Letters on a Regicide Peace
VOLUME 3. LETTERS ON A REGICIDE PEACE
by Francis Canavan
This volume includes Burke's four Letters on a Regicide Peace, his last published writings on the French Revolution and the policy toward it that he would have Great Britain follow. There is no need to explain here the historical circumstances in which Burke wrote these works or the details of their composition and publication, since E. J. Payne has so thoroughly done that in his Introduction. A few comments will be enough—possibly more than enough.
As Payne says, there were contemporaries of Burke, "chiefly among the Foxite Whigs, who saw in the 'Reflections' the beginnings of a distorted view of things which in the 'Regicide Peace' letters culminated and amounted to lunacy." It is a criticism that has often been repeated since then: Burke's attack on the Revolution became simply hysterical. But Payne thinks otherwise and holds that in the letters Burke expressed "a far bolder, wider, more accurate view" than that expressed in the Reflections and wrote "as a statesman, a scholar, and a historical critic." The Letters on a Regicide Peace, he concludes, are entitled "to rank even before the 'Reflections,' and to be called the writer's masterpiece."*1
Nonetheless, Payne maintains that, although Burke was substantially right in his judgment of the French Republic under the Directory, he was wrong in his defense of the ancien régime as it existed not only in France but also throughout Europe. "That political system of Europe," he says, "which Burke loved so much, was rotten to the heart; and it was the destiny of French republicanism to begin the long task of breaking it up, crumbling it to dust, and scattering it to the winds. This is clear as the day to us."*2 Without nostalgia for that political system, however, we may once again note a touch of nineteenth-century optimism in Payne's remark. For one could also point to the difficulty France has had in establishing a stable democratic regime. One might also agree that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the following years destroyed a system that was rotten to the heart and deserved to perish. But are we willing to assign a historical destiny to Leninism and Stalinism? Our experience with revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggests that we should maintain a certain caution about historical destiny and the ideologies that foster belief in it.
John Gray, a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, has warned us not to neglect "the oldest lesson of history, which is that no form of government is ever secure or final." The liberal democratic regime, he believes, suffers from a weakness that derives from "the cultural sources of liberal self-deception that emerged from the French Revolution," which in turn was a product of the Enlightenment. But he wonders whether "the Enlightenment cultures of the West can shed these disabling utopias without undergoing a traumatic loss of self-confidence." It would be highly optimistic, he believes, to hope for "Enlightenment without illusions."*3
It was the illusion of a secular utopia, proclaimed by such of his contemporaries as the Marquis de Condorcet and Joseph Priestley, that Burke feared in the Revolution. As the French political scientist Bertrand de Jouvenel was to say in the twentieth century, "there is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia."*4 Burke was right in pointing out the danger of political utopianism. His mistake was to tie the causes of civilization and Christendom too closely to the political regime of monarchy and aristocracy that existed in his time. The flaw in the democratic revolution that began at that time was that it justified itself with a political theory rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Today it would seem that the future of democracy depends on developing and adopting a sounder political philosophy than one based on what is, to an increasing degree, an intellectually and morally bankrupt liberalism. To that project Burke, for all his devotion to a social and political order that was dying as he wrote, can make a valuable contribution.
Notes for this chapter
National Review 48 (April 8, 1996): 53-54.
Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1997), p. 12.
Vol. 3, Introduction, by E. J. Payne
End of Notes
Volume 3. Editor's Note
by Francis Canavan
In this volume, the pagination of E. J. Payne's edition is indicated by bracketed page numbers embedded in the text. Cross references have been changed to reflect the pagination of the current edition. Burke's and Payne's spellings, capitalizations, and use of italics have been retained, strange as they may seem to modern eyes. The use of double punctuation (e.g., ,—) has been eliminated except in quoted material. In the present volume, footnotes in Letters 1, 2, and 4 are Burke's. Footnotes in Letter 3 are explained in the two advertisements preceding Letter 3.
All references to Burke's Correspondence are to the 1844 edition.
The autumn of 1795 opened a new scene in the great drama of French affairs. It witnessed the establishment of the Directory. Five years had now passed since Burke had published his famous denunciation of the French Revolution. Those five years had witnessed portents and convulsions transcending all living experience. The Revolution still existed: but it had passed through strange transformations. The monarchy had perished in attempting to compromise with the Revolution. The dethroned King had been tried and executed as a traitor. The Queen and the Princess Elizabeth had met the same fate. The Dauphin, a mere boy, had been slowly murdered in a prison. The King's brothers, with the remnant of the anti-Revolutionary party, had fled from French soil to spread terror and indignation through Europe. Meanwhile, the destinies of France had been shaped by successive groups of eager and unscrupulous politicians. Those whom Burke had early denounced had long disappeared. Necker was in exile: Mirabeau was dead: Lafayette was in an Austrian dungeon: Barnave and Bailly had perished on the scaffold. To their idle schemes of constitutional monarchy had succeeded the unmixed democracy of the Convention: and to themselves that fierce and desperate race in whom the spirit of the Revolution dwelt in all its fulness, and in whom posterity will ever regard it as personified—the Dantons, the Héberts, the Marats, the Talliens, the Saint-Justs, the Santerres, and the Robespierres. The terrible story of the Convention is summed up in a few words. The Gironde and the Mountain had wrestled fiercely for power: and the victory had fallen to the least moderate of the two. The ascendancy
In the eyes of outsiders, the establishment of the Directory was the most important incident since the abolition of the monarchy. It confirmed the republican form of government: and its filiation with the Convention justified the transfer to it of the epithet Regicide. The execution of Louis XVI, though of small importance in the internal politics of France, had been the turning point in the relations of the Republic to the European world. But European intervention, in a feeble and undecided form, had commenced long before the tragedy of January 1793. The King's treason had been the breach of his sworn fidelity to the new order of things, followed by an attempted flight to the camp of a general who was plotting the destruction of the Revolution by arms. Two months after that attempt, the Emperor and the King of Prussia had held the meeting of Pilnitz: in the following year the forces of the Armed Coalition were on the soil of France. The capture of Longwy struck terror into none save those who were profoundly ignorant of the state of the opposing elements. The invasion of Champagne, if such it can be called, acted on France like an electric stroke.
