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Reflections on the Revolution in France does not have chapters. In this study guide, the text has been broken into sections of approximately equal length for the purpose of summary and analysis.
Burke begins his pamphlet with a salutation to Charles–Jean–François Depont. Depont (1767–96) was a young Frenchman who had solicited Burke's comments on the early stages of the French Revolution. Burke soon turns to a discussion of the Revolution Society, a London association that sponsored an annual commemoration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. On November 4, 1789, the ceremony featured a sermon by the Reverend Richard Price, an eminent dissenting (nonconformist, or non–Church of England) minister. Price's sermon was titled A Discourse on the Love of Our Country. It is this sermon that serves as the starting point for Burke's analysis of events in France.
Burke divides Price's main points into three assertions of men's rights. According to Price, citizens have the right
Burke's organizational plan in the early sections of Reflections is to refute each of these claims in turn.
His first task, he says, is to distinguish between four historical events. These are the English civil wars of the 1640s, the English Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, the Act of Settlement of 1701, and the French Revolution. He accuses the French revolutionaries and their partisans of "confounding" these events. The result is a defective understanding of their causes, effects, and relationship.
King James II (1633–1701) was forced to abdicate from the throne in 1688 because he was a Roman Catholic. In contrast to Price, Burke argues King James was legally and constitutionally entitled to the monarchy by virtue of succession and inheritance. The claim that James was a usurper, according to Burke, is spurious. He then discusses the Act of Settlement of 1701, establishing that the British monarchy could be held only by rulers of the Protestant faith. Burke argues that this law was based on a scrupulous legal analysis of succession and inheritance. Princess Sophia of Hanover in Germany was the granddaughter of King James I (reigned 1603–25) and the mother of the future British sovereign George I (reigned 1714–27). Burke says she was the Protestant with the strongest claim to the British throne.
Burke's arguments are directly opposed to Price's claim that subjects have a right to elect their monarch. Burke flatly rejects this suggestion, branding it as foreign to British norms of inheritance and succession and as utterly foreign to British constitutional practice.
In this section, Burke refers to the epistolary format he has adopted in order to express his thoughts on the topic of the French Revolution. The letter format had a number of classical (i.e., Greek and Roman) precedents and connotations. Many classical authors, including Cicero (106–43 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), and Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE), had used it in both prose and verse; British writers who had adopted the format included Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), whose landmark novel Pamela employed the epistolary format.
The letter format also afforded Burke comparative freedom of structure. He remarks, "I beg leave to throw out my thoughts and express my feelings just as they arise in my mind, with very little attention to formal method."
The letter format also allowed Burke to make frequent use of direct address of his correspondent as if he were an interlocutor throughout his pamphlet. This stance is consistent with his training and experience as a politician in a public setting—the British House of Commons. Much of Reflections on the Revolution in France, in fact, reads as if it were written to be orally declaimed. Burke's eloquence in the work cannot be separated from this oral dimension. He often succeeds, in short, in turning a "letter" or epistle into a work of oratory.
Reverend Richard Price (1723–91), though scarcely a household name today, was one of Burke's best–known and most eminent contemporaries. In opposing Price, Burke was not attacking a straw man (easy target) but a widely recognized clergyman, scientist, and political spokesperson. Perhaps the most accurate description of Price today would be as a "public intellectual." Price moved in high–ranking circles, counting the scientist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) and the American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) among his close friends. He was a member of the prestigious Royal Society and an eminent Unitarian minister. In short, his opinions were eloquently expressed and listened to by influential people. If Burke seems to spend considerable space in refuting Price, it is because Burke knew that Price could sway public opinion. In fact Burke's pamphlet provoked in short order two vigorous counterattacks by friends and supporters of Price: one by Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and one by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97).
Burke, as well as Price, wrote from a position of influence. A Member of Parliament since 1765, he had been closely associated with the Marquess of Rockingham (1730–82), a stalwart of the Whig Party. Burke was a founding member of Samuel Johnson's Literary Club. He had first achieved literary distinction with a tract titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). He was a vigorous supporter of the American colonists and an advocate of abolishing the slave trade.
Burke's prose style in Reflections on the Revolution in France exemplifies English Neoclassical writing at its best. This style is inspired by the classical models of ancient Greek and Roman authors. His only equals in this respect are two of his contemporaries. They were the essayist Samuel Johnson (1709–84) and the historian Edward Gibbon (1737–94), author of the magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The following paragraph from Section 1 may serve to explain the principal components of the Neoclassical style:
The people of England will not ape the fashions they have never tried; nor go back to those which they have found mischievous on trial. They look upon the legal hereditary succession of their crown as among their rights, not as among their wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for their liberty, not as a badge of servitude. They look on the frame of their commonwealth, such as it stands, to be of inestimable value, and they conceive the undisturbed succession of the crown to be a pledge of the stability and perpetuity of all the other members of our constitution.
The paragraph consists of three sentences of gradually increasing length. Each sentence is crafted with two of Burke's most important tools: balance and antithesis. In balanced phrasing, the author juxtaposes parallel elements. In antithesis, contrast plays a central role. In the first sentence, for example, the verbs of the main clauses, ape and go back, complement each other. The relationship is stressed by the balancing phrases never tried and on trial at the end of each clause. In the second sentence, Burke uses both balance and antithesis in a threefold series of parallel phrases that display mounting emphasis. These are "as among their rights, not as among their wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for their liberty, not as a badge of servitude." In the paragraph's concluding sentence, Burke employs periodic structure—postponing the most important idea to the end. This approach drives home his primary values of "stability" and "perpetuity." Periodic structure can also be discerned in the arrangement of sentences in the text as a whole. Burke is careful to endow the paragraph with a rhythmic, rolling cadence.
Burke frequently uses allusions to Classical mythology and quotations from Greek and Latin literature. This technique goes hand in hand with the overall Neoclassical cast and tone of his prose style. The 18th century is often dubbed the "Neoclassical" or "Augustan" era. This is because so many writers, artists, and architects drew their principal forms, ideas, and inspiration from Classical models. It was broadly assumed that literate, educated readers would recognize not only the words of great classical writers but also their contexts. For this reason, Burke felt free to sprinkle his work with references to such ancient writers as Cicero (106–43 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), and Virgil (70–19 BCE). References such as these must now be explained in footnotes or glosses. For this reason, this study guide includes a "Glossary of Burke's Classical Allusions."