U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Most Radical Vindication

MarywollstonecraftMary Wollstonecraft is usually remembered for her essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), much less for her earlier response to Edmund Burke, written two years earlier, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (VRM) (1790). Though undoubtedly the former was historically and intellectually more significant than the latter, I must admit that I for one am taken by the earlier essay just as much as I am with her more famous later text. Mary Wollstonecraft is too often pigeon-holed as an early/proto/first feminist and not often enough as one of the most captivating intellectuals and radicals of her day. Viewed in this context, though, I think we might find VRM as one of her most remarkable achievements, as it reveals the more radical framework within which she wrote. Yet most treatments of VRM consider it a hastily written text in which Wollstonecraft let her vexation with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France get the better of her. Scholars have rightly noticed that her unyielding lashes at Burke prevent any attempt to put forth a cogent well thought out argument. Nonetheless, when it comes to showing a fiery conviction in a just cause, few texts can match the zeal of this rushed essay by Wollstonecraft.

Usually, when we think of responses to Edmund Burke’s Reflections or essays in support of the French Revolution in English, we think of Tom Paine and Rights of Man, which came out about a year after Wollstonecraft’s essay. For good reason, it might be the most successful pamphlet in the history of the English speaking world. Nonetheless, it is, I think, a bit unfortunate that historians have given short thrift to VRM, which anticipated many of the points Paine would later make. For perhaps no text in English better demonstrated the heated ideological and cultural conflict waged in this period between radicals and conservatives as does VRM. 

At first blush, the relentless invective Wollstonecraft hurled at Burke stands out as VRM’s most conspicuous feature. “But it was not my intention when I began this letter,” she admits at one point, “to descend to the minutiae of your conduct, or to weigh your infirmities in a balance; it is only some of your pernicious opinions that I wish to hunt out of their lurking holes; and to show you to yourself, stripped of the gorgeous drapery in which you have enwrapped your tyrannic principles.”(84)* Towards the end of the essay she chastised Burke more harshly still:

“Man preys on man; and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer. You mourn for the empty pageant of a name, when slavery flaps her wing, and the sick heart retires to die in lonely wilds, far from the abodes of man… Why is our fancy to be appalled by terrific perspectives of a hell beyond the grave? Hell stalks abroad; the lash resounds on the slave’s naked sides; and the sick wretch, who can no longer earn the sour bread of unremitting labour, steals to a ditch to bid the world a long good night… Such misery demands more than tears—I pause to recollect myself; and smother the contempt I feel rising for your rhetorical flourishes and infantine sensibility.”(144-5)

Perhaps of more interest though, in VRM Wollstonecraft presented an analysis and critique of the origins of social injustice as stemming from vast material inequality, upheld by an historical charade. “When you call yourself a friend of liberty,” Wollstonecraft urged Burke early on in the essay, “ask your own heart whether it would not be more consistent to style yourself the champion of property, the adorer of the golden image which power has set up?”(19) Since in Reflections Burke had held up England as an example of ‘level-headed’ and ‘manly’ liberty, a few passages later she followed up by blaming Burke for concealing, “that property in England is much more secure than liberty… that the liberty of an honest mechanic—his all—is often sacrificed to secure the property of the rich.”(24) At other instances she accused Burke of “contempt for the poor,”(135) and portrayed grimly how in England and France “the sweat of the laborious poor,” is “squeezed out of them by unceasing taxation.”(41) Furthermore, at times she steered quite close to socialism, presenting an analysis of the loss of the commons and the historical process of enclosure, as she made a case for the redistribution of property:

“Why cannot large estates be divided into small farms? these dwellings would indeed grace our land. Why are huge forests still allowed to stretch out with idle pomp and all the indolence of Eastern grandeur? [Not yet an environmentalist, though.] Why do the brown wastes meet the traveller’s view, when men want work? But commons cannot be enclosed without acts of parliament to increase the property of the rich!”(140-1).

I think that modern readers will find this essay delightful, especially if, like me, you appreciate a hearty tirade. I would also consider assigning it to students, perhaps even before Rights of Man, as it is shorter and at times more engaging. Furthermore, since this was the historical moment in which Wollstonecraft started to develop her critique of patriarchy, it could also prove useful for discussions of the origins of feminism. Indeed, embedded in the text, one can identify moments of realization that Burke’s famous exclamations in support of chivalry underscored various systems of oppression—perhaps most of all, patriarchy.

Ultimately, while I certainly consider myself one who, as Dick Gaughan put it, dances “to the rhythm of Tom Paine’s bones,” I must admit that if I had to choose a favorite Anglo late 18th century radical, I would go with Wollstonecraft.

*All citations refer to the online google books version

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  1. This is a great piece. Interestingly, the accretion of charges in VRM does call to mind Dick Gaughan’s other muse, Robert Burns!

    • Thanks Kurt, Robert Burns sound like someone I should get to know better, haven’t heard about him until now.

  2. Excellent post Eran. Poor Mary, she has been ignored, or let’s say minimized, by modern feminist who don’t like the way she constructs women’s place and male scholars because she is after all a woman and was not, of course, at the center of the Enlightenment project. In both cases, she is often get left out in the cold. Godwin didn’t do her any favors either. By the way, she was actually an acute theo-political thinker to boot. She is in need of deeper scholarly attention. I could major in Mary if I didn’t have so much on my plate already. Fascinating woman.

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