Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Compare and contrast Sieyès's, Burke's, and Paine's understandings of how the three estates worked in practice, and relate this to the work of governance. Build a close analysis of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Sieyès's What Is the Third Estate, and Paine's Rights of Man, showing where and how the texts explain the three estates.

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Sieyès and Paine had similar views of what needed to be changed in France and in Europe overall. Sieyès saw the Third Estate—the ordinary people of France, as opposed to the clergy (the First Estate) and the nobility (the Second)—as the "nation." The Third Estate is "everything" so far as he is concerned, but in the "political order" until the present (1789 at the time of writing), it has been "nothing." The common people, both the bourgeoisie and the laboring class, do all the productive work, but they are not part of the political process. Instead, the classes of people who do "run things"—the clergy and aristocracy, together a tiny minority of the population of France—are basically parasites, holding onto power by means of traditional beliefs that have become outdated and pernicious. This must change, Sieyès asserts, and the Third Estate needs to become empowered.

Thomas Paine says essentially the same thing in Rights of Man, published two years later (1791). His concern is primarily the situation in Britain, a country which, according to Paine, claims to have a constitutional system but in reality is a despotic state run by the monarch and his court—just as France was before the Revolution that began with the meeting of the States-General in 1789 and the subsequent storming of the Bastille. Paine's ideas in Rights of Man are an extension of those in the pamphlets he had written fifteen years earlier during the American Revolutionary War: Common Sense and the Crisis papers.

In between the publication of Sieyès's pamphlet and Paine's Rights of Man, Edmund Burke wrote and published his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This is a seminal (if not the seminal) work of what we now routinely label "conservatism." Burke views the French Revolution in near-apocalyptic terms: as a movement that he believes will destroy European civilization. His greatest fear is, therefore, that the disorder created by the Revolution in France will spread to Britain and the rest of Europe.

Burke sees no contradiction between the existing monarchy in Britain and the Constitutional rights of the common people, and even goes so far (or seems to) as to claim that because of Parliament's declaration of loyalty to William and Mary a century earlier, the English have deliberately relinquished any right to alter the existing form of government. In Burke's mind, the traditional political order of Europe is at least implicitly based on religion, on Christianity. He rails against the liberal writers of the Enlightenment, asserting that their aim has been "the destruction of the Christian religion." Though he does not literally say that kings rule by divine right, this is his implication. The attacks on, and disempowerment of, the clergy and monarchy in France are, in Burke's view, a violation of the ordinary human rights the French revolutionaries claim to uphold.

Burke's thinking appears the exact opposite of what is represented by Sieyès and Paine. Yet to this point in this life, Burke, a member of the Whig Party, had in some sense been the eighteenth-century equivalent of what we would today label a liberal or progressive. During the American Revolutionary War, he had denounced the tyranny of George III and his administration in violating the rights of the Americans.

When he published his attack on the French Revolution, therefore, liberals like Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and many others were taken aback. One might ask which was the "real" Burke—the liberal or the conservative—or whether his fundamental ideas about human rights are as different from the views of Sieyès and Paine as they appear.

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