Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” How did Burke reconcile these seemingly contradictory approaches to politics and society?

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This quote is from Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke's famous critique of the early stages of the French Revolution and the liberal ideals that motivated it. As this statement makes clear, Burke indeed thought that change was essential to the preservation of a society. In the sentence that followed, he wrote, "[w]ithout such means [i.e., change] it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve." In other words, states had to be able to adapt to changing times, or they would perish.

How did Burke reconcile this statement with his broader critique of the revolution in France? Essentially, Burke's objection to the French Revolution was that its leaders sought to destroy the foundations of French society, replacing them with a liberal government based upon abstract and universal "rights of man." According to Burke, this was folly. He claimed that a lasting state had to be organically connected to the people it governed, particularly their history and traditions. The French revolutionaries wanted to throw all of that away by eliminating the monarchy, the nobility, and especially by placing the Catholic Church under state control. Burke acknowledged that French society was in need of change, but he believed that the root-and-branch revolution of 1789 would lead to chaos.

For an example of the kind of change he had in mind, one can look at his interpretation of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. He took a conservative view of this "revolution," arguing that the Stuart monarchy had violated the English constitution and that Parliament had actually restored this venerable institution through their so-called "revolution." Rather than reinventing the English system of government from scratch, they had actually brought it back to its proper footing. (As an aside, Burke actually held a similar view of the actions of the American revolutionaries, whom he saw, especially in the early years of the imperial crisis, as conservative, defending traditional rights from the abuses of corrupt ministers in the government.) So Burke understood that change was necessary in government, but this was because governments became corrupted over time, and he implied that legitimate revolutions restored them to their proper foundations.

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