The year 1793 opened a new phase of the struggle. France was no longer the helpless object of intervention and plunder. France had braced herself for resistance: she had proved her strength. Europe began to dread as well as to hate her. Meanwhile a fiercer element was added to the ferment. The dark days of December had witnessed the trial of Louis at the bar of the Convention: the 21st of January witnessed his execution. The attitude of England had for above two years been one of utter carelessness. Burke's voice had been raised almost alone in tones of alarm: and Burke had been unanimously laughed down. The English nation were not unlike the Spanish Admiral Don Alonzo del Campo, with his fleet peaceably riding at anchor in the lake of Maracaibo. Two days before the redoubtable Morgan destroyed that fleet, a negro, says the chronicler, came on board, telling him, "Sir, be pleased to have great
Pitted against such a Coalition France might well expect
The fortunes of France steadily rose from the hour when the Duke of York was forced to raise the siege of Dunkirk. During the winter, the army in Flanders was reinforced to the utmost: and early in 1794 the command of it was transferred from Jourdan to Pichegru. Meanwhile, the spirit of the Allies began to flag. There was little union or sympathy among them: and as for Austria and Prussia, they hated each other with their old hatred. Prussia, jealous of the aggrandisement of Austria, left her unsupported: there was no combined plan: and the spring was wasted in desultory fighting on the Sambre and the Meuse. The French gained daily: but it was not until the 26th of June that the decisive action was fought on the plains of Fleurus. The French now entered Brussels. Before the summer of 1794 was ended, the Allies were swept from the Austrian Netherlands and driven back on Holland. Here the reality of their success was at once tested by its effect on the Dutch. The party of the Stadtholder had long maintained with great difficulty a doubtful ascendancy. The French sympathizers now took fresh heart: and throughout Holland the approach of the French produced a powerful revival of the republican party. Everywhere the Revolution reproduced itself. Province after province of the United Netherlands gladly capitulated as the French advanced. While the Stadtholder fled to England, the British contingent was falling back on Gröningen and Friesland: and it at length retired to German soil, and sailed homeward. The French had conquered the key of Europe.
In little more than a year the predictions of Burke had been
These desertions left nothing remaining of the Coalition, save
On the question of the war with France, English public opinion had been passionately divided. Fox had opposed it from the beginning with the utmost force of his eloquence and his authority. It was when this war was looming in the distance that Burke had formally confirmed his alienation from Fox, and finally broken with that great party to which he had formerly been bound by his convictions, his personal associations, and his public
Tum vos, O Tyrii, stirpem et genus omne futurum
Lansdowne had raised a similar discussion in the Lords; but in both houses the disposition to war predominated. When the war actually broke out, the question was debated with redoubled ardour. But the advocates of peace were nowhere. In vain did the calm, penetrating, practical statesmanship of Lansdowne, based upon his unrivalled knowledge of continental affairs, protest to the Lords against England being made the "cat's-paw of Europe." Nor had the heated sympathies of Fox any more effect in the Commons. The nation was pledged to the war; and for a while it prosecuted the war with vigour.
In these early debates on the war Burke had brought the Ministry an important accession of strength. When he seceded from the Whig ranks, he carried with him a large and respectable section of the party: the Portlands, the Fitzwilliams, and the Windhams. Like Burke, these men served the cause of general liberty and good government with a firm and genuine devotion: like him, they believed that cause to be disgraced and profaned by the crimes committed by the French government in its name. Like Burke, they believed in an England flourishing at home, but so using her wealth and her power as to make herself potent abroad: in an England which would not tamely suffer by her side aggressors who defied the public law of Europe, insulted its diplomatists, and rearranged the relations of its peoples by the standard of their own rapacity, or convenience, or caprice. These were the most strenuous supporters of the war. The
So long as the Allies were successful, the war was popular enough. When the Coalition was defeated, and that process of defection began which ultimately left England standing alone against the victorious Republic, the tide of opinion naturally turned. Burke's idea of a war for the old régime, steadfastly and sternly waged until the old régime should be restored, had gradually fallen into disrepute: and in the end it may be doubted whether any one believed in it except himself and Lord Fitzwilliam. Europe had made a cat's-paw of England: but it wanted that convenient instrument no longer. And Pitt's real impulse to the war was counterbalanced by the damage it wrought on commerce and manufactures at home. For in Pitt's view, the war against France was almost as much a war of plunder as in the view of the Emperor or the King of Prussia. The French cared little for their colonies. "Perish the colonies, rather than a single principle," had rung through the Assembly, in a famous debate on the consequence of granting political rights to the
Grey had stated his motion too categorically. Pitt was determined neither to accept nor to reject it. He honestly wished to end the war: but he did not wish to be driven to it by Mr. Grey. He did not wish to tie himself to negotiate immediately, or to negotiate at any definite distance of time. He wished to persuade the nation, at the same time, of his own willingness to end the war, and of his own fitness to decide on the time when, and the persons with whom, and the circumstances in which, any negotiations for ending it should be undertaken. He therefore
These considerations were not without an impression on thoughtful people in England. On the 6th of February, 1795, Grey again returned to the charge. The previous question was moved, and he was again defeated. It was not a full house: but the majority against him was numerically less. And it was less in
When Parliament met for the Session of 1794-1795, though the failure of the Coalition was plain, its dissolution was only foreseen. It took place during the spring and the summer. When Parliament next met in October 1795, all Europe, save England and Austria, had made peace with France: and Austria was only waiting to see if she could perchance make better terms through the help of England. The defection of Prussia had produced one curious result. It forced that peace which Prussia had accepted on the smaller states of Western Germany. Those states hastened to make their peace, to save themselves from annexation: and among the rest, the King of England was forced to make peace as Elector of Hanover. Another ill-judged blow at the Republic had been fruitlessly attempted. The Quiberon expedition had failed, having served no other purpose than to deepen French hatred and distrust of England. And a change had taken place which tended to discredit the argument of Mr. Pitt, that no peace could be made with the blood-stained Republic. The Convention, with all its follies, all its crimes, and all its glories, was gone. It had not passed away in the throes of revolution. It had quietly expired in a time of comparative domestic tranquillity, bequeathing its power and its prestige, purged of the horror which attached to its name, to a new constitution of its own devising. This new constitution was the Directory.
