Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is the philosophical fountainhead of modern conservatism. But he didn’t start out that way. The Irish-born politician started as a fiery Whig, a voice for American independence and for Dissenters and radicals at home in Great Britain. He stood against slavery and prosecuted the head of the British East India Company for corruption. Then he met the French Revolution, and his views seemed to change abruptly.
His famous pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) manifested what Thomas Jefferson called a “revolution in Mr. Burke.” Friends who were dumbstruck by the Reflections’s diatribe against Unitarians and Jews, not to mention the French, and his allusions to lunatics, criminals, and cannibals, even thought Burke might be temporarily deranged.
But was it, indeed, the French Revolution that caused “an abrupt political tack from advocating parliamentary reform, religious toleration, and American liberty“? Or was Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, as Burke himself sometimes argued, “first and foremost a parable for the English of his day”? Historian McCalman argues that understanding Burke’s domestic experience is key to explaining his transformation.
According to McCalman, Burke’s radical transformation was greatly fanned, if not sparked, by the Gordon Riots of 1780. Named after Lord George Gordon, the firebrand head of the Protestant Association (and onetime friend of Burke), this chaotic political uprising essentially scared the reformer out of Burke.
Centered in London but manifesting throughout Britain, the uprising was eventually suppressed by the military, but not before hundreds died. All this was a response to a parliamentary law that had attempted reduce official discrimination against Catholics by lifting some of the eighty-year old anti-Catholic laws. These laws were little enforced by 1780, but their formal weakening by Parliament aroused old prejudices and were eagerly exploited by rabble-rousers like Gordon.
Gordon’s uprising wasn’t just about religion, however. It had populist economic strands, appealing to artisan and middling classes against the Crown and aristocracy. Yet it manifested itself as an apocalyptic, millenarian, neo-Puritanism that turned reform into a burning cross led by a howling mob.
Gordon and Burke had started as friends and collaborators, working in Parliament as its two poorest members. They were both, McCalman argues, types of extremists, but separated by the “ancient allegiance and discourse of Protestant antipopery.” So by the time of the pogrom-like insurrection that bears his name, Gordon was calling Burke the chief enemy of the “Protestant Cause.” During the Riot, Burke had to defend his London home and himself from what he later called “the swinish multitude.” The experience, unsurprisingly, put the fear of “King Mob,” a word born in the Riots, into him.
Condemning the demagogues and pamphleteers who stirred up that mob, Burke wrote that they “fill them with nothing but a violent hatred of the religion of other people, and of course, with a hatred of their persons; and so, by a very natural progression they led men to a destruction of their goods and houses, and attempts on their lives.” Only the military power of the Crown could help, decided Burke, a perspective that would have once been anathema to a Whig.
Long before the French Revolution descended with the guillotine into the Reign of Terror of 1793-94, Burke was well on his way to being what McCalman calls “a prophet of counterrevolution.” Opposed to Gordon-esque, “threatening new romantic-revolutionary” figures arising on the Continent and in England, Burke moved right before the French even divided politics into a left and a right. Radicals and visionaries who unleashed the mob, intentionally or not, were more than just threats to public safety; according to Burke, they were threats to the order of civilization itself.