Edmund Burke
Reflections on the Revolution in France
October 1790


Edmund Burke was born on January 12, 1729 in Dublin, Ireland. In his early career, he published Vindication of a Natural Society and A Philosphical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, both of which helped to establish his reputation. In 1765, he entered the House of Commons as secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham. While in Parliament, he fought against George III's attempt to restore a greater power to crown, and against British control of the American colonies. He also attempted to unite the Whigs in England's Parliament. In 1790, Burke published his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, which cemented his importance in English politics and history and engendered considerable Whig support. Not long after the publication, however, Burke's parliamentary debate with Charles James Fox, a fellow Whig, over the French Revolution, would end their friendship and diminish Burke's reputation. He left Parliament in 1794 and fell largely out of the public view. He died three years later at the age of 68.

Role in the Conversation

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was written as a response to both the French Revolution and Dr. Richard Price's 1789 sermon "A Discourse on the Love of Our Country." Burke's reply served as the accepted Whig response, and united most members of that party. Upon its publication, it was quite popular and had great success in convincing the general educated English audience of Burke's argument. What is more historically important, though, is the criticism it inspired. Most prominent radical thinkers of the 1790s, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine were either directly or indirectly responding to Burke and his ideas in their political writings.

Summary of Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke criticizes the French Revolution on many fronts, but his main qualm with it is that the Revolution was more about power than about liberty. He concedes that the French government was far from perfect and that it was much in need of reformation, but he believes that having a revolution is going too far. That France resorted to revolution, he believes is an indication that the leaders of the revolution are more interested in their own power than in the well-being of the French people. Thus, the violence (and Burke argues that there is a lot of it) is a sad and completely unnecessary consequence and leads to Burke's dramatic and famous conclusion that "The age of chivalry is gone" (89).

Burke also argues against Price's list of the rights of man in "A Discourse on the Love of Our Country": the right of a people to choose their own governors, the right to recall them, and the right to form their own government. He refutes each in turn, each on the basis that these new rights would lead to instability. When sufficiently reverenced, he argues, monarchy precludes usurpation and leads to productive, secure societies. Additionally, Burke charges Price with rashness in proposing his bill of rights because "The body of the people of England have no share in it. They utterly disclaim it. They will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes" (18).

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