Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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What were Edmund Burke's key points in his Reflections on the Revolution In France?

Burke predicted the Reign of Terror, dictatorship, rule by a military despot with megalomaniacal ambitions. His work has maintained itself as a fountainhead of right-wing and conservative thought for nearly 230 years.

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Burke's basic thesis is that the French revolutionaries, in overthrowing the monarchical system, have embarked on a dangerous course that if allowed to continue will have destructive and even apocalyptic results not only for France, but for all of Europe. In his view, Louis XVI is a mild and tolerant monarch, and he even glowingly extols Marie Antoinette's regal qualities and personal beauty. He sees no reason the power of this monarchy should be questioned or found undesirable.

The Reflections can be seen as a seminal work in which the precepts of what we call conservatism were laid out systematically. In Burke's view, any disruption of the way in which states have traditionally been governed is ill-advised—doomed to failure. Much of his work focuses upon English history and the organic development of the Constitutional system in England and Britain overall. A key point is the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which formed the central event upon which the Whig Party that Burke belonged to based its principles.

Burke alleges that, in a declaration Parliament made to William and Mary at that time, the English had decided that the current system of government should exist in perpetuity and that the idea of ever overthrowing that system was undesired by the people and would be inimical to them. Burke's concern was that radicals in England who sympathized with the Revolution (and there were many of them) would attempt the same thing in Great Britain that had been done in France, and that such a move would have disastrous results.

Though at this time (1790) the Revolution had not yet really turned violent and the monarchy had not been abolished, Burke predicts that both these things will happen. He states that republics are not workable as a form of government for major states.

In the Reflections he says (unsurprisingly in this context) absolutely nothing about the new country across the Atlantic, the United States, despite the sympathy he had shown 15 years earlier for the Americans in the War of Independence and his admiration for Washington and other Patriot leaders. Burke's siding with the Americans, he elsewhere explains, was due to his wish to keep them within the fold of Britain, not because he was in favor of independence. Probably Burke, like others in Britain, assumed that the American experiment would fail, just as he believed the French Revolution would fail or result in disaster.

The subtext, and even the explicit point, of Burke's analysis is religion. He states, in somewhat veiled terms, that a kind of conspiracy existed between liberal writers (of what we know as the Enlightenment) and the financial interests supporting them—which had as their plan "the destruction of the Christian religion." Without the traditional forms of government, which in Burke's view are connected with religion, a state will descend into chaos.

(Interestingly, Burke's views were ecumenical to the point where he supported the rule of the Muslim princes in India because it was based upon their religion, unlike the despotism of Warren Hastings and the British East India company which had taken over India and were wreaking havoc there.)

Burke decries the seizure of the ecclesiastical properties in France and the issuing of paper money (assignats) to finance this "theft." He predicts that the economy of France will collapse and that a charismatic military leader will eventually take dictatorial power over the state—as it so happened Napoleon would do eight years later.

Despite all of this, in the last pages of his book, Burke seems to admit it's still possible that something good might arise from a situation where literally everything has been overturned. But this is perhaps just another guise in which he presents his apocalyptic vision, where the traditional system by which France and all of Europe have been governed will be destroyed.

Burke's predictions, as stated, were partly accurate. In 1790, most people were not expecting the Reign of Terror, dictatorship, and rule by a military despot with megalomaniacal ambitions. But the rigidity of his ideological positions has been disproved by history. His views were quickly and effectively skewered by liberals such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, his work has maintained itself as a fountainhead of right-wing and conservative thought for nearly 230 years.

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Burke, a Whig member of Parliament, wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, the year after the French Revolution had begun. His view is that while he loves what he refers to as a "manly, moral, regulated liberty," he mistrusts the ideas that spurred the French Revolution, which he refers to as "metaphysical abstraction." While he celebrates liberty, he writes that he cannot do so without knowing the circumstances of its exercise. Instead, as he writes, "circumstances . . . give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect." He also believes that government cannot curtail the complete exercise of natural rights but instead must serve as a check on men's passions. While others celebrate the liberty of the French Revolution, he writes that he needs time to judge its effects before passing judgement on it. 

Burke also writes that it is false to believe that all kings govern only as a result of the choice of their people. Instead, he writes that the King of England governs because of a line of succession established by tradition. He says that the Declaration of Right, which was produced during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, does not allow people to choose their own government. At this time England did not establish the right to choose its own government but established the permanence of the monarchy. The English constitution, which involves the way society works together to maintain itself, requires the existence of the parliament and the monarchy, and these institutions continue even if one member of them abdicates. Englishmen, Burke writes, look upon the continuation of the monarchy not as a grievance but as a benefit and look on the system of the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons as offering stability and a sense of conservatism. Innovation, Burke writes, usually results from selfishness and "confined views." Indeed, Burke writes that the English cherish their "old prejudices," including the practice of religion and the protection of property. The English system is right because it has long been established by tradition and is not a result of passing whims or follies.

Burke feels that France would have been better off if it had not thrown aside all its traditions but had instead reformed its existing civil, religious, and political foundations. Instead, he believes that the members of the new Third Estate ruling France are from the common lot of men and will lead to the destruction of liberty and property. He is opposed to leveling instincts in France that he fears threaten civil society in England and elsewhere.

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In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke argues on two fronts. First, he claims that the French Revolutionaries, by turning their backs on their historical institutions, particularly the Church, the nobility, and the monarchy (the "publick ornament" of French society,) are presuming the ability to create a new society, from scratch. Burke believes strongly that any such enterprise is doomed to failure and anarchy. By trying to base their revolution on universal "natural rights," which Burke characterizes as the invention of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the "insane Socrates of the National Assembly," the French Revolutionaries opened the door for greedy speculators and ambitious would-be tyrants.

Secondly, Burke was concerned that radicals in his own country were also asserting the same principles as the French Revolutionaries. Reflections on the Revolution in France was written in response to a speech given by a radical Dissenting minister, Richard Price, in which Price compared the ideals of the French Revolution to those of England's Glorious Revolution a century earlier. Burke admits no such comparison, claiming that the revolution of 1688 was an attempt to reassert ancient English rights, not to usher in new, abstract rights posited by philosophers. The revolution simply reclaimed Englishmen's "entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers . . . without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right." As such, it was a legitimate revolution, because it was essentially conservative. It preserved the rights and institutions of the unwritten English constitution rather than claiming to create new rights.

It is worth noting that Burke held the same view of the American Revolution. He frequently spoke out in support of the colonies, who he saw as simply asserting their inherited rights as Englishmen.

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