To discuss Burke's writings on the Revolution would be to write first a volume upon the abstract theory of society, and then a second volume on the history of France. But we may make one or two further remarks. One of the most common charges against Burke was that he allowed his imagination and pity to be touched only by the sorrows of kings and queens, and forgot the thousands of oppressed and famine-stricken toilers of the land. "No tears are shed for nations," cried Francis, whose sympathy for the Revolution was as passionate as Burke's execration of it. "When the provinces are scourged to the bone by a mercenary and merciless military power, and every drop of its blood and substance extorted from it by the edicts of a royal council, the case seems very tolerable to those who are not involved in it. When thousands after thousands are dragooned out of their country for the sake of their religion, or sent to row in the galleys for selling salt against law, - when the liberty of every individual is at the mercy of every prostitute, pimp or parasite that has access to power or any of its basest substitutes, - my mind, I own, is not at once prepared to be satisfied with gentle palliatives for such disorders" (Francis to Burke, November 3, 1790). This is a very terse way of putting a crucial objection to Burke's whole view of French affairs in 1789. His answer was tolerably simple.
The Revolution, though it had made an end of the Bastille, did not bring the only real practical liberty, that is to say, the liberty which comes with settled courts of justice, administering settled laws, undisturbed by popular fury, independent of everything but law, and with a clear law for their direction. The people, he contended, were no worse off under the old monarchy than they will be in the long run under assemblies that are bound by the necessity of feeding one part of the community at the grievous charge of other parts, as necessitous as those who are so fed; that are obliged to flatter those who have their lives at their disposal by tolerating acts of doubtful influence on commerce and agriculture, and for the sake of precarious relief to sow the seeds of lasting want; that will be driven to be the instruments of the violence of others from a sense of their own weakness, and, by want of authority to assess equal and proportioned charges upon all, will be compelled to lay a strong hand upon the possessions of a part.
As against the moderate section of the Constituent Assembly this was just.
One secret of Burke's views of the Revolution was the contempt which he had conceived for the popular leaders in the earlier stages of the movement. In spite of much excellence of intention, much heroism, much energy, it is hardly to be denied that the leaders whom that movement brought to the surface were almost without exception men of the poorest political capacity. Danton, no doubt, was abler than most of the others, yet the timidity or temerity with which he allowed himself to be vanquished by Robespierre showed that even he was not a man of commanding quality. The spectacle of men so rash, and so incapable of controlling the forces which they seemed to have presumptuously summoned, excited in Burke both indignation and contempt. And the leaders of the Constituent who came first on the stage, and hoped to make a revolution with rose-water, and hardly realized any more than Burke did how rotten was the structure which they had undertaken to build up, almost deserved his contempt, even if, as is certainly true, they did not deserve his indignation. It was only by revolutionary methods, which are in their essence and for a time as arbitrary as despotic methods, that the knot could be cut.
Burke's vital error was his inability to see that a root and branch revolution was, under the conditions, inevitable. His cardinal position, from which he deduced so many important conclusions, namely, that, the parts and organs of the old constitution of France were sound, and only needed moderate invigoration, is absolutely mistaken and untenable. There was not a single chamber in the old fabric that was not crumbling and tottering. The court was frivolous, vacillating, stone deaf and stone blind; the gentry were amiable, but distinctly bent to the very last on holding to their privileges, and they were wholly devoid both of the political experience that only comes of practical responsibility for public affairs, and of the political sagacity that only comes of political experience. The parliaments or tribunals were nests of faction and of the deepest social incompetence. The very sword of the state broke short in the king's hand. If the king or queen could either have had the political genius of Frederick the Great, or could have had the good fortune to find a minister with that genius, and the good sense and good faith to trust and stand by him against mobs of aristocrats and mobs of democrats; if the army had been sound and the states-general had been convoked at Bourges or Tours instead of at Paris, then the type of French monarchy and French society might have been modernized without convulsion.
But none of these conditions existed.
When he dealt with the affairs of India Burke passed over the circumstances of our acquisition of power in that continent. "There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of all government," he said. "The first step to empire is revolution, by which power is conferred; the next is good laws, good order, good institutions, to give that power stability." Exactly on this broad principle of political force, revolution was the first step to the assumption by the people of France of their own government. Granted that the Revolution was inevitable and indispensable, how was the nation to make the best of it? And how were surrounding nations to make the best of it? This was the true point of view. But Burke never placed himself at such a point. He never conceded the postulate, because, though he knew France better than anybody in England except Arthur Young, he did not know her condition well enough. "Alas!" he said, "they little know how many a weary step is to be taken before they can form themselves into a mass which has a true political personality."