The French Revolution is frequently considered one of the most exciting events in European history. Edmund Burke himself described it as “All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.”9 A watershed moment when a people decided to overturn a system that had been in place for centuries, the French Revolution is noted for both its commitment to putting Enlightenment principles into action and for its at times excessive violence and radicalism. Naturally, the confluence of these two specific themes was deeply disturbing for many contemporaries, who worried about the ripple effects of these actions.
However, fear was not the first emotion connected with the British reaction to the initial news. “The first English reactions to the French revolution were quite favorable,” explains scholar R.R. Fennessy.10 Most hoped this would be France’s version of the Glorious Revolution, the 1688 change in power that resulted in a shift to a constitutional monarchy in England. At most, citizens were concerned that this could lead to France becoming a more powerful economic rival.11 The most outspoken of all these was Dr. Richard Price, who gave a sermon in front of the Revolutionary Society in London that provided emphatic support for the movement. Numerous conservative voices spoke up immediately following the events, with “a mixture of surprise, regret and self-satisfaction.”12 Responses ranged from reasoned to ridiculous. Moral theorist William Paley opposed the revolution from a utilitarian standpoint, believing the rights of man aspect of Enlightenment thought was overblown.13 Richard Hey bought into the natural rights idea, but in a way to harkens to a Libertarian non-aggression principle.14 William Drummond took a stand in favor of rights in a state of nature, but still held that liberty was “uncertain and liable to total destruction.”15 All of these voices quickly became overshadowed when Edmund Burke weighed in on the topic.
Burke is now remembered as the seminal personality in the British response to the French Revolution. Born January 12th, 1729 in Dublin, Burke’s life leading up to his infamous treatise is critical to understanding his work. He began studying law in London some time before May 2nd, 1750, and started a political apprenticeship in 1759.16 In the interim period, the young Burke had a crazed youth phase, complete with affairs, mysterious trips to America, and sarcastic poetry.17 He also ran in similar circles to fellow modern thinkers Adam Smith and David Hume, the latter with whom he may have been entangled in a competition for the former’s university position.18 However it was during his political career that Burke began to formulate his conservative values. In 1765, he was elected to Parliament, and quickly became renowned for his writings and speeches, often infused with elaborate rhetoric.
Burke became an outspoken advocate for the American Revolution, beginning in 1775 with a speech entitled “On American Taxation”: "Again, and again, revert to your own principles—Seek Peace, and ensue it—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself."19 This speech struck a more hopeful chord, with Burke still being of the belief that mediation was possible. However, he retained his support for the revolution throughout, even calling out his peers for celebrating British victories. One of the largest questions in his biography is why he chose to definitively oppose the French Revolution when he wrote so fondly of the War for American Independence. One answer calls to the Americans were experiencing true injustice, whereas the French were not. However, the most important point was that there was no monarchical tradition being overturned. Political theorist Jeff Spinner summarized it as such: “With America, Burke contends, honor is not so important.”20
Reflections on the Revolution in France is a defining piece of conservative thought. The piece is written as a letter, “intended to be written to a gentleman in London”, but at well over 400 pages it is hard to imagine it was ever meant to be sent in that form.21This format makes reading Reflections in its entirety a challenging proposal from a modern perspective, as there are no chapters or organization of any kind. Nonetheless, Burke’s ornate style brings an intense drama to the topic. The general question the book tries to answer is simple: why is the French Revolution a bad idea? He draws constant comparisons between the 1789 uprising and his country’s very own Glorious Revolution in 1688, saying that the former lacks the legitimacy of the latter for a variety of reasons, including a respect for tradition, working with the ruling family, and general amicability, among others.
However, Reflections is not a logical, reasoned response to the French Revolution- it is an emotional one. Burke scholar John Turner noted the elaborate and dramatic style of the work, saying “it is to literature that we must turn… to find a work that can match the Reflections in the poetry of its reading of man’s political history.”22 The importance of emotions in Burke’s political theory is the subject of intense scholarly debate, but none doubt its omnipresence.23 Interpretations range from examining his erotic feelings towards history,24 to looking at his work through a lens of anger.25 However, the most significant emotion in this particular work is fear. Throughout the treatise, Burke clearly betrays an omnipresent anxiety that serves as the underlying motivation for opposing the movement. This fear has three core tenets: intangibility, chaos, and a loss of tradition. While all three are inextricably tied together in his argument, they all use distinctive language and approaches to relay the author’s point. Burke’s conservatism is rooted in a general fear of change as a whole, and he uses impassioned emotional language to strike that same fear into his readers. As the author says himself, “better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions than ruined by too confident a security.”26