Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Edmund Burke was deeply involved in English public life as a Whig politician who served from 1765 to 1794 in Parliament. This experience convinced him that governments must respond to the practical needs of the peoples they govern and that political crises do not all yield to the same measures. When he saw what was unfolding in France in 1789 and 1790, Burke became alarmed that the revolutionaries were ignoring the wisdom achieved by long experience and that they were acting on assumptions that were contrary to human nature. Reflections on the Revolution in France was intended to warn the people of England against being caught up by the same enthusiasm for destructive change that Burke saw infecting the citizens of France.
The Reign of Terror had not yet begun when Burke took up his pen in 1790 (some would say it is foreseen in Burke’s castigation of the revolutionaries), but in July, 1789, the Bastille had been taken and the Comitù des Recherches had been formed and given numerous repressive police powers. In August, the French National Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Two months later, the king’s family was transferred from Versailles to Paris. In November, the National Assembly appropriated the Catholic Church’s property, which soon became the basis of a new paper currency known as assignats. The religious orders, excepting those concerned with charity or education, were shut down in February, 1790, and finally, in July, the hereditary nobility were stripped of their titles and perquisites. These were the drastic changes taking place in France as Burke wrote the Reflections.
In late 1789, a young French friend of Burke, Charles-Jean-François Depont, asked Burke for his thoughts on the recent events in France. After a first, short letter of response, Burke began again in earnest with the words “Dear Sir” and did not stop until he had written an entire book. In the Reflections he explains that he will “throw out” his thoughts and express his feelings “just as they arise in my mind, with very little attention to formal method.” No chapter divisions or subheads appear in the work, only long, dense paragraphs packed with balanced statements and striking turns of phrase. Burke seizes a subject and wrings it dry, his tone frequently modulating between contempt and solemnity.
If his improvised style holds the reader with its rhetorical inventiveness, the substance of his account is often not to be trusted. His silly story of the mob’s takeover of Versailles on October 6, 1789, which features the queen’s servant being “cut down” by a “band of cruel ruffians and assassins,” is a lurid fiction. This passage in particular was immediately ridiculed and hurt Burke’s credibility. Reflections on the Revolution in France should not be read as history, however, but as a work of political theory that expresses a coherent point of view.
On November 4, 1789, in an area of London known as the Old Jewry, Dr. Richard Price, a dissenting minister, preached a fiery sermon praising the upheaval in France. Burke identifies (not quite verbatim) three fundamental rights that Price insisted the English people had acquired: “to choose our own governors,” “to cashier them for misconduct,” and “to frame a government for ourselves.” Burke rejects this talk of “rights” and cites the Declaration of Right (the bill of rights written under William and Mary) as “the cornerstone of the constitution” and as the embodiment of the true principles of the Revolution of 1688.
The “Glorious Revolution” did not, Burke says, give people the lasting right to elect their own rulers but only the opportunity to resolve a crisis at that specific time. The British people were free to fill the throne only “upon the same grounds on which they might have wholly abolished their monarchy, and every other part of their constitution.” In other words, the people had hardly any grounds, for a hereditary monarchy is rooted in British history. “An irregular, convulsive movement may be necessary to throw off an irregular, convulsive...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Blakemore, Steven, ed. Burke and the French Revolution. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Collection of six essays written on the occasion of the bicentennial of the revolution includes comparison of the moral imaginations of Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and examination of the “feminization” of Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edited by Frank M. Turner. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. In addition to the text of Burke’s work, includes an informative editor’s introduction and four essays analyzing various aspects of the book.
Chapman, Gerald. Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Presents sophisticated analysis of the Reflections and argues that Burke’s absurd account of the events at Versailles led to a distortion of his position.
Hodson, Jane. Language and Revolution in Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, and Godwin. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007. Analyzes Reflections on the Revolution in France and other works about the French Revolution to demonstrate how the writers use particular kinds of language to lend their texts greater authority.
Lock, F. P. Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” London: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Offers authoritative commentary on the work and carefully explains the sequence of events that led to Burke’s response to the revolution.
Mitchell, L. G. Introduction to Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Concise and informative introduction appears in one of the most readily available paperback editions of Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. 1791. Reprint. Edited by Henry Collins. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1969. The famous response to Burke by the pamphleteer whose Crisis papers helped win the American Revolution.
Whale, John, ed. Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”: New Interdisciplinary Essays. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Collection includes discussion of the book’s critical reception in the early 1790’s as well as topics such as how Burke’s work related to popular opinion and national identity.