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Friday, August 14, 2020

Burke, Gibbon, and the Jacobins

Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke were contemporaries, but they didn’t see eye to eye on political matters. Gibbon, inspired by the atheistic thought of the French philosophes, was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and the Jacobin cause, whereas Burke stood for a conservative worldview and was a trenchant critic of the French Revolution and the Jacobins. After 1790, when it became clear that the French Revolution was a colossal failure, as Burke had predicted, Gibbon tried to dissociate himself from the French philosophes by claiming that his atheism was inspired by the work of Conyers Middleton and not the philosophy that was driving the French Revolution. He became an admirer of Burke’s work—in a letter to Lord Sheffield (5 February 1791), Gibbon wrote: “Burke's book is a most admirable medication against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition.”

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