Charles Willson PealePortrait of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, 1791, Oil on canvas, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Edmund Burke remarked famously—and often—on those men, seized with grand theories, who busied themselves making, unmaking, and remaking the French Revolution. They were counting, he said, on “bungling practice [to correct] absurd theory.” For Burke, the sweeping proclamations on “the Rights of Man” were belied by a spirit of lawlessness; a passion to resist authority running so deep that it would finally detach itself from...

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