Reflections on the Revolution in France

by

Edmund Burke

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Reflections on the Revolution in France Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was born to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. He studied in both Catholic and Protestant institutions in Ireland, then studied law in London. He initially had literary ambitions, serving as editor of the literary review Annual Register from 1758 to about 1765, but thereafter began taking positions in government service. The most consequential of these was his role as secretary to Whig leader Lord Rockingham, beginning in 1765, the same year when Burke himself was elected to the House of Commons. He remained in the House until retirement in 1794. Burke wrote polemical materials and speeches for the Rockingham Whigs, often criticizing policies in the American colonies and in British India. He also supported the lifting of restrictions on Catholics in Ireland. However, he has always been most remembered for his anti-revolutionary writings, including Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795-7). Burke’s other writings include A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and A Vindication of Natural Society (1756).
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Historical Context of Reflections on the Revolution in France

Many in England who supported the French Revolution argued that it was in the spirit of England’s own Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which James II and VII was deposed and replaced by William and Mary. One of Burke’s main rhetorical aims in Reflections on the Revolution in France is to demonstrate that the two Revolutions were completely different in circumstances and tenor. The French Revolution was a pivotal event for modern history, spanning the decade from 1789-1799. In short, the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy and established a republic in its place, leading to years of violent turmoil and many thousands of executions of those regarded as counterrevolutionary. Initially prompted by economic crisis, the Revolution focused on abolishing the feudal system and the privileges of the aristocracy, championing Enlightenment-inspired reason, equality, and secularism instead. At the time Burke wrote, the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, one of the most significant events of the Revolution, had not yet taken place, and France was still technically a constitutional monarchy. Reflections was prompted when a French acquaintance, Charles-Jean Francois Depont, wrote to Burke in November 1789, seeking his opinion of recent events. On the same day, a radical dissenter, Richard Price, gave a speech to London’s Revolutionary Society, urging his audience to build on the principles of the previous century’s Glorious Revolution. In the coming months, Reflections emerged as a response to both Depont’s letter and Price’s published speech. Reflections was regarded as the primary critique of the Revolution in its day.

Other Books Related to Reflections on the Revolution in France

John Locke’s Second Treatise (1690), written soon after the Glorious Revolution, more systematically defends the idea of the social contract which Burke takes up in Reflections. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) was written in response to Burke, defending the idea of popular political revolution when people’s rights are violated. Around the same time that Burke wrote his political treatises, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was actually living in Paris at the time, published A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Later, her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) directly critiqued Burke’s support for aristocracy and championed republicanism.
Key Facts about Reflections on the Revolution in France
  • Full Title: Reflections on the revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event. In a letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Paris.
  • When Written: 1790
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: November 1, 1790
  • Literary Period: Enlightenment
  • Genre: Political Pamphlet
  • Point of View: First Person; Second Person

Extra Credit for Reflections on the Revolution in France

Pamphlet War. Because Burke supported the American Revolution, many readers were surprised by his support for the French aristocracy in Reflections. Between 1790 and 1795, Reflections sparked numerous political pamphlets in response, including works by pro-republican radicals like Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. However, following France’s Reign of Terror, British and American enthusiasm for the French Revolution tapered off.

Ironic Inspiration. Charles-Jean Francois Depont, the young Frenchman whose inquiries inspired Burke’s Reflections, became a radical left-wing Jacobin. He later published a reply to Burke, stating that “if your opinions had then been known to me, far from engaging you to disclose them, I should have intreated you to withhold them from the public.”