Did Burke Betray The Cause Of Liberty?

The Everyman edition of Burke's writings shows off the full range of his achievements

Richard Bourke

Since his death in 1797, Edmund Burke has been associated with diverse political causes. Over the course of the 19th century, he was successively adopted by a range of political parties, spanning the spectrum from the Whigs to the Liberals and the Tories. In the 20th century he was associated with assorted ideologies, as heterogeneous as liberalism and conservatism. Yet Burke was a highly complex and multifaceted figure who cannot be understood in terms of conventional categories. To grasp the true significance of his contribution to political thought, we have to expose ourselves to a representative sample of his work.

Jesse Norman’s new Everyman edition of Burke’s writings, speeches, and correspondence pays tribute to the range of his achievements. The volume includes selections from his earliest philosophical and historical works and examples of his first political essays, but it is dominated by the writings Burke produced after he opted for a career in politics, encompassing his years in parliament from 1766 down to his final three years in retirement after 1794. All these works can be situated historically by reference to the excellent chronology provided. There is neither a fuller nor a more judicious anthology available.

As outlined in Norman’s engaging Introduction, Burke was born in Dublin in 1730, the third child of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He attended a denominationally mixed school run by a Quaker schoolmaster in County Kildare but returned to Dublin in his teens to study at Trinity College, which denied degrees to Catholics until 1793. These early experiences disposed Burke to embrace the spirit of toleration, and would later inspire him to campaign for the rights of aggrieved Catholics in Ireland. After graduating, he spent another two years in the Irish capital before moving to London to train for the bar, but despite being enrolled as a law student until 1755, he yearned for success in the republic of letters. Describing his first encounter with Burke in 1761, the diarist Horace Walpole complained that he had yet to shed his “authorism”, apparently believing that there was “nothing so charming as writers and to be one”. Literary ambition would soon draw Burke definitively into politics, and ultimately into the cut and thrust of a career in parliament.

What distinguished Burke among parliamentarians was his grasp of the wider historical and philosophical implications of policy. From the start he was seen as a powerful but also ruminative orator. Already in one of his earliest interventions in the Commons on the subject of the American colonies he sought to concentrate on fundamental issues of principle: “There is not a more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a Large Empire upon a plan of Liberty.” He brought to the issues he tackled an abundant stock of learning derived from the fund of European Enlightenment ideas. His eloquence inspired, but his arguments also impressed. As the British ministry under Lord North was drawing towards conflict with the Americans in the spring of 1775, Burke stood out as a beacon of measured restraint. “The proposition is Peace,” he informed his audience. “Not Peace through the medium of War; not Peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not Peace to arise out of universal discord, fomented, from principle, in all parts of the Empire; not Peace to depend on the Juridical Determination of perplexing questions; or the precise marking of the shadowy boundaries of a complex Government. It is simple Peace; sought in its natural course, and its simple haunts. It is Peace sought in the Spirit of Peace.”

Burke’s detractors described his style as bordering on the “metaphysical”, while his supporters viewed his interventions as profound and ingenious.

It is Burke’s peculiar combination of aptitudes and talents that have rendered him a classic — a master at once of English prose and political reflection. Yet despite his reputation as a towering presence in literature and philosophy, his significance has changed over the generations. For liberal commentators in Britain like John Morley in the middle of the 19th century he exemplified the virtues of magnanimity and cosmopolitanism, while for conservatives a generation later he was the leading advocate of prudence and tradition. In early 20th-century America he was celebrated for his humanitarian zeal, while by mid-century he was being interpreted as a Christian moralist by some and as a political realist by others. His canonical status has not made him an enduring treasure so much as a thinker ripe for appropriation. The diversity of his admirers — Alexis de Tocqueville, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Woodrow Wilson, Harold Laski, Winston Churchill, and Henry Kissinger among them — underlines his versatility.

The pages of the Everyman Burke show our protagonist developing policy for his allies in parliament, the Whigs. His activities in this capacity ranged from his development of the idea of party to plans for the conciliation of the American colonies. We also find Burke the theorist of political representation and of the duties of members of parliament toward their constituents. His thoughts on this subject were mostly formulated during his time as a member of parliament for the bustling port city of Bristol; at the end of that period Burke turned his hand to more practical matters. His principal domestic project was achieving “economical reform”, which meant curtailing the means of patronage available to the crown.

Besides his work for parliament, we also find Burke defending causes about which he simply felt deeply. He was a lifelong opponent of slavery, which he campaigned to abolish. (Before that looked like practical politics, he drafted proposals to humanise the slave trade.) Britain’s abuse of the merchant inhabitants of the Dutch Caribbean island of St Eustatius also stirred Burke into action, resulting in his searing criticism of the naval officer responsible. The inclusion of speeches of this kind displays the intensity of Burke’s passion. They also show his meticulous, calculating judgment.

Burke’s enemies in the 19th century tried to paint him as an opportunist — the hired hand of complacent magnates, combining obeisance with aspiration. In fact we know his public service cost him repeatedly. Lending support to Irish Catholics was never a popular cause in Britain; it certainly offered no assistance to parliamentary advancement. Yet Burke returned to the issue at intervals throughout the decades as conditions in British high politics shifted, first arguing in support of religious toleration and later in support of political rights.

There was even less to be gained from fighting for the cause of India. It is true that the early stages of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India from 1773 to 1785, gave Burke’s allies under Whig statesman Charles James Fox a chance to expose the government of William Pitt. But when the prosecution lost its political value and Fox quietly abandoned the enterprise, Burke struggled to keep the case alive. As his great speech opening the trial of Hastings shows, the plight of India absorbed tremendous quantities of Burke’s energy. It impeded his career and almost drove him to despair. His moral determination was overwhelming and exacting.

