Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

Burke begins by drawing a sharp distinction between his own views of the French Revolution and those of Rev. Richard Price, a Protestant dissident who applauded the Revolution. Price had preached an influential sermon on events in France and political rights in November 1789. Burke differentiates the French Revolution from the English "Glorious Revolution" of 1688–89 in several important ways, arguing in particular that the concept of an elected monarch is to be rejected.

Section 2

In this section, Burke's emphasis lies on the concept of inheritance and duly legal succession. Burke strongly criticizes the makeup of the new French National Assembly. He discusses and rejects Price's concept of the "cashiering" of kings, warning that such action is nearly always accompanied by violence. He also describes in glowing terms the great English "pedigree of our liberties," extending back to the Magna Carta in 1215.

Section 3

The author's main concern here is property and the rights attached to it. Burke is appalled by the French National Assembly's confiscation of all clerical property, placing these lands "at the disposal of the nation." Equally dismaying is the assembly's issuance of a new paper currency, the assignats, whose value is pegged to that of the confiscated estates.

Section 4

Burke devotes this section to the proper relationship between church and state. He firmly endorses the establishment of the Church of England, asserting that religion is the basis of civil society. Burke also freely airs his dislike of anticlericalism. This aversion led him to suspect that many leaders of the French Enlightenment, including Voltaire and Rousseau, wanted to abolish Christianity.

Section 5

In this section Burke focuses on an analysis of monarchy and democracy as forms of government. He also concentrates on population and wealth as barometers of a state's well–being. Burke's discussion of the dangers of democracy is notable. Like the American founding fathers, as recorded in The Federalist Papers (1788), Burke worried that a democratic majority might be cruelly oppressive of minorities.

Section 6

In this part Burke offers his personal impressions of the French nobility and clergy. His views contrast notably with the stereotyped portrait of corruption peddled by the National Assembly. For instance, he expresses fond memories of his discussions with clerical friends on his visit to France in 1773. He repeats his grave concern that the confiscation of clerical property is both unjust and unwise.

Section 7

This is a sustained attack on the deficiencies of the French National Assembly. Burke defines one of the assembly's critical faults as the inability to deal with difficulty, or challenge. Even the election procedure for the National Assembly is open to objection. It is cumbersome, and it promotes mediocrity.

Section 8

This section contains another sustained critique of the confiscation of clerical estates. In Burke's opinion this action and the decision to issue a new paper currency has converted a great nation into an enormous gambling table. In an extended metaphor, Burke direly predicts that such a new arrangement in France will lead to a corrupt oligarchy. This ruling elite will, in turn, destroy not only the crown and the church but also the nobility and the people themselves.

Section 9

Burke turns his attention to the French National Assembly's arrangements for executive and judicial power in the new revolutionary government. Both sets of plans are incoherent and unlikely to result in justice and order. Burke's comments on the executive branch are especially withering. He declares that French dependence on a "degraded king" to hold the executive magistracy will never be effective.

Section 10

Under the revolutionary regime, arrangements for the army are no more coherent than in the other spheres of government. Burke is gravely concerned about the relationships between the army and the crown and between the army and the National Assembly. According to an official French report, army discipline has broken down. The National Assembly's measures to restore discipline have been wretchedly ineffective. Fresh, new policies are urgently needed to reinvigorate the French armed forces.

Section 11

Burke devotes this concluding part of his original pamphlet to an analysis of the French revenue system. Not surprisingly, the system is showing a considerable deficit. As in Section 10, in his discussion of the army, Burke here relies heavily on official documents from France. During the Revolution's first year, he says, French revenue diminished by one–third. Burke denounces the new paper currency, the assignats.

Section 12

This section comprises Part 1 of Burke's response to criticisms registered by a member of the French National Assembly. The comments were conveyed to Burke in a letter from François–Louis–Thibault de Menonville, a deputy from Lorraine. Burke responded to Menonville in January 1791, sending an extended letter that forms, in effect, an appendix to Reflections. In the letter's first section, Burke renews his attack on the confiscation of French clerical lands. He again criticizes the revolutionaries' treatment of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

Section 13

In Part 2 of his response to Menonville's criticisms, Burke renews his scathing critique of Jean–Jacques Rousseau. Burke sincerely believed Rousseau was on a dogmatic quest to abolish Christianity. He concludes his response to Menonville with a ringing, rhetorical praise of civil liberties.

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