The Historical Journal


a1 University of Exeter

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Burke's justification for intervention in French internal affairs in the name of the international community has formed a powerful strand of thought in both diplomacy and international relations theory. However, the strength and openness of Burke's advocacy, traced here, changed according to his target audience, the domestic, and the international political context. Crucially, when he came to justify the case openly, the arguments changed completely. Beginning with a Grotian argument drawn from Vattel and premised on states as isolated rights-holders in a pre-social ‘state of nature’, Burke always struggled to draw a justification for intervention in the case, allowed by Vattel, of irrevocable political disunion. This conflicted both with Burke's general conception of states as corporate wholes and his linked policy aspiration to restore the totality of French ancient institutions. Ultimately abandoning this, his final argument, fully set out only in the Letters on a regicide peace, is completely new. It is premised not on modern international law but on remedies to be found in Roman domestic law, invocation of which he justifies by claiming Europe to be a single juridical enclave, drawing on an eighteenth-century discourse of shared manners, law, and culture as constitutive of political identity and community.


1 Research for this article was undertaken as part of a British Academy–Leverhulme senior research fellowship, and thanks are due to those bodies and the University of Exeter. Versions of this article have been presented at the history of political ideas seminar, the Institute for Historical Research, London, and the Politics Department research seminar at the University of Exeter. My thanks to participants there for comments, for advice and assistance from Jeremy Black, Mike Duffy, Emilie Frankiel, and Tim Dunne and to Quentin Skinner for encouragement.