1789, the Scots, and Bling

Name and Place for August 5 (’14)


In the Deep South of the USA, we like to give a little lagniappe (“LAN-yap”), “a little something extra”.  So here’s an extra quote for the day from a great book that is required reading for 8th graders at a nearby school, How the Scots Invented the Modern World written by Arthur Herman (read about him here):

(Dugald) Stewart was in Paris that fateful summer of 1789, and it was with great excitement that he watched the dramatic events unfolding: the formation of the National Assembly, the storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  A new constitutional order was being born, he believed, based on justice, law, and natural right.  He was repelled when the great spokesman of the old Whig Party, Edmund Burke, wrote his influential Reflections on the Revolution in France, forecasting doom, death, and dictatorship.  Stewart’s student, James Mackintosh, wrote an impassioned reply vindicating the French revolutionary cause.  Even the occasional outbreaks of mob violence did not deter Stewart.  He wrote to a friend in late November 1791, ‘The little disorders which may now and then occur in a country, where things in general are in so good a train, are of very inconsiderable importance’.

Edmund-BurkeThen, over the next year, it turned out Burke had been right all along.  Edmund Burke, Irishman and Episcopalian, was a strange figure in relation to the Scottish school.  He knew many of its members; they heavily influenced his own view of history.  But he had rejected their most characteristic conclusion, that the great driving force in the progress of civilization was economic change.  Burke insisted it was the other way around: it was the elaborate network of civilized ‘manners,’ meaning morality, law, and tradition grown up over generations, that made a system of commercial exchange based on trust possible, and hence human progress possible.  He wrote, ‘Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves but creatures’ of a higher moral order embedded in the fabric of society.  Strip that away, he warned, and the entire edifice would come crashing down.

Edmund Burke, 1729-1797.

 

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