The Great Debate Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

One of the very first college classes I ever had (around 37 years ago) was a “history of Western civilization” course where the professor showed a film with actors playing the parts of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and reenacting this classic “debate.” The assignment was to choose which figure we most agreed with. I remember writing that they both seemed to have a point which, then as now, seems to be the most logical position. Interestingly, in his magisterial history of anarchism, Peter Marshall cites both Burke and Paine as proto-typical anarchists, which I believe is correct.

By James A. Montanye

The Independent Review

Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were late-eighteenth-century political thinkers and prolific writers who disagreed fundamentally, both in private and in public, about the relationship between the individual and the state. Burke was an Irishman who spent the bulk of his career as a socially conservative and nominally religious member of Britain’s Parliament. Paine, by contrast, was a child of the Enlightenment, a freethinker who was born in England (which subsequently convicted him in absentia of treason), and a proselytizer for political revolution in America and France (both countries granted him citizenship—America also granted him ownership of a farm that had been confiscated from an English loyalist).

Burke is perhaps best known as the father of modern political conservatism, arguing (mostly consistently) for the importance of tradition and for the gradual improvement of a nation’s social and political life. He also is remembered for having pronounced the death of European chivalry and for denouncing the succession of “sophisters, calculators, and economists.” Paine, by comparison, is remembered as a pamphleteer who spurred Americans to revolution with talk about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” and later as a champion of the French Revolution’s radical social and political ideals. Both men favored American independence, albeit for fundamentally different reasons owing to their differing political faiths. Otherwise, the two men’s philosophical differences could not have been greater.


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