Mr. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “A Vindication of Edmund Burke,” (National Review, December 17, 1990), contains many long established truths about Burke’s politics—his consistency in principle, his remarkable insights and powers of prophesy, his strong critique of revolutionary ideology, and so forth. But amidst these trite truisms, which vindicate O’Brien’s subject only to the uninitiated, he asserts some claims about the Enlightenment and Burke’s religion and politics that are very dubious or simply false.

In 1975 the British historian John Lough warned against the loose use of “Enlightenment” as an abstract, all-inclusive category: “It is surely obvious that the greater the diversity of ideas which the term Enlightenment is stretched to cover, the less use it has as a scholarly tool. By the time the lowest common denominator can be discovered for ideas produced under such vastly different conditions, Enlightenment and Lumières become empty words.” O’Brien would have done well to heed Lough’s warning. Unless one equates the Enlightenment with the entire 18th century, it is meaningless rhetoric to call Burke “a child of the Enlightenment.” O’Brien’s indiscriminate inclusion of him under that term raises grave doubts that he understands either Burke or the enormously complex nature of that elusive category, and its vast range of interpretations.

O’Brien segments the Enlightenment arbitrarily, and identifies Burke with what he calls “the early, English or English-inspired phase of the Enlightenment. This was the Enlightenment of Locke . . . an Enlightenment that was compatible with a tolerant version of Christianity. This was Burke’s Enlightenment.” This is a colossal error. Burke always defended what he called the Christian commonwealth of Europe from its “enlightened” enemies—the materialists, atheists, deists, freethinkers, and epicureans who made their private “natural reason” the sole criterion for truth. In 1790 he charged that the primary objective of the French Revolution, which was based upon atheism, was to destroy the religious, legal, moral, and political social order and civilization of Europe that Christianity had built up over many centuries. Moreover, during the last seven years of his life Burke expressly denied that his era was any more “enlightened” than past ages.

Even when dealing with persons, O’Brien is a victim of his abstract categories. He knows that Locke and Burke were both members of the Church of England, both approved of the Revolution of 1688, and both are universally classified as Whigs. On this basis he concludes that Burke is a disciple of Locke. But in every one of these religious and political areas there is overwhelming historical evidence that Burke differed profoundly from his predecessor.

Burke was a philosophical dualist, for example, and believed in the reality of both matter and spirit, whereas Locke was a materialist and monist. Those who believe Burke was a follower of Locke’s politics ignore their great differences in such matters as the following: their conceptions of the nature of man; the nature and proper relationship of Church and State; the role of history in society and politics; their understanding of the English constitution and meaning of political sovereignty; the distinctions between innovation, reform, and revolution; the meaning of the term “the people”; the fitness of a form of government to a given society; the relation of law or normative reason to will or power.

This inventory is by no means exhaustive. They also digressed in their use of language, in the meanings they each ascribed to such key terms as “natural law” and “natural rights,” or “reason” and “rational,” “liberty,” “equality,” etc. What is perhaps equally important, Burke’s character, temperament, and personality are a world apart from Locke, as is very evident in the complex prose styles of Burke, which appeal aesthetically to the whole nature of man, in contrast to Locke’s plain, flat, abstract, discursive, and utilitarian prose.

When O’Brien unites Burke and Locke as defenders of Christianity, as opposed to Voltaire, its declared enemy, he is betrayed into error once more by his wholly unhistorical and loose-jointed use of categories. Burke despised Voltaire’s deism and attacks on Christianity. But despite his membership in the Church of England, Locke in his religious beliefs is practically indistinguishable from Voltaire. Sterling P. Lamprecht, a noted Locke scholar, has said: “He stood so close to the deists that he has sometimes been classified as one of their number.” Locke’s pupil, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, so classified his tutor.

Perhaps O’Brien can explain why it was that when Voltaire was in England, from 1726 to 1729, and read Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1691) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), he said that he “abandoned Ovid for Locke,” called him “Le Sage Locke,” pronounced him the wisest of philosophers, and recorded in his Notebook (item 45), “Mr. Locke’s reasonableness of the Christian religion is really a new religion,” and in his unbounded admiration became a lifelong devoted champion of Locke’s philosophy and religion? Upon his return to France, Voltaire made frequent use of Locke’s religious ideas in his propaganda against Christianity, quoting him copiously in his Letters Concerning the English Nation and in his revolutionary Lettres philosophiques.

