Reflections On the Revolution In France

Intellectual influence

Reflections on the Revolution in France was read widely when it was published in 1790, though not every Briton approved of Burke's kind treatment of their historic enemy or its royal family. His English enemies speculated he either had become mentally unbalanced or was a secret Catholic, outraged by the democratic French government's anti-clerical policies and expropriation of Church land. The publication of this work drew a swift response, first with A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) by Mary Wollstonecraft, and then with Rights of Man (1791) by Thomas Paine. Nonetheless, Burke's work became popular with reactionaries such as King George III and the Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre.

Historically, Reflections on the Revolution in France became the founding philosophic opus of Conservatism when some of Burke's predictions occurred: the Reign of Terror under the new French Republic executed thousands from 1793 to 1794 to purge counter-revolutionary elements of society. That, in turn, led to the political reaction of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte's government, which appeared to some to be a military dictatorship. Burke had predicted the rise of a military dictatorship and that the revolutionary government instead of protecting the rights of the people would be corrupt and violent.

In the nineteenth century, positivist French historian Hippolyte Taine repeated the Englishman's arguments in Origins of Contemporary France (1876–1885): that centralisation of power is the essential fault of the Revolutionary French government system; that it does not promote democratic control; and that the Revolution transferred power from the divinely chosen aristocracy to an "enlightened" heartless elite more incompetent and tyrannical than the aristocrats.

In the twentieth century, Western conservatives applied Burke's anti-revolutionary Reflections to popular socialist revolutions, thus establishing Burke's iconic political value to conservatives and classical liberals. For example, an important classical economic liberal, Friedrich Hayek, acknowledged an intellectual debt to Burke. The late Christopher Hitchens writes that the "tremendous power of the Reflections lies" in being "the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites."[13]

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