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Lecture 4a: Revolution or anarchy

February 17, 2014

a. Background – Burke and Paine

 Deism does not simply die out all at once. Indeed, freethought, more generally, proved in some ways too radical for the time in that they dispose of the basis for a natural and social order represented by the benevolence of a creator God, an order tailored to the needs of humanity. Although freethinker views like Hume’s gain more and more traction as the century progresses, not all are prepared to accept its consequences, which can be bundled into two different sets. On one hand, there are those who wish to retain the picture of the natural world proposed by deism, i.e. that the natural world is a well-oiled machine, designed and set in motion by God to run until the end of times. On the other hand, there are those who are concerned with the implications that the dissolution of the divine order of the world has for the social order, i.e. the political and religious structures of authority in place at that time. While most in England are opposed to a return to absolutist monarchy and hold to a certain number of basic rights (as enshrined in the English Bill of Rights of 1689: free speech in and free election to Parliament, right to petition the monarch, right to bear arms among Protestants, general limits to the Crown), a majority of Englishmen and -women are in favor of keeping with the old and familiar trappings of authority: the monarchy, the clergy and the peerage system. To a great extent, the same holds true for English colonists in North America. Yet, as we move closer to the end of the 18th century, there is growing dissent in the American colonies on whether such authority should require the same respect that it has always had.

If, up until this point, we have focused on the natural and world-order, today we will take a step back to consider the changes brought on in the social and political order by the changes in that natural order. Certainly, the emphasis on instrumental reason and science have led to advancements in the ordering of civil administration (greater efficiency), the military (better trained, national armies) and the economy (the rise of trade agreements and international commerce). While we have said that emphasis is now on everyday life, what comes of this new emphasis when the everyday life in question is miserable, impoverished or repressed? We will do this by considering more closely the complex relationship that develops between two prominent political figures of this era: Irish-English conservative Edmund Burke and English-American activist Thomas Paine. Where do Burke and Paine fit into our story?

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is born in Dublin, the son of a recent Catholic convert to Anglicanism. His mother remains Catholic, a fact that will haunt him throughout his political career as his enemies consider him a closet Catholic or, at the very least, a Catholic sympathizer. At this time, the fact of being Catholic would suffice to exclude him from holding public office as well as exercising other basic rights. His willingness to take the anti-Catholic oath of allegiance belies this fact; additionally, he always identified as English while never denying his Irish roots. In 1744, he joins Trinity College Dublin, where he sets up his own debating society (coined Edmund Burke’s Club). Upon finishing his degree in 1748, he went to London to pursue law but soon gave up on this path in order to become a writer. Burke’s first work, A Vindication of Natural Societyappeared in 1754 as a critique of atheistic rationalism (like that of Hume). In 1757, he signed a contract to write a history of England but never finished, in large part due to the success of Hume’s, as we saw last week. In 1758, Burke falls in with the Whigs and, in 1765 becomes secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the then prime minister. 

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