Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France | Section 9 : Centralization; Executive Power; Checks and Balances; Judiciary | Summary

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Summary

Burke now turns to what he had earlier designated as the second "cementing" component of the National Assembly's arrangements for a new republic. This is the superiority, or preeminence, of the city of Paris. He is no more optimistic on this score than he was about the confiscation of clerical lands and the issuance of a new paper currency in Section 8. Burke observes that the power of Paris over the other parts of France is disproportionate, to the extent that he cannot conceive of its longevity. He believes that the preeminence of Paris cannot last very long.

Burke next discusses the absence of checks and balances in the National Assembly. France's new "all–sufficient legislators," Burke remarks dryly, "have forgotten to constitute a Senate." This is an allusion to the provision in the new American Constitution for a bicameral national legislature, with its inherent degree of restraining checks and balances.

Burke turns next to the revolutionaries' arrangements for the executive power in government. The French, Burke asserts, have chosen a "degraded king" to play this role. Such a choice is sadly inadequate, in Burke's opinion. Executive magistracy, in his view, requires the love and veneration of those who are bound to obey it. Burke illustrates his precept by citing examples from the history of both France and England. These historical figures are Louis XIII (1601–43) and Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), Louis XIV (1638–1715) and Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61), and George II (1683–1760) and William Pitt (1708–78). The French revolutionaries are deluded if they believe that Louis XVI (1754–93) can command the respect and veneration required by the chief executive of a nation. He says, "A state of contempt is not a state for a prince; better get rid of him at once."

As for the judiciary, Burke comments negatively on the abolition of the French parlements (provincial appellate courts). These divisions are not to be confused with the British Parliament, the central legislative body consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In Burke's opinion, the parlements furnished "some considerable corrective to the excesses and vices of the monarchy." They were a valuable component of the governing structure of France. Burke adduces an analogy from ancient Greece: the Areopagus, or council of elders, at Athens. Once again, however, Burke's summary judgment of the new regime's arrangements is that they are incoherent and unlikely to result in justice and order.

Analysis

Burke is unsparing in his discussion in this section of France's new executive and judicial arrangements. He brusquely dismisses the new regime's confidence in the preeminence of Paris as misplaced. He argues that such a concentration of power in the capital will inevitably breed resentment and disunion in the rest of the country. This will be true particularly considering France's strong regional traditions and characteristics.

Equally caustic is his appraisal of the National Assembly's lack of checks and balances. He sums this appraisal up in the pithy dismissal, "They forgot to constitute a senate." The reference to the newly instituted bicameral legislative branch in the US Constitution testifies to the urgent attention paid on an international scale to issues of governance, constitutional frameworks, and public order during this period.

More than occasionally in Reflections, Burke's use of hyperbole intervenes to overshadow the force and power of his logical argumentation. An especially egregious example crops up at the end of Section 9. He predicts that the French "committee of research" (an admittedly inquisitorial body) "will extinguish the last sparks of liberty in France."

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