An excerpt from Yuval Levin’s “The Great Debate”

Updated

Introduction

Anyone tracing the pedigree of our political ideas must be struck by the importance, and by the sheer eventfulness, of the late eighteenth century. Between about 1770 and 1800, many of the crucial concepts, terms, divisions, and arguments that still define our political life seemed to burst into the world in fierce and fiery succession.

This was the era of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and we have long since fallen into the comfortable habit of attributing the explosion of political philosophy and drama of that time to those monumental upheavals. The American Revolution— the first successful colonial revolt in history—gave birth to a creedal nation embodying the idealism of the Enlightenment, whereas the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle. In these great crucibles of revolution was forged the frame of modern politics, or so the argument goes.

There is of course much truth to this cliché, but it is a partial, or perhaps a secondhand, truth. In fact, the late eighteenth century was
the scene of a great Anglo-American debate about the meaning of modern liberalism—a debate that has since shaped the political life of Britain and America, and by now that of a great and growing portion of humanity beyond them. The American Revolution embodied that debate, and the French Revolution intensified it, but the debate preceded them both and has long outlasted them.

The ideals of the American founding were championed by statesmen-revolutionaries who  disagreed among themselves about the practical significance of those ideals. The disagreements did not take long to surface and to break the politics of the new republic into distinct camps that in many ways have endured. The actual parties to the struggle in France, meanwhile, the Jacobins and Girondists, monarchists and aristocrats,  have no real parallels in contemporary politics. But the parties to the intense Anglo-American debate about the French Revolution—a party of justice and a party of order, or a party of progress and a party of conservation—bear  a plain paternal resemblance to the parties that now compose the politics of many liberal democracies, including our own. In both cases, the parties to the great debate of the late eighteenth century clearly prefigured key elements of the left-right  divide of our time. The arguments between them had to do with much more than the particular promise and peril of the American or French revolutions, and they have lasted because they brought to the surface a disagreement  within liberalism that has never lost its salience.

There are no perfect representatives of the two major parties to the great debate of that age, but there may well be no better representa- tives than Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke was an Irish-born English politician and writer, a man of intense opinions with an unrivaled gift for expressing them in political rhetoric. He was his era’s most devoted and able defender of the inherited traditions of the English constitution. A patient, gradual reformer of his country’s institutions, he was among the first and surely the most adamant and effective critics of the radicalism of the French Revolution in English politics.

Paine, an English-born immigrant to America, became one of the most eloquent and important voices championing the cause of inde- pendence for the colonies, and then, as revolution brewed in France, he became an influential advocate of the revolutionaries’ cause as an essayist and activist in Paris and London. A master of the English language, Paine fervently believed in the potential of Enlightenment liberalism to advance the cause of justice and peace by uprooting corrupt and oppressive regimes and replacing them with governments answerable to the people. He was a brilliant and passionate advocate for liberty and equality.

Each was both a man of ideas and a man of action—a man of powerful political rhetoric and of deep and principled commitment to a cause. Each also saw in the debates of the age far more than the particulars of the events that launched them. The two men knew each other, met several times, exchanged letters, and publicly answered one another’s  published writings. Their  private and public dispute over the French Revolution has been called “perhaps the most crucial ideological debate ever carried on in English.”  But their profound disagreement extends well beyond their direct confrontations. Each voiced a worldview deeply at odds with the other over some of the most important  questions of  liberal-democratic political  thought. While the capacious arguments of the time surely could not be fully captured in the debate between Burke and Paine, the important questions at stake can be far better understood by examining the two men’s views with care. And yet the precise terms and subjects of their disagreement  (especially  as it relates to matters other than the French Revolution itself) remain to a surprising degree underexamined.

This book seeks to examine Burke and Paine’s disagreement and to learn from it about both their era’s politics and ours. Using not only their dispute about the French Revolution but also the two men’s larger bodies of writing and correspondence, the book will explore the themes of the Burke-Paine dispute, taking apart each man’s views of history, nature, society, reason, political institutions, freedom, equality, rights, and other key subjects, and seeking the premises informing each one’s understanding of political life. It will argue that Burke and Paine each offers a coherent and, for the most part, internally con- sistent case about the character of society and politics, and that each man’s case is greatly illuminated by contrasting it with the other’s. It will demonstrate that Burke’s and Paine’s diverse arguments are tied together especially by a disagreement about the authority of the given past in political life—and that there is much more to this disagreement than a staid and simple dispute between tradition and progress.

Burke’s reforming conservatism and Paine’s restoring progressiv- ism are both more complex and more coherent than they first appear. And a careful consideration of both can clarify the terms of our own debates, especially the fundamental dividing line of our politics. As Burke and Paine will show us, the line between progressives and conservatives really divides two kinds of liberals and two distinct visions of the liberal society.

