Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 12 : Part 1 of Burke's Reply to Criticisms | Summary

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Summary

In mid–November 1790, several weeks after the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, François–Louis–Thibault de Menonville (1740–1816) wrote to Burke. The letter was to congratulate him on his pamphlet and to offer a number of factual corrections, as well as thoughts on the new French constitution. Menonville was a member of the French National Assembly from Lorraine. In mid–January 1791, Burke replied with A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly. It is a lengthy appendix to his original work, which was published in its turn both in England and France in May.

Burke begins by thanking his French correspondent and acknowledging several errors. He adheres stolidly, however, to one of the most important ideas of his original work. It is that the oppression of "the original gentlemen, and landed property of a whole nation, cannot be justified under any form it may assume." By this, of course, Burke means the degrading of the nobility and the confiscation of clerical estates. Upending a great empire is "senseless and absurd," as is elevating inexperienced and rapacious commoners to positions of authority.

Burke wonders what role reasoned argument can play as a counterweight to such madness. He readily admits that the opposition in such cases is forced to confront difficult challenges. Both vigorous and cautious opposition may be misinterpreted and may lead to unintended consequences. But one reality is sure: "Cheats and deceivers can never repent." The mischievous leaders who are corrupting France are incapable of reformation. Under their authoritarian misrule, the nation is very sick.

When he turns to survey the people at large, Burke is equally pessimistic. Calling them "miserable sheep" and "the natural prey of impostors," he deplores their readiness to be deluded by charlatans. Burke ironically admits the lives of gamesters, beggars, and robbers are not wholly unpleasant, for they bring the addictive thrill of taking risks. And the power that the lower orders are now reveling in has its own pleasure. Having gotten ahold of government, which should impose restraint, they use it as their accomplice for misdeeds.

Nothing is more indicative of the topsy–turvy state of French affairs than the current corruption of its judiciary. Here Burke interjects a contrasting example of the case of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). Cromwell seized the throne during the British civil wars and then declared himself Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth. Even the usurper Cromwell, says Burke, insisted on appointing a chief judge, Sir Matthew Hale (1609–76), known for his probity and legal scholarship.

Turning again to France, Burke contrasts the case of Cromwell with the cynical and self–serving character of French appointments to leadership positions. He refers ironically to the Comte de Mirabeau and obliquely to the politician Talleyrand (1754–1838), who was made Bishop of Autun. For the first time, he broaches the possibility that anarchy in France may have to be addressed by an intervening force from abroad. He provides several parallels from contemporary Europe, including the intervention of King Frederick William II of Prussia (1744–97) in support of King William V of Holland (1748–1806) in 1787.

Burke next reverts to the treatment by the French of their king, Louis XVI, and of his queen, Marie Antoinette. In a chilling passage, he predicts their execution when they no longer serve the purposes of the revolutionaries. The execution will be "to make the monarchy contemptible by exposing it to derision." He also deplores the public celebration in Paris of the first anniversary of the revolution on July 14, 1790.

Burke closes this section with a critique of the National Assembly's education policies. He especially laments the adulation of the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean–Jacques Rousseau, whom he regards as a paragon of vanity.

Analysis

In the appendix to his pamphlet, Burke has lost none of his rhetorical fire. If anything, in fact, he seems to be even more indignant at French delusion and anarchy than he showed himself before. When he had completed his response to Menonville, he deposited copies with Lord Grenville (1759–1834). Grenville was an influential member of Parliament who served as Home Secretary and then as Foreign Secretary. He also provided copies to King George III (1738–1820), who is said to have perused the document with great satisfaction.

One noteworthy feature of Section 12 is Burke's overt speculation on the possibility that France's wretched situation may require the remedy of foreign intervention. However radical such an expedient may sound, Burke supports his contention with several specific examples from 18th–century Europe. He does not include the celebrated intervention of the entry of France into the American Revolution on the colonial side against Britain. This parallel could scarcely have escaped him. Perhaps he excluded it from consideration for fear of recriminations charging him with petty vengefulness.

Two other historical references in this section are also noteworthy. The first is to Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). He was well known after a century and a half for his violent usurpation of the throne and his religious dogmatism. He was also noted for his suppression of British liberties during the civil wars of the mid–17th century. Curiously enough, Burke employs Cromwell here as a positive model. This is specifically because he took care to appoint a worthy Justice of Common Pleas, Sir Matthew Hale, in 1653.

Burke's flattering reference to Louis XVI as a monarch who bestowed on his people "a Magna Carta of privileges" is equally enigmatic. Commentators are agreed that Burke is here referring to the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" of 1789. This document was drawn up by the National Assembly and agreed to by the king, although reluctantly. Perhaps the parallel may really be between King John of England in 1215 and King Louis XVI of France in 1789. Both monarchs were forced to assent to a document that they would scarcely have produced themselves.

Burke's prediction that both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette would eventually be executed proved correct (although Burke was mistaken about the order of the executions). Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793, and Marie Antoinette on October 16 of the same year.

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