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The Most Excellent Teacher of Reform

Paul Cella


Edmund Burke is the most excellent teacher of reform. Only the dull caricature of ignorance can suppose him opposed inveterately to change, mitigation, improvement, progress, advancement. Though he eschewed theory, we who would learn from him cannot fail to discover his political principles. Thus when we ponder what considerations formed the basis of his thought and action, what was the preceptor of his principles, perhaps the soundest answer turns out to be, reform by prudence.

His American principle was to reform British colonial rule in accommodation to circumstances among the Anglo-Americans. His Indian policy was to expose the abuses of British rule on the Subcontinent, that said rule might be reformed, and said abuses checked in their advance through British institutions. For although reasons of prudence only rarely led him to speak or write about them, he was well acquainted with the abuses of British rule—in his native Ireland.

That late 18th-century France, also, was ripe for wise reform, before Reform got hauled off to the Guillotine, supplies vital insight into Burke’s judgment of the French Revolution.  

Burke emphatically believed in wise reform. Irishmen, Englishmen, and all Britons (whom he once hoped fervently would include Americans); Indians, Americans and Frenchmen: every nation to which he committed his perspicacious mind was instructed under a rubric of gradual improvement.


His public utterances and letters are a treasury of the English language, but to understand the full lineaments of his statesmanship, we are obliged to reconstruct what he said and did outside the public record. Consider the Indian reform that concentrated his exertions for nearly a decade. We can say with confidence that the spring for the Warren Hastings Impeachment, long before Burke began the immense public effort of the trial itself, was a work of private persuasion. He had to rally a party around him.

Once he discovered the corruption and despotism prevalent in British India, under Governor General Warren Hastings, he went to work, first privately amongst his party, then publicly before the nation, to expose and reform it. He built an alliance for the ages: That intense Irishman turned the whole Whig coalition, ordinarily quite favorably disposed toward property and commerce, against the East India Company, a chartered establishment of commercial property; and then he took on the British imperial monarchy by the force of this coalition. The Crown had to cajole and buy the House of Lords in order to insure an acquittal for Hastings.

But parliamentary oppositions were here to stay. And that is no small thing.

Dissent organized within the integrity of the state but with contrary political goals and interests to the ruling party—this would be a new establishment in the political affairs of men. One of Burke’s lasting achievements, then, was the principle of patriotic partisanship: private party association rising to the dignity of the Loyal Opposition. The final integration of this Anglo-American principle would have to wait until the American Election of 1800 ended with Jefferson proclaiming “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans,” but Burke was its earliest great vindicator. He “was the first to argue”—in the shrewd summation of Harvey Mansfield—“that principled behavior in politicians must inevitably be partisan, and that partisanship is not only occasionally necessary in emergencies but useful and respectable in the ordinary working of the constitution.”1 This was a new thing upon the earth, and the fact that we all take it for granted now is a measure of Burke’s genius.

The ordinary working of constitutions, not their abstract foundations, still less their sudden devastation, was what chiefly inspired Burke. His principle was reformation purposed toward preservation.

It is true that Burke’s later speeches during the Hastings Trial are public marvels; but what astonishing performance of intimate rhetoric must have preceded these when, by private conversation and small-group diplomacy, he insured that the pursuit of the Impeachment would become Whig policy. Thus we observe that Burke’s reforming vocation was very far from merely that of a grandiloquent orator. It compasses the secret details of party politics. His statesmanship is not always manifest to the historian because it emerges first from those “little platoons” of private life, the natural affections, the intimate solidarity, and partisan friendships from which spring political parties.

And all this (in our first example) for the simple precept that Indians deserve better government from Englishmen; that British rule in India should be reformed to curtail its abuses. He didn’t even imply that Englishmen should stop ruling Indians. But he declared with full-throat that Indians are men, and that no men should suffer mercantile tyranny for the enrichment of distant rapacious rulers. Nor, indeed, can men who undertake distant rapacity as their policy, long preserve liberty and stability at home.

