Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 7 : Clerical Estates; French National Assembly; Defects in French Systems | Summary



Burke begins these pages with an economic cost–benefit analysis of the confiscated lands that had been in the hands of the clergy. He concludes that France was fortunate to have a portion of its land owned by people of duty. Burke then turns his attention again to the National Assembly. He remarks that it holds no authority from a constitutional law of the state and that it has departed from the people's instructions. In fact the assembly has acquired its power through time–honored acts of tyranny and usurpation. The members of this body have abandoned the public interest, which they should serve, to chance. Their pretensions are arrogant. Although some of their members may possess eloquence, effective speaking must coexist with "a proportionable degree of wisdom."

One of the assembly's most glaring faults, says Burke, is its unwillingness to deal with difficulty. They revel in destroying and pulling down, rather than creating or building up. They display no interest in preservation or in reformation. Burke contrasts this approach with what he thinks is the essence of great legislators, which is their ability to effect change through a gradual, painstaking process of compensation, reconciliation, and balance. The National Assembly, however, has shown itself the prisoner of "violent haste" and "defiance of the process of nature." French leaders seem to have been inspired by the exaggerations and "buffooneries" of satirists. "By hating vices too much," Burke says, "they come to love men too little."

Burke asserts that "the physician of the state" ought to possess uncommon powers. He declares that he will examine the achievements of the National Assembly, the executive, the judiciary, the army, and the system of finance.

For legislative purposes, France has been divided into 83 departments, 1,720 districts called communes, and still smaller districts called cantons. It is a grand total of 6,400 subdivisions. Primary assemblies of the canton elect deputies to the commune, who in turn choose deputies to the department. Members of the department in turn elect members of the National Assembly. At each step of the way, electors are required to have a small "qualification" (they must prove they pay a certain amount in annual taxation). Burke criticizes this system as cumbersome and as displaying more attention to property than to the "rights of men." Burke uses calculations to show that the criteria adopted for the selection of legislators under the new system cannot fail to produce a "fantastical and unjust inequality."


Although the style in this section of the work is somewhat dry, Burke uses figurative language to enliven his writing. For example, he refers in an indirect comparison to the "physician of the state." He uses a simile, or direct comparison, toward the end of the section. Burke charges the National Assembly with employing "contradictory principles" that are held together "like wild beasts shut up in a cage." And in a highly unusual word coinage, Burke speaks of French leaders indulging in "quadrimanous" activity. The meaning of "four–handed" presumably refers to an argument being pulled apart from four different directions.

Some critics have remarked that at least part of Burke's analysis of the election process to the French National Assembly is inaccurate. It is based on an imperfect understanding of the election rules.

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