The new scheme of government differed essentially from the mass of those paper-constitutions which Burke described Sieyes as keeping assorted in the pigeon-holes of his desk. Ostensibly, it was a step in the direction of constitutional government on the English model: practically, it was the first stepping-stone to a military despotism. It was really an anarchy of the worst type. It was a despotism not strong enough to despise opposition, not bold enough to scorn vacillation, not quick and sagacious enough to efface the results of its inherent defects before they had wrought its destruction. It indulged freely in the safe and easy cant of republicanism. The republic was "one and indivisible": the sovereignty resided in the universality of French citizens. There was universal suffrage, to be exercised in primary assemblies: these elected the secondary or elective assemblies; these elected
Notes for this chapter
Remarks on the Policy of the Allies, 1793.
End of Notes
Those essential vices of the Directorial constitution, which soon wrought its disruption, remained for the present unnoticed. Except Carnot, the men who were at its head were little known beyond the circle of Parisian politicians. For Burke, the Directory was a mere Committee of the Regicide Convention, inheriting in all fulness its reckless policy, and its infamous principles. One fact amply justified him in extending to the Directory that hateful epithet "Regicide," which he had bestowed upon the Convention. The new law provided that no man should be a Director who had not given his vote in the Convention for the death of the King. All the Directors were thus in the strictest sense of the word Regicides. While Carnot was planning the restoration of peace, at the imminent risk of his own head, Burke was not altogether without justification when he described him as a sanguinary tyrant, sunk on the down of usurped pomp, not satiated with the blood of his own sovereign, but indulging his ravening maw in the expectation of more. Such a picture may indeed not misrepresent the party who had dominated in the Convention, and succeeded in dominating in the Directory. But it misrepresents Carnot, who resisted while resistance was possible, and at length fell from his elevation, and fled for his life.
Apart from the merits or demerits of its constitution, the establishment of the Directory was an opportunity not likely to be lost by those politicians, on both sides of the house, who whether openly or secretly wished to put an end to the war. It coincided with the end of the Parliamentary vacation of 1795. We have seen how fast the necessity for peace had meanwhile grown upon the allies. The Ministry now boldly reversed their policy. Their attitude hitherto had drawn no signs of a peaceable disposition
The attitude of Burke in this changed situation could not be to the Ministry a matter of indifference. He had swayed public opinion towards the war: he had strenuously supported it: and though now broken by sorrow and disease, no longer in Parliament, and living in strict retirement at Beaconsfield, he had given striking proof that the power of his pen had not abated. The failure of the Hastings prosecution had bitterly disappointed him: and after the acquittal, he ceased for a time to busy himself with public affairs, not even, as he declared to a correspondent, reading a newspaper for months together. A personal attack roused him: and his famous "Letter to a Noble Lord," which had surprised the world by its fiery and bitter eloquence, indicated that he was still a prominent man in the country. Lord Auckland, though never an intimate friend, and never until lately even a political ally, addressed to him a respectful letter, accompanying it with a copy of the October pamphlet. He preserved Burke's reply: and on the publication of Burke's posthumous works many years afterwards he supplied a copy of it for insertion among them. Burke's letter breathed no gust of passion at finding that the Ministry had at length deliberately abandoned that policy which had tempted him from his life-long allegiance. He employed to express what he felt no stronger terms than grief, dismay, and dejection. But he declared that the policy of Fox and Lansdowne, now advisedly embraced by the Ministry, could lead to nothing but ruin, utter and irretrievable. He declared that in that ruin would be involved not only the Ministry, but the Crown, the succession, the importance, the independence, the very existence, of the country. These expressions, however, were private. Burke still hoped that the Ministry had not come to their final decision. He still hoped that the English people would hesitate before casting in their lot with Jacobinism and thus taking, as he believed, the first step to the dissolution of their own established government.
