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“A small and a temporary deviation”: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on exception in Reflections on the Revolution in France

Pierre Lurbe


En soutenant que le changement de monarque qui résulta de la Glorieuse Révolution n'était que “a small and a temporary deviation from the strict order of a regular hereditary succession”, Edmund Burke défendait une interprétation de cet événement en termes de simple exception venant confirmer la règle. Alors que la Révolution française battait son plein de l'autre côté de la Manche, il s'agissait de désamorcer la lecture potentiellement révolutionnaire de Richard Price, selon qui le principe de souveraineté populaire avait été établi en 1688-1689. Mais comme Burke lui-même le reconnaissait, les hommes d'État de l’époque avaient été contraints de faire preuve d'une inventivité juridique considérable pour défendre l'idée de continuité dynastique, et pour gommer le fait très gênant que la constitution s'était bel et bien effondrée. Cela ne pouvait que jeter un doute sur le caractère simplement exceptionnel de la Glorieuse Révolution, ce qui suggère que l'interprétation de Richard Price avait plus de poids que Burke n'était prêt à l'admettre.

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1When it came to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke himself was a bit of an exception in enlightened Whig and radical circles. As one associated with all manner of reforming and revolutionary causes, from Catholic emancipation in Ireland to that of the American insurgents, Burke was expected as a matter of course to be very supportive of the French Revolution, the latest instalment of the transatlantic revolutions to date. Thomas Paine took it so much for granted that it could not be otherwise that he “wrote to him from France with news of events in a collusive tone, suggesting he expected Burke to agree with his optimism” (Hampsher-Monk 196). This assumption was so widely shared that when Burke first spoke against the French Revolution in the Commons, on 9 February 1790, sounding a note of alarm and warning, this came as something of an unexpected shock, particularly as the Irish statesman went as far as to proclaim that he was ready to “‘abandon his best friends, and join with his worst enemies’” (Hampsher-Monk 197).

  • 1 In actual fact, Mary Wollstonecraft had been the first to respond to Burke’s Reflections, as her ow (...)

2Paine’s sense of acute dismay is perceptible in the preface to the English edition of Rights of Man, in which he states: “I am the more astonished and disappointed at this conduct in Mr Burke, as (from the circumstance I am going to mention), I had formed other expectations” (Paine, Rights 35). By the time Paine wrote Rights of Man, Burke had of course published his own Reflections on the Revolution in France, to which Paine’s book provided a scathing answer, launching one of the most famous debates in intellectual history.1

3Burke’s misgivings concerning the French Revolution had at least as much, if not more, to do with the effects it might have on Britain, than with its consequences on France itself. As is well known, Reflections was written to answer the request of a young Frenchman, Charles-Jean-François Depont, but what gave Burke the impetus to write was the reading of Richard Price’s address to the Revolution Society, on November 4th, 1789, A Discourse on the Love of our Country. The entire beginning of Reflections takes the form of an angry reply to and rebuttal of Richard Price, whom Burke scornfully calls “this spiritual doctor of politics” (Reflections 14).

  • 2 They implied a sly editing of what Price had actually said, but this point cannot be tackled here.

4Burke’s ire was caused by Price’s interpretation of the meaning of the Glorious Revolution. As it happened, the French Revolution had taken place one hundred years after the so-called Glorious Revolution, inviting comparisons and assumptions concerning the likely course of the French Revolution. But in the process, casting a retrospective look onto the Glorious Revolution invited a reassessment of its meaning a hundred years on. It is to this task that Price had devoted himself in the address or “sermon”, as Burke sneered , spelling out the principles which according to him had been established at the time of the Revolution of 1688. In Burke’s own words:2

  • 3 Although phrased differently, these three principles could already be found in Algernon Sidney’s Di (...)

Lest the foundation of the king’s exclusive legal title should pass for a mere rant of adulatory freedom, the political Divine proceeds dogmatically to assert, that by the principles of the Revolution the people of England have acquired three fundamental rights, all which, with him, compose one system, and lie together in one short sentence; namely, that we have acquired a right.
1. ‘To choose our own governors.’
2. ‘To cashier them for misconduct.’
3. ‘To frame a government for ourselves.’
This new, and hitherto unheard-of bill of rights, though made in the name of the whole people, belongs to those gentlemen and their faction only. (
Reflections 16)3

These three rights, which actually made just one in Price’s address, boiled down to one central, highly contentious assertion, namely that the principle of popular sovereignty had been established at the Revolution. This particular claim was so outrageous in Burke’s view that it prodded him to write Reflections in order to rebut it.

