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Anti-Semitism, Millenarianism, and Radical Dissent in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 34, Number 4, Summer 2001
pp. 577-600 | 10.1353/ecs.2001.0040

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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 577-600



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Race and Slavery

Anti-Semitism, Millenarianism, and Radical Dissent in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France

Frans De Bruyn


The status of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as a classic text in political theory can be ascribed to the thoroughness with which it articulates a philosophical argument for political conservatism and to its undeniable rhetorical and literary power. 1 From its first appearance late in 1790, readers have responded to the astonishing range of cultural, historical, intellectual, and literary reference in the Reflections (as, indeed, in Burke's other writings on the French Revolution). John Thelwall makes the point tellingly, if disapprovingly, in reviewing one of Burke's later antirevolutionary tracts: "The rage of Juvenil, and the playful levity of Horace, are not sufficient; and Billingsgate and the shambles are forced into alliance with the muses, the classics, and the sciences, to supply him with terms and metaphors sufficiently forcible to express the mighty hatred with which he labours." 2 Thelwall shrewdly identifies an important and sometimes disconcerting feature of Burke's rhetorical virtuosity: his ability to press into service the full compass of eighteenth-century cultural discourse, from the high, polite, and exalted to the low, popular, and scurrilous.

There is much to admire in this eloquence, but its copiousness and impetuosity sometimes find display in unattractive, indeed blameworthy, modes of expression. An instance of this, infrequently remarked upon, is Burke's intermittent deployment in the Reflections of a language of anti-Semitism. 3 One critic who has drawn attention to this aspect of Burke's text is Tom Paulin, who addresses the [End Page 577] problem in a review of Anthony Julius's monograph, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. In his review, Paulin remarks on William Empson's speculation, briefly taken up by Julius, that Eliot's anti-Semitism was in part an expression of his "rejection of his family's Unitarianism, and his hostility to his father." 4 Paulin finds the connection between Unitarianism and Judaism persuasive, but he argues that this correlation makes sense only if one probes down to a "deeper cultural base" whose foundation was laid down, in part, by Burke:

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, two leading Unitarians of that period--Richard Price and Joseph Priestley--are attacked and anti-semitic prejudice is mobilised against their enlightened form of Christianity by ringing changes on the name of the meeting-house--the Old Jewry--where Price delivered his famous discourse "On the Love of our Country" which praised the Williamite, American and French Revolutions and provoked Burke's polemic. Burke attacks "money-jobbers, usurers and Jews", and identifies Price's writings on economics and statistics with Jewish business activities. He had a particular hatred of Lord George Gordon, who led the anti-Catholic Protestant Association and who converted to Judaism. In Reflections, he refers to Gordon, the instigator of the Gordon Riots, as "our protestant Rabbin". He wants his readers to see reform and revolution as part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy an organic, hierarchical society. Unitarianism and Judaism deny the divinity of Christ, and it is this denial which, at this late point in his career, incenses Burke. . . . 5

This account of the Reflections appears to take its cue from an earlier passage in Julius's study. There the "counter-revolutionary polemics of Burke and de Maistre" are identified as the origin of a "vituperative caricature of liberalism," which displays a special animus against liberal Jewish political thought. Whereas liberalism had historically meant, among other things, "the primacy of conscience, which in turn entailed the separation of church and state, the right of religious freedom, the right of civil disobedience, and a scepticism about the benefits of universal suffrage," it had become for Eliot, as for Burke before him, "the sum of everything that corrodes the traditional, that disturbs existing orders, that undermines foundations." The active agent of this alleged cultural decay is the...