Reflections on the Revolution in France is a political pamphlet written by the Irish statesman Edmund Burkeand published in November 1790. One of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution,Reflections is a defining tract of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory. Above all else, it has been one of the defining efforts of Edmund Burke’s transformation of „traditionalism into a self-conscious and fully conceived political philosophy of conservatism”.
The pamphlet has not been easy to classify. Before seeing this work as a pamphlet, we should note that Burke wrote in the mode of a letter, invoking expectations of openness and selectivity that added a layer of meaning.Academics have had trouble identifying whether Burke, or his tract, can best be understood as „a realist or an idealist, Rationalist or a Revolutionist”. Thanks to its thoroughness, rhetorical skill, and literary power, it has become one of the most widely known of Burke’s writings and a classic text in political theory. In the twentieth century, it greatly influenced conservative and classical liberal intellectuals, who recast Burke’s Whiggish arguments as a critique of communist and revolutionary-socialist programmes.
Edmund Burke served in the House of Commons of Great Britain, representing the Whig party, in close alliance with liberal politician Lord Rockingham. In Burke’s political career, he vigorously defended constitutional limitation of the Crown’s authority, denounced the religious persecution of Catholics in his native Ireland, voiced the grievances of Britain’s American colonies, supported American Independence, and vigorously pursued impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of British India, for corruption and abuse of power. For these actions, Burke was widely respected by liberals in Great Britain, the United States, and the European continent. „Earlier in his career Burke had championed many liberal causes and sided with the Americans in their war for independence; opponents and allies alike were surprised at the strength of his conviction that the French Revolution was a disaster and the revolutionists ‘a swinish multitude.'”.
In 1789, soon after the fall of the Bastille, the French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depont asked his impressions of the Revolution; Burke replied with two letters. The longer, second letter, drafted after he read Richard Price‘s speech A Discourse on the Love of Our Country in January 1790, became Reflections on the Revolution in France. Published in November 1790, the work was an instant bestseller: thirteen thousand copies were purchased in the first five weeks, and by the following September it had gone through eleven editions. According to Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, „part of its appeal to contemporary readers lay in the highly wrought accounts of the mob’s violent treatment of the French king and queen (who at the time Burke was writing were imprisoned in Paris and would be executed three years later, in January and October 1793)”, and Reflections has become the „most eloquent statement of British conservatism favoring monarchy, aristocracy, property, hereditary succession, and the wisdom of the ages”.
He did not like abstract thinking, he believed freedom and equality were different, he also believed that real equality was not real unless it was when God judged, and he saw liberty as something within the law and not as an excuse to do whatever one would like. He was not comfortable with radical change, and he believed that the revolutionaries would find themselves further in trouble. Their actions would cause more problems. The revolutionaries, in his opinion, did not understand that “there are no rights without corresponding duties, or without some strict qualifications.”
With his view of what he believed would happen to the revolutionaries one can see why he did not like change. Men cannot handle large amounts of power. “When men play God,” Burke said splendidly, „presently they behave like devils. The guillotine and other horrors of the revolution bore him out.”
In the Reflections, Burke argued that the French Revolution would end disastrously because its abstract foundations, purportedly rational, ignored the complexities of human nature and society. Further, he focused on the practicality of solutions instead of the metaphysics, writing „What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor”. Following St. Augustine and Cicero, he believed in „human heart”-based government. Nevertheless, he was contemptuous and afraid of the Enlightenment, led by intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Turgot, who disbelieved in divine moral order and original sin. Burke said that society should be handled like a living organism, that people and society are limitlessly complicated, thus, leading him to conflict with Thomas Hobbes‘ assertion that politics might be reducible to a deductive system akin to mathematics.
As a Whig, he expressly repudiated the belief in divinely appointed monarchic authority and the idea that a people have no right to depose an oppressive government; however, he advocated central roles for private property, tradition, and „prejudice” (i.e., adherence to values regardless of their rational basis) to give citizens a stake in their nation’s social order. He argued for gradual, constitutional reform, not revolution (in every case except the most qualified case), emphasizing that a political doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and the rights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny. He saw inherited rights, restated in England from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, as firm and concrete providing continuity (like tradition, „prejudice”, inheritable private property), by contrast enforcement of ‘speculative’ abstract rights might waver and be subject to change based on currents of politics. Instead, he called for the constitutional enactment of specific, concrete rights and liberties as protection against governmental oppression.
In the phrase, „[prejudice] renders a man’s virtue his habit”, he defends people’s cherished, but untaught, irrational prejudices (the greater it behooved them, the more they cherished it). Because a person’s moral estimation is limited, people are better off drawing from the „general bank and capital of nations and of ages” than from their own intellects.
