Reflections on the Revolution in France

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Little did I dream that, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers.

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone!

Reflections on the Revolution in France | work by Burke |

It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness. These have always been imputed by philosophers a tribe of men whom indeed Mr. Burke affects much to despise as causes which have produced all that is vicious and foolish in man, and consequently have been the fruitful source of human misery. Burke has certainly a fine imagination; but I would not advise either him, or any of his admirers, to give too much way to such direction; for if from the virtue of our nature it does not lead us into crimes, it always involves us in error.

The being put into a situation clearly to understand and to obey the principles of truth, appears to be the basis of our happiness in this, and our perfection in another world; and the more truth is followed and pursued in this dark vale of human ignorance and misery, the more we shall increase our mundane felicity, and secure the blessings of a future existence.

Every opinion which deviates from truth, must ever be a treacherous guide; and the more it deviates from it, it becomes the more dangerous. Though a false opinion of the rights and powers of citizens may enslave the ductile mind into a state of passive obedience, and thus secure the peace of government; yet in the same degree does it inflate the pride and arrogance of princes, until all considerations of rectitude give way to will, the barriers of personal security are flung down, and thence arises that tremendous necessity which must be followed by a state of violence and anarchy, which Mr.

Burke so justly dreads. That this is the case, the experience of all societies of men who acknowledge a power in their princes paramount to all resistance, fully evinces. These societies are obliged often to have recourse to violence and massacre; not indeed to establish any popular rights, but in the way of force, to wreck their vengeance on their tyrants.

As to the right of cashiering or deposing monarchs for misgovernment, I cannot possibly agree with Mr.

Burke, that in England it only existed in that Convention of the two Houses in , which exercised this power over King James and his legal successors. But I am clearly of opinion, that it is a right that ought never to be exercised by a people who are satisfied with their form of government, and have spirit enough to correct its abuses; and so far from condemning the French nation for not deposing or executing their king, even though the strongest presumptions of the most atrocious guilt should have appeared against him, I think, had they elected any other person to that high office, they would have thrown difficulties in the way of their liberty, instead of improving it.

But it is the wisdom, and not the folly of the National Assembly, which gives offence to their enemies; and forces even Mr. But before we leave the subject of Dr. Burke—no less than that of prophaning the beautiful and prophetick ejaculation, commonly called, Nunc dimittis! Price, who classes with that description of men stiled by Mr. Burke abstract philosophers, has been used to carry his mind, in a long series of ideas, to the consequences of actions which arise in the passing scene.

Price then, with full as much sympathy in him as even Edition: current; Page: [ 9 ] Mr. Burke can have, might not be greatly moved with the mortifications and sufferings of a very few persons, however highly distinguished for the splendour of their rank, when those mortifications led the way, or secured the present and future happiness of twenty four millions of people, with their posterity, emancipated by their manly exertions, from all that is degrading and afflicting to the sensible mind; and let into the immediate blessings of personal security, and to the enjoyment of those advantages which above all others must be delightful to the feelings of an high spirited people.

The events of human life, when properly considered, are but a series of benevolent providences: Many of them, though very important in their consequences, are too much confounded with the common transactions of men, to be observed; but whenever the believer thinks he perceives the omnipotent will more immediately declaring itself in favour of the future perfection and happiness of the moral world, he is naturally led into the same ecstacies of hope and gratitude, with which Simeon was transported by the view of the infant Messiah.

Has Mr. Burke never heard of any millenium, but that fanciful one which is supposed to exist in the kingdom of the saints? If this should be the case, I would recommend to him to read Newton on the Prophecies. He will find that this most respectable Bishop, who was no ranter, is of opinion, that some passages in the Revelations point out a period of time when the iron sceptre of arbitrary sway shall be broken; when righteousness shall prevail over the whole earth, and a correct system of equity take place in the conduct of man.

Every providence, therefore, by which any insuperable object to this transcendent blessing appears to be taken away, must rationally draw forth ejaculations of gratitude from the benevolent Christian. What ideas do more naturally associate in the human mind, than those of the first appearance of the infant Jesus, and his future universal reign in the hearts of his people? Burke thinks, that there was at least a great impropriety in expressing an approbation of the spirited conduct of the French nation, before time and circumstances had manifested that the freedom they had gained, had been used with wisdom in the forming a new constitution of government, or in improving the old one.

The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose; but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. The French Revolution was attended with something so new in the history of human affairs; there was something so singular, so unique, in that perfect unanimity in the people; in that firm spirit which baffled every hope in the interested, that they could possibly divide them into parties, and render them the instruments of a resubjection to their old bondage; that it naturally excited the surprise and the admiration of all men.