His summary estimate of Anglo-Indian affairs, in the Speech on Fox’s East India Bill, rings with those refined 18th century oratorical epigrams, but its ground is unambiguously that of prudence:

[I]f we are not able to contrive some method of governing India well, which will not of necessity become the means of governing Great Britain ill, a ground is laid for their eternal separation; but none for sacrificing the people of that country to our constitution. I am however far from being persuaded that any such incompatibility of interest does at all exist. On the contrary I am certain that every means, effectual to preserve India from oppression, is a guard to preserve the British constitution from its worst corruption.

One cannot mistake the confluence of interest and justice, for both Indians and Britons, which Burke presents to Parliament. In this speech his genuine sympathy for Indian suffering is clear; but he never represents himself as some perfect paragon of detachment, a lofty humanitarian with no particular sympathies of his own. Justice for India will guard against the “worst corruption” of the British constitution. His own country’s honor is at stake. To this unifying purpose, he affirmed with parliamentary decorum, he “supplied a mediocrity of talents by the extreme of diligence, and… has thought himself obliged, by the research of years, to wind himself into the inmost recesses and labyrinths of the Indian detail.”

The assiduous student of history, therefore, will observe that Burke’s toils to reform British imperial rule in India were a work of prudential reform; were only partially public in character; and arose out of those natural affections which his understanding of human politics always kept clearly in view.


Now the French are the particular men with the misfortune of being ruled by Frenchmen. This condition dates back some time, even from the perspective of the late 18th century. France was ripe for reform; Burke was aware of this. Absolutist encrustations from the age of the Sun King conspired with decaying medieval forms, early industrial misadventure, and just plain hard luck, to immiserate much of France, as the Cahiers de Doléances attest. Right alongside this misery was the gathering potential of modern capitalism. And inside the capital city, where the contrast of potential with reality preoccupied many minds, something more sinister stirred. “Le mur, murant Paris, rend Paris murmurant”—the wall walling Paris makes Paris murmur. These murmurs were rumors of a new kind of revolution and war.

But France was not bereft of talented, patriotic men. Early free traders like Turgot and sober financiers like Necker, were only the most prominent among a whole generation whose thinking, while still grounded in civic virtue, was enlivened by modern ideas, many of which were to prosper around the world. The social energy that was building toward an astounding detonation, which few but Burke foresaw, found its wellspring in many things, not least among them the flowering of French industry and the advance of French commerce.

Burke’s very earliest assessments of the Revolution are skeptical but not despairing of sagacious reform, and certainly not committed to violent opposition. It would be many years before Burke demanded that Britain make war on the French First Republic. But because he “looked at public issues with almost matchless penetration,” as Harvey Mansfield writes, he came to that opposition with more definitive rapidity than anyone, shocking many contemporaries who eventually came round to his side. Yet even he needed some months to contemplate the stupefying events in France. The famed Reflections would appear in November of 1790, nearly a year and a half after the storming of the Bastille but still two full years before the King and Queen would lose their heads. His first letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, with its firm evidence of his solidifying judgment, dates from about a year before the Reflections. So we can perhaps conjecture the calculation that Burke, with his “matchless penetration,” required three or four months to learn the meaning of the French Revolution, and to distinguish it from sagacious reform or restoration of sound prescriptive rights and establishments.

And as for loyal oppositions? France would have none of it. Dissent would soon be punishable by death without trial. Liquidation would fully supplant reform.


The first letter to Depont (Reflections was framed as a second letter, though of course composed for immediate public presentation) includes perhaps the clearest exposition of his understanding of liberty.