He predicted that the Revolution’s concomitant disorder would make the army „mutinous and full of faction”, and then a „popular general”, commanding the soldiery’s allegiance, would become „master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic”. Though he may have been thinking of Lafayette, Napoleonfulfilled this prophecy on the 18th Brumaire, two years after Burke’s death.
Most of the House of Commons disagreed with Burke and his popularity declined. As the French Revolution broke into factions, the Whig Party broke in two: the New Whig party and the Old Whig party. As founder of the Old Whigs, Burke always took the opportunity to engage in debate with the New Whigs about French Jacobinism.
After trying to loosen the Protestant minority’s control of Irish government, he was voted out of the House of Commons with a great pension. He later adopted French and Irish children, believing himself correct in rescuing them from government oppression. Before dying, he ordered his family to bury him secretly, believing his cadaver would be a political target for desecration should the Jacobins prevail in England.
To support or color his arguments, Burke uses several Latin quotations, the sources of which he does not cite. The bulk appear to come from Virgil or Horace. However, the following quotation from Cicero’s De Senectute 83 is employed to underline the ludicrous idea, in his view, of placing soldiery in a state at a perfectly equal status as the rest of the citizenry: „Si isti mihi largiantur ut repueriscam, et in eorum cunis vagiam, valde recusem!”
An approximate translation is: „If they should grant to me that I might become a child again, and that I might wail in their cradle, I would vigorously refuse!”
Reflections on the Revolution in France was read widely when it was published in 1790, though not every Briton approved of Burke’s kind treatment of their historic enemy or its royal family. His English enemies speculated he either had become mentally unbalanced or was a secret Catholic, outraged by the democratic French government’s anti-clerical policies and expropriation of Church land. The publication of this work drew a swift response, first with A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) by Mary Wollstonecraft, and then with Rights of Man (1791) by Thomas Paine. Nonetheless, Burke’s work became popular with reactionaries such as King George III and the Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre.
Historically, Reflections on the Revolution in France became the founding philosophic opus of Conservatism when some of Burke’s predictions occurred: the Reign of Terror under the new French Republic executed thousands, (including many nuns and clergy) from 1793 to 1794 to purge so-called counter-revolutionary elements of society. That, in turn, led to the political reaction of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte‘s government, which appeared to some to be a military dictatorship. Burke had predicted the rise of a military dictatorship and that the revolutionary government instead of protecting the rights of the people would be corrupt and violent.
In the nineteenth century, positivist French historian Hippolyte Taine repeated the Irishman’s arguments in Origins of Contemporary France (1876–1885): that centralisation of power is the essential fault of the Revolutionary French government system; that it does not promote democratic control; and that the Revolution transferred power from the divinely chosen aristocracy to an „enlightened” heartless elite more incompetent and tyrannical than the aristocrats.
In the twentieth century, Western conservatives applied Burke’s anti-revolutionary Reflections to popular socialist revolutions, thus establishing Burke’s iconic political value to conservatives and classical liberals. For example, an important classical economic liberal, Friedrich Hayek, acknowledged an intellectual debt to Burke. The late Christopher Hitchens writes that the „tremendous power of the Reflections lies” in being „the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.”
Historians however have regarded Burke’s arguments as inconsistent with the actual history of the events. Alfred Cobban, despite being the most respected conservative historian of the events, acknowledged that Burke’s pamphlet, in so far as it „deals with the causes of the Revolution…they are not merely inadequate, but misleading” and that its main success is as a „violent parti pris”. Cobban notes that Burke was extremely well informed on America, Ireland and India but in the case of the French Revolution, relied on weak information and poor sources, and as a result his thesis does not cohere to the ground reality of France at the onset of the Revolution, where the situation was indeed dire enough to sweep existing institutions. Cobban concludes, „As literature, as political theory, as anything but history, his Reflections is magnificent”. 
Quotes from Reflections on the Revolution in France
″All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently, by the most contemptible instruments. Every thing seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.″
″In viewing this tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.″
″A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.″
″Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.″
″If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which is made become his right…Men have a right to…justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death.″
″All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.″
″Where trade and manufactures are wanting to a people, an the spirit of nobility and religion remains, sentiment supplies, and not always ill supplies their place; but if commerce and the arts should be lost in an experiment to try how well a state may stand without these old fundamental principles, what sort of a thing must be a nation of gross, stupid, ferocious, and at the same time, poor and sordid barbarians, destitute of religion, honor, or manly pride, possessing nothing at present, and hoping for nothing hereafter? I wish you may not be going fast, and by the shortest cut, to that horrible and disgustful situation. Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.″
“Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure – but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”