Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 11 : "Lawgivers"; English versus French Financial Systems | Summary



Burke turns to consider landholding, rents, taxes, and the French peasantry. Harking back to the ancient feudal system, he envisions a tense dialogue between the peasantry and the current leaders of the Revolution. As might be expected, Burke condemns the "politicians of metaphysics who have opened schools for sophistry."

Burke turns next to consider the current financial system, or "revenue," in France. His verdict in this area is just as somber as his judgments in other spheres. "The revenue of the state is the state," Burke intones. He cites a report by Théodore Vernier (1731–1818) of the committee of finances, submitted in August 1790. Burke discloses that the revenue of France, during the French Revolution's first year, diminished by more than one–third. Cash continues to sink, according to Burke, while "fictitious representation" continues to swell. The French are deluded in "their fanatical confidence in the omnipotence of church plunder" (the confiscation of clerical estates). This is a countermeasure that they evidently regard as a "bottomless resource." In a rhetorical fusillade, Burke denounces the new paper currency, known as the assignats. The English financial system, by contrast, stands out for its soundness and accountability.

In the concluding pages of his pamphlet, Burke continues his critique of the financial policies of the National Assembly. He admonishes his addressee: "To form a free government ... requires much thought." It is obvious that, in Burke's opinion, the French National Assembly has not expended such effort. In closing, Burke remarks, "I have little to recommend my opinions but long observation and much impartiality." In a revealing image at the conclusion, he envisions himself as a sailor whose vessel is overloaded on one side. The ship is "desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise."


In the final pages of his pamphlet, Burke becomes steadily more acerbic in his consideration of the French catchword "the rights of man." It is clear that he thinks that this slogan covers a multitude of ills. His inquiry into the French financial system paints a dispiriting picture of corruption, inefficiency, and misplaced confidence. This judgment is evident in the sarcastically repetitive rant on the paper currency assignats. Burke pillories the currency as a hollow financial cure–all, cooked up by fraudulent tricksters.

At the conclusion of this emotional paragraph, Burke employs a stylistic device that appears nowhere else in the work. This is a rhetorical foray into "schoolboy Latin," which is really an improvised hybrid of French and Latin. He says, "Mais si maladia, opiniatria, non vult se garire, quid illi facere? assignare—postea assignare; ensuita assignare." This mishmash is perhaps devised for humorous effect. It can be roughly rendered: "But if diseased opinion does not wish to heal, what is to be done?" The translation continues, "Issue assignats—and then more assignats; and yet more assignats."

By contrast, Burke's valedictory comments to his addressee are sober and dignified. Characteristically, his tone is consistent with prudence, restraint, and balance. It is fitting that his final word in Reflections is


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