It appeared as a sudden spread of an enlightened spirit, which promised to act as an effectual and permanent barrier to the inlet of those usurpations which from the very beginning of social life the crafty have imposed on ignorance. This was a triumph of sufficient importance to call forth the exultation of individuals, and the approbation of societies. But the two clubs who have the misfortune to fall under Mr.

That memorable day in which the members of the National Assembly, with a virtuous enthusiosm, vied with each other in the alacrity with which they surrendered to the people all their feudal privileges, will for ever stand in the records of time as a monument of their singular greatness. Such an instance of human virtue was surely a proper subject of applause and congratulation.

Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings

Men who have suffered in their personal interests by the new order of things in France, must naturally be inclined to exaggerate every blemish which appears in the conduct of a multitude, by whose spirit they have been deprived of many fond privileges. Their petulant observations, whilst their minds are heated by imaginary wrongs and injuries, is excusable; because it is a weakness almost inseparable from human frailty.

It would, however, have become Englishmen, from whom might have been expected a more sympathising indulgence towards the friends and promoters of liberty, to have been more candid in their censures; but in no part of Europe perhaps, have the evils which must necessarily attend all Revolutions, and especially a Revolution so complete and comprehensive as that which has taken place in France, been more exaggerated, and more affectedly lamently.

Had this great work been effected without the shedding one drop of innocent or even guilty blood, without doubt it would have better pleased the generous and benevolent mind. But, was it possible Edition: current; Page: [ 11 ] that such a pleasing circumstance could ever have had an existence? If we take into consideration that animosity which subsisted between the aristocratists and democratists on the eve of the Revolution, an animosity which was greatly heightened by the imprudent insults which the Tier Etat had received from the first mentioned body, we shall rather wonder at the moderation with which the people used their complete victory, than lament their cruelty.

I do not indeed exactly know how much blood has been spilled in France, or how many individuals have fallen a sacrifice in the publick commotions; but by all the general accounts which have been transmitted to us, the history of monarchies will point out as many sufferers who have fallen in one hour to the rage and outrageous pride of kingly despots. The punishment of the lamp post, it must be owned, strikes terror to the mind, and calls forth an immediate effusion of sympathy to the sufferer.

But when candid reflection supersedes the first emotions of human tenderness, this truth will force itself on our consideration, that a people who had been used to such barbarous spectacles as that of beholding wretches, whose destitute poverty had in a manner compelled to the forlorn course of highway robbery, broken on a wheel, and lingering out the last hours of life under the agonizing strokes of a stern executioner, would naturally regard hanging as a mild punishment on men whom they considered as the worst of criminals.

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Let us rejoice, then, that such dreadful legal executions, which must from their nature tend to barbarise men, are happily put an end to by the Revolution. Burke is now come to a scene which is calculated to draw forth all the energies of his imagination, and which consequently he describes with the highest possible colouring. This is no other than the 6th of October, , when the king and queen were led in triumph to Paris.

I very much honour the king of France for that ease of temper which has enabled him to go through all his personal mortifications with a manly dignity; but it must be confessed that he brought them on himself, by a conduct, which, to say the best of it, was altogether imprudent. The first involuntary visit which he made to the capital, was absolutely necessary, to appease the fears and the resentment which had been raised by his ineffectual attempt to awe the deliberations and the resolutions of the National Assembly by an armed force.

In the second, he was carried to Paris to prevent the execution of a design formed by the court cabal, which, had it succeeded, might have deluged the nation in blood, and furnished the fuel of civil discord for years. The Parisians shewed no intention, or even desire, to deprive in any respect their king of his personal liberty; till, by a very suspicious conduct, he appeared to have manifested a design to corrupt the fidelity of his guards to their new government, and to set up the standard of arms in that quarter of the kingdom where the friends of despotism from every part of Europe might repair with safety.

The great and unabating rage and indignation which the enemies to the new constitution have shewn for what they term the captivity of the king, plainly evinces the necessity that urged the measure. Having endeavoured to shew the futility of Mr. To shew that the National Assembly have committed a very gross and ruinous error, in the building a new structure, instead of improving an old one; Mr. Burke cites, in a triumphant manner, the conduct of the English nation. Our oldest reformation, he observes, is that of Magna Charta. They endeavour to prove, that the ancient Charta, the Magna Charta of king John, was connected with another positive Charta from Henry the first, and that both the one and the other were nothing more than a reaffirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom.

But had the circumstances of Charles enabled him to speak and to enforce the sentiments of his mind, he would undoubtedly have made the following reply: You tell me upon your own authority, and the authority of your lawyers, that what you plead so strenuously for, is a patrimony derived from your forefathers, and grounded on the ancient law of the land.

