Reading Journal: Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America

Edmund Burke

The British politician and writer Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is often claimed as the father of modern conservatism, and in the pages of Burke's great speech on Conciliation with America (1774), conservatism sounds eminently reasonable. In tone and intellect, there is a vast difference between Burke and the living, fire-breathing conservatives of Fox News, whose object is to inflame rather than to persuade. One wonders what Burke, for whom conservatism was a matter of civility and the preservation of polite civilization, would have made of Glenn Beck, for whom it's a matter of fear- and hate-mongering.

It's true that Burke had an Irishman's hot temper. "Burke's faults," says Hammond Lamont, the editor of a nineteenth-century school text of the speech, "were clearly those of an ardent temperament." Edward Gibbon called Burke "the most eloquent and rational madman I have ever known." Most television conservatives these days strike me more as simple madmen, without the eloquence or reason. In nineteenth century American high schools and universities, Burke's speech was studied as a model of good writing and argumentation. It still remains compelling and inspiring.

The two most frequently cited characteristics of Burke's conservatism are his appeal to experience over theory, and his preference for slow and incremental change over sudden innovation. The two are closely connected, since for Burke tradition is the accumulation of human experience and wisdom, and should not be lightly abandoned for an untested theory. "The question," he tells Parliament, "whether you will choose to abide by a profitable experience or a mischievous theory; whether you choose to build on imagination or fact; whether you prefer enjoyment or hope..." His whole understanding of the function of government is summed up in a passage near the end of the speech:
All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniencies; we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others; we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.
In 1774, the question before Parliament was how to deal with the American colonies, who were refusing to submit to taxation without representation and were in open defiance of Parliament. Burke, who would later be a passionate opponent of the French Revolution, stands squarely on the side of the colonists. Why did he support one set of revolutionaries and execrate the other? As David Womersley (the editor of my Penguin edition of Gibbon) explains: "In France it is the revolutionaries themselves who are the peddlers of political, financial, legal, and moral innovation. In America, political and legal innovation had come from Great Britain and had been resisted by the colonists." In Burke's view, the system of taxation proposed by Parliament for the colonies was an untried theory, an "innovation," something that went against the traditions of the British Constitution. The American Revolution was, in Womersley's words, "that paradoxical thing, a conservative revolution." It was about restoring the traditional rights and liberties of British subjects, and resisting the innovative and arbitrary exercise of Parliamentary power.

Burke's analysis of the American character—the American love of liberty, reinforced by democratic assemblies and dissenting religion—is masterful. His peroration argues that the best method of securing a revenue from the colonies is not by a mass of legislation, but by cultivating their "interest in the British Constitution"—by stirring their patriotic sense of inclusion in the civil rights and privileges of British citizens.
My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges and equal protection. These are the ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep their idea of their civil rights associated with your government,—they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance.
This idea resonates down through the great speeches of American statesmen like Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. One hears the echo of it in Lincoln's invocation of the "bonds of affection" in the First Inaugural Address.*

In his Memoirs, Edward Gibbon wrote: "As soon as I understood the principles, I relinquished for ever the pursuit of the mathematics; nor can I lament that I desisted, before my mind was hardened by the habit of rigid demonstration, so destructive of the finer feelings of moral evidence, which must, however, determine the actions and opinions of our lives." Burke expresses a similar sentiment: "Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations. Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions us, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry." Again, at the root of modern conservatism, in the eighteenth century, is a rejection of abstract reasoning in favor of practical experience and moral sensitivity.

One finds this oversimplified in remarks like those of conservative commentator David Gelernter, who writes about "a conventional liberal or a conventional academic who would rather think than act. (Pure thought is no good—is top-heavy and likely to capsize—without the ballast of everyday, practical experience.)" These same conservatives find something suspect about Sonia Sotomayor drawing upon her own experience to animate her jurisprudence. Central to Burke's conservatism is a respect for tradition tempered by what he called "a moral imagination," which the conservative Russell Kirk defines as "that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events." In other words, it includes "empathy."

At the center of Burkean conservatism is something that, these days, I associate much more with "liberals": the ability to enter the experience of someone different from oneself, and be morally and intellectually enlarged by that experience.

*As a classicist, my favorite passage in the speech is when Burke says: "It is the spirit of the English Constitution, which, infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivifies every part of the empire, even down to the minutest member." Here he is quoting Dryden's translation of a passage in Vergil's Aeneid:
...One common soul
Inspires and feeds and animates the whole.
This active mind infus'd through all the space
Unites and mingles with the mighty mass (982-985).
In the original Latin:
Spiritus intus alit; totamque infusa per artus,
Mens agitat molem; et magno se corpore miscet (6.726-727).
The Latin is quoted by Daniel Webster in his Bunker Hill oration (1825) to characterize the spirit that animated the Americans in the Battle of of Bunker Hill. John Dickinson quotes it in 1776 when he argues, in Burkean fashion, that "the wellfare of the people...perpetually animates the [English] constitution, and regulates all its movements."


Clara said…
This is interesting in the context of an Atul Gawande piece I just read in an old (1/26/09) New Yorker on how to reform health care. He gives the (really interesting) history behind how the British system came to be, with some conclusions on the dangers of imposing (theoretical) ideological solutions as opposed to building more incrementally on existing structures. He doesn't make a conservative/liberal distinction, as there are voices on both the right and the left calling for radical change. But the negative example he discusses is the Republican Medicare prescription drug initiative, which instituted a new (ideologically driven) system rather than building on the existing Medicare structures. So, as lots of conservatives like to claim, there was nothing "conservative" about the Bush-era Republicans!

The article, if you're interested, is here:

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