Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France
Burke’s Reflections • Biographical/Historical Background • Ethics of the Community • Priority of the Individual • Conservatism
I. Biographical Background • Edmund Burke (1729-1797) • Born in Dublin, educated at Trinity College • Briefly attended law school, gave it up for literary career • Published his first book when he was 27
I. Biographical Background • Gets involved in Whig party politics • Serves in British House of Commons from 1766 through 1780, then from 1780-1794 • Supported American independence, easing laws against Catholics
I. Biographical Background • 1773 travels to France and is appalled by tide of “rationalism” sweeping the country • Opposes the French Revolution • Founder of modern conservatism • One of, if not the, chief opponents of the Enlightenment
I. Biographical Background • Publication was widely anticipated and received huge reaction • King George loved it, as did most of the aristocracy • Why read it today?
I. Biographical Background • 2 main reasons: • Relevance as a work of political science • “Science” not in the sense that it’s empirically driven -- although there is some of that -- but rather “science” in predictive sense • Founder of modern conservatism
I. Biographical Background • Burke was remarkably prescient about the likely development of the French Revolution and remarkably accurate about most revolutions • To appreciate, here’s the French Revolution in a nutshell:
II. French Revolution • 1788, King Louis XVI, facing financial crisis • Calls for the assembly of the Estates Generale (French parliament which hadn’t met since 1614!) • Estates Generale divided along class lines: Aristocracy Clergy “Commoners”
II. French Revolution • Elections for the common people -- or Third Estate -- were held in 1788, the legislature then convenes in 1789 • Voting was to be by class block (that is, one vote each class) • Third estate wants vote by individual representative -- it’s rejected
II. French Revolution • Third Estate pulls out of assembly, declares itself the true government -- a “National Assembly” and storms the Bastille Prison • 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” published
II. French Revolution • King retreats to Versaille... palace is stormed by a group of “market women” and family forced to return to quarters in Paris under the control of the National Assembly
II. French Revolution • Reflections on the Revolution in 1790 • 1792 King Louis XIV beheaded • 1793 “Committee on Public Safety” formed under leadership of Maximilien Robespierre • Reign of Terror begins • 1793 Queen (Marie Antoinette) beheaded
II. French Revolution • 1794 - Robespierre executed • 1795-1799 “Thermidor Reaction” to excesses of the Reign of Terror • 1799 Napoleon seizes power
II. French Revolution • Burke’s Predictions: Reign of Terror: “On the scheme of this barbarous philosohy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests...
II. French Revolution “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
II. French Revolution • Burke’s Predictions: Reign of Terror: “But when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments, not the guides, of the people...
II. French Revolution “Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.”
II. French Revolution “If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause...
II. French Revolution • Burke’s Predictions: • “It is, besides, to be considered whether an assembly like yours, even supposing that it was in possession of another sort of organ through which its orders were to pass, is fit for promoting the obedience and discipline of an army...
II. French Revolution “It is known that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. ...
II. French Revolution “In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things...
II. French Revolution “But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master — the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.” • Respect for the book soared after Napoleon came to power
II. Ethics of the Community • Recall Locke’s discussion on best way to evaluate society • How do we evaluate society?