By the final years of Edmund Burke’s life, nearly the whole of British government had become sympathetic to his perspectives concerning the French Revolution. As Burke predicted, the leftist Jacobins grew in power and proceeded to unleash terror upon French society. Having overthrown the existing French government in 1792, the Jacobins began conducting Revolutionary Tribunals and mass deaths by guillotine the following year. By 1794 the number of Tribunal executions reached over 16,000. In many cases the victims included anyone who did not profess support for the Revolution.
For the British as well as greater Western civilization, the French Jacobins posed a direct threat to their livelihood. The Jacobins declared war on Great Britain shortly after their ascendancy, and under the leadership of William Pitt the Younger the British Parliament committed huge amounts of resources to counter the Jacobin threat. After several years of combat, however, Parliament began to experience financial drain. Pitt searched for a means of pulling back from the conflict.
It was in this context that Edmund Burke summoned his rhetorical skills to urge Pitt to continue the fight. Having won acclaim for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke committed his pen to the writing of four Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795). In these letters Burke argued that Britain must stay the course to completely annihilate French Jacobinism from the globe. Despite Britain’s progress in containing the threat, he argued, Parliament must make sure it finishes the fight. As Russell Kirk observed in his biography on Burke, the theme of the Regicide letters was “the necessity of making an end of Jacobinism, root and branch (p. 201).”
Unlike the diplomat who was loathe to commit British forces to the Revolutionary War, Edmund Burke in this context was committed to military response. The reason, Burke explained, was the nature of the enemy. French Jacobinism represented an intolerant force that was “resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion.” The Jacobins, in his mind, amounted to a “sect aiming at universal empire.” Therefore, while the ideology of Jacobinism might have originated in France, Burke warned that it was universalistic in nature. If given the opportunity, the Jacobins would violently extend to the whole of Europe and beyond. Such a dangerous evil put the world in peril, Burke said, and any British politicians who aimed to appease the Jacobins were risking the livelihood of Western civilization.
In his article “Why Conservatives Hate War” for The American Conservative, author William Lind writes that “conservatism seeks above all social and cultural continuity” and that “nothing endangers that more than war.” Ignoring Burke’s nuanced disposition on the subject, Lind argues as if the famous conservative would support anti-war position on principle. “Real conservatives,” Lind argues, “hate war.”
Such a position as Lind’s sounds far more like the Jacobin appeasers and faltering 18th century British statesmen that Burke argued against in his Regicide letters. War may indeed be an unpredictable and dreadful state of affairs, and at times even a threat to social and cultural continuity. But Edmund Burke knew that against certain foes it was an absolute necessary. To not confront the evil, or to pacify it rather than extinguish it, could easily amount to a much greater threat.
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