Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 5 : Confiscation of Property; Democracy and Monarchy; Population and Wealth | Summary



Burke continues his denunciation of the confiscation of clerical property in France. Burke offers the example of Henry VIII (1491–1547) in England, who dissolved the abbeys and monasteries during the English Reformation of the 1530s. Burke labels Henry's actions "tyranny."

This discussion then leads to a specific analysis of French finances and of the policies of Jacques Necker (1732–1804). Necker was the Swiss–born financier who became a high–ranking advisor to Louis XVI in France. The value of church lands was soon correlated to the assignats, the new paper currency issued by the French revolutionary government. As Burke remarks, "The spoil of the church was now become ... the vital principle of all their politics, the sole security for the existence of their power."

In the next part of this section, Burke discusses monarchy and democracy. His appraisal of pure democracy is none too favorable. Citing Aristotle's Politics (c. 335 BCE), Burke remarks that democracy, in its pure form, has many similarities to tyranny. Like some of the American founding fathers in The Federalist Papers (1788), Burke worries that the majority in a democracy may exercise cruel oppression of the minority.

Burke then turns to a consideration of monarchy as a form of government. He briefly references Bolingbroke (Henry St. John, 1678–1751), one of Britain's most controversial political theorists. Rather condescendingly, Burke calls Bolingbroke "a presumptuous and a superficial writer."

According to Burke, two of the most reliable indicators of a nation's well–being are its population and its wealth. Burke addresses both of these metrics in the final portion of Section 5. Ominously, he reports, the population of Paris is in decline, and there are said to be over 100,000 people unemployed there. Begging in the French capital is rampant. Burke comments wryly that "they tell the people, to comfort them in the rags with which they have clothed them, that they are a nation of philosophers."


Like much of Burke's Reflections, this section displays a rather rambling, discursive structure. Burke finds it difficult to relinquish the topic of the confiscation of ecclesiastical property in France, which seemed to him abominable. To his credit, he addresses the somewhat embarrassing counterexample of the pillage and dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII of England (reigned 1509–47). The event occurred some two-and-a-half centuries beforehand. Circumstances, of course, were somewhat different. Henry VIII's actions were taken in the service of ecclesiastical reformation, rather than abolition. Still Burke unequivocally brands Henry VIII as a tyrant.

Burke employs yet another effective rhetorical device: the catalog, or lengthy list. For example, he bundles together a malevolent roster of crimes and depredations to describe the antimonarchical zealots in France: "When all the frauds, impostures, violences, rapines, burnings, murders, confiscations, ... the abettors of this philosophic system immediately strain their throats in a declamation ... " Such declamation, in Burke's opinion, is nothing less than fraud. "This prattling of theirs hardly deserves the name of sophistry," he claims. "It is nothing but plain impudence."

At another point in this section, Burke launches into a more elaborate catalog, this time involving longer phrases: "Indeed, when I consider the face of the kingdom of France, the multitude and opulence of her cities, the useful magnificence of her spacious high roads and bridges ..."

Perhaps the most emotional point in this section occurs when Burke suggests that gradual reform, rather than violent revolution, was a possible alternative, even in 1789. He sees this possibility as a lost opportunity. He says, "The true question at present is, Whether those who would have reformed or those who have destroyed are in the right?"

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