5The claim made by Price in favour of popular sovereignty was viewed by Burke as particularly inflammatory, since it might revive the spirit of the 1640s, raising the prospect not that France would go the British way and reform itself along the moderate lines of 1688-1689, but that under the influence of France, Britain itself might collapse into the kind of devastating internal turmoil she had gone through between 1642 and 1660. Hence the need to sort things out and bring clarity, or so Burke argued, to vindicate the Glorious Revolution by contrasting it as sharply as could be with the French one: “These Gentlemen of the Old Jewry, in all their reasonings on the Revolution of 1688, have a revolution which happened in England about forty years before and the late French revolution, so much before their eyes and in their hearts that they are constantly confounding all the three together. It is necessary that we should separate what they confound” (Reflections 16).

  • 4 Burke takes great pains to demonstrate the opposite, through a detailed analysis of the scope and m (...)

6Burke therefore had to clarify what the Glorious Revolution had truly been about. In his own view, it had never been about anything so grand, and inherently dangerous, as an assertion of popular sovereignty,4 but about something far more limited, an alteration in the order of succession that was no more than an exception, or to take up his own word, a small deviation from the normal course of things:

Unquestionably there was at the Revolution, in the person of King William, a small and a temporary deviation from the strict order of a regular hereditary succession, but it is against all genuine principles of jurisprudence to draw a principle from a law made in a special case, and regarding an individual person. Privilegium non transit in exemplum. If ever there was a time favorable for establishing the principle, that a king of popular choice was the only legal king, without all doubt it was at the Revolution. Its not being done at that time is a proof that the nation was of opinion it ought not to be done at any time. (Reflections 17-18)

Burke goes to great lengths to play down the meaning of what happened at the time of the Glorious Revolution. He does this as a lawyer, arguing from a well-established principle in Roman law that privileges, or rights that apply only to specific individuals – in this case, William’s right to become king – do not translate into a general rule, but remain an exceptional instance, something that has to be resorted to in order to meet the challenge of a no less exceptional situation. He uses this particular argument precisely because Richard Price, as well as his friends of the Old Jewry, seem to be totally unaware of such legal and jurisprudential niceties, and blithely consider that the Glorious Revolution has transformed the legal basis of the monarch’s title to the throne: “The gentlemen of the Society for Revolution see nothing in that of 1688 but the deviation from the constitution; and they take the deviation from the principle for the principle” (Reflections 22-23).

7What is flawed in this interpretation of the Revolution is that it mistakes the deviation for the principle or the exception for the rule. Yet when it comes to dealing with political principles, Burke is very chary of pronouncing any a priori judgement on any system of government.

  • 5 Burke goes so far as to admit the possibility that given the right circumstances, democracy could b (...)

8His reasoning is built on a central, crucial distinction between political principles as such, which always run the risk of being taken far too abstractly, and the circumstances in which they apply, which modify them in turn. Circumstances play a major, discriminating role in helping to sort out political schemes according to their value for society, or mankind at large: “Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind” (Reflections 8).5 With savage irony, Burke makes the point that taken literally, the abstract principle of liberty lands one into absurdities of the first magnitude:

Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate an highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the gallies, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. (Reflections 8)

9This points to the central part Burke gives to the Aristotelian principle of phronesis, or prudence, by which the abstract principles given by epistémé, or scientific knowledge, are fleshed out and adjusted pragmatically to take stock, precisely, of circumstances, which form the very texture and grain of human experience (Insole 122). The Irish politician takes issue with the revolutionaries, whom he pointedly calls “the aëronauts of France,” (Reflections 249) precisely because in their “desperate flights” (Reflections 249) of fancy, they utterly ignore circumstances, and try to impose policies that have been devised a priori on their own country. Or to use another distinction that Burke makes much of, they experiment with and on their own people instead of paying attention to the lessons of experience.

