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