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The Authentication of Burke’s Reflections: Church, Monarchy and Universities, 1790-91
journal contributionposted on 23.11.2020, 16:57 by Ian Harris
This article treats responses to Reflections on the Revolution in France in new terms: terms that Burke himself thought important, but which have been forgotten. For at least two hundred years commentators have treated responses to this book, the principal British criticism of the Revolution of 1789, by looking towards literary responses, especially printed pamphlets, often those written by sympathisers with the Revolution, and also in termsof various futures that Burke could scarcely have conceived. This has had the effect that Reflections has often seemed isolated in its day. One common scholarly reading is that the book was irrational, preposterous, and (so by implication) unpersuasive. But Burke considered that his account of the English nation, which was central to his argument, had been ‘authenticated by the verdict of his country’ and ‘recognized by the body of the people’. How are we to make sense of his claim? New evidence and a doctrine of representation, which was basic to the Glorious Revolution and the post-1688 constitution but which has been virtually overlooked in relation to it and to Burke alike, show that he had grounds for hisview. Manuscript sources show that Reflections was recognized as a powerfully persuasive work by friend and foe alike. A strongly favourable verdict was returned by some leading representatives of the people, and by ‘the people’ itself. The representatives of the people included King, Lords - Lords Spiritual as well as Temporal – and Commons, as well as the judiciary. England itself was understood in terms of corporate bodies and relations amongst them – the nation, the state and chartered bodies, such as universities. The responses from theKing and the Archbishop of Canterbury and from certain universities ‘authenticated’ Burke’s account in that they came, respectively, from those who combined representative authority with great experience and from institutions which spoke ‘the sentiments of the people’ knowledgeably on a central topic. These positive responses were all the greater a tribute to the perceived power of Reflections because they did not proceed from any love of Burke in high places. Effective efforts were made behind the scenes to promote the book and the King himself sought to project it to the public. It becomes easy to see why Burke could manifest indifference to The Rights of Man and the rest of the pamphlets. But his opponents, taking a different view of representation, could not register what had happened. In short, in the terms that Burke amongst others understood the matter Reflections was ‘authenticated’, and, far from being isolated, was central, and was understood by all to be a strongly persuasive work. A new understanding of the response of Reflections thus emerges from combining intellectual and political history in the light of unpublished sources, and with that understanding an extensive agenda emerges for further research over a wide front.