Edmund Burke is remembered as perhaps the most eloquent Parliamentary champion in the 1770’s of the cause of the American Colonists. Critical to their grievances was an apparent taxation of them by the British Parliament without their consent. Burke, it can be suspected, saw in the numerous grievances those Colonists expressed much that could remind him of the burdens that the people of his native Ireland had had to bear for generations.
Another eminent champion of the American cause was the eloquent Englishman, Thomas Paine. But Paine was disappointed by the determined hostility exhibited by Burke to the French Revolution which followed upon what had happened in North America. Complicating the picture, however, was the recollection that the long-established French regime had supported the Americans in their successful struggle for independence.
Also complicating the picture here were the responses, sympathetic to the French monarchy, of the American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris (perhaps the principal draftsman of the American Constitution of 1787). Indeed, Morris (while in Paris) could even counsel some of the French revolutionaries that they were not (in what they were saying and doing) in the spirit of the Americans to whom they looked for inspiration and validation. Paine, on the other hand, was far more sympathetic to the efforts of the Revolutionaries in France.
But, it should be noticed, even Paine could speak sympathetically of King Louis XVI. And he could repudiate the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794 (during which 300,000 suspects are said to have been arrested and 17,000 were executed). Such atrocities on the part of revolutionaries may have been predicted by Burke.
Some might have wondered, however, whether Burke, with his powerful rhetoric denouncing the French Revolution, even contributed to the severity of the Terror. If so, it can also be wondered whether Burke was thereby more influential (however perversely) in French affairs than he ever was in British affairs. How significant, for example, was his sentimental tribute to Marie Antoinette, the somewhat provocative French Queen who may have contributed, by her conspiracies, to her husband’s execution.
One problem with the Burke response to French Affairs, Paine could suggest, was that it did not recognize how serious the abuses in France had long been. To the extent that this was so, what should it suggest about Burke’s grasp of British history as well? Certainly, it can be suspected that British and French affairs had long been intertwined, going back to at least William the Conqueror.
Critics of Paine and others with respect to the French Revolution can notice that there had been no Terror associated with the America Revolution. But may not this testify to the superiority (over its French counterpart) of the British regime which had shaped the American revolutionaries? Thus, the American Constitution of 1787 is, in large part, an adaptation of the British Constitution to the circumstances of North America.
One need not rely on the assessments of an outsider such as Paine in order to judge fairly what happened in France. The responses of aristocrats such as Lafayette and Tocqueville should also be recalled. A deep exploitation of the bulk of the French people by privileged minorities, for generations if not even for centuries, can be recognized by informed observers.
To be recalled as well, of course, are such institutions as Bastille Day. Whatever the facts may have been about the Bastille, it did stand (in Britain as well as in France) as a symbol of a determined despotism. French Civilization was somehow liberated in 1789, to the enduring elevation of European sensibilities.
Then, of course, there was Napoleon, who “naturally” followed upon the regime persistently condemned by Burke. Burke did not live to see the most notable events in the Napoleonic career, however much he may have anticipated such a development. But the British should have been able to look back for precedents to the career of Oliver Cromwell following upon another revolution (with a regicide of its own).
Burke himself made much of the British Revolution of 1688-1689, emphasizing how much more civilized it had been than what the French of his day were doing. He preferred, it seems, to keep off-stage numerous bloody episodes in British history. It can be wondered, of course, what he thought of the accounts of civil war that had been provided by Shakespeare, the master of English literature.
Burke, in turn, can be considered by competent critics (such as Hazlitt and Leslie Stephens) as “the greatest prose writer in the English language” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography): And distinguished politicians, such as Winston Churchill, can acclaim him as “the great Burke.” Such assessments have to be taken seriously by those of us at much lower levels of development as both thinkers and writers.
Still, are there not aspects of Burke’s temperament and career that should trouble us? Such an inquiry should not be taken to deny the Burkean contributions to the modern conservative movement promoted by Russell Kirk (an informed student of Burke) who could nevertheless recognize Burke’s “presumed contempt for the Declaration of Independence.” (“Edmund Burke and the Constitution,” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal):
Although Burke’s concerted assault upon a priori theories and fanciful claims of natural right would not commence until 1790, already it was made clear enough in 1787 that Burke was the adversary both of Rousseau and of the philosophes. The Declaration of Independence, calculated to please Paris and Versailles, had broken with the constitutional argument of the Americans that had been advanced ever since passage of the Stamp Act. Until 1776, protesting Americans had pleaded that they were entitled to the rights of Englishmen, as expressed in the British constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights of 1689. But Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence had abandoned this tack –what did Frenchmen care for the real or pretended rights of Englishmen? –and had carried the American cause into the misty debatable land of an abstract liberty, equality, fraternity. Such reasoning was anathema to Burke the practical statesman. Once the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, Burke ceased to interest himself in America. Why quote him at a [constitutional] Convention he might reproach?
And yet there are passions repeatedly exhibited publicly by Burke that might make one wonder about the soundness of his general understanding of things. Particularly troubling can be his sustained indignation and rage, sometimes bordering on the hysterical. Paine could even provide (in his Rights of Man) a much quoted remark, that Burke “pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”
Politicians such as William Pitt (the Younger) could say of Burkean rhetoric that there was “much to admire, and nothing to agree with.” Indeed one can sometimes be led to wonder whether Burke had any associates who could caution him about the questionable aspects of his determined rhetoric. Particularly in need of discipline, we can suspect, were the speeches that could go on for hours at a time.
