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A Burkean Affair

It’s a shame that the new Danish movie, “A Royal Affair,” has such a frothy, frou-frou title. It makes one think of some Audrey Hepburn vehicle from the 50s, or, more recently, the tabloid-y story of Prince Charles, Diana, and Camilla.

In fact, the film is somber and thought-provoking, closely chronicling actual historical events in the late 18th century, as the ideas of the Enlightenment were sweeping through Denmark and all of Europe. The film is thus a mediation on social reform, and how it works–and how it doesn’t work. And that’s something to ponder in the 21st century as well.

“Royal Affair,” helmed by the Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, could well have been called “Reflections on the Top-Down Revolution in Denmark,” with apologies, of course, to Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France.  

Indeed, “Royal Affair” wrestles with the questions that Burke also wrestled with, during both his life as an active politician–he served in Parliament for two decades–and as an intellectual observer. When confronted by the problem of an oppressive and reactionary regime, what does one do about it? How to begin the challenge of improving it?

For instance, does the would-be change-agent seek gentle reform? Or should he seek radical transformation? If one seeks too little, the people continue to suffer, and the nation as a whole languishes in benighted torpor. Yet if one seeks too much, the resulting clefts in the old order could allow new and thuggish elements to rise up and seize power. Or, perhaps, an equally thuggish backlash could come from champions of the old order. Either way, ill-considered change could bring about the negation of progress, perhaps even dissolving the realm into chaos or subjecting it to a foreign invader.

Moreover, if the change-agent is himself full of foibles, that’s a problem as well. And if he’s a foreigner, that’s an even bigger problem. We might note that these are more than just points in an historical movie; these are points of current practical politics–because every day, Americans seem to be seeking to reform not only their own country, but also much of the rest of the world. In other words, domestic and international “nation builders” might do well to see the film; hopefully, they will find it both discomforting and instructive.

After all, over the last decade, high-hoped Americans have tried, with mixed degrees of success, to stimulate the domestic economy through various imperfect mechanisms.  And overseas, our efforts have been even more ambitious; we have sought to bring the blessings of reform and liberty–using the military and money–to lands as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Libya, and Egypt.  And oh yes, we are now trying to midwife a democratic revolution in Syria.

Meanwhile, of course, in the name of human rights, as well as other kinds of rights, we are applying pressure on proud and prickly regimes in Russia and China.  And let’s not forget that we are seeking to improve the lot of the whole of Africa; just the other day, two foreign policy mandarins boldly declared in a huge article in Politico, “U.S. must step forward to stabilize Congo.”

Do we really know what we are doing in these undertakings? Does our past track record offer reassuring augury for the future? Many observers are skeptical, and Burke, too, would likely have been among the skeptics. After all, as he wrote in a famous passage of Reflections, major changes are fraught with peril:

The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition of direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.

And so, Burke added,

When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty.

Now back to the tragic hero of “Royal Affair,” Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772).  Struensee is an actual historical figure who could have benefited from Burkean wisdom.  A German-born doctor, he became the personal physician to Denmark’s King Christian VII, who inherited the Copenhagen throne as a teenager in 1766 and reigned until his death in 1808.

And it was during these decades that the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 were shuddering ancient regimes throughout the world, threatening kings, queens, and all aristocratic traditions.

Political and military revolutions do indeed tend to be remembered.  Yet we must remember, too, the intellectual ferment that preceded such upheavals: the 18th-century reformist spirit of the Enlightenment, the movement of science and hoped-for rationality spearheaded on the European continent by such figures as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.  All of these consequential figures, we might note, are alluded to in the film.  Indeed, the Enlightenment-inspired events of “Royal Affair” preceded the battles of Lexington & Concord, not to mention the storming of the Bastille.

Meanwhile, in late 18th-century Denmark, Christian VII had proven himself too insane to rule.  And even though his wife, the English-born Caroline, a cousin of George III, was herself full of Enlightenment ideas, she had no power on her own, other than to bear children.

So enter Struensee, an avowed man of the Enlightenment. Parlaying his influence over the king, Struensee made himself de facto regent of the kingdom.  The German doctor became an ardent reformer, making full use of the king’s writ to issue a flurry of modernizing decrees.  He abolished censorship, shrank the military, improved public health.

Yet at the same time, Struensee the passionate reformer developed another passion; he became the lover of Queen Caroline. And when that royal affair became public, that was his downfall. His reforms had antagonized the royal and clerical elites, but they were popular enough with the bourgeoisie and the masses, and so public goodwill sustained his rule.  But when the common folk learned that Struensee–a German, a foreigner–was cuckolding their king, well, that’s when his support collapsed.

Thus the political science lesson: Oftentimes, reforms are no better than the reformer; if the reformer is flawed, the reform effort can be brought down. Struensee was removed from power in 1772–and publicly beheaded before a cheering crowd; most his reforms were immediately rescinded. For her part, Queen Caroline was exiled to Germany, where she died a few years later.