The King's Speech at the opening of Parliament contained a passage which more guardedly foreshadowed the same conclusion. Should the crisis in France, it declared, terminate in any order of things compatible with the tranquillity of other countries, and affording a reasonable expectation of security and
Six weeks passed. The Directory began with every possible
Lord Auckland's pamphlet had now reached a second edition. It had been translated into French. It began with a French motto: Que faire dans une telle nuit? Attendre le jour. The night of Revolution was now far spent: the daystar of peace and moderation was arisen. Such was the gay vision with which the Ministry dazzled the English people. But it created the deepest alarm in those who looked below the surface. England was now on the verge of the precipice: and the ghastly depth of that precipice was easily measured by a glance at Holland. Holland had made her peace: England was now on the verge of making hers. Negotiations for peace might at any moment be commenced and ended: and before England had realized what she was doing, she might find herself fast bound in a treaty with the Regicide Republic. Such a treaty would lead to an alliance: such an alliance to the fatal assimilation of the two
Feeble and broken as Burke was, he did not shrink from taking up his pen for what could not but be a sustained controversy. He began with the pamphlet of October, which he examined, from beginning to end, in a letter addressed to the Earl Fitzwilliam. This letter he never published: he never even finished it. It was found by his executors among his papers, and published with other posthumous works in 1812 as the "Fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace." It is so published in the present volume: but it is really the First. The task animated Burke to an extraordinary degree. Nothing more gay and vivacious than the first part of this letter ever came from his pen. It breathes at first that spirit of pure and good-humoured raillery which had so often won the author the ear of the Commons when it had been deaf to his deeper and more studied irony, to his prophetic warnings, and to his lavished stores of knowledge and wisdom. But these elements were not wanting. As the writer warms to his subject, he opens the vial of that fierce and blasting contempt which none knew better how to pour forth upon occasion. Burke's representatives, in preserving this relic to the world, preserved to it a literary treasure of high value. Its interest, however, is little more than literary. Its scope does not extend beyond the four corners of the October pamphlet, except towards the end, where the first Editor has tacked on to it one of Burke's old philippics against Jacobinism. It proves that Burke was not deceived by the Directorial imposture. He, for one, saw clearly that the mantle of the Committee of Public Safety had descended on the Directory. He saw that France was still at heart Jacobin, and still bent on a war with the ancient political system of Europe; a war whose principle was fanaticism, whose object was conquest, and which was everywhere attended with insult, with plunder, and with destruction. This war could not be judged by any modern standard, or indeed by any single standard in the records of history. It resembled in some degree the wars of Attila and the wars of Mahomet. But adequately to shadow forth those who planned and conducted it, Mahomet and Attila must be rolled into one.
The grant of his well-earned pension had done something to restore the balance of Burke's powers. It assured him ease in his affairs during what he knew must be the short remainder of his career: and during the spring he now busied himself with his farm, with his pamphlet, and with the establishment of a school for the children of French emigrants at the village of Penn, a mile or two from his door. In this school he took a keen delight: he visited it almost daily; and he declared it to be the only pleasure which remained to him. Many a Frenchman who twenty years afterwards served the restored Bourbon dynasty, had worn the blue uniform and white cockade of the Penn school, and had eagerly turned his eyes to greet the worn face and emaciated figure of the famous Englishman who had stirred up Europe in their cause. At present, it was not Burke's policy to thrust the peace controversy into prominence. Time, unveiling slowly and surely the character of the new government, would do more. But the opposition still continued the agitation. Peace was no nearer than when the government, towards the end of the previous year, had signified their gracious approval of the constitution of the Directory. The opposition, pushing their success, demanded that the peace negotiations should be accelerated. Why did the Ministry delude the nation with the prospect of a peace, while nothing was done, and every day brought news of some fresh success to the arms of the French? Mr. Pitt could only reply that steps towards a negotiation were being taken. His situation was not without difficulty. Though his own imperious mind was set upon a peace some of his best supporters were swayed by Burke's disapproval of it. Windham was against peace: Loughborough, the Chancellor, was against it: Fitzwilliam and Portland were against it. All these united in urging Burke to publish the pamphlet he was known to be writing: and the Ministry, yielding to the pressure of the opposition, now took a more decided step. Burke now hastened to finish his pamphlet. He laboured at it from time to time: sometimes he carried what he had written to the sick chamber of his wife, and read it aloud to the sole companion of his declining years. But before he had completed it, he was himself stricken down by a violent attack of his fatal malady, which compelled him to retreat at once to Bath.
In adding the Belgian Netherlands to France, French statesmen were not guilty of the gross folly of annexing the ancient territory of a neighbouring nation, inhabited by a patriotic and high-spirited population. Flanders and Brabant had no more to do with Ducal Austria than Hanover had to do with England. They had descended to its reigning family by an accident: they were the remains of a once-flourishing kingdom, itself nearly allied to France. The people were unanimous for the French incorporation. It was here that the aggression of the Allies had commenced. Belgium was the gate of France: its surrender would be the surrender of her hard-won guarantee for the security of her territory against future invasion. The surrender of Belgium involved the loss of another inestimable advantage. The possession of it was the sole guarantee for the independence of Holland. Cut off Holland, to France or to England an equally desirable ally, by surrendering Belgium, and a counter-revolution would have brought the Stadtholder back to the Hague in a month.
