Edmund Burke: Just Revolutions Begin As Very Last Resort

Daily Dabble in the Classics, Edmund Burke

Ill would our ancestors at the Revolution have deserved their fame for wisdom, if they had found no security for their freedom, but in rendering their government feeble in its operations and precarious in its tenure ; if they had been able to contrive no better remedy against arbitrary power than civil confusion. Let these gentlemen state who that representative public is to whom they will affirm the king, as a servant, to be responsible. It will be then time enough for me to produce to them the positive statute law which affirms that he is not.

The ceremony of cashiering kings, of which these gentlemen talk so much at their ease, can rarely, if ever, be performed without force. It then becomes a case of war, and not of constitution. Laws are commanded to hold their tongues amongst arms; and tribunals fall to the ground with the peace they are no longer able to uphold.

The Revolution of 1688 was obtained by a just war, in the only case in which any war, and much more a civil war, can be just. “Justa bella quibus necessaria.” The question of dethroning, or, if these gentlemen like the phrase better, “cashiering kings, ” will always be, as it has always been, an extraordinary question of state, and wholly out of the law; a question (like all other questions of state) of dispositions, and of means, and of probable consequences, rather than of positive rights. As it was not made for common abuses, so it is not to be agitated by common minds.

The speculative line of demarcation, where obedience ought to end, and resistance must begin, is faint, obscure, and not easily definable. It is not a single act, or a single event, which determines it. Governments must be abused and deranged indeed, before it can be thought of; and the prospect of the future must be as bad as the experience of the past. When things are in that lamentable condition, the nature of the disease is to indicate the remedy to those whom nature has qualified to administer in extremities this critical, ambiguous, bitter potion to a distempered state.

Times, and occasions, and provocations will teach their own lessons. The wise will determine from the gravity of the case; the irritable, from sensibility to oppression ; the high-minded, from disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands ; the brave and bold, from the love of honourable danger in a generous cause : but, with or without right, a revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good.


Source: Edmund Burke: “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” 1790.


Daily Dabble in the Classics is researched, compiled, and edited (with occasional commentary, introductory and explanatory notes, spelling modernizations and paragraph reformatting) by Steve Farrell. Larger paragraphs have been broken up in this quote by The Moral Liberal to facilitate easier reading.

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