"A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly
Common Reading 2020
Edmund Burke's “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”
Please join us in considering this year’s Common Reading at Florida College: a letter written by the statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke in the early days of the French Revolution.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a remarkable public figure who lived through a remarkable period of history. He served in Parliament through the years of both the American and the French revolutions. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Burke criticized Britain’s treatment of the colonies and expressed sympathy for the colonists. Soon after the French Revolution began in 1789, however, Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, sharply critical of the revolutionaries in France despite the apparent similarity between their aims and those of the American colonists. When he published the Reflections in 1790, Burke already foresaw the disastrous development that would later be known as the Reign of Terror; he also anticipated the emergence of a powerful figure whose rule would end the republican aspirations of the revolutionaries. This year’s Common Reading, a letter Burke wrote in 1791, was written in response to criticism of his Reflections.
The European Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, which spanned much of the 17th and 18th centuries, produced great scientific progress as well as the foundations of modern philosophy, including the political philosophies of Locke and of Rousseau. Their ideas undermined the ancient foundations of monarchy and popularized notions of republican rule based on liberty and equality. French intellectuals in the 18th century theorized a system of government that would eliminate the power and prestige of the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church and would put power in the hands of all citizens. These theories appealed to the American colonists who felt oppressed by the British monarchy; they appealed as well to an increasingly prosperous French population frustrated by its lack of political clout.
In 1789, just two years after the American Constitution was drafted, a series of events in France culminated in the outbreak of revolution. Needing money, King Louis XVI summoned a rare assembly of the “Estates-General,” an institution comprising three bodies: the First Estate (representing the clergy), the Second Estate (representing the nobility), and the Third Estate (theoretically representing the people of France). With the support of some key members of the First and Second Estates (Burke mentions some of these in his letter), the Third Estate seized control, declared itself the National Assembly, and insisted that it would remain in session until France had a constitution. The king had lost control. Violence erupted in Paris. In 1790 the National Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, putting the Roman Church under the control of a secular government. The goal was to end the powers of both monarchy and church.
Throughout Europe, progressive idealists eager for an end to despotic rule watched with excitement, hoping that the events in France and the ideals of liberty and equality would lead to political transformations in their countries as well. Burke, on the other hand, while sympathizing with some of the goals of the revolutionaries in France, recognized the grave dangers of an individual liberty that was to be secured through a total overthrow of the established political and religious order. In his Reflections he contrasted the novel theories or “systems” of the French revolutionaries—and the violence with which the revolutionaries were proceeding—with the bloodless revolution (sometimes called the “Glorious Revolution”) that had reformed the British monarchy a century earlier, limiting the king’s power and solidifying that of Parliament. Burke argued that individual liberty must be restrained by stabilizing forces like the monarchy and the church. He argued that destroying every vestige of the past order and building a new order on untried intellectual models would bring chaos, not stability, and that true progress depends on retaining from the past what has been valuable and reforming what has proven flawed. Although Burke recognized the appeal of novelty and theory, he also acknowledged the complexities of human nature and society and the propensity of those wielding power to abuse that power. He saw the revolutionaries in France as arrogant in their confidence in theories, as dangerous in the power they had seized (and were unlikely to share), and, in their contempt for religion, as morally unmoored.
In 1791 Burke responded to a letter from a member of the National Assembly, François-Louis-Thibaut de Menonville. In his letter Burke reiterated some of his arguments from the Reflections and elaborated on the flaws he saw both in theoretical justifications for and in the actual destructiveness of the French Revolution.
In a famous section of the letter, Burke discusses Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential figures in the French Revolution although he was not French—he was from Geneva—and he had died in 1778, more than ten years before the revolution began. Rousseau is often called “the father of Romanticism”; he is well-known for The Social Contract and Émile. In The Social Contract he argues that governments have legitimate authority only as it is granted by those they govern, and in Émile he develops a theory of education intended to protect children from what Rousseau considered the corrupting effects of social and religious institutions. The leaders of the French Revolution regarded Rousseau so highly that in 1794 his body was disinterred and moved to a prominent place in the National Panthéon in Paris. That Panthéon, built by Louis XV to be the Church of Sainte-Geneviève, had been converted by the National Assembly into a secular monument to honor great men—men like Rousseau. For Burke, the revolutionaries’ devotion to Rousseau (“the great philosopher and founder of the philosophy of vanity”) showed their moral perversity: “This [influence] I confess makes me nearly despair of any attempt upon the mind of their followers, through reason, honour, or conscience.”
Throughout his political career Burke worked consistently and tirelessly to reform Britain’s relations with the American colonies, British rule in Ireland, Britain’s exploitation of India, and Britain’s intolerance toward Roman Catholics. As you read his letter to Menonville, you should reflect on the values Burke considers essential as a stable foundation for reform. It will be abundantly clear that he does not recognize those values in the events unfolding in France in 1791.
Read the letter for yourself, and join us this summer on Facebook and this fall in your classes and other forums to consider this letter and its surprising relevance to current social, educational, and political issues.
PDF version of Burke’s “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” – scroll down to table of contents, option 3
Questions to Consider As You Read
As you read, you may want to write a one- or two-sentence summary of each paragraph. Such notes will help you read more attentively and retain the main ideas. You may also want to consider these questions:
- How would you go about establishing liberty in a good society?
- At the beginning of the eleventh paragraph Burke describes the French as sheep who have escaped the sheepfold. How does he describe the results of that escape?
- How does Burke characterize “modern philosophers,” “bold experimenters in morality,” and their “new-invented virtue,” and why?
- Burke says that Rousseau’s ideas about “natural education” lead to a false sympathy or feeling of benevolence that is really no sympathy at all. What kind of education do you think would be useful in producing real sympathy as well as real liberty, within a good society?
- What does Burke say about the importance of a classical liberal education—that is, of reading “authors of sound antiquity”? Do you agree?
- What, according to Burke, is his “leading principle . . . in the reformation of the state”?
- How does Burke say men are “qualified for civil liberty”? Would he consider citizens of the United States today so qualified?
- To what extent do you think personal freedom can exist without the right to own property?
You will encounter few unfamiliar words as you read, but you may find it useful to have definitions at hand for some of the words listed below:
assignat — n., “a bill issued as currency by the French Revolutionary government (1789–96) on the security of expropriated lands” (merriam-webster.com)
awful — adj., awesome; worthy of great respect
contumely — n., arrogant (mis)treatment
emolument — n., compensation; benefit
exceptionable — adj., objectionable
insipid — adj., uninteresting; unappealing
intestine — adj., internal (that is, within a given group or state)
lanterne — n. (French), lantern or light (in Burke’s letter, presumably suggesting threatening exposure to revolutionary powers)
lanthorn — n., lantern
magazine — n., a place for storage
mountebank — n., a person who dupes the gullible, as by selling a panacea or fake medicine
offal — n., worthless by-products; scraps
parochial — adj., pertaining to a parish; narrow (like the scope of power exercised in governing a parish)
repletion — n., over-eating or being overfed
vestry — n., a small group of elected representatives with jurisdiction limited to a local parish