Wollstonecraft, Revolution, and Human Casualty

In November of 1790, political writer Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, lamenting the overturning of the French monarchy, sympathizing with the king and queen and speculating on the negative consequences that this would have on the rest of the world. It would incite many rebuttals from supporters of the revolution. One of which, entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men, by Mary Wollstonecraft, in which she blasted Burke’s viewpoint, saying that he was simply letting his emotions get the best of him, “All your pretty flights arise from your pampered sensibility; and that, vain of this fancied pre-eminence of organs, you foster every emotion till the fumes, mounting to your brain, dispel the sober suggestions of reason. It is not in this view surprising, that when you should argue you become impassioned, and that reflection inflames your imagination, instead of enlightening your understanding.” (123)

She goes on to make the assertion that Burke’s publication is  probably just a result of his unwillingness to accept change and his blind adherence to tradition for tradition’s sake, “I perceive from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a moral antipathy to reason; but, if there is anything like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result:-that we are to reverence the rust of antiquity, and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated…”  (124) Her entire response to Burke’s tract continues in this same vein and she seems convinced that the overthrowing of the French monarchy is for the best, that the ends justify the means, and that Burke is simply overreacting.

Mary’s convictions were not unwavering, however. In a personal letter written to Joseph Johnson while Wollstonecraft was living in Paris during the trial of King Louis XVI, we catch a glimpse of the fumes of Mary’s own emotion. In the letter, she recounts seeing the king passing by her window in a coach and the a feeling that overtakes her, “I can scarcely tell you why, but an association of ideas made the tears flow insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach, going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed. My fancy instantly brought Louis XIV [his grandfather] before me, entering the capital with all his pomp, after one of the victories most flattering to his pride, only to see the sunshine of prosperity overshadowed by the sublime gloom of misery” (131).

Though I doubt that Wollstonecraft would have wished to prevent the king’s execution, still thinking it was something that had to be done (this was still before The Terror, in which tens of thousands of people who were suspected of treason were guillotined), she, too, has found herself guilty of, if not a reverence, then at least a bit of sympathy for “rust of antiquity,” and in particular, the human beings who personified it.

Mary’s unintentional hypocrisy is a perfect example of the difference between writing from second-hand sources and first-hand experience. It’s amazing how much what we see and what we read or hear from others can affect ones stance on a particular issue. Mary’s experience brings to mind many political issues which have been settled with human casualty as a consequence. Whether it be war or revolution, when the dead go from figures on a sheet of paper to flesh and blood human beings passing by your window, is it still easy to think the ends justify the means?

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