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Reflections on the French Revolution

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Western Civilization III


Essay One: Reflections on the French Revolution

Edmund Burke wrote his Reflections on the French Revolution to warn the people in Europe against becoming caught up with the same ideals that drove the French nation to war. The issue I’m choosing to discuss is whether or not the French Revolution was worth the destruction, or if the path of conservatism, which Edmund Burke supported, would have been the better choice for the French people.

The French Revolution started because of the clergy not being taxed and nobles failing to meet their taxes under Monarch Louis XIV and therefore the taxes fell to those of the poorest class. Frances poor economic status due to being involved in outside affairs, such as the numerous wars across the nation within the 18th century, led to a raise of taxation on the lowest class and the eventual rebellion that led to the French Revolution. As the age of enlightenment gained momentum in the 17th into 18th century’s it displayed a new way of life that those in the lower class desperately wanted and believed they could achieve with the overthrow of the monarchy. The American Revolution also led to the belief that change was possible for those still in the French nation “…. the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.” (French Revolution). While the entire French population didn’t support this cause as a whole, it was a turning point in reforming the French nation for the better sake of the lower to middle class and a turning point in history like the American revolution before it.

Those in both urban and rural parts of France, that were considered of the poor class, were given no hope or help from their nobles or king, whom only saw them as means to an end for production, farming, and taxation to help build the state back from the extravagant amounts of money spent by king Louis, who had left the country at the edge of bankruptcy. This, coupled with having poor harvests and being given no relief of poor conditions and mistreatment led the French people to the drastic measures of the French Revolution.

Burke’s argument was that those that chose to support the French Revolution essentially threw away all the advantages and foundation that their ancestors had built for them in the current state, “you had all these advantages in your ancient states, but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society and had everything to begin anew.” (pg. 1, Burke). While he admitted the states weren’t perfect and did in fact have room for growth, he said the drastic measures being taken as the wrong choice and that a subtler approach would have been better for the nation as a whole. “If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by and derived your claims from an earlier race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom beyond the vulgar practice of the hour; and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired.” (pg. 1, Burke). Something else that stood out to me was a quote, “as it was, the “degraded king” had been stripped of real power and replaced with “a despotic democracy” and the people’s representatives in the National Assembly – which had no Senate to balance it – were nothing more than a bunch of country lawyers and members of the lower clergy” (The Counter Enlightenment). I think it stood out because to me it showed Burkes true content with the Monarchy and his unwillingness to see the common people with the power. Whether this was due to his status or his views against the lower common class and their lack of education, I’m unsure, but what is clear from the former statement is that Burke believed this new way of democracy would fail.

Burkes standing opinion over the French Revolution could have heavily to do with the fact he’s of a higher societal class than those that started and fought for the French Revolution in the first place, nonetheless his differing opinion is of equal importance and validation as those that would oppose him. Being from a higher class Burke would have no personal account of just how hard times could be for those whom started the fight for the French Revolution in the first place.

Burke is also known as the first advocator for caution against radical change. He believed in conservatism, or careful measured changes that upheld the existing political structures (Levak). He believed that overthrowing the government would cause chaos to all the people in the country and not solve any of the problems the revolution started for. In other words, Burke was an advocate for subtlety and no harsh or abrupt change. Being a man of well education and a higher social standing he was able to appreciate all that his ancestors had built in society in the first place, while many of the lower class possibly couldn’t appreciate just how far new sciences and progress had brought them already. Regardless of the full reasoning behind why he chose to favor conservatism it is still important in understanding his clearly harsh opinion to those that were in favor of the French Revolution and so willing to abandon the current present, “Had you made it to be understood that in the delusion of this amiable error you had gone further than your wise ancestors, that you were resolved to resume your ancient privileges, whilst you preserved the spirit of your ancient and your recent loyalty and honor; or if, diffident of yourselves and not clearly discerning the almost obliterated constitution of your ancestors, you had looked to your neighbors in this land who had kept alive the ancient principles and models of the old common law of Europe meliorated and adapted to its present state- by following wise examples you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world.” (pg. 2, Burke).



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