Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

Theresa Bird, Matthew Hill
  • Author
    Theresa Bird

    Theresa Bird is a recent masters graduate of the University of Chicago, with a degree in history. They went to undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, earning their bachelor’s in history and women’s and gender studies.

  • Instructor
    Matthew Hill

    Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

Explore Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Learn about the author, study the summary and analysis, and review the impact of Burke's work. Updated: 08/12/2022

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Reflections on the Revolution in France

Reflections on the Revolution in France was written by Edmund Burke, a British philosopher, in 1790 during the unfolding revolution in France. Edmund Burke was an Irish-born British philosopher, statesman, and economist. He was born in Dublin and later was a member of Parliament between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons of Great Britain with the Whig Party. Burke had differing views on the American Revolution versus the French Revolution. He supported the American Revolution while at the same time opposing the French Revolution. He believed that the American Revolution was not doing the damage that the French Revolution was.

Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France with the fear that England might follow the same path to revolution as France. Perhaps one key mitigating factor is that this publication was originally written as a letter to a family friend of Burke's who happened to be French. Charles-Jean Francois Depont had asked Burke for his opinion on the French Revolution, and the Reflections document was the response he gave. Perhaps this is partly why this dissertation on the subject was later perceived as somewhat lightweight and devoid of strong facts and arguments. Nevertheless, his work created many obstacles in his political career and lowered his popularity.

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  • 0:55 The American Revolution
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Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: Summary

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France dismissed comparisons between the French Revolution and the 1688 revolution in England. Burke began his work by claiming that the 1688 revolution in England was merely an adjustment of the constitution and not anything close to the anarchist revolution of the French in 1789. In his opinion, the 1688 revolution was the adjustment of a system and the removal of a bad king as opposed to the French Revolution, which was the fundamental destruction of the entire societal system.

Burke was one for tradition and structure and did not appreciate or support the dissolution of the state, culture, and religion that was taking place in France. He saw the French Revolution as an attack on ancient customs and traditions that could not be instantly torn down without the country resorting to anarchy and dictatorship. Burke also mocked the French Revolution as "most absurd and ridiculous" and viewed the revolution as a "strange chaos of levity and ferocity".

The emphasis on conservative and traditional hierarchical structures could also explain why Burke viewed the American Revolution favorably since, apart from the loss of colonies by King George, there was no long-established and entrenched royalty, aristocracy, or church fundamentally destroyed. What appears to have unnerved Burke the most was the seemingly widespread support amongst some segments of the British people. He seemed to hope that his writings would provide his fellow citizens with a counter-argument that would bring them back into the fold of the status quo. Burke thought that as much as the change was needed, it should occur incrementally without fundamentally destroying the entire structure of a culture or society.

Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution": Analysis

Edmund Burke's Reflections of the French Revolution has been criticized for its bias Burke appears to be too entrenched in tradition and structure to the point of ignoring the very problems that caused the revolution in France in the first place. Historians regard Burke's arguments as inconsistent with actual history. Conservative historian Alfred Cobban acknowledged that Burke's words "are not merely inadequate, but misleading." Burke appears to have much knowledge of the American revolution in his work but appears to count on weak information for the French Revolution.

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