10Yet it is experience, precisely, that according to Burke has provided evidence, in the course of English history, of the value of the principle of hereditary succession. The need to preserve a hereditary succession is not premised on any abstract, even fantastic notion such as the divine right of kings, a doctrine for which Burke has undisguised contempt, it is what historical circumstances have taught to the English nation: “No experience has taught us, that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown, our liberties can be regularly perpetuated and preserved sacred as our hereditary right” (Reflections 25). It is because of this lesson drawn from the experience of centuries that Burke is so suspicious of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which he considers as potentially fatally destructive of a principle that has, by and large, served the nation well.

  • 6 On this score, Burke appears in fact to be very close to David Hume, whose argument in his essay Of (...)

11This political principle is all the more dangerous as Burke is keenly aware that ultimately, the security of any political arrangement or regime does not depend on any particular set of institutions as such, nor does it depend only on a wisely devised system of law, but on the opinion or judgment of the nation. Nothing else can prop up or shore up so decisively the authority of any monarch, or ruler of any kind.6 What Burke feared is that given a sufficient length of time, the systematic preaching of the doctrine of popular sovereignty might undermine, in the long run, popular trust and belief in the principle of hereditary succession:

The propagators of this political gospel are in hopes that their abstract principle (their principle that a popular choice is necessary to the legal existence of the sovereign magistracy) would be overlooked whilst the king of Great Britain was not affected by it. In the meantime the ears of their congregations would be gradually habituated to it, as if it were a first principle admitted without dispute. For the present it would only operate as a theory, pickled in the preserving juices of pulpit eloquence, and laid by for future use. Condo et compono quae mox depromere possim. By this policy, whilst our government is soothed with a reservation in its favour, to which it has no claim, the security, which it has in common with all governments, so far as opinion is security, is taken away. (Reflections 14)

12In 1790, Edmund Burke feared that the long, successful history of the political principle of hereditary succession might come to an end, as it was threatened by what he scornfully called “the spurious Revolution principles of the Old Jewry” (Reflections 17) of Price and his supporters. Since so much depended on a correct interpretation of what had happened in 1688-1689, some further account of this had to be given, beyond the mere statement that there had been “a small and a temporary deviation from the strict order of a regular hereditary succession” (Reflections 17).

13One of Burke’s most famous pronouncements concerning the art of politics is that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risque the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The two principles of conservation and correction operated strongly at the two critical periods of the Restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without a king” (Reflections 21-22). In other words, again, phronesis, or prudence, is essential to preserve the state through all the vicissitudes of history. In extreme cases, or in truly “critical periods”, when the political crisis is at its acme, exceptional measures, that deviate from the normal order of things, may become paradoxically necessary to preserve the very order from which they deviate. One such crisis took place at the Revolution, “when England found itself without a king.”

14The account of this particular political crisis, as given by Burke, bears an attentive reading, for it contains unmistakable echoes of the work of another great Whig philosopher:

No government could stand a moment, if it could be blown down with anything so loose and indefinite as an opinion of “misconduct.” They who led at the Revolution, grounded the virtual abdication of King James upon no such light and uncertain principle. They charged him with nothing less than a design, confirmed by a multitude of illegal overt acts, to subvert the Protestant church and state, and their fundamental, unquestionable laws and liberties: they charged him with having broken the original contract between king and people. This was more than misconduct. A grave and overruling necessity obliged them to take the step they took, and took with infinite reluctance, as under that most rigorous of all laws. (Reflections 27)

In the process, Burke’s argument acquires a remarkably, and uncomfortably, Lockean ring, strongly reminiscent of Locke’s argument in the last chapter of the Second Treatise of Government:

Secondly, I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be borne by the people, without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, whither they are going; ’tis not to be wondered, that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniences being all as great and as near, but the remedy further off and more difficult. (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter xix, § 225)

15Yet the differences are no less significant, and point exactly to what set Burke so decisively apart from Locke. What the two texts have in common is the notion that it takes more than mere mismanagement (Locke), or misconduct (Burke), to trigger an event as momentous as a popular revolt or the abdication of a reigning monarch; Burke’s multitude of illegal overt acts unmistakably echoes Locke’s long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices. But where they significantly and pointedly differ is in the identity of the agents who respond to the situation of crisis: with Locke, the people are the active agents of political change, once they have taken up again their native rights. In this respect, in this defence of the rights of the people and of popular sovereignty, Locke foreshadows Price, placing both firmly within the frame of resistance theory: Resistance theory did, however, lay down stringent conditions under which rebellion might be justified, even if only in retrospect, and offered a wider range of agents the possibility of making judgments of necessity, even to the point of democratic agency(Armitage 622). By contrast, in Burke’s account, there is no such thing as democratic agency,as those responsible for the virtual abdicationof King James are described as they who led at the Revolution, that is, the sovereign agents of reason of state theory: The compulsion of necessity demanded in reason of state theory was assumed to be universally recognizable but only under particular circumstances by specific, usually sovereign, agents (Armitage 622).

