Is the contest between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine as much a matter of style as politics? A comment

Essay, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A in England)



Table of contents


Political ideas

Correlation between style and political ideas?


Works cited


The aim of this essay is to analyse whether the striking differences between the political ideologies of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke are also mirrored on the level of their use of language and thus on the level of their styles. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s Rights of Man, “the most successful of the many responses that Burke’s pamphlet provoked” (Hodson 115), are the basis for this investigation. I will argue that the widely spread assumption that the nature of Burke and Paine’s largely antithetic political ideas can be reflected in their respective styles needs to be reassessed and that – indeed surprisingly – there is no distinct/strong link between their political convictions on the one hand and their styles on the other hand.

During the 1790’s “around four hundred pamphlets were […] published in Britain on the subject of France, a figure that does not include other forms of public engagement, such as poems, ballads, periodical essays and novels” (Hodson 1). There were thus “over four hundred voices all fiercely contesting what exactly had happened in France, why it had happened and what it meant for Britain” (1). In this context of competing pamphlets, it must have been particularly important to respond to the readers’ demands on the level of language and style. The reader decided which of these pamphlets were going to be discussed more than others, and thus which of the political ideas expressed in them were going to be influential. If a writer wanted his political ideas to be ‘received’, he had to adopt his writing and make it as accessible captivating as possible for the biggest number of possible readers. Hodson calls this situation a “war of words” (1).

Both, Burke and Paine, seem to have attempted to adjust their writing styles to this particular situation. I claim that they have modified their styles more according to the demands of a mass readership than according to their specific political ideologies.

First, the major political ideas presented in Reflections and Rights of Man will be addressed, and then the differences and most importantly the many similarities between Burke and Paine’s styles will be analysed and evaluated.

Political ideas

I will only very shortly summarize the main ideas of Burke and Paine in this section, because the main focus of this essay will be on the stylistic aspects of Reflections and Rights of Man.

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France both praises the contemporary British constitution and cautions against an imitation of the French Revolution in England. He stresses the importance of the sustainable and historically developed present constitution which makes a direct election of the Head of State/king by the people in his eyes unnecessary. He confronts/compares the peaceful contemporary situation in England with the chaotic and possibly arbitrary and tyrannical situation in France. This aims at “produc[ing] in English readers a feeling of positive fear – a real fear of revolution in England, a real horror at the prospect that the same thing could happen in England that was happening in France” (Duddy 500).

Paine, on the contrary, replies in his pamphlet to Burke’s text, by vehemently defending the French Revolution. He argues that it is not a particular, old system that is natural, but that the rights of man (both political, and social (part II)) are first and foremost natural and need to be enabled and protected. England should recognize the power of the current time and follow the French example.

Correlation between style and political ideas?

This section, the main section, will now analyse in detail whether there is a correlation between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine’s styles in Reflections on the Revolution in France and Rights of Man respectively and the political ideologies presented in these pamphlets.

Many scholars have argued that there is indeed such a correlation between style and political ideology, and that Paine’s writing is - in line with his political philosophy - ‘democratizing’ and that, in contrast, Burke’s style is conservative or aristocratic and less accessible to uneducated readers (e.g. Olivia Smith; Frans Bruyn). Bruyn, for example, claims that “what Burke says cannot be divorced from the way he says it” (7). For instance, as we have seen in the section on the political ideologies of Burke and Paine, Burke stresses the importance of a political system that is rooted and the past. According to Bruyn, Burke’s “belief that the political and the cultural enterprise of a society […] is a partnership between present and past, the living and the dead” is dramatized by “his very choice […] of the literary models of the previous generation” (7). He adds that since Burke is a “cultural conservative, his conception of the literary continues to reflect the views of the previous generation – Pope, Swift and their contemporaries” (6) and concludes that “Burke’s marriage of high literary culture and political utterance constitutes a sophisticated imaginative enactment of his most cherished political convictions: a realisation of content or ideas at the level of form” (7).

With regard to Thomas Paine, Jane Hudson reminds us that “the 18th-century was an age of standardization and prescriptivism[1] ” (4) with the “inherently conservative” idea that “language reflects the mind”. She adds that “standardization itself was a politically driven process, through which the lower orders were denied a voice” (5). With writers like Thomas Paine, however, “this hegemony of language came under attack” (5): Paine has often been depicted as “a great political writer for the ordinary people[2], someone whose language drew a new audience to political debate” (Hodson 116). Therefore, “critics have eschewed attributing Paine’s success to the depth or originality of his thought, but rather have preferred to cite the ‘vulgarity’ of his style as the key to understanding his pamphlet’s popularity” (Clark 31).

