Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 2 : Further Discussion of Price; Inheritance; French National Assembly | Summary



In this section Burke turns to the claim by Price in his sermon that citizens have the right of "cashiering their governors for misconduct." Burke firmly denies any relevance or application of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the abdication of King James II (1633–1701). He emphasizes instead the restraint and caution that dominated people's actions at that time. As he pithily says, those who acted were concerned to "make the Revolution a parent of settlement, and not a nursery of future revolutions." With reluctance, the leaders of that revolution charged King James not with misconduct, but with breaking the original contract between king and people. James's goal, the revolutionaries charged, was to subvert the Protestant church and state.

Burke next objects that the act of "cashiering kings" can almost never be carried out without force. He solemnly warns that revolution will be "the very last resource of the thinking and the good." Then Burke criticizes Price's third point, "the right to form a government for ourselves." Burke once again objects that this notion has little or no relevance to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He says it was motivated by the preservation of ancient laws and liberties, not the manufacture of new precepts. Here Burke discusses a great "pedigree of liberties." He refers back to the Magna Carta (1215) and to the eminent jurists Edward Coke (1552–1634) and William Blackstone (1723–80). He also provides citations from the Petition of Right of 1628.

Burke lingers on the topic of inheritance and expands his emphasis on declarations. He says, "We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors." He asserts, "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors." This stress on inheritance establishes a stark, glaring contrast between English practice and the current events in France. French leaders now openly despise their predecessors and have plunged their nation into chaos.

In particular, the structure and composition of the French National Assembly account for much of the confusion and strife currently reigning in that nation. Burke specifically examines the makeup of that legislature, commenting on the large number of lawyers who have been elected to the Assembly. If these men of the law were distinguished magistrates, he writes, the National Assembly might be worthier of respect. But the lawyers who serve as deputies there turn out to be unlearned, mechanical, and mediocre. Burke even goes so far as to dub them "country clowns," some of whom "are said not to be able to read and write." Burke turns to the representation of the clergy. He finds a high proportion of low–ranking country curates. They are not the more educated and experienced clergymen who might be expected to participate in the task of framing a new state. France has deliberately excluded from the National Assembly the talent and experience that would have the best chance of making the legislature's efforts bear fruit.


Burke is greatly concerned with drawing attention to the excesses and grandiloquence of the French and their supporters. Yet he is capable of hyperbole and bombast—especially when rhetorical flights sweep him up into rants and irritation. Take the following passage from Section 2, for example:

By following these false lights, France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings! France has bought poverty by crime! France has not sacrificed her virtue to her interest, but she has abandoned her interest, that she might prostitute her virtue.

In this passage, the irony of the first sentence yields ground to the outrage of the last. In the last sentence Burke ingeniously combines antithesis with repetition of the words virtue and interest.

Two powerful rhetorical devices employed by Burke in this section are anaphora and rhetorical question. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. Rhetorical question is a question that is asked without the expectation of an answer. Burke often uses the devices in tandem. An example is this passage, in which he pours scorn on the ignorance and greed of the members of the French National Assembly:

Who could flatter himself that these men, suddenly and, as it were, by enchantment snatched from the humblest rank of subordination, would not be intoxicated with their unprepared greatness? Who could conceive that men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds would easily fall back into their old condition of obscure contention and laborious, low, unprofitable chicane? Who could doubt but that, at any expense to the state, of which they understood nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too well?
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