Meanwhile, across the North Sea, another king was proving insane: Britain’s king, George III, was also mostly mad. Yet happily, the damage to the kingdom from George’s madness was compartmentalized; in the century before, the party of Burke, the Whigs, had led the “Glorious Revolution” that had constitutionally limited the monarch’s power. In other words, the outcome in Britain was different from that in Denmark.

Yet Burke, a contemporary of Struensee, is thought to have made an oblique reference to these Danish developments. Ever conscious of the need for legitimate order, Burke always maintained his suspicions of bounders, outsiders, or newcomers to power. As he wrote in Reflections, power should not come to easily:

I do not hesitate to say that the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation.   The temple of honor ought to be seated on an eminence.  If it be opened through virtue, let it be remembered, too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty and some struggle.

Some scholars believe that Burke’s warning about those arising “from obscure condition” who might attain “eminence and power” is a direct reference to Struensee.

In any case, the larger point is a classically Burkean formulation. In laying out his principles for governance, Burke wasn’t laying out precise rules as to who should be picked for eminence or how; he was outlining an approach, an approach to governance. And that’s why Burke is so compelling and relevant, more than two centuries later. In our time, we, too, believe that the “temple of honor”–that is, the leadership of a nation–should be home only to the worthy and the eminent.

Yet Burke was no reflexive defender of the status quo. That’s why he was a Whig, not a Tory. As Conor Cruise O’Brien observed in his 1992 biography, The Great Melody, Burke was associated with four great causes in his life, and three of them were “progressive.”

The first cause was a quiet, nuanced support for American independence; as he declared on August 11, 1776, “I do not know how to wish success to those whose victory is to separate from us a large and noble part of our Empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression and absurdity.”

The second cause was rights for the Irish, who had, he wrote, been “reduced to beasts of burthen” by their English overlords. And the third cause was enforcing minimum standards of good government in colonial India; Burke’s specific target was the Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, regarded by many as corrupt and oppressive. Beginning in 1787, Burke led an effort in Parliament to impeach Hastings, although that impeachment ultimately failed. Yet in each instance, too, we see a caution–perhaps a style that’s mostly gone out of style; today’s political players are not as deliberate in their declarations.

In these three causes, then, we can infer that Burke would have had at least some sympathy for the reformist efforts of Denmark’s Enlightenment figures. Yet at the same time, knowing, as he did, that “the nature of man is intricate,” and that “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity,” he would realize there can be “no simple disposition of direction of power.”

And so that’s why Burke stood where he stood on the fourth great cause of his time, the French Revolution. Burke was prudently favorable to the rights of Americans, Irish, and Indians, but he drew the line at the radical transformation of France by zeal-filled Jacobins.

It’s this fourth cause, of course, for which Burke is best known, and which stamps him as a conservative–and, in the eyes of many, as a reactionary. Yet, O’Brien explains, “If Burke had died in 1789”–that is, before the French Revolution–“nobody could conceivably have labelled him as a reactionary thinker.” Instead, he would have been seen as a “liberal thinker, a sound Whig.”

As O’Brien puts it, whereas many in Britain, including many of Burke’s fellow Whigs, possessed great sympathy for the revolution, Burke saw it differently; he was able to grasp immediately “both the immensity and the terrible originality of the French Revolution.” In fact, Burke’s Reflections was published three years before the Reign of Terror demonstrated to any clear-eyed observer that the French Revolution represented a new and dangerous kind of radicalism, prefiguring, of course, the bloody red tide of the 19th and 20th century.

At the same time, back in Denmark, events were taking a happier turn. A dozen years after the death of Struensee, Christian VII’s son, Fredrick, assumed power as regent. And for the next 55 years, as crown prince and then as king, Frederick re-instituted many of Struensee’s reforms. Indeed, in some areas, Frederick went even further; he abolished serfdom in 1788–the year before the French Revolution. And since Frederick possessed the legitimacy that Struensee had never possessed, these reforms stuck.

Indeed, during the rule of Frederick VI, Denmark’s passage into tolerant and constitutional modernity was assured; to this day, the House of Oldenburg reigns genially over Denmark. That’s progress and reform, the way Burke would have wanted it.

And so in our time, the challenge is to find leaders who can think in Burkean terms about making true progress, even as they seek to make mild the mean passions of zealots and mobs. The life of Struensee is an object lesson in how not to proceed–although admittedly, martyrdom makes for good art. By contrast, the life of Frederick VI, the reformist king who kept his wits and his head, provides an excellent template for the enactment of lasting reforms.

If leaders who seek to remake their countries, or the world, whether they aim right or left, were aware of these Danish precedents–the negative precedent of Struensee, and the positive precedent of Frederick–their chances of finding success, and our chances for finding happiness, would be greatly improved. Americans, so often seeking to begin the world over again, would be well served if they studied history through Burke’s temperate and time-tested lens.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a regular panelist on the Fox “News Watch” show, the highest-rated media-critique show on television. He is a former columnist for Newsday, and is the editor of SeriousMedicineStrategy.org. He has written for publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, The Huffington Post, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (Hyperion: 1995). He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. In 2008 he served as a senior adviser to the Mike Huckabee for President Campaign. Married to the former Elizabeth Dial, he is a graduate of Stanford University.

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