16Burke is adamant that they who led at the Revolution, the unlikely assortment of Whigs and Tories who managed to patch up some sort of viable constitutional solution to the crisis, did so under the pressure of necessity, which therefore entirely excluded any possibility of choice on their part. Although this logical connection between necessity and lack of choice is not made apparent in the passage quoted above, it is actually made a few pages earlier:

It would be to repeat a very trite story, to recall to your memory all those circumstances which demonstrated that their accepting King William was not properly a choice; but to all those who did not wish, in effect to recall King James, or to deluge their country in blood and again to bring their religion, laws, and liberties into the peril they have just escaped, it was an act of necessity, in the strictest moral sense in which necessity can be taken. (Reflections 18)

For all readers of Reflections, this joint reference to necessity and choice reads like a direct echo of another passage of the book, which however, on the face of it, has no direct, obvious connection with the issues raised by the Glorious Revolution.

  • 7 “Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be (...)
  • 8 “‘I love order’, he tells us, ‘for the universe is order.’ God is the ‘awful author of our being’ a (...)

17In the context of an extensive redefinition of what the notion of contract means and his redefinition7 was of a kind to make Locke and other upholders of contractual theories wince, Burke provides us with a sweeping view of the order of the universe, as willed by God, whom the Irishman describes elsewhere as “the supreme ruler [...] wise to form, and potent to enforce, the moral law” (Works iii: 79, quoted in Insole 120).8 This is one of the book’s most famous purple patches, but beyond its stylistic brilliancy, it carries a point that we need to bear in mind in order to make sense of Burke’s strictures against Price’s interpretation of the Glorious Revolution:

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow. (Reflections 97)

  • 9 Notably in his De Legibus.

The world view that Burke presents us with looks particularly quaint in the late 18th century, built as it is not so much on the kind of vision of the universe that might have been expected in a post-Newtonian age, but on a much older vision, harking back to an understanding of the cosmos as an ordered, hierarchical whole, made of a chain of beings. It is the kind of world that would have been familiar in medieval scholastics, or indeed in the philosophy of Cicero.9

  • 10 The term is to be understood in its original, etymological sense, “without a chief or head” (Oxford (...)
  • 11 Choosing deliberately to resort to anarchy leads to a world of disasters, not unlike the outer dark (...)

18In the light of such a text, it is little wonder that Burke should have so commonly been seen as “the last of the medieval theorists of natural law, for whom no merely human calculations of advantage or interest could override the dictates of divine reason (Armitage 619). In the cosmos as described by Burke, each contract of each specific society or state is subordinate to the great whole, what he refers to, in one of the most memorable phrases of Reflections, as “the great primaeval contract of eternal society.” The rather obscure, puzzling reference to the “municipal corporations” that are not “at liberty to dissolve [their subordinate community] into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles,” makes sense if we realize that what is indicted here is exactly the kind of thing that was happening in France at the same time. As this kind of disorder and chaos can never be condoned or sanctioned, it comes as a shock to see Burke, the supposed arch-conservative and upholder of order, nevertheless support anarchy as a solution of last resort, when necessity demands it.10 But things make more sense when we grasp that this rather puzzling text is built on a stark contrast between, on the one hand, resorting to anarchy as a result of having to submit to necessity, and on the other hand, resorting to anarchy as a result of a deliberate choice. Or to give a historical application to what might otherwise appear as a particularly obscure and abstruse text, while the French revolutionists had wilfully resorted to anarchy, and deserved the punishment that lay in store for them,11 the English statesmen at the time of the Glorious Revolution had had no choice but to stare or even perhaps to plunge into the abyss of anarchy, if only temporarily as an unavoidable prelude to the restoration of order.

19If necessity is no exception to the rule at the level of the cosmic order of which each “municipal corporation” is a part, at microcosmic level, conversely, the deviation from the order of succession that took place in the British polity in 1688-1689 was an exception to the rule. But then Burke was dealing with two different sorts of rule: the rule to which necessity is no exception is that of the God-willed, intangible order of things; the rule from which the “temporary deviation” is an exception is the rule of hereditary succession fashioned by man, and even more particularly, by Englishmen to provide stability and coherence to their state.

