Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Context


Revolutionary Era

Burke's political career coincided with revolutions of all sorts. Perhaps most importantly at home, the Industrial Revolution had shaken up both the economy and the social class structure. The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain in the late 1700s and continued to about 1840. It marked the change in producing goods from home–based methods using basic machines like looms to the building of factories with steam–powered machines. All of this resulted in the mass production of goods and the transition of the farming population to urban centers. While the Industrial Revolution brought about improvements in communication and transportation, it also caused grim employment conditions for workers and slum housing for poor people.

About the same time, the American colonies asserted and then gained their independence from Britain. A peace treaty finally brought this rebellion to a close in 1783. However, a decade did not pass before another revolution occurred. This time it was in France.

French Revolution

The French Revolution is commonly considered to have begun in earnest with the popular attack on, and the subsequent fall of, the Bastille, a fortress-like prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. This event is commemorated on Bastille Day, the French national holiday.

In their first year, the revolutionaries were preoccupied with a massive reorganization of the political-social sphere. They abolished the aristocratic hierarchy of the nobility, confiscated church property, reorganized the National Assembly, and maneuvered King Louis XVI into a awkward position as a constitutional monarch.

During the next few years, economic and political strains caused by the Revolution steadily increased. The new government was forced to deal with counter-revolutionary rebellions at home and increasing opposition abroad. In January 1793 the Revolution's more radical wing tried, convicted, and executed King Louis XVI, sending Queen Marie Antoinette to the guillotine nine months later. From early autumn of 1793 to midsummer of 1794, the Revolution developed into a Reign of Terror, with several hundred thousand arrests and about 17,000 executions. Finally, in the late 1790s France regained a measure of stability, although not authentic civil liberty, under the rule of a new leader, the brilliant general Napoleon Bonaparte.

Enlightenment Ends

Throughout the late 17th and 18th century, a movement stressing rationalism and individual experience had become the mainstream current of philosophy, literature, and the arts. Called the Enlightenment, this movement was directly linked to influential theories of citizenship, statehood, and government. It existed particularly in the thinking of philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in England and Baron de Montesquieu and Jean–Jacques Rousseau in France.

Burke had an ambivalent stance toward the Enlightenment. On the one hand he energetically adopted a rational, prudent approach to politics and government. He was a strong adherent of Bishop George Berkeley, a proponent of the Irish Enlightenment, who abhorred abstraction and prized the value of concrete experience. On the other hand, Burke was not particularly keen on the empiricism of David Hume, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume made his religious skepticism no secret. And Burke despised both Rousseau and French writer Voltaire, who, he strongly suspected, were in league to abolish Christianity altogether. Burke believed religion was an essential ally of good government.

By the time Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, Neoclassicism, linked to rationalism and the imitation of ancient Greek and Roman models, was yielding to romanticism. As opposed to neoclassicism, romanticism emphasized emotion, individual experience, and the beauty of nature. The chief philosophical doctrines of the Enlightenment were coming under more and more scrutiny.

Britain versus France

Burke's thoughts about Britain and France were conditioned by a long series of tensions, links, and competitive relationships, stretching back through most of his lifetime. Between 1756 and 1763, for example, Britain and France fought the Seven Years' War. This war was a worldwide conflict, with combat on three continents, to settle their mutual rivalry for colonial domination. In North America this conflict was called the French and Indian War (1754–63). Britain emerged as the unequivocal victor, putting an end to French hopes for colonial hegemony in North America and in India.

The financial debt incurred by both sides in the Seven Years' War—but particularly by England—had an unexpected result. Great Britain imposed a series of disastrously unpopular taxes on the North American colonies. These taxes played a large role in motivating the colonial rebellion. In a further twist, French aid to the colonies, beginning in 1778, added to long-term economic troubles in France. These economic woes fanned revolutionary fires in France in 1789.

In Reflections Burke reveals the British anxiety that social upheaval and abolition of the monarchy might spread across the English Channel to afflict England. This was, no doubt, a very pressing concern. The English had experienced their own brush with civil war, and even with regicide, only slightly more than a century beforehand when King Charles I had been executed by rebels in 1649. Thus relations between the two countries were especially volatile when Burke wrote and then published his pamphlet.

Modern Conservative Movements

Burke is still significant to the modern conservative movements in Britain and the United States. He believed firmly that the rights of man were rooted in the law and in faith, and that sudden changes were detrimental to a strong government. At the same time he warned against any government that required absolute adherence to an ideology. Historian Russell A. Kirk begins his landmark 1953 book The Conservative Mind—a history of modern conservative thought—with a discussion of Burke. In Kirk's words, Burke "provided the defenses of conservatism ... that still stand and are not liable to fall in our time." Kirk stated in a 2013 interview that "almost all of our arguments in politics originated" in the issues about which Burke thought and wrote.

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