Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke


Edmund Burke’s views of the unfolding revolution in France changed during the course of 1789. In August he was praising it as a ‘wonderful spectacle’, but weeks later he stated that the people had thrown off not only ‘their political servitude’ but also ‘the yoke of laws and morals’. This change of view distanced Burke from his Whig friends. The following year he was dismissing the French revolution as a threat to European stability and security, an immature process based on the ‘rights of man’ that was tearing to pieces ‘the contexture of the state’. 

Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) began by dismissing comparisons between the French Revolution and the 1688 revolution in England, claiming that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was no more than an adjustment of the constitution. The French Revolution in comparison was tending towards anarchy rather than reformation. Burke valued tradition and the structures that had built up over time rather than the shattering of state, culture and religion that had taken place in France. Thomas Paine’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1790) was a direct response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine specifically mocked Burke’s praise for Marie Antoinette, and claimed that Burke was out of touch with the reality of the pre-Revolutionary French state, stating that he ‘pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird’.

Full title:
Reflections on the Revolution in France
1790, London
Edmund Burke
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British Library

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