Even more in need of discipline, we venture to add, was the campaign waged by Burke against Warren Hastings because of allegedly improper conduct in India as a British colonial administrator. Suspicions have been voiced about whether the financial interests of Burke’s family and friends contributed to this campaign. It was a campaign that could include days-long speeches by Burke in the House of Commons to secure the impeachment (that is, the “indictment”) of Hastings and thereafter more such speeches by him as the principal “prosecutor” during the Hastings trial in the House of Lords.
Hastings was eventually acquitted on all charges. But the proceedings had been pressed for a decade, with Burke very much in the lead. The effects on Hastings’ personal fortunes were devastating. The Dictionary of National Biography account of Hastings recognized that he had been severely, even permanently, devastated by the ordeal to which he was subjected.
Years later, when Hastings visited the House of Commons he was received with great respect, for by that time, it seems, it had come to be generally recognized that he had been woefully abused by the impeachment process to which he had been subjected. I recently had an opportunity to ask a sophisticated middle-aged Indian scholar whether the name of Warren Hastings meant anything to him. I was told that Hastings (the first Governor General of British India) did have some roads named after him in the country, but that otherwise he was unknown (not only to the public at large but also even to this scholar).
There is an aspect of Burke’s rhetoric that tends to be ignored by the scholars who sing his praises today, and especially by those who acclaim him as the intellectual forerunner of contemporary Conservative thought. I refer here to his slurs against the Jews. They are most evident, perhaps, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
It has been pointed out (as in the recently-published Anti-Judaism book) that Jews were insignificant in the Revolutionary movement in France. And there may not have been anything “perused” (or really deliberate) in Burke’s rhetorical use of anti-Jewish slurs. There did chance to be such sentiments readily available in the English society of Burke’s time, that society by which he evidently very much wanted to be accepted .
Something of this desire to fit in may be seen in the ultimately thoughtless language about Jews used, two centuries later, by T.S. Eliot. I almost burst out laughing upon first hearing an “English”- sounding T.S. Eliot at the University of Chicago a half-century ago, for I knew that he (like me) had originated in St. Louis, Missouri. On the other hand, it should be recalled (as in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography account of Burke), that he once spoke on behalf of a Jewish community that had been uprooted by British forces on the island of St. Eustatiuns, however much he may have been inclined on occasion to indulge in the thoughtless talk of his day about Jews.
Burke’s talents must have been obvious to those who knew him. “His network of relationships,” we are told by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “included many notables of the age: Samuel Johnson, Arthur Murphy, David Garrick, Olivia Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, and Mrs. Montague.” Our own judgment can be questioned if we do not recognize how remarkable Edmund Burke must have been if he impressed as he did such people (and others such as Adam Smith and, at a distance, Immanuel Kant).
And yet, we cannot help but notice, Burke’s political colleagues never trusted him with high office. Were they right to act this? Did he show, for example, in what has been called his “obsessive hunt of Warren Hastings,” what Burke might do with power?
He, in turn, can be suspected of being dubious about the power of “the people.” Don’t we pretty much agree with Thomas Paine (and, later, with John Stuart Mill) that a mature people should be able to develop its form of government and thereafter to select its rulers? This seems to be critical to the principles drawn on in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution of 1787.
Russell Kirk was a formidable champion of Edmund Burke in this Country. He observed, we have noticed, “Once the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, Burke ceased to interest himself in America.” Further on in the Kirk article we are told that “John C. Calhoun would find in Burke the foundation for his own constitutional reasoning.”
It would have been instructive to have had from the pen of Edmund Burke a critique of the Declaration of Independence. But short of that we do have a 1776 document, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress. This quite competent document, more than one hundred pages in print, is said to have been written by John Lind (1737-1781), whose sources evidently included Burke’s speeches on American affairs.
Indeed, there is something Burkean in the arguments offered here. Consider, for example, how the grievance in the Declaration of Independence about the British promotion of “domestic insurrections among us” is commented on by Lind:
[H]ow did his Majesty’s Governors excite domestic insurrections? Did they set father against son, or son against father, or brother against brother? No –they offered freedom to the slaves of these assertors of liberty. Were it not true, that the charge was fully justified by the necessity, to which the rebellious proceedings of the Complainants had reduced the Governor, yet with what face can they urge this as a proof of tyranny? Is it for them to say, that it is tyranny to bid a slave be free? to bid him take courage, to rise and assist in reducing his tyrants to a due obedience to law? to hold out as a motive to him, that the load which crushed his limbs shall be lightened; that the whip which harrowed up his back shall be broken, that he shall be raised to the rank of a freeman and a citizen? It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths –“that all men are equal”—“that all men are “endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Is it for them to complain of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings? of the offer of reinstating them in that equality, which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights, with which, in this very paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?
Is there not, in this biting comment on the American “domestic insurrections” grievance, an instructive wit that is somewhat Burkean in spirit, anticipating thereby (it can even be suggested) the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862-1863?
The Works of the Mind Lecture Series
The University of Chicago
February 17, 2013