20Burke was acutely aware that the collapse of the traditional rules of hereditary succession at the time of the Glorious Revolution had gravely imperilled the political order, making it necessary for the statesmen of the day to make use of their sense of political prudence (phronesis) not to choose another king there had been no choice in the matter as this had been imposed by necessity , but at least to save appearances and impose a semblance of continuity on the events of 1688-1689:

It is curious to observe with what address this temporary solution of continuity is kept from the eye; whilst all that could be found in this act of necessity to countenance the idea of an hereditary succession is brought forward, and fostered, and made the most of, by this great man [Lord Somers] and by the legislature who followed him. (Reflections 18)

They [the two Houses] threw a politic, well-wrought veil over every circumstance tending to weaken the rights, which in the meliorated order of succession they meant to perpetuate; or which might furnish a precedent for any future departure from what they had then settled forever. (Reflections 20).

21The constitutional change that had actually taken place had to be hidden from sight, in a move reminiscent of the reason of state logic of the arcana imperii. This looks more like a sleight of hand, than the application of a high-handed principle. But yet there was a supreme law behind all this, that of the Salus populi (salus populi suprema lex), which at this juncture required the use of language sanctioned by centuries of precedents, to convince the people that nothing had changed, so that they could retain the same opinion – and opinion is security for Burke – concerning the legitimacy of their time-hallowed institutions:

The legislature plainly had in view the act of recognition of the first of Queen Elizabeth, Chap. 3rd, and of that of James the First, Chap. 1st, both acts strongly declaratory of the inheritable nature of the crown; and in many parts they follow, with a nearly literal precision, the words and even the form of thanksgiving which is found in these old declaratory statutes. (Reflections 18-19)

In the clause which follows, for preventing questions, by reason of any pretended titles to the crown, they declare (observing also in this the traditionary language, along with the traditionary policy of the nation, and repeating as from a rubric the language of the preceding acts of Elizabeth and James) that on the preserving “a certainty in the SUCCESSION thereof, the unity, peace, and tranquillity of this nation doth, under God, wholly depend.” (Reflections 19)

22This task therefore required that the exceptional nature of the events should be smoothed over as much as possible, and given a seal of legality and historical continuity that would prevent any other interpretation of the Glorious Revolution to take root. What the statesmen of the time had achieved was therefore of paramount importance, as they had ensured that this deviation too was also no exception to the rule, provided the phrase were understood in the precise legal sense of the Roman adage: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis the exception proves the existence of the rule in cases which are not exceptions implying that the exception, precisely because it is an exception, points to the existence of a rule which simply does not apply in a given, specific case. For there to be an exception, there has to be an underlying rule that makes it possible to define an exception in the first place, or in Burke’s language, a deviation. In that sense, an exception is not outside the legal order, which, on the contrary, it paradoxically serves to prop up and buttress.

23According to Burke, this is exactly what had been achieved at the Glorious Revolution, which therefore provided demonstrative evidence for one of his major claims:

It is far from impossible to reconcile, if we do not suffer ourselves to be entangled in the mazes of metaphysic sophistry, the use both of a fixed rule and an occasional deviation; the sacredness of an hereditary principle of succession in our government with a power of change in its application in cases of extreme emergency. (Reflections 21)

But at what cost reconciliation? The tenor of Burke’s message is clear, but the undertone is no less so: if saving the Constitution required such feats of legal inventiveness, wasn't this evidence that the case for popular sovereignty was in fact far stronger than Burke had cared to admit? Protesting too much is always an index of the level of anxiety of the person who protests; on this score, Edmund Burke proved no exception.

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Primary Sources

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Ed. L. G. Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Hume, David. Political Essays. Ed. Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government (1689). Ed. Mark Goldie. London; Rutland, Vt.: J.M. Dent; Charles E. Tuttle, 1998.

Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man (1791: Part One; 1792: Part Two). Ed. Eric Foner. London: Penguin, 1985.

Price, Richard. Political Writings. Ed. D. O. Thomas. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Armitage, David. “Edmund Burke and Reason of State. Journal of the History of Ideas 61:4 (Oct. 2000): 617-34.

Bromwich, David. The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke. From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press, 2014.

