Reactionary Prophet

Christopher Hitchens, "Reactionary Prophet," The Atlantic Monthly (April 2004).


It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one. And such reductionism makes a sort of rough partnership with the simplistic view that Burke was the founder or father of modern conservatism in general, and of its English Tory form in particular. In point of fact Edmund Burke was neither an Englishman nor a Tory. He was an Irishman, probably a Catholic Irishman at that (even if perhaps a secret sympathizer), and for the greater part of his life he upheld the more liberal principles of the Whig faction. He was an advanced opponent of the slave trade, whose “Sketch of a Negro Code” was written in the early 1780s, and who before that had opposed the seating of American slaveholders at Westminster. His epic parliamentary campaign for the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the arraignment of the East India Company was the finest example in its day of a battle against pelf and perks and privilege. His writings on revolution and counter-revolution, and on empire, are ripe for a “Straussian” or Machiavellian reading that seeks to discover the arcane or occluded message contained within an ostensibly straightforward text.

The Atlantic