The Burke-Paine Controversy: Texts and Criticism,
edited by Ray B. Browne.
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.
230 pp.

The famous controversy between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine was really not a controversy at all. Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. Paine replied to it with Parts I and II of The Rights of Man in 1791 and 1792, and would have been glad to engage Burke in argument. But Burke disdained ever to answer him, and so there was no controversy.

Nonetheless, the two men wrote respectively the English-speaking world’s best-known criticism of and defense of the French Revolution. In their pages the revolutionary ideology, expounded by a brilliant pamphleteer, clashed with a vigorous and intelligent explanation of the traditional British social and political order, which Burke offered as an alternative model to Europe and the world. This confrontation of ideas was The Burke-Paine Controversy that has echoed down the years to our day.

This paperback volume of reading is designed to introduce students to both sides of the “controversy.” The first section includes abridged texts of Burke’s Reflections and Paine’s Rights of Men (about half of the full text in each case). The following section includes contemporary comments by Samuel Johnson, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, some newspaper accounts, and two anonymous pamphlets: An Address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude and A Whipper for Levelling Tommy. The final section contains fourteen essays by twentieth-century authors that contribute more or less directly to an understanding of the significance of Burke and Paine.

Professor Browne also offers 76 “Suggestions for Written Assignments” that rather clearly reveal his own sympathies. Two of them must suffice for illustration:

36. [Harold J.] Laski says, “Suspicion of thought is integral to Burke’s philosophy.” Is this a just criticism of Burke? Is it this anti-intellectualism that appeals to the contemporary American right wing? Is it possible that all religious men are suspicious of human thought? [Irving] Babbitt says anti-intellectualism is related to “the weak side of Christianity.”

38. Laski demonstrates the basic contradictions, the blindness, the errors in Burke’s thinking, yet he says, “There is hardly a greater figure in the history of political thought in England.” Is Laski’s conclusion believable or tenable?

Professor Browne seems determined that the right-wing dogs shall not have the upper hand.

He tries conscientiously, however, to be impartial in his selection of readings. One can criticize the selection, and this reviewer will do so. But it has not been deliberately slanted.

The editor’s decision to present an abridgment of the Reflections and The Rights of Man results in a number of abrupt breaks in the text of these works, with the transitions notalways being made fully clear. One other defect may be mentioned. Since Burke is fond of quoting Latin, the editor has thoughtfully provided translations in brackets. One could wish that he had sought better advice on them, however. To give but one example, Justa bella quibus necessaria does not mean: “For these things just wars are necessary.” A freer but more accurate rendering of the Latin would be: “Wars are just to the extent that they are necessary.”

Still, enough of the text is provided to allow the student to form a reasonably good idea of the point at issue between Burke and Paine. This was the legitimacy of government, i.e., its title to authority and to men’s obedience.

Both writers agreed that in the original state of nature, no man had a right to rule another. According to Paine, civil society originated in a contractual act by which “the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.” From the originally sovereign wills of individuals, there thus arises a sovereign community or nation. “Sovereignty,” Paine says, “as a matter of right, appertains to the nation only, and not to any individual; and a nation has at all times an inherent indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interest, disposition, and happiness.” By this test, of course, every government in Europe was found illegitimate and fair game for revolutionists. Even the U.S. Constitution, which Paine admired, did not really meet the demands of his theory.

Burke never openly rejected the idea of a state of nature and its sovereign individuals. He simply denied that “one man, one vote” was a law of nature. Men’s original rights in the state of nature, he said, did not and could not determine the constitution of a civil society.

“The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial positive limitation upon those rights,” Burke argued, “from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience.” Government is essentially practical in nature; it is, Burke said, “a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” These wants are the criterion by whichgovernments are to be judged.

Burke never forgot that all government “stands upon opinion” and depends on the consent of the governed. But, he believed, the fact that a government has provided for their needs—insofar as a government can do that—to the reasonable satisfaction of its subjects over a long period of time is a far better proof of their consent and a more solid title to authority over them than the express consent of individuals told by the head would be. A government endowed with such a “prescriptive” title, according to Burke, is a legitimate government. It may lawfully he overthrown only if it commits those grave and continued abuses that have traditionally been considered to justify revolution. For the duty to obey constituted governments is an obligation under natural law that springs from men’s nature as social and political beings, and not from the sovereign wills of naturally, isolated individuals.

This bare summary is far from doing justice to Burke’s political philosophy or even to Paine’s simplistic ideology. But it throws light on the crux at which Burke’s and Paine’s theories of government clashed. This is badly missed by several of the authors whose writings are found in Part III of the present volume.

The worst offenders are Robert M. Hutchins in “The Theory of Oligarchy: Edmund Burke,” taken from The Thomist, V (1943) and Gertrude Himmelfarb in “The Hero as Politician,” taken from Twentieth Century, CLIII (1953). This reviewer is reminded of the occasion when he called on the late G. D. H. Cole (among other dons) in Oxford some ten years ago. Professor Cole was candid. “I can’t help you much with Burke,” he said, “because I dislike him so much.” The same is true of these two writers. They are so prejudiced against Burke that they cannot see what he meant by what he said. The result is that their articles are tendentious tracts that do not deserve the name of scholarship. If there was any excuse for publishing them in the first place, there is none for republishing them here.

The volume contains other articles on Burke by Woodrow Wilson, Harold J. Laski, Irving Babbitt, Raymond Moley, Russell Kirk, John Dos Passos, and Arnold A. Rogow. The contributions by Moley and Dos Passos are too insubstantial to merit inclusion here, but the other essays are well worth reading and will be helpful to students. One must regret the omission of articles or chapters by such students of Burke as Ernest Barker, Peter Stanlis, Ross Hoffman, and Leo Strauss, whose analyses of Burke’s thought are more profound than most of those contained in this volume.

On Paine we have essays by Vernon Parrington, Howard Penalman, and Perry Miller, all generally friendly but not uncritical. The volume ends with a section from T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, another from Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, and essays on Burke’s style by W. Somerset Maugham and on Paine’s by James T. Boulton, both of them good.

On the whole, Paine fares better than Burke in this book of readings. The reason is that Paine pleases Liberals because he was a prophet of two great modern developments: political democracy and the welfare state. Here, it must be said, he caught Burke at his weakest. Burke’s opposition to parliamentary reform was rigid and the economics of his Thoughts on Scarcity would be hard to defend. There was enough truth to hurt in Paine’s jibe that Burke “pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

But this remark does not settle the issue between Burke and Paine. As Senator J. William Fulbright—whose Liberal credentials are unimpeachable—said at a Fund for the Republic convocation in January 1963: “The history of political thought in the last century and a half is largely one of qualification, modification, and outright repudiation of the heady democratic optimism of the eighteenth century.” There are few better cures for an eighteenth-century hangover than a careful and unbiased reading of the works of Edmund Burke. 

Father Canavan (1918–2009), of Fordham University, is the author of three books on Burke.