Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

Reflections on the Revolution in France was written by Anglo-Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke in 1790. It reflected what can best be described as a conservative perspective on the French Revolution and became a sort of founding document for classical conservatism. Burke, who had been generally sympathetic to the American revolutionaries a decade earlier, was deeply concerned about events in France. (It should be noted here that Burke wrote in 1790, more than four years before the revolution entered its bloodiest phase, the Terror of 1793-1794.) What concerned Burke was that the French revolutionaries were breaking with centuries of tradition, especially in their treatment of the Catholic Church, and were seeking to establish institutions that were not organically rooted in the French past. This, he claimed, would ultimately lead to anarchy and tyranny. Burke was particularly concerned that the Revolution in France would lead to revolution in England. Reflections on the Revolution in France was written shortly after a sermon honoring the French Revolutionaries by radical minister Richard Price. Price had compared the principles espoused by the French to those of the English Glorious Revolution, and Burke was quick to reject this assertion. He argued that the Glorious Revolution was actually conservative, inasmuch as it corrected a violation of the English constitution by the Stuart monarch James II. Rather than anything that needed to be asserted by revolutionaries, the English constitution was time-honored and based on centuries of tradition:

You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity- as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.

So Reflections on the Revolution in France is at least as much a defense of the English constitution, which Burke saw as deeply rooted in tradition as it is a commentary on the French Revolution.

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