Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were contemporaries who shared the view current in the Age of Enlightenment that government and society could and should be perfected. Coincidentally, both were also masters of language. From the storms and upheavals of their day, however, they drew very different conclusions about how to achieve the desired social perfection. In short, Burke argued for reform, Paine for revolution. In most parts of the world today the political process still veers between the opposing poles of continuity and the clean break.
In public life, there are frequent references and compliments to both men as well. At a moment when Margaret Thatcher, as prime minister, was confronting a strike with a revolutionary potential, I happened to hear one of her advisers lament, “Mr. Edmund Burke, where are you now we need you?” And, in a set-piece address, President Reagan — of all people — showed himself captivated by language rather than the thought behind it when he appropriated with approval one of Paine’s most rousing challenges: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Born in 1729 in Ireland, Burke was the child of a Protestant father (a lawyer by profession) and a Catholic mother. Apparently he spoke with an Irish accent. Talent alone took him to the top as a writer, and as a member of Parliament from 1765 to his death in 1797. Most of this time he was in opposition, and he never held executive office. Politics was in a state of flux. King George III was out of his depth, and ruled by interference; he was not quite an absolute monarch, nor was he a constitutional one. The historian Sir Lewis Namier long ago exposed in detail the shortcomings of the House of Commons in this reign. Limited electoral representation and an extensive system of patronage kept power in the hands of the aristocracy and encouraged corruption. Burke first took an official position in Dublin and then became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, leader of a faction of Whigs.
In general terms, the Whigs favored reform. Burke’s objective was to establish parliamentary supremacy in conditions of stability, which allows Yuval Levin to call him an unusual Whig, because the party was indifferent to any social disturbances reform might cause. Generations of British schoolchildren have been educated to admire Burke for his lengthy (but ultimately aborted) campaign to impeach Warren Hastings for maladministration while governing India. When he got going on technicalities to do with finance or criminal law, it has been said of him, members of the House went out to dine. His high reputation rested on his moral positions, for instance, arguing for the abolition of slavery. The crisis in the American colonies might have had a different outcome if his advice — to treat and tax Americans like all English people — had been followed.
Eight years younger than Burke, Paine was at a social disadvantage, the son of a working-class corset maker. Like the poet Robert Burns, he became an excise officer. It is not clear whether he was fired from the job for financial irregularity, as his detractors say, or because he had made himself a nuisance lobbying for better pay on behalf of his colleagues. Yuval Levin gives him the benefit of the doubt. What is certain is that Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 single-mindedly determined to be revenged on England for wrongs real or imagined that it had done to him. A long-standing fantasy of his was that a few thousand troops would be enough to invade Britain and overthrow its order.
Temperamentally an angry outsider, he had nothing in common with the popular Burke except the ability to write pamphlets “crucial to the great events of the age,” as Yuval Levin puts it. Publication of Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense preceded by a few months the 1776 Declaration of Independence. George Washington himself noted that the pamphlet was “working a wonderful change” in public opinion. The choice before Americans, according to Paine, was slavery or independence. Monarchy was a tyranny that could not be borne. No epithets were too extreme for George III, “the Royal Brute of Great Britain,” “the sceptered savage,” and much more. Burke was for compromise, Paine for the battlefield. The colonists and their revolution had found a publicist brilliantly able to raise the level of hatred and pass it off as love of liberty.
From the outset of the French Revolution, Burke saw in it only mob rule with attendant chaos and terror. As he wrote to his son in October 1789, after Parisians had marched on Versailles and manhandled the queen, “the elements which compose human society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of monsters to be produced in the place of it.” A year later, in November 1790, he published Reflections on the Revolution in France. A masterwork of rhetoric and political thought, it is, in Levin’s judgment, “the first sustained assessment and dissection of the claims of liberal radicalism in the age of revolutions.”
Always the activist, Paine had moved to Paris. Angered by Burke’s Reflections, Paine set about answering it with his Rights of Man, published in March 1791, and described by Levin as “a logical, sustained, focused, passionate, and powerful argument” in defense of the principles of the French Revolution. He spoke no French, but on the strength of his revolutionary reputation he was elected to the National Convention. Although he despised and mocked Louis XVI as he had done George III, he voted against his execution. Eleven days after the king was guillotined, Paine’s abiding interest became plain when he drafted a call to the British to revolt. He was to donate the large sum of one thousand pounds of royalties from his bestselling pamphlets to buy boots for the French soldiers supposed to invade simultaneously. During Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, he was arrested and spent ten months in prison under sentence of death. By his own account, he survived through luck alone: The firing squad failed to notice the chalk on his door that marked him down for execution. Spending his last years on a farm near New York requisitioned from a loyalist, he was morally compromised as a profiteer from the American Revolution that he had encouraged.
At the outset of this perceptive essay in politics, Yuval Levin states that it is a case study in how ideas move history. Levin is the editor of a quarterly journal about domestic policy, a combatant in policy debates, and, above all, a conservative, but he bends over backwards to be fair to both of these men, whom he calls “two giants of the age of revolutions.” The central chapters of The Great Debate are rather briskly theoretical. Change is inevitable in human life, and what’s to be done about it is the question. Paine took it that each generation starts afresh, everyone is equal, and all make of circumstances what they want. The idea of rights, Levin says, is at the core of Paine’s political philosophy. People therefore have the right to choose who is to govern them. The past doesn’t necessarily influence behavior, never mind compel it. But injustice is intolerable, it leads to unhappiness, and in such conditions revolution has to do what law is unable or unwilling to do. These principles apply everywhere. “My country is the world,” Paine wrote, “and my religion is to do good.”
In Burke’s view, generations form a chain from the past through the present and into the future. In the last resort, order, stability, nationhood, birth, identity, beauty, and familiarity form a complex web of obligations that unify society and without which there will be no justice. He recognizes that injustice has to be addressed, but fears that Paine’s revolutionary approach must commit yet greater injustice. Paine’s counter to that objection is that Burke’s attachments to the past are sentimental and self-interested, designed to protect his own privileged circumstances.
With hindsight, it seems straightforward to conclude that Burke is the deeper and more persuasive thinker because he is more realistic about human nature and makes allowances for it. Conservatives and everyone who values the parliamentary process are in debt to Burke. In spite of Levin’s best efforts to be impartial, Paine looks like his own victim, possibly psychotic, whose inhuman dream of enforced happiness gets what it deserves. When reason has to be prescribed, is it then anything more than a synonym for policing? Paine’s heirs are the totalitarians, Communists, and socialists of every stripe. What began as clashing reactions to the American and French revolutions on the part of two brilliant individuals evolved in the end into the ideologies of Left and Right. In one of his flashes of historic prescience in Reflections, Burke wraps up what revolutionaries had in store for mankind. “In the groves of their academy,” he wrote, “at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”