Edmund Burke’s Views on America

I wanted to do a post regarding Edmund Burke’s role in the American Revolution, but in reading his speeches and writings from this era I was also struck by how perceptive Burke’s understanding of the American pysche was.  So I decided to write two separate posts.  The next will focus on Burke’s thoughts on the conflict itself, but here I’d like to take a look at some of the observations Burke had about America’s development.

I refer to two sources for Burke’s writings on America: An Account of the European Settlements in America, a history of the colonization of America, and his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies delivered in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775.  The former is an excellent little summary of the colonial period.  Burke’s attention to historical detail shines through in this work.  In it, Burke discusses the religious conflict within Britain, and how it would shape the views of America’s first colonists.  He discusses how the hard-line dissenters – those who most sharply veered from the traditional Church – went abroad during the reign of Queen Mary and returned with a different set of values.

Abroad they learned an aversion to the episcopal order, and to religious ceremonies of every sort; they were impregnated with a high spirit of liberty, and had a strong tendency to the republican form of government.

This was a much more independent-minded group of Protestants, and they would carry this attitude with them to the New World.  Burke then traces the development of the colonies, led by Puritans and others of a fierce religious disposition.  Burke recounts how the Puritans soon came to treat the Quakers in the same manner as they had been treated in England.

They persecuted the Anabaptists, who were no inconsiderable body amongst them, with an almost equal severity.  In short, this people, who in England could not bear being chastised with rods, had no sooner got free from their fetters than they scourged their fellow refugees with scorpions; though the absurdity, as well as the injustice of such a proceeding in them might stare them in the face!

As usual, Burke is an astute observer of human nature, and he states that men are prone to apply the word “persecution” only when the injustice is being done to them.  So, the Puritans of New England are really no worse than anyone else when it comes to such behavior.

His Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies was delivered right before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.  Burke was urging his colleagues to include the colonists in Parliamentary proceedings and to recognize that the American colonists possessed the traditional rights of Englishmen.  I will focus on the political aspects of this speech in the next post, but again I’d like to focus on Burke’s acute understanding of the American character.

In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; which, to understand the true temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.

Burke’s assessment that the animating feature of the American character was love of freedom sounds rather spot on to me.

He continues in this vein.

First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness.

There are several key points about this passage.  First, I think it’s a good representation of Burke’s ardent nationalism.  This shines through in much of his works, but he has a sense of the special nature of his home country.  Burke constantly upholds England as a unique Nation gifted with a special character, particularly here the love of liberty.  As he elaborates on elsewhere, this is not the kind of abstract liberty celebrated by the French some fourteen years hence, but a very specific kind of political liberty that prizes the autonomy of the individual, but within certain parameters.

More importantly, it captures the sense that Burke has that the American colonists are brothers, if you will, of the English.  They are not subordinate characters who the English government can presume to tyrannize without consequence.  They are, in his mind, every bit the equals of the English.  I’ll elaborate on this in the next post, but in many ways Burke’s language indicates that he views the impending war as a civil war.

Burke goes on to explain that the colonists came to share in the English belief that:

in all monarchies the people must in effect themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles.

Furthermore, the colonists developed their own governments and began to appreciate the republican form of government.

They were further confirmed in this pleasing error by the form of their provincial legislative assemblies. Their governments are popular in a high degree; some are merely popular; in all, the popular representative is the most weighty; and this share of the people in their ordinary government never fails to inspire them with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their chief importance.

Again, Burke traces the colonists’ disposition to their religion.

If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the form of government, religion would have given it a complete effect. Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. I do not think, Sir, that the reason of this averseness in the dissenting churches, from all that looks like absolute government, is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Every one knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favour and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.

There is a lot to unpack there that goes beyond the American experience, but for present purposes I will let that observation stand without further comment.

Burke proceeds to note how the institution of slavery affects the American character.

Sir, I can perceive by their manner, that some gentlemen object to the latitude of this description; because in the southern colonies the Church of England forms a large body, and has a regular establishment. It is certainly true. There is, however, a circumstance attending these colonies, which, in my opinion, fully counterbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty, than those to the northward.

It is a very interesting observation, but I wonder about its veracity.  Massachusetts was the colony that led the way during the revolutionary period, while several southern colonies were reluctant to break off from the mother country.  On the other hand, perhaps the later outbreak of the Civil War confirms Burke’s statement.

Burke offers one last observation on the American character, and it is something that De Toqueville will remark upon a half-century later.

Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies, which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable spirit. I mean their education. In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavour to obtain some smattering in that science . . . This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

Yes, the lawyerly disposition of the colonists is being touted here as a good thing.  I am sure a  certain co-blogger will enjoy reading that.

Burke’s remarks are perceptive and still apply to Americans today.  These (mostly) favorable remarks help explain why he was generally disposed to the American cause during the revolution, even if he did not exactly support the colonists’ venture.  But I will get to that later.

Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 3:35 pm  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. “I am sure a certain co-blogger will enjoy reading that.”


    Burke was a true English Patriot. He loved England with a fierce passion. He frequently attacked the policies of the government of his day when they conflicted with bedrock English principles as he perceived them, but he never attacked England. He viewed Americans as carrying on the great English tradition of prizing individual liberty under law as the true basis of all government and the wrong-headed policies of George III and his ministers as at war with this principle. Most politicians are worth less than a dime a dozen. A true statesman like Burke is above any price.

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