Bourke, Richard. Empire and Revolution – The Political Life of Edmund Burke. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2015.

Goldie, Mark. “Edmund Bohun and Jus Gentium in the Revolution Debate, 1689-1693.” The Historical Journal 20:3 (Sep. 1977): 569-86.

Hampsher-Monk, Iain. “Reflections on the Revolution in France.The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke. Ed. David Dwan and Christopher J. Insole. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 195-208.

Insole, Christopher. “Burke and the Natural Law.” The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke. Ed. David Dwan and Christopher J. Insole. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 117-30.

Lieberman, David. Blackstone’s Science of Legislation. Journal of British Studies 27:2 (Apr. 1988): 117-49.

Monod, Jean-Claude. Penser l'ennemi, affronter l'exception. Réflexions critiques sur l'actualité de Carl Schmitt. Paris: La Découverte, 2006.

O’brien, Conor Cruise. Edmund Burke: Prophet Against the Tyranny of the Politics of Theory. Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven, Ct.: Yale UP, 2003. 213-32.

Wolfe, Alan. Democracy, Social Science, and Rationality: Reflections on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven, Ct.: Yale UP, 2003. 268-90.

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1 In actual fact, Mary Wollstonecraft had been the first to respond to Burke’s Reflections, as her own Vindication of the Rights of Men had been published as early as December 1790, three months before the publication of Paine’s Rights of Man. Yet Paine’s book was circulated so widely, notably thanks to the London Corresponding Society, that it tended to steal the show.

2 They implied a sly editing of what Price had actually said, but this point cannot be tackled here.

3 Although phrased differently, these three principles could already be found in Algernon Sidney’s Discourses concerning Government. The book was published by John Toland in 1698, as part of a drive to publish the major works of the English “republican canon”, but Sidney had written it at the time of the Exclusion Crisis; passages from the manuscript of the book were produced as evidence against Sidney at the trial that followed the Rye House plot, leading to his condemnation to death in 1683. The principles in question can be found in Chapter Two, Section 1; Chapter Three, Section 12; Chapter Three, Section 41.

4 Burke takes great pains to demonstrate the opposite, through a detailed analysis of the scope and meaning of the main Acts of Parliament of the time, the Bill of Rights (which he refers to as the Declaration of Rights) and the Act of Settlement.

5 Burke goes so far as to admit the possibility that given the right circumstances, democracy could be an acceptable political principle and lead to a viable, and even necessary, regime: “I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles. There may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary” (Reflections 125).

6 On this score, Burke appears in fact to be very close to David Hume, whose argument in his essay Of the Protestant Succession ran very much along the same lines: “Not to mention, that so long possession, secured by so many laws, must, ere this time, in the apprehension of a great part of the nation, have begot a title in the house of Hanover, independent of their present possession” (Political Essays 220).

7 “Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure – but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (Reflections 96).

8 “‘I love order’, he tells us, ‘for the universe is order.’ God is the ‘awful author of our being’ and ‘the Author of our place in the order of existence’ (Works, iii: 79). He declares that we are all bound by the law that God has prescribed for us, the ‘great immutable, pre-existent law’ that connects us with the ‘eternal frame of the universe’ [...]” (Insole 120).

9 Notably in his De Legibus.

10 The term is to be understood in its original, etymological sense, “without a chief or head” (Oxford English Dictionary).

11 Choosing deliberately to resort to anarchy leads to a world of disasters, not unlike the outer darkness into which the unfaithful servant is thrown out in the parable: Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 20:13).

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Pierre Lurbe, « “A small and a temporary deviation”: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on exception in Reflections on the Revolution in France »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 77 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 06 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierre Lurbe

Pierre Lurbe est professeur à l’UFR d'études anglophones de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, rattaché à l’équipe d'accueil HDEA (Histoire et Dynamique des Espaces Anglophones, EA 4086). Ses recherches portent essentiellement sur la pensée politique et religieuse aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (« déisme » et républicanisme en particulier), et sur les phénomènes de transferts culturels. Sur Edmund Burke, il a publié récemment “‘The great primæval contract of eternal society’: Edmund Burke’s Views on the Social Contract”, Darbai ir dienos [Deeds and Days], Vytauto. Didźiojo Universitetas/Vytautas Magnus University): Versus Aureus, n°63, 2015: 67-81.

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