You hope, sir, that I think the French deserving of liberty. I certainly do. I certainly think that all men who desire it, deserve it. It is not the reward of our merit, or the acquisition of our industry. It is our inheritance. It is the birthright of our species. We cannot forfeit our right to it, but by what forfeits our title to the privileges of our kind. I mean the abuse, or oblivion, of our rational faculties, and a ferocious indocility which makes us prompt to wrong and violence, destroys our social nature, and transforms us into something little better than the description of wild beasts …
You have kindly said, that you began to love freedom from your intercourse with me. Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled . . . It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions. I am sure that liberty, so incorporated, and in a manner identified with justice, must be infinitely dear to everyone who is capable of conceiving what it is. But whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe. I do not believe that men ever did submit, certain I am that they never ought to have submitted, to the arbitrary pleasure of one man; but, under circumstances in which the arbitrary pleasure of many persons in the community pressed with an intolerable hardship upon the just and equal rights of their fellows, such a choice might be made, as among evils. The moment will is set above reason and justice, in any community, a great question may arise in sober minds, in what part or portion of the community that dangerous dominion of will may be the least mischievously placed.
If I think all men who cultivate justice, entitled to liberty, and, when joined in states, entitled to a constitution framed to perpetuate and secure it, you may be assured, sir, that I think your countrymen eminently worthy of a blessing which is peculiarly adapted to noble, generous, and humane natures . . .
I have nothing to check my wishes towards the establishment of a solid and rational scheme of liberty in France. On the subject of the relative power of nations, I may have my prejudices; but I envy internal freedom, security, and good order, to none. When, therefore, I shall learn that, in France, the citizen, by whatever description he is qualified, is in a perfect state of legal security, with regard to his life, to his property, to the uncontrolled disposal of his person, to the free use of his industry and his faculties…

And then Burke begins the recitations of these precious securities which Revolutionary France has already despoiled. This recitation, furnished in late 1789, would be expanded enormously as despoliation became butchery and butchery policy. It is a keen reminder to the progressive or liberal that the founder of modern Anglo-American conservatism had progressed far ahead of the Left of his day. (Indeed, he had already sketched out the path to Bonapartism as well: “under circumstances in which the arbitrary pleasure of many persons in the community pressed with an intolerable hardship upon the just and equal rights of their fellows,” men may well go in for the firm hand of military despotism.)

The phrases are remarkable: “social freedom and equality of restraint.” Proffer these in reply to some of our social justice warriors—amidst their refashioned cant of liberté, égalité, fraternité—and you may briefly strike them dumb.


Everyone can learn from Burke, even social justice warriors. Learn first by reading. Set yourself at the foot of this master of the English language. Learn next by properly situating him, historically, that you might begin to discern that background of private work, which is a part of his unrecorded genius of persuasion and to which events testify; and that, more broadly, you may understand the events to which he bore witness and applied his “matchless penetration.”

Later on in that first Depont letter, Burke formulates some vivid statements on reform and the natural right of revolution. He did not abjure the latter; but he insisted that it be directed in the service of the former. Thus his characteristic caution and skepticism: “I must delay my congratulations on your acquisition of liberty. You may have made a revolution, but not a reformation. You may have subverted monarchy, but not recovered freedom.” Next, recognition of the necessity for reform, even at the risk of other hazards: “I admit that evils may be so very great and urgent, that other evils are to be submitted to for the mere hope of their removal.” And the full scope of reform: “One form of government may be better than another, and this difference may be worth a struggle.” A revolutionary struggle? Yes: “A positively vicious and abusive government ought to be changed—and, if necessary, by violence—if it cannot be (as sometimes it is the case) reformed.”

So it is not strictly accurate to say that Burke rejects a right to revolution. He grants it—off at the end. Just as he grants that the British may have to abandon their attempt to govern India, as they were driven to abandon their attempt in America, for want of judicious rule that respects human liberty, security, property, and happiness.

Within months, not years, all these things were already under dreadful attack in France. Hope for any spirit of moderate reform had fled; France was about to learn, good and hard, just precisely what “positively vicious and abusive government” can get up to.

Edmund Burke was particularly alarmed by the enthusiasm with which his Whig colleagues were embracing French revolutionary ideas. He had already glimpsed the worldwide ambitions of this Revolution. So he went to work on another letter, among the most famous public letters ever circulated, designed to gather together a coalition of firm opposition to the National Assembly in France. This letter, the Reflections on the Revolution in France, would precipitate his break with the Whigs, in a tumultuous exchange between Burke and Charles James Fox on the floor of Parliament, in midst (of all things) of discussion on a bill to provide for the integration of English Loyalists driven from America into Quebec. Perhaps something in the French language triggered the proxy battle over Burke’s denunciation of Revolutionary France. In any case, after the Quebec Bill debate, Burke had split with his party for good.