But fortune suddenly put a new resource into Mr. Pitt's hands. A war of aggression carried on on every frontier could not be long carried on without reverses: and the French arms in the summer of 1796 sustained a serious check. Secure on the side of the Netherlands, France was pushing to the utmost the advantages she had gained on the Rhine and in Italy. The plan of the war was bold and simple. On the Rhine were Jourdan and Moreau: in Italy Bonaparte had established a base of operations by the submission of Sardinia. Jourdan and Moreau were to unite and push on by the valley of the Danube, while Bonaparte, after sweeping Northern Italy of the Austrians, was to force the passes of the Tyrol, unite with Moreau and Jourdan, and pour the whole forces of the French Republic on Vienna. Fortune steadily attended the French arms in Italy: and nothing in the world seemed more unlikely than reverses in Germany. Once more Frankfort was occupied and pillaged: the important princes of Baden and Wirtemberg, and the nest of petty sovereigns who were included in the Circle of Swabia, hastened to buy peace by submission and contributions. The defence of the Empire had been entrusted to the Archduke Charles, a young general not wholly unworthy of the praise which Burke bestows upon him. Placed between the two armies of Moreau and Jourdan, he was compelled to retreat before them step by step, until a blow well-directed on the former general at Donauwerth separated him from his artillery and stores and compelled him to a temporary pause. Turning his success to instant advantage, Charles left a small force to keep Moreau in check, and drew off the bulk of his army to fall with crushing force upon Jourdan. After a few days' skilful manoeuvring, he completely defeated him in the battle of Amberg. This victory completely frustrated the plans for the German campaign. Jourdan was obliged to flee in disorder to the Lower Rhine, losing in his retreat, if it could be dignified with the name, nearly half his army. Moreau pushed on into Bavaria: but the disaster sustained by Jourdan, and the daily reinforcements poured into the Imperial ranks, made it necessary to commence a retreat, which he effected in so masterly a manner as to entitle it to high celebrity among military exploits.
Unfortunately for the salutary effect which might have been wrought in the French mind by Jourdan's disaster, it had been more than counteracted by the extraordinary advance of the French in their second line of attack on Austria. In Italy a campaign more rapid and more brilliant than anything on record had been made by the youthful protégé of Barras. A force of forty thousand picked French troops, well inured to a hot climate by service against Spain in the Pyrenees, was set free for further operations by the peace which had been made by Godoy. Early in the year these troops were sent to reinforce the French army in the maritime Alps: and the command of the whole was given to Bonaparte. Hardly had the first blow been struck, when the King of Sardinia sued for peace, and opened to French garrisons those famous fortresses which made Piedmont the key of Italy. The Duke of Parma followed his example. Bonaparte was in a week or two in possession of Milan, and overrunning the whole of Lombardy. Before the end of May, he had passed the Mincio, forcing the Austrians partly into Mantua and partly into the uplands. Not a single disaster stayed his progress. News of the great victories of Castiglione and Arcola, of the siege of Mantua, of the submission of Naples, and of the formation of the Cispadane Republic, came like a succession of thunderclaps to Paris and to London. The young Corsican adventurer had brought to pass the favourite dream of French ambition. He
After some formal parley, the French Directory at length granted a passport for an English envoy to be sent to Paris. But this double issue of the year's events complicated the negotiation at the outset. The English based their hopes of the abandonment of French military ambition on the successes of the Archduke Charles, on the failure and mismanagement of the internal resources of France, prominently insisted on by the moderate party in the debates of the two Assemblies, and not least on the pacific disposition of one or two of the Directors themselves. They believed it to be worth the while of the Directory to sacrifice the Austrian Netherlands to secure a peace which should ensure the stability of the new constitution. But had the Directory no reason to suppose that the renewal of the negotiations by England indicated a disposition to concede this very point? Barthélemy's answer to Wickham had been explicit enough. The conquest of Italy far outweighed the disasters in Germany: and the Directory might very well imagine that the latter rather than the former had suggested the initiative now taken by England. Had Lord Grenville hinted through the Danish Minister the grounds which induced him to offer peace, and made it known that his terms would be substantially the same which had been rejected at Basle, there can be no doubt that the Directory would have indignantly refused to treat. The new negotiation was thus based from the very outset on mutual misunderstandings.
A few months had so changed the situation that scarcely a line of all that Burke had written before his compulsory retreat to Bath was now applicable to it. Peace with France was no longer obscurely hinted at. It was openly avowed as a foremost object of policy: it was sought by every possible means, at the sacrifice of ministerial consistency, almost of national dignity and honour. Twice, at Basle and Berlin, had the British Ministry held out the hand of conciliation, and each time they had been met with a haughty rebuff. Yet the experiment was about to be repeated at Paris. All this was so much gain to those who opposed on principle all dealings with the Regicide Republic. Every repetition of the experiment weakened the cause of the peacemakers. If the present negotiation could be made to end in failure, all peril
Such were the hopes with which Burke began, before the name of the British envoy was known, to write his First published Letter on a Regicide Peace. The contemplation of the past vicissitudes of France suggested that brilliant historical phantasmagoria with which the volume opens. In the mutable scheme of human events, all things were possible. That terrible and unnatural spectre which now stalked over paralysed Europe was liable to the same fate which had befallen the murdered French Monarchy. The ends of Providence were often accomplished by slight means. Nearly four centuries ago the power that was then devastating France had been broken by a poor girl at the door of an inn. Who should say that Providence had no second Joan of Arc, to save France from an enemy a thousandfold more cruel and hateful?
In an exordium of greater length than he commonly allowed himself, before reaching the main question of argument, but turning with such life and swiftness to almost every element contained in the question, that it seems unusually brief, Burke went on to sketch out the true position of England and the Allies, and the true relation of France with the rest of Europe. He then turned to the history of the overtures for peace. Omitting the Auckland pamphlet, and dating the negotiations from the King's Speech which accompanied it, he pictured with bitter irony the crowned heads of Europe patiently waiting as suitors in the antechamber of the Luxembourg, and among the rest, the proud monarchy of Britain bidding for the mercy of the regicide tyrants. He next states the result of the Basle negotiations, which was briefly this. All that the Republic had incorporated with itself, by a "law" which it arrogantly assumed to be irreversible, it meant to keep. The Austrian Netherlands in the North, Savoy in the East, Nice in the South, had been thus incorporated.
