Edmund Burke, the British writer of political theory, believed government had been improved by every preceding generation up to his own. He saw the successive effort of early Greek democracies and Byzantine emperors and the rules set forth by the Magna Carta coalescing into a consummately effective—though far from perfect—society. In his eyes, the British Parliamentary system of his day represented the realization of all of the efforts theretofore drawn together by the work of Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century. It was the fullest expression of liberty balanced with order yet known to man. A deep sense of gratitude to his forbears reigned in every word from his lips and from his pen.
Due to this national pride and patriotism, Burke's dismissal of the French Revolution brings little surprise to the student of history. Yet, his positive attitude toward the American Revolutionaries, so uncommon in his time and station, was no less a natural expression of his political stance.
Years before the fateful July fourth, Burke addressed the British House of Commons regarding the trouble stirring far across the Atlantic. The British had treated the American Englishmen unjustly, he argued. Taxation without representation violated the principles foundational to Parliament. Taking a long and careful view of history, Burke believed that the colonists had both tactical and ideological advantages; they wielded the two-edged sword of power and virtue. As long as the English people exploited their overseas brethren, they could not hope to suppress the colonists with violence.
Burke's call to action went unheeded, and the American Revolution began. Still appealing to his perennial belief in the superiority of the Parliamentary system of government, he pled with the House, “As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia. But, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you." Despite his wise words, the English still sought to enslave the colonies, thereby losing America.
A refugee torn from the prisons of the French Revolution, political philosopher Thomas Paine ended his life without the slightest loss of confidence in the beauty and value of revolution. As he had stood with America throughout his boyhood and early manhood, Paine stood with France even as it sought to kill him. For Paine, the world had been a brutal, unjust place until the Enlightenment in the 1700s. In the light of liberty and intellectual freedom, the dusty thrones and inbred monarchy that filled Europe's ruling class seemed a matter for history books rather than newspapers.
Paine championed these views and praised the necessity of the American Revolution in his famous pamphlet, Common Sense. Read in bars and parlors throughout the colonies, the straightforward, sometimes vulgar language of Paine's writings provided the battle cry of an Enlightened people against the old, cold ways of King George III. It argued that ordinary people had not only the ability and the right to contribute to the structure of their leadership, but even the duty.
What was true in America was doubly true in France. A little over a decade after arguing the American people into shuffling off the shackles of the English monarchy, Paine joined what he saw as a parallel effort in France. When the peasants deposed the king and tore apart the structure of their government, Paine lauded the end of tyranny. The political philosopher joined the effort in France with almost complete accord, although he did try to argue against the execution of King Louis XVI, who had been an ally to the Americans in their own fight for independence. Even after that execution, Paine went on to write headstrong defenses of the French Revolution until the tides turned. In the unstable atmosphere of the French political landscape, Paine soon found himself on the wrong side of the ruling powers. Imprisoned and sentenced to death, Paine relied on allies from America and England to help him escape.
Despite this accident of history, Paine refused to speak against the French Revolution. To his death, he continued to claim that individual safety and stability ought to be sacrificed on the altar of liberty.