Critics of Burke’s Reflections sneered at his purple prose lament for the Queen; they belittled his forecasts of doom and wanton savagery, adopting a pose very familiar to Cold War America when they softly bemoaned the revolutionary excesses while loudly cheering the ideals. Another point of dispute exhorted him to supply the particulars of his own plan of reform for France. Opponents demanded to know what he would do to secure French liberty. His reply to this, in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, was to insist on intimacy with the particulars. Burke would almost take France as a mistress, in order to determine her nature, and prepare her reformation.

You gently reprehend me, because in holding out the picture of your disastrous situation, I suggest no plan for a remedy. Alas! Sir, the proposition of plans, without an attention to circumstances, is the very cause of all your misfortunes; and never shall you find me aggravating, by the infusion of any speculations of mine, the evils which have arisen from the speculations of others. Your malady, in this respect, is a disorder of repletion… I dare not risk a speculation with no better view of your affairs than at present I can command; my caution is not from disregard, but from solicitude for your welfare. It is suggested solely from my dread of becoming the author of inconsiderate counsel.
It is not, that as this strange series of actions has passed before my eyes, I have not indulged my mind in a great variety of political speculations concerning them. But compelled by no such positive duty as does not permit me to evade an opinion; called upon by no ruling power, without authority as I am, and without confidence, I should ill answer my own ideas of what would become myself, or what would be serviceable to others, if I were, as a volunteer, to obtrude any project of mine upon a nation, to whose circumstances I could not be sure it might be applicable.
Permit me to say, that if I were as confident, as I ought to be diffident in my own loose, general ideas, I never should venture to broach them, if but at twenty leagues distance from the centre of your affairs. I must see with my own eyes, I must, in a manner, touch with my own hands, not only the fixed, but the momentary circumstances, before I could venture to suggest any political project whatsoever. I must know the power and disposition to accept, to execute, to persevere. I must see all the aids, and all the obstacles. I must see the means of correcting the plan, where correctives would be wanted. I must see the things; I must see the men. Without a concurrence and adaptation of these to the design, the very best speculative projects might become not only useless, but mischievous. Plans must be made for men. We cannot think of making men, and binding nature to our designs. People at a distance must judge ill of men. They do not always answer to their reputation when you approach them. Nay, the perspective varies, and shows them quite otherwise than you thought them. At a distance, if we judge uncertainly of men, we must judge worse of opportunities, which continually vary their shapes and colours, and pass away like clouds. The Eastern politicians never do anything without the opinion of the astrologers on the fortunate moment. They are in the right, if they can do no better; for the opinion of fortune is something towards commanding it. Statesmen of a more judicious prescience, look for the fortunate moment too; but they seek it, not in the conjunctions and oppositions of planets, but in the conjunctions and oppositions of men and things. These form their almanack.

Reform must therefore arise out of the particulars; it cannot be handed down as by abstraction. Even the consultation of astrologers he presents as superior to the ministrations of distant speculators.

The thread of consistency, woven of patient prudential reform, practical wisdom, natural affections, and deep knowledge of the particulars, is evident across Burke’s whole public life. It is a model of wise statesmanship, still relevant today. That he avoided systematic theory obliges us to seek his teaching, with diligence worthy of his own studies, “in the conjunctions and oppositions of men and things,” as these particulars unfolded before him. As a brilliant polemical writer, Burke is easily accessible. As a philosopher and teacher of mankind, he compels us to something more than a detailed inquiry into his letters and speeches; we must undertake to locate them in the flow of historical events, that we might begin to see with his eyes. “Example,” he said, “is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”

Those penetrating eyes gazed out over a world in extraordinary commotion. He was in the arena for several of the most momentous events in history, and his assessments of them were uncanny in their insight. He stood for reform in an age of revolution. He stood for mild justice in an age of severe retribution. His own example, fitted properly to the turmoil of his times, erects itself to a kind of headmastership for the school of mankind; and any man who feels it his duty, to reform and preserve what he can in the wreck of this world, can do no better than matriculate, after a hard labor of learning, from this school, with Edmund Burke as his venerated headmaster.

1 Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy: University of Chicago, 1987.