The conquest of Italy, together with the over-running of half Germany, came in opportunely for Burke's argument. Here was the best commentary on the pacific professions of the Directory. In the counsels which projected this crusade against the liberties of Europe there was no halt or hesitation. Europe might sue for peace: the Directory could afford to refuse it, and ultimately to impose on Europe its own terms. From the previous conduct of the Directory, from its ascertained character, and from the present situation of affairs, Burke drew the conclusion that no terms which England could accept would be offered. He then passed on to consider how far the minority, in proposing peace, could be considered as expressing the public mind of England. None but regicide sympathizers could really desire a regicide peace: the rest of the nation, if once roused to a full consideration of the question, and to a sense of its enormous moment, must be in favour of maintaining the war. What proportion did the Jacobins, with Lansdowne, Fox, and Grey at their head, bear to the English nation? Burke was ready with an answer: and his answer, based as it was on data which he thought sufficient, is a curious and valuable piece of statistics. He estimated the number of Englishmen and Scotsmen capable of forming political opinions at four hundred thousand. One-fifth, or eighty thousand, of these he reckoned as Jacobins. The remainder he assumed to be supporters of the ancient and natural policy of England.
How, then, was the present unpopularity of the war to be accounted for? How was it that the English people, a people of sympathies easily kindled into a warlike flame, and in general only too ready to support a policy of action, were petitioning on all sides against a war in which England and her Allies had everywhere
In contrasting the mercenary war of 1739 with the War of the Grand Alliance a generation before, and tracing the analogy between that famous struggle and the present one, Burke employed a method which the reader of his works has already seen well exemplified in the Speech on Conciliation with America. It was the method of applying reason to historical example: and Burke's natural examples were the wars which Britain had waged during the preceding century. Wars, he maintained, must not be judged by the impulse which leads to them, or by the spirit with which they are first prosecuted. A popular war is generally a mercenary war, and therefore, as likely as not, an unjust war. That famous war of 1739, in which the English nation had been roused to an enthusiasm so memorable, Burke pronounced, after a careful examination of the original documents of the times, to have been an extremely unjust war. In that other great war for the balance of power, which had been waged in the preceding generation by William III at the head of the Grand Alliance, the conditions were reversed. That war was a righteous and necessary one, if any ever were such. But was that war a popular one? Was it even carried on with spirit and vigour when the break-up of the hollow peace of Ryswick called the British people to redoubled exertions? On the contrary, all classes of the people, sodden with ignorance and toryism, detested it. The great Whig ministers themselves despaired of it. "The sober firmness of Somers, the undaunted resolution of Shrewsbury, the adventurous spirit of Montagu and Orford, were
This fine historical argument is stated by Burke in his happiest manner—a manner which irresistibly recalls his arguments on Conciliation with America. He naturally changed his style in passing on to his next task, that of animating the English people by exhibiting to them a picture, painted in the most glowing colours, of their abominated enemy. Macaulay, in a clever jeu d'esprit, has described Burke as a merry, good-natured Irishman, who liked to go out at nights to a children's party carrying a magic lantern, with which he alternately amused and terrified them. Such a picture of the effect upon England of a Jacobin Peace concludes the Fourth Letter. In such a spirit he had astonished the House by flinging the Birmingham dagger on the floor. Very different is that calm analysis of the French Republic which concludes the First Letter, and is continued in the Second. Keen of eye, and firm of hand, like some skilled anatomist, he gradually lays bare the structure of this political monster. Less, however, is now made of the natural and inborn atrociousness of the French republic, less of the crimes and follies of the Assembly and Convention. The main point insisted on is that France, once a scene of chaos, a proverb for anarchy, has become a vast, united, sagacious, and terrible power: a power which Europe must boldly face, but to face which Europe has hitherto been totally lacking in resolution. The exposure of the true aims and the actual character of the new French ambition is the main point of the present letters: and in this great and central point it may safely be said that Burke was perfectly and invariably right. How the spirit which animated France was aroused, of what elements it was compounded, whether its prevalence might have been prevented, what might and ought to have been the policy of the leading men in France, were questions that had really passed into the limbo of chroniclers. On these subordinate questions we think that Burke was often wrong: on the main question we are sure that he was right. He was as right as he had been
We have said that the French were in the right to keep fast hold on the Austrian Netherlands. Had it been clear that the French merely wished to retain them for purposes of defence, as a compensation for the outrage attempted upon the French nation by what was really a war of plunder, and as a recognition on the part of Europe of the great alteration which the Revolution had wrought in both the outward and the inward aspect of the French nationality, we think that England ought to have made peace. But it was not so: the Belgian annexation, as the sequel soon proved, was but the beginning of a policy of Conquest. And in any case, England could make no peace yielding up the Netherlands to France, unless her Austrian ally assented to it. To have made such a peace would have been to drink of that cup of humiliation which had been eagerly drained by Spain and Prussia, and to have yielded that position the firm maintenance of which in succeeding years sufficed to save the whole of Europe from the all-levelling despotism of Bonaparte. In any case, no equitable peace could be made in haste. The changes we have related, few and simple in themselves, had penetrated to the very base of all European relations: and the reparation of the strains and fractures they had wrought was a task demanding in the highest degree patience, moderation, firmness, and good sense. These were not wanting on the side of England. They were totally wanting on the side of France.
