Reflections on the Revolution in France: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Early Years
  • 0:55 The American Revolution
  • 1:58 'Reflections on the…
  • 3:45 Impact of the Reflections
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hill
Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' is a powerful argument against the excesses of the French Revolution. In this essay, he argued for balance between liberty and order.

Early Years

When the mob first stormed the Bastille that ignited the French Revolution, many cheered and supported these events as a glorious replay of the American Revolution. Not Edmund Burke. Going against the grain of popular opinion, Burke only saw pain and heartache coming from the events in France.

Edmund Burke was born in Great Britain in Dublin, Ireland in January 1729, to a Protestant father and Catholic mother. He was educated at Trinity College in Ireland but moved to London in 1750, where he studied law. Burke eventually tired of law, preferring a literary career instead, and for a time drifted back and forth between England and France before taking a seat in the British House of Commons. In this role, he also served as the secretary to the Marquess de Rockingham from 1765-1782. It was in the House of Commons that he made his literary and political mark.

Parliament and the American Revolution

Burke's position on the French Revolution becomes clearer when we take a quick look at some examples of his political philosophy. Burke favored curbing and curtailing the ultimate power of the monarchy. Though he recognized British authority in North America, he felt that Britain should be more respectful of and pragmatic about the American colonist's rights and complaints. Later, he generally supported the colonists in the American Revolution. When a bill failed to squash British corruption in colonial India, he supported the impeachment of the British governor-general Warren Hastings.

Burke showed consistency in supporting the restraint of power. Even though Burke supported the American Revolution, he opposed the French Revolution. The question is why? For Burke, the American Revolution pitted republican forces against an entrenched and imperial monarchy, but in the French Revolution, he saw the dangers of mob rule. The timing of his opposition to the French Revolution is interesting, as he opposed it long before the worst excesses of the French Revolution came to fruition. Burke saw early warning signs which led him to oppose what seemed so popular to others.

'Reflections on the Revolution in France'

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, many revolutionaries in both Europe and America felt it was a long overdue victory for republican government. In time, many early champions turned against it, especially after the Reign of Terror revealed its uglier side. However, Burke saw things differently, and only months later, penned his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'. His immediate reason for writing this work was that he feared that England might go down the same revolutionary path as France and he did not want that for Great Britain. His core argument can be summed up into two parts.

First, Burke argued that it was dangerous to toss off the ancient customs and traditions of a nation so quickly and to replace it with something new. Although the old order of a country may need to go, it simply could not be destroyed so quickly without doing untold damage. Burke argued that perhaps the monarchy was a relic of the past, but it could not be dismantled without serious consequences.

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