stock piece in books of recitation, seemed to Francis a mere piece of foppery; for was she not a Messalina and a jade? "I know nothing of your story of Messalina," answered Burke; "am I obliged to prove judicially the virtues of all those I shall see suffering every kind of wrong and contumely and risk of life, before I endeavour to interest others in their sufferings?... Are not high rank, great splendour of descent, great personal elegance and outward accomplishments ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of men?... I tell you again that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the queen of France in 1774, and the contrast between that brilliancy, splendour and beauty, with the prostrate homage of a nation to her, and the abominable scene of 1780 which I was describing, did draw tears from me and wetted my paper.
These tears came again into my eyes almost as often as I looked at the description, - they may again. You do not believe this fact, nor that these are my real feelings; but that the whole is affected, or as you express it, downright foppery. My friend, I tell you it is truth; and that it is true and will be truth when you and I are no more; and will exist as long as men with their natural feelings shall exist" (Corr. iii. 139).
Burke's conservatism was, as such a passage as this may illustrate, the result partly of strong imaginative associations clustering round the more imposing symbols of social continuity, partly of a sort of corresponding conviction in his reason that there are certain permanent elements of human nature out of which the European order had risen and which that order satisfied, and of whose immense merits, as of its mighty strength, the revolutionary party in France were most fatally ignorant. When Romilly saw Diderot in 1783, the great encyclopaedic chief assured him that submission to kings and belief in God would be at an end all over the world in a very few years. When Condorcet described the Tenth Epoch in the long development of human progress, he was sure not only that fulness of light and perfection of happiness would come to the sons of men, but that they were coming with all speed. Only those who know the incredible rashness of the revolutionary doctrine in the mouths of its most powerful professors at that time; only those who know their absorption in ends and their inconsiderateness about means, can feel how profoundly right Burke was in all this part of his contention.
Napoleon, who had begun life as a disciple of Rousseau, confirmed the wisdom of the philosophy of Burke when he came to make the Concordat. That measure was in one sense the outcome of a mere sinister expediency, but that such a measure was expedient at all sufficed to prove that Burke's view of the present possibilities of social change was right, and the view of the Rousseauites and too sanguine Perfectibilitarians wrong. As we have seen, Burke's very first niece, the satire on Bolingbroke, sprang from his conviction that merely rationalistic or destructive criticism, applied to the vast complexities of man in the social union, is either mischievous or futile, and mischievous exactly in proportion as it is not futile.