It may seem strange to seek philosophical arguments in the words of two men so deeply involved in day-to-day politics. We are not used to political actors who are also political theorists. Such actors were certainly a bit more common in Burke’s and Paine’s era— when in both Britain and America we encounter some politicians who wrote and thought like philosophers—but they were still very much a rare breed even then. And because nearly all of Burke’s and Paine’s pamphlets, speeches, letters, and books were written  with  some immediate political purpose in mind even as they made larger arguments, scholars of both men’s views have battled over some very basic questions through the centuries.

In Burke’s case, the leading question has been whether he had a consistent set of views throughout his life or whether the French Revolution transformed him somehow. As we will see, Burke spent the first two decades of his political career championing various sorts of reform: of the British government’s finances, its treatment of religious minorities, its trade policy, and more. He spent much of this time pushing against the standing inertia of English politics. But after the revolution in France, which he was concerned might be imported to Britain, Burke was above all a staunch defender of Britain’s political traditions. He strenuously opposed all efforts to weaken the power of the monarch and the aristocracy and warned against fundamental political reforms (like moves toward greater democratization) that might unmoor the nation from its long-standing traditions. He has sometimes been accused, therefore, of changing his most basic views and turning against his former co-partisans and friends. The charge could first be heard in his own lifetime (voiced by Paine, among others) and has been repeated by some of Burke’s biographers and interpreters ever since.

But such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a con- server of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change—the quest that, as we will see, was at the core of Burke’s ambitions. In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution  in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consis- tency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship—or to balance his country in a sea of troubles—against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromwich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.”

Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.

Regarding Thomas Paine, meanwhile, the leading question that has divided scholars has run even deeper: Is Paine really a political thinker or just a particularly passionate pamphleteer and agitator? While  his rhetorical skills are unquestionable, Paine’s seriousness—his contention with genuine political ideas—has sometimes been brought into doubt. Critics in his own time sought to dismiss him as a rabid sloganeer or, as Burke himself put it, a man with “not even a moderate portion of learning of any kind.” And some scholars since then have repeated the charge that Paine brought more heat than light to the subjects he took up.

But such accusations have always been tinged with a revealing snobbery. They have been made by political opponents who considered Paine’s philosophy unserious and who have therefore been in- clined to see its champions—especially those who do not answer to the traditional description of the learned philosopher—as unserious as well. Certainly, Paine was not the erudite intellectual that Burke was. His formal education  was minimal, and his engagement with the philosophical tradition of the West bore the telltale rough edges of the autodidact. One gets the sense that Paine took a sardonic  pleasure in his peculiar, if plainly false, boast that in all his prolific  years of writing, “I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions; I thought for myself.” (Paine’s friend Thomas Jefferson  repeated  a version of this backhanded praise when he noted that Paine always “thought more than he read.”) Paine’s writing is indeed remarkably (though far from entirely) devoid of explicit references to great think- ers of the past. Nor did he have the intense and extended exposure to practical politics that Burke could boast of.

And yet, Paine’s oversized role both in the American Revolution and in the English-speaking world’s response to the French Revolu- tion was no accident; nor was it a mere matter of fortunate timing or purely a function of great writing. On the contrary, Paine’s great rhe- torical power came from his ability to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions and to give those questions an immediacy and intensity that few political thinkers could match. Paine understood politics as moved by principles, and he thought that political systems had to answer to the right  kinds of philosophical ideals—especially equality and liberty. However well established and grand they might be, however deep their roots might reach, all regimes had to be evaluated by how well they advanced these basic human goods. Thus, political principles and their instantiation in political actions are key to Paine’s teaching and present themselves far more prominently in the foreground of his writing  than even in Burke’s. In an 1806 letter, Paine wrote this about himself: “My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense, the first work I ever published, have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free and establish government for himself.” Paine sought for the theories and ideas underlying political life, and argued that only a government that answers to the right theories and ideas can make any claim to legitimacy.
Precisely because Burke and Paine were both political thinkers and political actors, their dispute opens a window into the origins of our own political order. They help us to see how the kinds of arguments made in the heat of a policy debate relate to the kinds of arguments made in the calm of a philosopher’s study. And they help us understand how the divisions on display in our everyday politics came to be.

Burke was always stung by the notion that he and Paine should be understood together, complaining in one letter to his friend Wil- liam Elliott  of that bothersome “Citizen  Paine, who, they will have it, hunts with me in couples.” But bothered though they might have been by one another, Burke and Paine may truly be best understood as counterparts.  Like the two broad parties to our own political disputes, they continue to this day to hunt in couples. So let us join them on the hunt and see what we can learn from them about both their time and our own.

An excerpt from Yuval Levin's "The Great Debate"

Updated