Be it so—Was not this ancient law superseded by the authority of arms, and the entire submission of the people to the Norman code established by William the Conqueror? Magna Charta, then, and the other charters, must either have been extorted from the imbecility of the princes who granted them, or they must have issued from the voluntary donations of monarchs; in either case, they only stand on a resumable right. What the parliament could have answered to this plea, I know not, without calling in the aid of an abstract right; which they endeavoured to keep out of the view of the king, with as much care as Mr.

Burke endeavours to keep it out of the view of all men. But certain it is, that the king, though he did not explicitly declare with all their force the above mentioned sentiments, yet he acted agreeable to their tenor the moment he got rid of this troublesome assembly: For, considering the articles of the petition of right as a gift depending on his pleasure to fulfil or to resume, he broke them whenever they thwarted his system of administration, and imprisoned those who on the strength of this statute withstood his authority.

I have myself always considered the boasted birthright of an Englishman, as an arrogant pretension, built on a beggarly foundation. It is an arrogant pretension, because it intimates a kind of exclusion to the rest of mankind from the same privileges; and it is beggarly, because it rests our legitimate freedom on the alms of our princes. I must own I was somewhat surprised to find a gentleman of polished manners, who has spent the best part of his life in the company of those who affect the nicest conformity to the rules of a refined civility, addressing the august representatives of the most gallant and respectable of the European nations, in terms which I Edition: current; Page: [ 14 ] should not use to a set of chimney sweepers, though acting the most ridiculously out of their sphere.

Neither do I choose to repeat all those expressions of ineffable contempt, which the strong glow of Mr. It is not my intention to make any formal comparison between the new constitution of France, and the present existing constitution of England; or to presume to censure a government, from which an industrious people receive protection, and with which the large majority of the nation are entirely satisfied. Yet it may not be inexpedient to observe, that we cannot with any grounds of reason or propriety, set up our own constitution as the model which all other nations ought implicitly to follow, unless we are certain that it bestows the greatest possible happiness on the people which in the nature of things any government can bestow.

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France

We ought to be certain, that this model will bear the most nice and critical examination. It ought to be void of any of those obvious, or more concealed causes, which produce present evils, and carry the mind to apprehensions of future mischiefs. We ought not at least to have had a national debt, swelled to a magnitude which terrifies even the most sanguine for its consequences. Our parliaments ought to have been eminently distinguished for their integrity, and a total independence of any corrupt influence; and no necessity ought to have existed in our affairs, which have obliged us to endure imposts which our ancestors would have rejected with horror, and resisted.

If an Englishman sees any thing which is amiss in his own government, he ought not undoubtedly to look forward to any other remedy than those which the lenient hand of reformation will supply. But when the old vessel of a commonwealth is torn to pieces by the shocks it has sustained from contending parties; when the people, disdaining and rejecting all those fond opinions by which they have been enslaved to misery, assert their native right of forming a government for themselves; surely in such a case the builders are bound by no law of duty or reason to make use of these old materials in the structure of their new constitution, which they suppose to have been of an injurious tendency.

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The leaders of the French Revolution, and their followers, see none of those striking beauties in the old laws and rules of the Gothick institutions of Europe, which Mr. Burke does. They do not profess to have any of the spirit of antiquarians among them; and they have not perceived, in the experience of old or ancient times, a perfect harmony arising from opposition of interests; nor can they understand how such a combination can be formed as shall produce it. In such a view of things, they have chosen a simple rule for the model of their new structure, yet regulated with all that art and Edition: current; Page: [ 15 ] design which the experience of ages affords to the wisdom of man.

They are accused of having entirely dismissed that useful guide experience from their councils, but they think they have made the best use of it; whether this opinion of theirs is founded in truth, time, and the future history of man, must evince. Burke, reasoning from what I regard as a groundless supposition, very pathetically laments, and very severely reprehends the conduct of those, who, holding out false and treacherous lures to the king, led him into concessions fatal to his personal power, and the constitution of the monarchy.

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That the parliaments of France never intended to make any alteration in the old government, I am thoroughly persuaded; and I am equally persuaded, that they fondly imagined the people would freely give their money for the redress of some of the most heavy of the grievances under which they laboured. They knew, by the experience of past times, that in voting by orders, the people had never gained any solid advantage from an assembly of the States General. Neither the court, nor the parliament of Paris, who made the king so many splendid promises, were aware of the consequences which must arise from the general spread of knowledge among the people; and in the event of things, they were both disappointed of their purposes; for the Tier Etat, reflecting on the old practices which the crown, the clergy, and the nobility had used against them, were determined to throw the whole weight of their natural scale into the balance, and to redress their own grievances, without waiting the effect of humble petitions and discordant councils.