Reflections On The Revolution In France Summary

Edmund Burke

Reflections On The Revolution In France

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Reflections On The Revolution In France Summary

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Edmund Burke (b. 1729–d. 1797) was an author, orator, philosopher, political theorist, and politician in Great Britain during the late eighteenth century. He served as a member of parliament for various constituencies from 1765–1780, after which we became the Paymaster of the Forces (a position within the British government that controlled military finances). Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland to a Catholic mother and Anglican father and grew up a practicing Anglican, though he actively opposed the treatment of Irish Catholics. At the time, belonging to the Catholic Church would have disqualified Burke from holding public office, so his political enemies often used his Catholic sympathies in efforts to discredit him. In parliament, Burke represented the interests of the Whig party, which had its origins in championing a constitutional monarchy and opposed the absolute monarchy. Burke also supported the American cause for independence, encouraging parliament to relax its economic policies in the country in the years leading up to 1776. Urging parliament to concede, Burke argued that Americans were really Englishmen living in America, and that their desires and claims to freedom were just and admirable. However, these views are starkly opposed by Burke’s views of the French Revolution (1789), which are collected in his most widely known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

The political pamphlet, which became an immediate best-seller, was written in part as a response to Richard Price’s A Discourse of the Love of Our Country (1790). Price drew a parallel between the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which removed King James II from power (in part due to his Catholicism and connections to the French) and replaced him with William of Orange. Price argued that the same enlightened ideals drove both revolutions, namely the abstract “rights of men.” Burke begins his Reflections by arguing that Price had either misinterpreted or misrepresented the events of the Glorious Revolution. According to the London Revolution Society, the three primary effects of the Glorious Revolution were the rights to (1) choose our own governors, (2) cashier them for misconduct, and (3) to frame a government for ourselves. Burke sets out to disprove the validity of these claims, arguing firstly that monarchs are not chosen by general election (nor does he believe that they are ordained by god,) but that they are chosen by laws of succession.  In fact, Burke claims that William of Orange was the only rational choice for parliament, which specifically did not want to delay filling the void by holding an election. Furthermore, Burke argues that the government cannot be so simply reframed or abstained from, but needs all constituent parts in order to function. Even were one monarch to abstain, the monarchy as a whole would continue on.

With regard to the second affirmation of cashiering kings for misconduct, Burke argues that this is a matter of law rather than sentiment. He wholly denounces the Revolution Society’s argument that the king is first and foremost a servant of the public, countering that there is no law which states this to be true. Instead Burke points out that legally speaking, all British people are subjects of the king. Though it cannot be denied that the Glorious Revolution did overthrow the Stuart dynasty, the “misconduct” of James II was grossly unlawful. Burke states that the third proclamation of the Society is the least realistic, and says that English government is happily derived from tradition. He references the Magna Carta, and systems of inheritance to say that virtually all of government has been derived at least in part from its forefathers.

Ultimately, Burke argues that these false abstractions would lead the French Revolution to ruin. He claimed that such arguments ignored the complexities of society and the practicalities of governance. He also advocated for tradition, private property and the role of “prejudice,” or a person’s untaught, possibly irrational, system of values, as central to the preservation of the nation. Having seen the list of men elevated to official positions within the government after the French Revolution, Burke notes that while some may have merit, few have experience. Additionally many men that have been elevated do not seek true equality, but are attempting to “level” the playing field by bringing low the aristocracy. Here, the ideal is but pretence for revenge. This is the crux of Burke’s argument that the power of reason is no substitute for the power of the state. He writes specifically of the virtues of Marie Antoinette, who, at the time of his writing, was living under house arrest with the rest of the royal family. Burke seems to be prescient in his imagining of the mobs that will clamour for their deaths, once affection and fealty for the monarchy have been banished by reason. He concludes by suggesting that the French may learn from the British mode of altering government, which is essentially to leave more as it was than to alter at any given time.