Burke and the French Revolution

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

The French Revolution was cause for much controversy, both before and after the event took place. It began in 1789 and ended around 1799; there are several theories as to why the French Revolution erupted. The main reason being the inadequate increase on taxes on the French citizens after the recent American Revolution. Famine and poverty were already at a high and this increase angered the citizens of the France. Essentially, this civil war was between the elite rich and the extreme poor. King Louis XVI was irresponsible with budgeting and had caused the country to further decline into bankruptcy (French Revolution).

One man who was very opinionated in the matter was Edmund Burke. A little background information on Burke begins with his birth on January 12, 1729 in Dublin, Republic of Ireland, and died on July 9, 1797. He was an Irish statesman, as well as, an orator, author, political theorist, and philosopher. Later in his life, Burke moved to England, where he served many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain. Essentially, Burke was a member of the Whig Party, so his political disposition was in favor of a monarchy (A Biography of Edmund Burke). After the French Revolution, Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is one of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution. In the introduction, it was made clear that Burke’s book was a response against Richard Price’s A Discourse on the Love of our Country, and attacked the violence and disorder of the revolution. Burke’s opening phrases in his work is:

All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and apparently, by the most contemptible instruments (Burke 187).

Burke is starting to introduce his opinion on the revolution and that he found the reasoning ridiculous.

The time period during which Burke wrote his book, is better known as the Romantic Spirit of the Age. His work embodies this theme because of his central idea. During this time, the English followed traditions, which represent the accumulated wisdom of generations, over what he calls each man’s “private stock of reason,” which can so easily be wrong. In addition, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France resulted in a firestorm of responses, including famous ones by Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790); Tom Paine (The Rights of Man, 1791); and William Godwin (Inquiry into Political Justice, 1793). In referencing Mary Wollstonecraft, one cannot deny her intense rejection against Burke’s view. She furiously rejects Burke’s depiction of the excesses in France compared with the long suffering of the poor:

What were the outrages of a day to these continual miseries?  …Did the pangs you felt for insulted nobility, that anguish that rent upon your heart when the gorgeous robes were torn off the idol human weakness had set up, deserve to be compared with the long-drawn sigh of melancholy reflection, when misery and vice thus seem to haunt our steps, and swim on the top of every cheering prospect? …Such misery deserves more than tears.  I pause to recollect myself, and smother the contempt I feel rising for your rhetorical flourishes and infantine sensibility (Wollstonecraft).

Wollstonecraft clearly sides with the “peasant” people of France, whereas Burke, given his background, favors the aristocracy – nobility.

With a better understanding on the literature Burke wrote, as well as his surroundings from which his work is inspired, one can now focus more in depth on the essence of his work. The philosophical issue that he is presenting, is the political philosophy of conservatism. This philosophy encourages keeping the traditional social institutions in which one’s culture and civilization are founded upon. Burke’s work is a deliberate attack on the French Revolution. According to Burke, there was a change in the social practice:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision (Burke 191).

As a result of Burke favoring the monarchy, he believed that society was more in disarray. There was once a queen, and now, there is no queen. The kings and queens were the ones in charge, so who is now in charge of leading the people? The queen was removed and the king, executed, so now there is chaos. The implications of the ethical action hinder both the monarchy and the people:

I hear, and I rejoice to hear, that the great lady, the other object of the triumph, has borne that day (one is interested that beings made for suffering should suffer well), and that she bears all the succeeding days, that she bears the imprisonment of her husband, and her own captivity, and the exile of her friends, and the insulting adulation of addresses, and the whole weight of her accumulated wrongs, with a serene patience, in a manner suited to her rank and race, and becoming the offspring of a sovereign distinguished for her piety and her courage; that, like her, she has lofty sentiments; that she feels with the dignity of a Roman matron; that in the last extremity she will save herself from the last disgrace; and that, if she must fall, she will fall by no ignoble hand (Burke 191).

The king was removed and executed and the queen is forced to live a life of solitude and loneliness. The former queen was Marie Antoinette, who is now bearing the consequences of the people as an aftermath to the war. On the other hand, now the people don’t have a leader to help organize society and keep things in order.

Although Edmund Burke and William Blake are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Experience is a good allusion to the French Revolution. Blake’s poem take heed on the mistreatment of the chimney sweepers. In this case, the chimney sweepers symbolize the poor in France. Blake would side with the extreme poor, giving them a voice in society and reminding people that the poor, or those not in power, are human also. While Blake clearly agrees with the “underdogs,” Burke would disagree with this particular poem and say that it’s the way of life.

The French Revolution continues to stir controversy over the causes that led up to it. With people taking political sides, Burke seems to be one of few siding with the monarchy. Given his background and upbringing, it is no surprise as to why he favors a monarchy. Sadly, he finds the people at fault and ridiculous in wanting their own freedoms and justices. While Burke was proud of the life he lived and believed people should cope with the “cards they are dealt with,” he lacked empathy and compassion for the people who barely had a voice.

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