France’s old regime, which was overthrown at the time of the French revolution, had been hated by the English. Not only had monarchical France been rivals with Britain in the scramble for colonial domination, but they had helped the rebellious Americas to gain independence. Thus, it was not without some sympathy that Britain watched as their old nemesis was overthrown.
Naturally, British sympathy was quickly extinguished once the reign of terror began. However, in the critical time between the advent of the French revolution and the outbreak of the terror, many of England’s leading intellectuals believed the French were emancipating themselves. Pitt and Fox even went so far as to praise the revolution in Parliament. Still others held up the revolutionary National Assembly as a model that England would do well to copy.
So great was public sympathy among the English that many historians believe that England came perilously close to entering a similar debacle. It was during this decisive period, with England teetering in the balance, that Edmund Burke stood up to offer his penetrating refutation of the revolutionary mentality and to warn Britain not to follow France down the slippery slope of destructive folly.
Burke’s critique of the French revolution occupied the form of an extended letter to the young man Charles DePont, who had written to Burke asking for his opinion on the revolution. Thus it was that the Reflections on the Revolution in France came to be. It first appeared in print on 1 November, 1790 and sold twelve thousand copies in the first month alone. In less than a year there were eleven editions. By 1796, over thirty thousand copies had been sold, making it one of the most influential political books ever written.
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