Bolingbroke, whose deism Burke satirized so intensely, was the friend and correspondent of Voltaire, and was as captivated by Locke’s Essay as his French friend. Bolingbroke acknowledged that through Locke he was led to deism. Were Voltaire and the English and French deists wrong in claiming Locke as their teacher? Or does O’Brien err in uniting Locke with Burke against Voltaire?

The main difference between Locke and Voltaire lies not in their substantive religious beliefs but in their temperament and method. Voltaire perceived that Locke’s “new religion,” instead of destroying Christianity from without the Church, as Voltaire wished to do, would emasculate it from within.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke’s most radical and polemical work, he wrote as a “minimalist” and pleaded in good conscience as a believing Christian, a rational defender of revelation, and a loyal Anglican that the Church of England should reform itself in order to attract members from the Dissenters. How? Locke advocated that it should reject its hierarchical structure and the authority of its bishops, abandon its canon law and theology, its creed and sacraments, its liturgy, all belief in mysteries and miracles, all external discipline, the Thirty-Nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer, all its religious customs and traditions—in short, its entire historical inheritance—as so many superstitions and “prejudices,” in favor of one requirement for membership and salvation—to acknowledge that Christ is the Messiah. In the last section of his Essay, Locke stated the central principle of deism: “Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything.”

What Locke viewed as religion his Anglican contemporaries perceived as irreligion. The ideas in his two books were attacked by a whole host of Anglicans, including Bishop Edward Stillingfleet and Jonathan Swift. He was charged with everything from renewing the atheism and materialism of Hobbes to Socinianism, Unitarianism, and deism, the very things for which English freethinkers and Voltaire hailed him.

Unlike Locke, Burke accepted the Church of England just as it was, with all of its virtues and weaknesses. He adhered to the Church out of personal convictions and real affection. Moreover, he regarded the Church with piety, as an important branch of Christianity, and a vital part of “the chain that connects the ages of a nation” with “the great mysterious incorporation of the human race,” because religion was “one of the bonds of human society,” and “its object [was] the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.”

Burke was certainly aware of the great gap between himself and Locke in religious toleration. Burke’s belief that “toleration was good for all, or it was good for none,” made him both preach and practice universal religious toleration. In 1781, for example, when he learned that some Hindu Brahmins in London could not find the proper means of practicing the rituals of their faith, and had become the objects of derision of some rationalist freethinkers and wits, Burke placed his home at their disposal.

Burke knew that what passed for creedal toleration was often merely indifference to religion. His “Speech on the Acts of Uniformity” (1772) was his response to two Church of England clergymen, “minimalists” like Locke, who on grounds of reason and conscience had petitioned Parliament to be relieved from subscribing to the doctrines of their Church. His political rebuttal to their petition turns upon his important distinction between “the original rights of nature” for individuals and the civil and legal rights of institutions created by positive law and conventions, a basic principle in his political philosophy. Since the disaffected clergymen were free to follow their conscience outside the Church, Burke’s religious rebuttal was that “the matter . . . does not concern toleration, but establishment.”

Unlike Locke, Burke believed that membership in the Church was a moral duty, not a voluntary relationship to be determined arbitrarily and whimsically by each individual. In his rebuttal to the two clergymen, he cleverly used Locke against his two disciples:

If the Church be, as Mr. Locke defines it, a voluntary society, etc., then it is essential to this voluntary society to exclude from her voluntary society any member she thinks fit, or to oppose the entrance of any upon such conditions as she thinks proper. For, otherwise, it would be a voluntary society acting contrary to her will, which is a contradiction in terms. And this is Mr. Locke’s opinion, the advocate for the largest scheme of ecclesiastical and civil toleration to Protestants (for to Papists he allows no toleration at all).