The messenger of peace whom Pitt despatched to Paris in
The history of the failure of the negotiations is amply detailed in the Second Part of the Third Letter. Malmesbury's last
The British Ministry lost no time in publishing their comment on the failure of the negotiation. In a long and laboured Declaration, dated December the 27th, they evinced the strongest disappointment, and cast the whole blame on the French. They "lamented" its abrupt termination, and solemnly engaged, "in the face of all Europe," to renew negotiations as soon as the French should be disposed to recommence them. This undignified attitude had at least the merit of consistency. It sealed and confirmed that abject apostrophe to the French in the name of Pitt and his colleagues, which Burke in his contemptuous mood had already penned—"Citizen Regicides!.... Nothing shall hinder us from renewing our supplications. You may turn us out at the door: but we will jump in at the window" (p. 83).
Burke had foreseen the failure of the negotiations: and it was
The composition of the great fragment of a Third Letter on a Regicide Peace was spread over the last six months of Burke's life. It was begun in January, and the rest was probably written during the short intervals of ease which he enjoyed, while his incurable malady was slowly hastening his end. Burke spent the early part of the year partly at Beaconsfield and partly at Bath. To the latter place he went much against his inclination: for his sincere wish was to die as quietly as might be at home. His political allies drove him to the crowded pump-room of Bath in hopes of prolonging a life so necessary, as they thought, to the welfare of the country. "Your life," Windham had written on the 22nd of January, "is at this moment of more consequence than that of any other man now living." The cause of the Regicide war had now become indeed precarious. The hopes of those who wished to reanimate the nation rested, as Windham put it, on Burke's pen and Hoche's sword. The events of April added new force to the latter argument. Bonaparte, at the gates of Vienna, had driven Austria herself to sue for peace: and England now stood alone. In full expectation of speedy invasion, Windham turned anxiously to Burke. Unwilling as he was to tax Burke's declining powers, he begged him to write only a short letter indicating the measures necessary to be taken for the immediate safety of the country. "The danger," he wrote, "is coming thundering upon us. We are miserably unprepared, in means, and in spirit, for the crisis." But while the need was
Dr. French Laurence, an eminent civilian, whose association with Burke during the Hastings Impeachment had led to the closest political and social relations with him, and Dr. Walker King, Bishop of Rochester, were Burke's literary executors. The Third Letter on a Regicide Peace was prepared for the press by the former; the Fourth, by the latter. The exact condition in which the Third Letter came to the hands of Laurence is described in the Advertisements, prefixed to it on publication, and reprinted in the present volume. Laurence added to it what was necessary to fill up the design: and the added portions are easy to be distinguished from the original. In the part written by Burke's own hand it is impossible to trace any marks of declining intellectual power. But it is easy to trace in it a declining disposition or ability to employ the old weapons of authorship. The rare exuberance, the inextinguishable force and vivacity which mark the "Letter to a Noble Lord," and are not wanting in the "Fourth Letter," are gone. In part, no doubt, they were extinguished by pain and debility. Nothing remains but the clear vision, the unimpaired judgment, the stern penetration which fact and reason alone survive, and the large conception
The "Regicide Peace" Letters form a natural complement to the two volumes of Burke's Select Works already issued in the present series. The main topic of the Tract and Speeches contained in the first volume is the relation of Government to the people in the mass, whether at home or in the colonies. The main topic of the famous work contained in the second volume is the relation of the present generation of men, viewed as a political body, to those which have passed away, and to those which are to come. The question in the present volume is the almost equally inexhaustible one of the relation of separate nations to that great family of nations which is called the civilized world. Of this question the interest is inexhaustible because it is perpetual, and because the conditions which surround it are perpetually changing. It is one which is passed on from one generation of Englishmen to another, with the continuous life of the great community itself which they compose. The duty and interest of England as a member of the European family of nations is indeed a large subject. We have it in the present volume discussed by a large and forethoughtful mind. In times when the duties of nations to their neighbours are as little settled, so far at least as belongs to practice, as were the duties of man in the Hobbesian state of nature, and when political conditions all over the world are rapidly becoming such that the attitude of nations to each other is practically determined, and determined in a very short space of time, by the capricious impulses of a majority told by the head, the mature conclusions of one so wise and so well-informed as Burke on this subject should possess some interest. Let us see, as briefly as possible, to what those conclusions amount.
In the preface to a previous volume of Burke's works*8 we have sketched out Burke's doctrine of the position of the individual man in relation to mankind at large. Man is so formed as to be entirely controlled by instincts arising from intercourse with his neighbours. Severance from his fellow-men means the extinction of those controlling instincts, and the extinction, in and through them, of all the power that gives to man's natural eminence in the
But how far does this analogy between the human individual and the body politic hold good? Limits it unquestionably has. The human individual, for instance, presuming him to escape casual causes of death, is absolutely certain of dissolution in the ordinary course of nature within a space of time not exceeding, except in the rarest cases, a well-ascertained limit. But it is false to argue from this to similar conditions in the body politic. The body politic, well says Mr. Mill, may indeed die: but it dies of disease or violence, not of old age. Again, that grand and beautiful relation which subsists between an old country and the offshoots from its own flesh and blood which it has settled beyond seas, has been the subject of misconception more pernicious, because more influencing practice. What business, Burke had heard it gravely argued in Parliament, has a child to rebel against its parent, and therefore, what business have the Colonies to resist taxation from home? It is clear, therefore, that the analogy has its limits; perhaps very narrow ones.
