Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 8 : French Election Systems; Paper Money; Gambling | Summary



Burke continues his examination of the new arrangements for elections in France. He begins by criticizing the National Assembly for treating the nation of France like a collection of small republics or like a country of conquest. Burke adduces a number of parallels from classical antiquity. He commends the recent work of the French financier and economist, Charles–Alexandre de Calonne (1734–1802), which he says is in harmony with his own.

Burke provides another series of contrasts between French and British practice. He makes the important point that a member of the British House of Commons is not to be considered as merely a representative of his specific constituency. A member of the House is a legislator acting on behalf of all citizens of the whole nation.

Burke next proceeds to a discussion of what he calls the "cement," or unifying forces that are claimed to tie France together. The first force he identifies is the confiscation of clerical estates and the contingent issuance of a new paper currency. He repeats his vehement criticisms of both initiatives, predicting that, if anything, they will add to France's fragmentation and confusion. He ominously forecasts that the policies embarked upon by the assembly will spawn local oligarchies.

In an extended metaphor, Burke describes the French legislators as the first lawmakers who have founded a commonwealth on gambling. Under this regime, a great kingdom has become "one great play–table," and speculation (reckless risk taking) has been expanded so that it is coextensive with life itself. Burke predicts that with this "monster of a constitution" France will be governed by an ignoble oligarchy. He says it will be "founded on the destruction of the crown, the church, the nobility, and the people."


Stylistically, the centerpiece of this section is Burke's brilliantly elaborated extended metaphor, comparing revolutionary France to a vast gaming table. The vivid force in this elaborate comparison would have been readily apparent to Burke's readers. His readers may reliably be presumed to have come from the upper–middle classes and the aristocracy. Toward the end of the 18th century, gambling had established a firm foothold in exclusive men's clubs of London such as White's, Brook's, and Almack's. The card game known as whist (a forerunner of modern bridge) was a particular favorite. The Duke of Wellington supposedly risked 100,000 pounds (about $10 million in today's money) at whist on a single evening at White's on a regular basis.

Burke accuses the French legislators—always eager, as he comments ironically, for innovation—of pioneering the transformation of an entire kingdom into a vast gaming table. Burke first conjures up the grotesque image of a gambling board as large as an entire country. Then he proceeds to embellish his picture with a series of elaborations. The new gaming republic has little in common with historic gambling bubbles like the Mississippi (in France) and the South Sea (in England) of the 1720s. Those ill–fated ventures primarily involved individuals rather than the public at large. In revolutionary France, by contrast, the law "is itself debauched" or corrupted. It introduces (to mix the metaphor) "a more dreadful epidemic distemper ... than yet has appeared in the world." Burke goes on to picture the anxiety and confusion of the typical citizen trying to cope with such a world. Burke wonders how such an individual can hold his head above water when he does not know the value of a meal or a debt from morning to night. He wonders how people can hold employment when they do not know the value of their pay. In a nation of gamblers, Burke says, the truly sad dimension is that very few understand the nature of the game. The many are tricked by the few. Townspeople trick country folk. Violence will inevitably flourish. Burke's extended metaphor is a rhetorical tour de force, an impressive performance of great skill.

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