Burke was well aware that Locke’s famous and much admired theory of religious toleration, in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), was wholly sectarian, but on the broad all-inclusive basis of a generalized Protestantism. This did not distinguish it in principle from the more narrow, bigoted antipopery of the Levellers and Puritan sects of the Commonwealth. Burke also knew that in his lifetime, when religion and politics were closely intertwined, Locke’s total lack of toleration for Roman Catholics was what gave sanction to such systems of persecution as the Penal Laws against Catholics in Ireland, and the rule of the Protestant Ascendency.

Not only in religion, but also in their politics regarding the Revolution of 1688 and the Whig tradition, Burke and Locke are in entirely different camps. Burke approved of the Revolution of 1688 on constitutional grounds—that it was morally necessary, legally legitimate, and politically prudent to prevent James II from establishing absolute monarchy, and to return England to its traditional form of constitutional limited monarchy, with power divided and balanced by Parliamentary rule. Burke never considered the king’s Catholicism as a legitimate factor in his constitutional reasons for opposing his rule. To him, 1688 was “a revolution not made but prevented,” because the king was in revolution to the constitution, and 1688 completed the Restoration that was made in 1660.

Locke approved of the Revolution of 1688 not on constitutional grounds, but out of religious bigotry against Catholics. He was eager to replace James with William, not in order to restore constitutional limited monarchy, since his real convictions did not include such a regime as a legitimate form of government. He preferred William because he believed that no Catholic had a legitimate claim to the Crown. Locke’s anti-papist revolutionary activities were clearly evident during the decade before James became king, in his intimate association with his patron. Lord Ashley, later First Earl of Shaftesbury, whose hatred of Catholicism was pathological. Shaftesbury was involved or was the leader of a series of movements to prevent James from becoming king, including the infamous “Popish Plot,” an unsuccessful attempt to place the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, on the throne, and the Exclusionist efforts in Parliament. For his revolutionary activities Shaftesbury was charged with high treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Locke found it prudent to go into exile in Holland.

The year after his return to England in 1689, Locke published his Two Treatises of Government, with a preface that was intended to create the impression that these works were written to justify the Revolution of 1688. Locke’s motive was to obscure his former revolutionary activities, to disguise his radical Commonwealth antimonarchical political philosophy, which the Whig aristocracy of 1689 strongly opposed, and to thus win the favor of the Whigs by convincing them he was in harmony with their political views. The myth his preface created was highly successful, and he confirmed it by his conservative behavior, which entailed refraining from any revolutionary activity between 1689 and his death in 1704. Thus throughout the entire 18th century there was a widespread conviction that Locke was a good Whig in the tradition of the Revolution of 1688.

This popular Whig myth endured for 266 years, until Peter Laslett shattered it in 1956 in his superb edition of Locke’s two treatises. He proved that Locke wrote his two treatises between 1678 and 1681, not to justify the future revolution, but in support of Shaftesbury’s anti-Catholic policy. Moreover, Laslett showed that Locke’s politics were rooted in “the Good Old Cause” of the Commonwealth Levellers, not in the Whig politics of the aristocracy in 1688.

For O’Brien to admit that Locke’s politics is rooted in the radical theories of the Commonwealth Levellers would compel him to abandon his claim that Burke is in the political tradition of Locke. If the Whig tradition begins with the Levellers of the Commonwealth, then Locke, not Burke, is the archetypal true Whig. But if it derives from the Revolution of 1688, then Locke’s claim to the Whig tradition is illegitimate, and Burke is its true voice. In 1790, since the conflict was over whether the French Revolution was an extension of 1688, Burke was perfectly right to deny that Price and his colleagues in the Revolution Society could claim 1688 as their justification of the French Revolution. When Burke noted of Price and his colleagues that “in all their reasonings on the Revolution of 1688” they have in mind “a revolution which happened in England about forty years before,” he identified Price with the Commonwealth radicals and thus connected him with Locke’s politics.

Richard Ashcraft has recently shown that Locke’s ties with the Levellers makes his politics far more radical than historians have supposed, and makes it wholly unfeasible to connect Burke with Locke. To Burke, the revolutionary theories of the Commonwealth radicals were outside of the Whig political tradition. It is remarkable indeed that O’Brien’s “child of the Enlightenment” should have provoked over four hundred replies to his Reflections and other writings on the French Revolution, from the true children of the Enlightenment, those who followed Locke. I have read more than a hundred of these “replies” to Burke written between 1790 and 1797, and Locke is cited either by name, or by quoting him, or by referring to his doctrines, particularly to “natural rights,” “equality,” and “the sovereignty of the people.”

