Edmund Burke and the American Revolution

In some quarters, Edmund Burke is counted as a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War.  He was certainly a friend of America, and he opposed many of the policies of the British government that he felt were driving the colonists to rebellion.  But Burke did not necessarily support the colonists’ drive to free themselves from British rule.  Precisely because he felt a deep fraternal bond with the Americans, Burke hoped that the colonists would think twice before commencing what would be a bloody and unfortunate war.  This post examines some of Burke’s public sentiments on the conflict in an attempt to get a better sense of his attitudes about the conflict between the mother country and her colonies.

Burke was an early critic of the policies that angered the American colonists.  In 1769 he published a pamphlet that blames the British government for creating policies that stirred the conflict.  He notes that taxes for raising revenue had not been levied under the colonists, and they had grown accustomed to this state of affairs.  When the government decided to tax the colonists, this let loose an angry torrent.

By this measure we let loose that dangerous spirit of disquisition, not in the coolness of philosophic inquiry, but inflamed with all the passions of a haughty, resentful people, who thought themselves deeply injured, and that they were contending for everything that was valuable in the world.

The government’s inability to acknowledge that they had done anything to stir up resentment only made matters worse.

They took no one step to divert the dangerous spirit which began even then to appear in the colonies, to compromise with it, to molify it, or to subdue it.

In a speech on American Taxation in 1774, Burke continues to harangue his colleagues for refusing to moderate their policies.

Again, and again, revert to your old principles – seek peace and ensure it – leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself.  I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries.  I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.  Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy context, will die along with it.

This points to Burke’s pragmatic approach to politics.  He was not concerned with “metaphysical abstractions.”  This is a point he comes back to in speech on conciliation with the colonies, linked to in my previous post.  He states:

The question with me is, not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.  It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.  Is a politic act the worse for being a generous one?  Is no concession proper but that which is made from your want of right to keep what you grant?

Separate posts can be made on this one segment of the speech, especially as it relates to Burke’s overall philosophy.  But this does get to the heart of his disagreement with the home country’s policy.  It simply doesn’t work and only enrages the people that it has been foisted upon.

Burke lays down other pragmatic criticisms of British philosophy at other points in this speech.  He objects to the idea of subduing the colonists by force, pointing out that it would be but a temporary solution that does address the underlying issue.  He also frets that the use of force, if it failed, would mean that their would be irreconcilable rupture between the home government and the colonists.  But he also fears that the use of force would “impair the object” that the government is trying to preserve.

The thing you fought for is not the thing which you recover, but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed in the contest.  Nothing less will content me than the whole America.  I do not choose to consume its strength along with our own; because in all parts it is the British strength that I consume.  I do not choose to be caught by a foreign enemy at the end of this exhausting conflict, and still less in the midst of it.  I may escape, but I can make no insurance against such an event.  Let me add that I do not choose wholly to break the American spirit; because it is the spirit that has made the country.

This passage demonstrates Burke’s warm feelings towards the colonists.  It also leaves the impression that Burke sees the conflict as something of a Civil War.  This would be a war between fellow countrymen.  He does not wish to see American broken or subdued since he does not view them as inferiors, but fellow Englishmen who should be able to retain their honor.

Ultimately, Burke thinks that the solution is to give the Americans representation in the constitution.

My idea, therefore, without considering whether we yield as matter of right or grant as matter of favor, is to admit the people of our colonies into an interest in the constitution; and, by recording that admission in the journals of Parliamant, to give them as strong an assurance as the nature of the thing will admit that we mean forever to adhere to that solemn declaration of systematic indulgence.

This is not quite the same thing as giving the American representation in Parliament, and Burke stops short of fully supporting that idea.  But he wants to give the colonists a greater sense of belonging to the British polity through some kind of constitutional mechanism.

Having rebuked Parliament for its actions, Burke still hopes to persuade the colonists to remain loyal subjects.  So in 1777 he penned an address to the British Colonists in North America.  First, he argues that most Englishmen do not support the onerous British policies.

Do not think, that the whole, or even the uninfluenced majority, of Englishmen in this island are enemies to their own blood on the American continent.  Much delusion has been practiced; much corrupt influence treacherously employed.  But still a large, and we trust the largest and soundest, part of this kingdom perseveres in the most perfect unity of sentiments, principles and affections with you.

Later he adds that “we wish to continue united with you, in order that a people of one origin and one character should be directed to the rational objects of government by joint counsels, and protected in them by common force.”

He stresses that they agree that their rights have been violated.

We also reason and feel as you do on the invasion of your charters.  Because the charters comprehend the essential forms by which you enjoy your liberties, we regard them as most sacred, and by no means to be taken away or altered without process, without examination, and without hearing, as they have lately been.

Having buttered them up, if you will, Burke urges them to consider the drawbacks to independence.  He appeals to their sense of patriotism, arguing that their very liberties stem from their English heritage, and that they are not likley to retain those rights and privileges independent of the motherland.

We apprehend you are not now, nor for ages are likely to be capable of that form of constitution in an independent state.  Besides, let us suggest to you our apprehensions that your present union (in which we rejoice, and which we long wish to subsist) cannot always subsist without the authority and weight of this great and long-respected body, to equipoise, and to preserve you amongst yourselves in a just and fair equality.

Here Burke almost sounds like a Federalist.  Though he underestimates America’s ability to thrive in a state of independence, it is telling that he remains so concerned about their well-being.

Burke proceeds to try to convince the colonists that he and others of like-mind will continue to safeguard American liberties should Parliament offer up the concessions that will make them remain part of the empire.

Of this we give you our word, that so far as we are at present concerned, and if by any event we should become more concerned hereafter, you may rest assured, upon the pledges of honour not forfeited, faith not violated, and uniformity of character and profession not yet broken, we at least, on these grounds, will never fail you.

As we know, Burke was unable to convince the colonists.  But his offer was genuine, and he sincerely hoped to bring them back to the fold.

By his actions and deeds Burke clearly showed himself to be a friend of the American colonists, and he remained warmly attached to them.  Had his policies been adapted by the home country, who knows how history would have developed.  Perhaps it was too late for conciliatory policies.  Nevertheless Burke deserves credit for recognizing the folly of his government’s actions.  I would not exactly call him a supporter of the American cause in the sense that he did not think independence a wise course of action, but again, he spoke these words of concern out of the depths of his friendly feelings towards the Americans.

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 8:03 pm  Comments Off on Edmund Burke and the American Revolution  
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