Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 10 : Military; Army and Crown; Army and National Assembly | Summary



Burke devotes these pages to a strong indictment of the anarchy that has befallen the French military. He begins with an extensive quotation from a speech by Jean–Frédéric de la Tour du Pin (1727–94) to the National Assembly. He was the French minister for war. The speech had been delivered the previous June. De la Tour du Pin voices his consternation about disintegrating discipline in the army. Soldiers in some regiments are openly disregarding the orders of their superiors. Cases of physical injury, even murder, have been brought to light. Furthermore, soldiers are clubbing together to form committees and conspiracies, whereas the army should be a nonpolitical instrument of the state.

Burke ironically remarks that de la Tour du Pin should not have evinced such astonishment at these developments. They should not be considered so outlandish in light of the appalling example set so far by the "statesmen" and "doctors" of the National Assembly. Burke says that the soldiers, quite naturally, have noticed the abolition of decency and principle by French political leaders. He wonders why the military should be expected to behave any differently. He again references the chaos of the palace invasion at Versailles on October 6, 1789. He professes the hope that the pamphlets of Voltaire and other French philosophes, speaking to the subject of immortality of the soul, are being provided to the soldiery as plenteously as their ammunition.

For Burke, the curative measures taken by the National Assembly have been an exercise in imbecility. More and more solemn oaths have been enjoined on the military—oaths that mean nothing, he says. The assembly's plan to reinstitute discipline into the soldiery by having soldiers mix with citizens in the municipalities has utterly failed. Authority has been dangerously diffused. The king, as well as the assembly, has played a feckless role in this crisis. And the distemper has spread from the army to the navy.

He wonders who is in charge of the military: the commanders, the king, the Assembly, or the municipal politicians. No one seems to know, declares Burke. Can a nation operate effectively with such conditions in its armed forces? For Burke, the answer is obviously "No." He laments the fact that de la Tour du Pin, an experienced official who is approaching old age, must be held accountable for such a chaotic situation.

In Burke's opinion, both the military and the civil spheres mirror each other in their state of anarchy. The National Assembly "attempts to cure the distempers by the distempers themselves." The strategy of "mixing mutinous soldiers with seditious citizens" is doomed to weaken the connection between soldiers and officers. In addition, the "strange and contradictory relation" between the army and the crown add even further complexity to preserving concord, discipline, and national defense. Burke singles out for particular criticism the arrangements that link military officers' careers and policies to members of the Assembly serving brief, two–year terms. In Burke's view, it is also extremely regrettable that soldiers are bombarded with propaganda preaching "the rights of man and citizen."


Burke's fundamental objections focus on the politicization of the French military. He points out the army's abandonment of discipline, the soldiers' insurrections against their officers, and the growth of committees and confederacies within the regiments. He says they all bespeak a mindset that has disintegrated, largely owing to the poor example set by the politicians of the National Assembly.

Burke derives considerable support for his argument through his inclusion of a lengthy excerpt from the speech by the French war minister to the Assembly. No one, Burke asserts, knows the French military better. And de la Tour du Pin's disturbing reports of insubordination, mutiny, and even murder play right into Burke's rhetorical hands. With considerable irony, he expresses surprise that the French minister is so astonished. After all, with the miserable models provided by the politicians themselves, what else could the minister of war have expected?

Burke makes clear that he believes the French revolutionaries have boxed themselves into a corner. They have hobbled the king, who should be the commander–in–chief of the armed forces. At the same time, they have attempted to attach the fortunes and policy of the military to the National Assembly. As Burke remarks, "It is known that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate or popular authority." The brevity of the assembly members' term (two years) makes such obedience even more unlikely. In such conditions, Burke regards the present state and future prospects of the French military with considerable alarm.

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