O’Brien’s frayed use of categories leaves him wondering about how much Burke understood his political differences with the “New Whigs.” In the introduction to his edition of Burke’s Reflections, O’Brien writes: “It is probable that Burke had never fully realized—until the events in France provided the critical test—how profoundly he was at odds with much that was fundamental in the philosophy of Englishmen with whom he had allied himself: Englishmen who cherished the principles of the Glorious Revolution and of the Enlightenment, and felt these principles to be essentially the same.” Burke was too well read in British history and politics, and too perceptive, not to know how and where he differed from any of his fellow Whigs who were deceived by the myth Locke had created about his political orthodoxy. In discussing the Revolution of 1688 Burke heaps praise on many of its defenders, but he never mentions Locke. This is no careless oversight. Toward Locke Burke practices what he called “the precedence of reserve and decorum,” which “dictates silence in some circumstances.”

All that I have said against O’Brien’s claim that Burke is in the religious and political tradition of Locke’s Enlightenment has great bearing upon the conviction of many Americans today that Burke is the founder of modern political conservatism. For if O’Brien is right, then the liberals, not the conservatives, have the better claim to Burke. This claim should surprise no one who has read O’Brien’s essay, “A New Yorker Critic,” in the New Statesman (June 1963), where he agrees with Tom Paine, who pictures Burke as a “gifted liberal” who “kisses the aristocratic hand that hath purloined him from himself” O’Brien agrees with the left critics of Burke that he was a potential revolutionary, an Irish outsider and alienated man, who hypocritically served the English Whig aristocracy against his true political convictions.

In the introduction to his 1968 edition of Burke’s Reflections, O’Brien severely castigates Ross Hoffman, Russell Kirk, and me for claiming that Burke was a political conservative. His criticism assumes that conservatism consists of a mindless defense of any established political authority, regardless of the beliefs or actions of those in power. Since Burke was a severe critic of King George III’s ministers during the American War of Independence and attacked the established Protestant Ascendency in Ireland and Governor Warren Hastings’ misrule in India, by O’Brien’s reasoning he was not a conservative, but a liberal.

This line of reasoning totally ignores that conservatism includes a body of normative moral, legal, and constitutional principles by which to judge those who use or abuse political power. Since, as I showed in Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, Burke adhered strictly in his politics to the norms of moral natural law and constitutional law in holding rulers accountable for their uses of power, he was never more conservative than when he condemned those in power who violated these norms.

O’Brien attacked Ross Hoffman and Russell Kirk for making an analogy between Burke’s account of the French Jacobins and contemporary Communists. He even quoted with approval Alfred Cobban’s glib comment that “Burke has escaped from the more foolish jibes of the Left in Britain only to fall victim to the uncritical adulation of the Right in America.” But ironically, in 1990, in “A Vindication of Edmund Burke,” O’Brien himself greatly extends the very same analogy made by Hoffman and Kirk, but he does it in the name of liberalism. Apparently it was all wrong in 1968 for Hoffman and Kirk to “make the equation Jacobin equals Communist,” and to “derive from Burke’s later writings a repertory of maxims and incitements in support” of a conservative foreign policy, but if Burke can be claimed as a liberal, then O’Brien is justified in using the analogy.

It is to be regretted that the conservative claim to Burke should be attacked in National Review, by a man who in 1965 identified himself as a socialist and the type of liberal who is not “a false friend” to the revolutionary aspirations of “Africa, Asia and Latin America.” In his article “The Perjured Saint,” in the New York Review of Books (November 1964), O’Brien defended Alger Hiss through a sustained attack on the moral integrity of his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, a longtime NR contributor, whom he pictured as a chronic liar.

O’Brien’s “A Vindication of Edmund Burke” is an attempt to destroy the thesis of Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind by claiming that Burke is not the founder of modern political conservatism, but a liberal like John Locke and O’Brien himself. Fortunately, the case for Burke as a moral natural law and constitutional political philosopher is too well-established.