The general question to which Burke's arguments belong is, When is a nation bound to go to war with its neighbour, and having once gone to war, when is it justified in making peace? Wars, said Burke, using the words of Bacon, are suits to the tribunal of God's justice. That fearful tribunal is not to be lightly invoked. Justa bella quibus necessaria. A war is only just when it is also necessary: and it only becomes necessary when all other means of accomplishing its object have been tried, and have failed. Seeing that war is to the community of nations what the ordinary means of justice are to single societies, it is clear that whatever conditions may attend it we may be sure of this—that nothing can banish it from the world which does not also banish international justice. Those who say otherwise can
Angels and we have this prerogative,
England was the natural arbitress of Europe. This position had been aspired to by Henry the Eighth: it had been seized by Elizabeth: it had been gloriously held by Cromwell: it had been extended and confirmed by William of Orange: within living memory it had been pushed to the utmost, amidst the plaudits of the world, by Chatham. To most Englishmen in those days the doctrine of Waller's lines was a matter not only of belief, but of sentiment. England believed herself, and not without reason, the supreme court of appeal in the transcendent lawsuits of Europe. Moral causes alone could put her mighty forces in motion: and these moral causes might lie not only in wrongs attempted on herself, but in those attempted on others. As to what England should construe as a wrong to herself, it was unnecessary to examine; it was sufficient that England was always able to make up her mind on the question when the contingency occurred. The question of the wrongs of others was more difficult. Now, both these questions were united in the case of the war with France. England had at her door a political nuisance which
By which of the different forms of justice enumerated by the philosophers was England's war with France justified? Burke answered, in the first place, by the civil law itself. Suppose your neighbour's house to have been seized by a gang of thieves and assassins, who after murdering the owner, and driving out his family, settled into an organized gang of marauders, infesting the whole neighbourhood. From an obvious point of view, this is what France might be said to have done. Even if such a gang of thieves and assassins abstained from molesting yourself, and confined themselves for a time to attacking those who occupied a less defensible position, was it a wise policy to let them go on confirming their position and adding to their strength, instead of doing your utmost to crush them at the outset? And intervention in France was, he thought, justifiable on much more limited grounds. Put the case in a much more modest way. Suppose your neighbour to have set up at your door a new erection in the nature of a nuisance. Were you not justified in taking immediate steps to abate it? Clear as might be his right to do what he would with his own, the rights of ownership are regulated and restrained by the rights of vicinage. The court-leet of Christendom, the grand vicinage of Europe, were therefore bound to ascertain and to prevent any capital innovation which might amount to a dangerous nuisance. This was the ground that had been taken up in the famous Whitehall Declaration. All the surrounding powers, it was there said, had a right, and felt it a duty, to stop the progress of an evil which attacked the fundamental principles by which mankind was united in civil society.
Burke readily admitted great limitations to this right of making war upon a neighbouring nation for misgovernment. The evil to be attacked must have declared itself by something more than casual or temporary manifestations. It must be shown to be radicated in the nature of the thing itself: to be permanent in its action and constant in its effects: to be progressive, and not stationary; and to be curable by no other means than the knife. Burke had remarked that such communities existed in Europe long anterior to the French Republic. In one memorable
Such had in a great measure been the grounds on which war with France had been resolved upon by the English cabinet in '92. But that resolution had beyond question been leavened by a less controllable element. Still more did that same element leaven the resolution with which England maintained her warlike attitude after the execution of Louis in '93. That element was the impulse to vindictive justice: the demand for the actual punishment of the regicides, the atheists, and the levellers. This fact Burke took small pains to conceal. When in '93 the fortunes of the Allies had given delusive hopes of success, he had even sketched out the limits to which retribution should proceed. He was totally opposed to an amnesty. He was for executing a stern vengeance on the regicides who had sat in the Convention: on those who had composed the Revolutionary Tribunal: on those who should be proved to have taken a leading part in acts of sacrilege: on all the leaders of the Jacobin Clubs. Not one of these, he said, should escape his due punishment. He was not, indeed, for taking the lives of all. Justice ought to be tempered with mercy. "There would be deaths—but for the number of criminals, and the size of France, not many." The rest was to be done by transportation, by the galleys, in some cases by mere exile. And in fortifying this opinion by the example of the English restoration, Burke half apologized for the treachery of the monarch who after granting a general amnesty had sent more than one true English patriot to a cruel death. Here, then, we see what Burke regarded as one object of the war. The restoration of the monarchy and the church was to be followed by a Bloody Assize.
Burke has provided us, in one short sentence, with a gauge of the varying soundness and hollowness of his argument. "France," he wrote in '93, "is not formidable as a great republic, but as the most dreadful gang of robbers and murderers that ever was embodied." Burke was wrong. Whether the particular citizens who moulded its destinies were robbers and murderers, or patriots and philosophers, it was as a great republic, if at all, that France was formidable. She had forced the whole of Europe to acknowledge
Not only was the scheme of which the author speaks at the end of the First Letter never completed, but not one of the four Letters of which the present volume consists, can be considered a finished work, complete in all its parts and members. The First most nearly approaches completion: and the Second was hastily written as a supplement to it. The First and Second Letters may really be considered as a first and second part of the same work. The Third and Fourth are merely grand fragments, running in each case into a continuation patched up by another hand out of the author's remains. The book on the Revolution (Select Works, Vol. ii.) similarly consists of one or two colossal fragments of a whole that only existed in Burke's vast imagination. The reader unavoidably compares the Reflections on the Revolution with the Letters on a Regicide Peace. Difficult as the comparison would in any case be, this condition of incompleteness and mutilation renders it more difficult than ever. But one thing will be abundantly clear to any one who reads the present volume through. Utterly wrong were those contemporary critics, chiefly among the Foxite Whigs, who saw in the "Reflections" the beginnings of a distorted view of things which in the "Regicide Peace" letters
February 21, 1878.
Notes for this chapter
View of the Causes and Consequences of the Present War with France, p. 119.
Malmesbury's Correspondence, Vol. III. p. 398.
Select Works of Burke, Vol. II. p. 45.
Vol. 3, Two Letters...
End of Notes
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