That moral fervor reached new levels in the 1790s, when Burke deployed his rhetorical and intellectual skills to censure the Revolution in France. Proponents of the abstract “rights of man” were made to appear little better than conspirators against society with no commitment to the hard-won liberties of the people. At the same time, as Burke argued in Reflections on the Revolution in France, noble supporters of insurrection could be easily unmasked as opportunists and hypocrites: “Almost all the high-bred republicans of my time have, after a short space, become the most decided, thorough-paced courtiers; they soon left the business of a tedious, moderate, but practical resistance to those of us whom, in the pride and intoxication of their theories, they have slighted, as not much better than tories.”

Burke’s vitriol against the Revolution led to his separation from Fox and ultimately sparked a painful division among the Whigs. Did the Revolutionaries truly mean what they said in promising the dawn of freedom, or was their crusade an incoherent and desperate push for power? Fox believed that the disasters that accompanied rebellion in France were “accidental” products of an essentially benign process. Burke, by contrast, believed the calamities were the inevitable result of a campaign to ruin religion and sabotage property. The Whigs were divided not over competing values but over opposing assessments of whether their principles could coexist with the Revolution.

Among the array of captivating materials available in this collection is its selection of private correspondence. One letter written to Captain Thomas Mercer, an Irish acquaintance who had spent time in India, captures something essential about Burke’s hostility to the Revolution. It is commonly believed that his antagonism was driven by the desire to secure custom against liberty and thus to champion “tradition” against the rights of man. In fact Burke saw his position as one of resistance against an illegitimate force that sought to undermine universal principles of justice. As he put it to Mercer on February 26, 1790, his aim was to lend support to “the first principles of law and natural justice”. Careful reading confirms that this commitment remained constant throughout Burke’s career. Equally, a dispassionate appraisal of thinkers and publicists in the period illustrates the extent of shared fundamental values: neither Rousseau, nor Paine, nor Fox, denied the existence of natural justice rooted in the right to property. Yet Paine and Fox did not believe that this right would be overturned if it were sacrificed in powerfully symbolic cases. What did it matter if the opulent — above all the pampered clergy and aristocrats — were summarily expropriated? Burke disagreed. For him, looking back over the unhappy course of the conflicts of the 17th century, confiscation was an exercise in malicious persecution that would undermine the security of the established rights of man. Having set about expropriating the Gallican Church, and having signaled their disregard for accumulated wealth, prominent deputies in the National Assembly had undercut prescriptive right, and with it the institution of property altogether. Burke believed that neither Fox’s affluence nor Paine’s more modest means would survive a fundamental challenge to the rules of property.

If the Revolution threatened property, it also subverted stable government. In addition it aimed to eradicate the tenets of the Christian faith, and with these the consoling promise that final justice would reward merit. Burke reckoned that no other crisis in the history of civilisation had posed such a danger to the very possibility of social life, and he rejected the charge that exposing the magnitude of this upheaval amounted to a betrayal of the ideals of liberty. Nonetheless, the allegation of having changed his principles from an early devotion to American freedom to a later opposition to French rights has dogged him ever since, shaping his reception. For some he was a traitor, for others he was confused, for many he was just prone to contradiction. Rarely has his continuity of purpose been emphasised.

Norman’s edition redresses that problem, not least by including Burke’s earliest political writings. In the spring of 1757, during the early stages of the Seven Years’ War, Burke wrote an essay on the fate of citizen militias in the age of modern warfare. Under conditions of rural simplicity — in a farmers’ republic, for instance — it might make sense to arm members of the state, but in modern societies, in which multitudes were concentrated in affluent towns, scarcity would act as a trigger for popular sedition orchestrated by the “Arts of Ambitious men”. It is clear that from the beginning Burke was concerned about conditions under which subversion might lead to the ruin of commercial society. Demagogues might find themselves in a position to stir up discontent and undermine belief in the institutions of property and government.

At the height of his career Burke declared in parliament that in a contest between privilege and indigence “I would take my fate with the poor, the low and the feeble”. Yet he also believed that the prosperity of the needy depended on property, and that property could only be secured under stable government. These attitudes were formed not in opposition to the welfare state but out of fear of a reversion to the Britain of the 1640s, when toleration, justice, and constitutional government were in peril. This anthology helps us to follow this consistent line in Burke and to examine the range of his convictions with reference to his career as whole.

Past attempts to co-opt Burke in the service of specific causes have distorted the original import of his thought. Yet a record of misappropriation does not mean that his relevance can no longer be explored. In trying to fathom how Burke still speaks to us, we must begin with what he said. That requires taking account of the range of his pronouncements, and reconstructing their implications in terms of their original conditions of utterance. The great themes of Burke’s career — like empire, revolution, natural rights, constitutionalism and political representation — have to be understood in their 18th-century context. However, understanding historical values with reference to their relevant contexts does not make them topics of purely antiquarian interest. Many of Burke’s values are discontinuous with our own, while still others remain a part of the living world.

The historical reconstruction of past thinkers involves continuous engagement with the question of relevance, a process of identifying endurance amidst flux whilst struggling to comprehend the probable direction of change.

For Burke the French Revolution did not point to a positive future. Instead it looked like the return of a primitive past. For this reason the question of what he wanted to conserve is deeply challenging, and cannot be reduced to either “conservative” or “liberal” values. To understand Burke we need to free ourselves from party-political dogma and accept that there have been rival views on what constitutes positive change. Given the depth of Burke’s appreciation of this fact, we might see him less as guiding us towards particular policy options and more as a resource for rethinking the world we inhabit and the process by which it came about.

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