Wollstonecraft as a Critic of Burke

David Bromwich, "Wollstonecraft as a Critic of Burke," Political Theory, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 617-634.


Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men was the first published reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Later replies from the radical side challenged and in a measure qualified Burke’s report of the events of 1789, brought out the selective emphasis that guided his record of French history, showed the inadequacy of his sources (a bias sometimes passing into caprice), and sought to unmask his private motive for publishing, so late in life, a work of aristocratic propaganda. It was agreed by the detractors as by the vindicators of Burke that the Reflections was addressed to England more than to France, as a sequence of coded warnings against the politics of the Revolution Society and other associations for reform; this, the pamphlet-writers knew, would have been a primary reason for his choice of the word “reflections.” On matters like these, Wollstonecraft is not a distinctive guide, and her sparing use of contemporary data may have made her reply appear at once preliminary and oddly aloof. Where Thomas Paine stands out against Burke as a rival narrator of the revolution, and of the miseries of the people which Burke denied a place among the causes of the revolution; where James Mackintosh shows that the changes of 1789 may be consistent with the principles of 1688, and approval of the French Revolution continuous with the traditional Whig view of the “settlement” of 1689; where Joseph Priestley sees how Burke’s historicism must be taken to qualify his sense that the British political system “is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world”-in this company, Wollstonecraft can seem to have missed her cue. If, in 1790, one wanted pragmatic help in winning the debate, she would not be one’s first choice of an ally. And yet she seems to me a more original moral┬áthinker, and a deeper reader of Burke, than any of the large and capable regiment of anti-Burke pamphleteers.