Christopher Hodson: Modern Republicans betray their own prophet

Edmund Burke’s foundation of conservatism was a response to the violence of the French Revolution.

Protestors wheel a French revolution themed giant placard during a May Day demonstration in Paris, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. French authorities announced tight security measures for May Day demonstrations, with the interior minister saying there was a risk that "radical activists" could join anti-government yellow vest protesters and union workers in the streets of Paris and across the country. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Given recent events, it is ironic that conservatism was born in opposition to mobs. And not just any mobs: French ones.

The British philosopher Edmund Burke swerved to the right in October of 1789, when word reached London that thousands of working-class Parisians – led by women – had marched to the palace of Versailles, seized Louis XVI and his family and carried them back to Paris as prisoners. Horrified, Burke spent the following months writing Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguably the foundational text in conservative thought.

Sure enough, the book does contain a lot of high-toned pleas for “reverence to antiquity” against a rising tide of “insolent irreligion,” scientific rationality and “unnatural” egalitarianism – catnip for the political right, then as now. In many respects, though, Burke’s book is less philosophical treatise than extended freak-out about French people invading government buildings in large groups.

The “new fanatics of popular arbitrary power” who stormed Versailles, after all, left behind a hellscape of “scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses,” decapitating two royal guards before chasing Marie-Antoinette through the palace. The real French Revolution, by which Burke meant a coarsening of “sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” and a severing of “ancient” social bonds, could be “dated from that day.”

Burke’s account of the assault on Versailles offers a cautionary tale for today’s mob-curious conservatives. As Burke knew, the crowd that dragged the royal family back to Paris in 1789 had figured out something important: If they could make one of the most powerful kings in Europe do something he didn’t want to, they could surely arm-twist the “handful of country clowns” who made up France’s fledgling legislature. And they did. The new nation’s representatives, Burke wrote in 1790, had become playthings of a “mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame, who … direct, control, applaud, explode them, and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them.”

Condescending? Elitist? Sure. But not wrong. Even as foreign wars and rural revolts proliferated, French legislators in Paris had to contend – often, and in close quarters – with the sans-culottes, French for “without knee-breeches.” One leg at a time, these urban radicals put on the long pants of the working class before making their way to France’s elected assembly to cheer, jeer and threaten. Allied with two political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers) and organized via neighborhood councils (the forty-eight “Paris sections,” each of which operated a national guard unit), hundreds of sans-culottes could mobilize in a snap, armed with pikes, guns and even artillery.

They did so on May 30, 1793, surrounding and storming the legislature to demand the removal of 29 moderate representatives. During what became a three-day siege, one legislator needed four guards just to get to the bathroom, while others had their clothing torn by bayonets as they tried to sneak away. In the end, gun-toting sans-culottes simply blocked the exits until the exhausted assembly purged the moderates.

Three months later, on September 5, the sans-culottes did it again, this time demanding radical measures to punish “hidden domestic enemies” and tyrants abroad. Legislators again capitulated, voting under duress to put into action the sans-culottes’ slogan: “Make terror the order of the day.” By the time the Terror ended, 17,000 people – including many of the lawmakers who voted for it that day – had lost their heads to the guillotine.

Whatever lip service they offer to his thought, today’s Republicans are on Burke’s bad side. January 6 was drawn from the sans-culotte playbook he loathed – an attempt to use violence and death threats to force a legislature’s hand. After an initial moment of Burkean revulsion, however, many Republicans have reverted to Trumpian sympathy for the capitol insurgents. Whitewashing a deadly riot as a “normal tourist visit” and “legitimate political discourse,” they have winked at the use of violence against their friends and colleagues.

Advertisements featuring right-wingers shooting at images of their opponents have proliferated, with calls for “second amendment solutions” paralleling a rise in online threats to politicians’ lives. Nor is this exclusively a national issue. From elections officials to school boards to the lieutenant governor’s office (which, for the first time, has its own dedicated security force – no, not because of Antifa), Utah politics has taken its own sans-culotte turn.

Conservatives’ supremely ironic lurch away from Burke and toward the sans-culottes does not bode well, as the French Revolution teaches us. The conspiratorial histrionics and violent fantasies on display everywhere from CPAC to the Davis County Republican Caucus mirror those of the French left as it consumed itself at the height of the Terror.

Slippage in American political language has a French analog too. With sans-culottes calling the tune, rock-ribbed revolutionaries such as Camille Desmoulins, Tom Paine and Jean-Jacques Brissot (Google ‘em and weep) became unredeemable, guillotine-able “enemies of the people.” Now, to hear the loudest on the right tell it, everyone from Mitt Romney to the Deseret News editorial board to Fairview’s own Spencer Cox is a communist in league with the “woke Left.”

Where that rhetorical slippage ends for conservatives remains unclear, but if the law of the harvest and Georges Danton’s experience are any indication, it might be with the cold comfort of some awesome last words.

Once an ally of the sans-culottes, Danton was shouted down in a torrent of profanity when they invaded the assembly in 1793. Reluctantly, he voted for Terror, hoping to satiate the popular thirst for partisan violence. “Let us be terrible,” he told his fellow legislators, “in order to stop the people from being so.” Months later, he mounted the scaffold.

“Be sure to show the people my head,” Danton said, nudging the executioner: “It’s worth seeing.”

Christopher Hodson | Associate Professor, Department of History, Brigham Young University

Christopher Hodson is an associate professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University.