On the one hand, this theory of the correlation between style and politics is tempting and promising, but on the other hand it would imply that, Burke would be willing to apply a linguistic strategy which contradicts his motivation for the publication of what had formerly been a letter to a French friend of his. This aim of the publication was to create an awareness in the English public of the risks of a revolution in England. His aim was to arouse fear and to warn the English public. In order to achieve this aim, it would have been logical for Burke to write in a largely accessible style for his Reflections on the Revolution in France. A highly elaborated writing style on the basis of Augustan writers would logically minimize the readership of his texts, which cannot have been in his interest. I therefore argue that the claim made by Bruyn and other scholars must be reassessed, if only because of reasons of strategy. The following examples from my analysis of Reflections of Rights of Man will support my argument by means of textual data.

Differences in style

I will first focus on the differences in style between Paine and Burke. These differences may to some extent be proof for a convergence between the different styles and ideologies. I will, however, show that the similarities between Paine and Burke’s style are of higher importance and of higher frequency.

One of the differences between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke’s style is the fact that Paine “avoided overly long sentences” (Clark 31). Thomas Clark compared Paine’s sentences to the ones by three other pamphleteers (not to Burke, unfortunately) and found out that “Paine’s clauses, averaging thirteen words, tend to be shorter than those written by the other pamphleteers”. Burke’s sentences, in contrast, are often longer and often consist of a number of parenthesis and subordinate clauses:

“Whenever the supreme authority is vested in a body so composed, it must evidently produce the consequences of supreme authority placed in the hands of men not taught habitually to respect themselves, who had no previous fortune in character at stake, who could not be expected to bear with moderation, or to conduct with discretion, a power which they themselves, more than any others, must be surprised to find in their hands” (Reflections 36)


“After all, if the House of Commons were to have a wholly professional and faculty composition , what is the power of the House of Commons, circumscribed and shut in by the immovable barriers of law, usages, positive rules of doctrine and practice, counterpoised by the House of Lords, and every moment of its existence at the discretion of the crown to continue, prorogue, or dissolve us?” (Reflections 38)

However, there are also striking exceptions with a sentence structure similar to Paine’s: “This was unnatural. The rest is in order” (Reflections 33).

Moreover, Paine uses more often forms of ‘to be’ in his sentences (Clark 31) than Burke does. The following sentences serves as only one of many possible examples:

“A general revolution in the principle and construction of Government is necessary” (Rights of Man 192 my own emphasis). This observation can be linked to another difference between Burke and Paine’s style: Whenever Burke makes a statement/claim, he offers a sort of hypothetical and causal deduction/demonstration showing how he came to have a particular opinion. This can be shown with the higher-than-average number of “if” constructions (conditional clauses).

“If all the absurd theories of lawyers and divines were to vitiate the objects in which they are conversant, we should have no law and no religion left in the world” (Reflections 23)

“If ever there was a time favourable for establishing the principle that a king of popular choice was the only legal king, without all doubt it was at the Revolution. Its not being done at that time is a proof that the nation was of opinion it ought not be done at any time” (15)

“According to this spiritual doctor of politics, if his Majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of his people, he is no lawful king. Now nothing can be more untrue than that the crown of this kingdom is so held by his Majesty. Therefore, if you follow their rule, the king of Great Britain most certainly does not owe his high office to any form of popular election, is in no respect better than the rest of the gang of usurpers who reign […]” (12)

Also, Burke often uses sensory constructions in order to explain how he came to have a specific opinion. He seems to have a more empirical approach to knowledge:

“I see nothing to which I could take exception” (Reflections 6 my own emphasis);

“the proceeding looks a little too refined and too ingenious”

“when I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it” (7)

“we ought to see what it will please them to do” (8)

“From the moment I read the list, I saw […] what was to follow” (36)


[1] She writes that at that time „ideology of correctness, as expressed in a [high number of] grammars and dictionaries […] constituted an authoritative and cohesive system of social and political control, which Olivia Smith terms ‘the hegemony of language’” (5).

[2] Ordinary people were „unlikely to be alert to subtleties of allusion, tone, rhythm and imagery“ (Clark 31).

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Is the contest between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine as much a matter of style as politics? A comment
Oxford University
1,0 (A in England)
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edmund, burke, thomas, paine
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Anonymous, 2014, Is the contest between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine as much a matter of style as politics? A comment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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