Edmund Burke was born on January 12, 1729, in Dublin, Ireland to a merchant class Irish family with no great esteem. His father Richard Burke was a Protestant while his mother Mary was a Roman Catholic. Edmund Burke would follow his father’s faith and become an Anglican but his connection to his Roman Catholic mother would later raise questions about his loyalty to the British crown. It also didn’t help that he later married a Catholic woman, Mary Nugent. His parents’ having different religious beliefs, along with witnessing religious persecution, and having Quaker friends, probably led to his beliefs on religious tolerance and nonviolence. This began his journey to see life as more complicated in practice than in theory.
Burke would go on to attend a Quaker boarding school as a boy and then move on to Trinity College in Dublin to study law, following his father’s wishes. However, he would soon give up on law since he found it dull and became more fascinated with literature. He studied the classics along with philosophy and began writing his own works. He wrote “A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind,” and “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” That last work would earn Burke lasting fame and associated him with a group of philosophers including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson’s circle. He also attracted attacks from the most prominent philosophers of the age such as Hume and later Kant. Burke’s main focus would not be philosophy though. Rather, the world of politics had called to him and he answered.
In 1759, Burke began publishing the “Annual Register” in England which published a yearly summary of British politics and included quite a bit of information about the American colonies. This could have made Burke one of the most well-informed men in Britain at the time on American affairs. In 1765, Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister of Great Britain and recognized Burke’s talents. He appointed Burke to be his private secretary. From here, Burke would enter the House of Commons as a member of parliament and would join the Rockingham faction of Whigs. This position gave him a unique opportunity to speak on the growing tension in America.
During the 1760’s, the colonists in America began to react negatively to new taxes, acts, and restrictions that were being placed on them by Parliament, and by the new King, King George the III. After the 7 years war ended in 1763, which was a war started and fought in the American colonies, the British desperately needed money. The majority in Britain felt like the colonists should pay their fair share for their part in the war. Many also felt as if the colonies needed more oversight. Burke disagreed. He wasn’t the only Member of Parliament in this minority though. If you remember from our William Pit the Elder video, Pitt was against taxing America because he believed that there should be no taxation without representation, a sentiment that echoed the Father of Liberalism himself, John Locke. Burke did not fully oppose taxing and overseeing the colonies. Where Pitt and Locke were more liberal and abstract with their ideas, Burke was more conservative and concrete.
To understand why Burke sympathized with the American colonists and opposed these taxes and acts, we have to understand his worldview. Edmund Burke did not believe in making politics or social issues as scientific or abstract as John Locke. It wasn’t something that we could fully comprehend because it was way too complex for our limited understanding. Since it was so complex, he advised caution when it came to political theories, drastic government policies, social change, and even revolution.
He writes “The science of government being therefore, so practiced in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experiences, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon putting down an edifice–which has answered in any tolerable degree, for ages, the common purposes–without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.”
Burke believed that the only political or social structures that we could trust were the ones that were able to stand the test of time. History was something not to be overcome, but something to be respected. These traditional structures that were built throughout history, generation by generation, worked, for some incomprehensible reason, and that is why we should not trust scientific or abstract theories that drastically change it. Such changes could have dire consequences, and often did, as we will see later.
In addition to this idea, he adds…“As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.” So not only should you not drastically change society because it could have effects that we can’t even fathom, but society is governed by a social contract that spans through multiple generations. This means that no one generation has the right to break it.
These were the reasons why Burke opposed taxing America. Burke supported the Americans because they were not the ones who broke this generational social contract but rather, it was the British. He believed that the British had the authority to tax America, but they should not do it because they have never taxed them until now. It breaks this social understanding that has historically worked between Britain and her colonies, and no one can fully understand what lies ahead by pursuing these policies.
These thoughts would be laid out in many speeches given by Burke over the years, but we will mainly focus on his speech in 1774 over American Taxation and his speech in 1775 over Conciliation with America because they contain the core of his arguments. Both speeches were given under Lord North’s ministry, who decided to pursue harsher measures, which included removing American autonomy, and rights that they felt entitled to as Englishmen. North’s harsh measures only made things worse in America, which resulted in poorer relations between the Americans and the British.
In Burke’s speech over American taxation in 1774, he states “Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue 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 contest, will die along with it.” Here, he refuses to adhere to abstract theory, as we discussed before, and wants the British to adhere to the traditions of the past. By taxing America and removing their autonomy, the British were drastically disrupting the American traditions of liberty and self rule. He is essentially saying, if you want peace, let us do what we have always done before and let the Americans be! Like his other speeches given before, no one listened to Burke and Britain decided to punish America even more for their boycotts and rebellious displays.
Burke made his most famous speech in 1775 called “Conciliation with America.” He wanted to make one last plea for Britain to make peace with the colonies before there was no going back! During this speech, Burke tried to explain the American people to the other members of Parliament, and how the Americans have developed under what he called salutary neglect, or being left alone by the British.
He states, “from these six capital sources; of descent; of form of government; of religion in the northern provinces; of manners in the southern; of education; of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government; from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth; a spirit, that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England, which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame, that is ready to consume us.”
Even if the Americans identified themselves as Englishmen, Burke understood that the colonists were already a separate people with their own unique sentiments and identity. They were, in their own opinion, what they thought Englishmen were. They imagined a liberty that actual Englishmen never possessed. Thus, in reality, they developed into something different: Americans. They did this through their own governments, religion, education, use of slavery, and place across the sea. Burke knew that if Britain used more force in the colonies, they would not respond like Brits but as Americans. More force would only increase American resistance to British policies because of their developed love for liberty and unique identity.
Burke believed any more drastic measures would lead to war in America, which would be impossible for Britain to win. He thought it would be an absolute waste to lose such a valuable gem as America over stupid abstract and unproven policies. Burke advised Britain to implement his own policies to give the Americans what they want in order to reconcile the two peoples and have peace. These policies included letting the Americans have their own legislatures, allowing them to tax themselves, and repealing many British policies that had been used to punish America. He emphasized that his own policies were based on experience with America and its history. Of course, he was ignored for more drastic policies and just a month later, The American Revolution began…
It’s no surprise that Burke was right on the outcome of the war and in 1783, The United States was officially recognized as an independent country. Burke would be loved by Americans for his support during the buildup to the revolution and Burke even dined with a few patriots, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Burke would later support the American Constitution not because of any new liberal theories or abstract ideas of “rights” found within it but because it did what good governments do. It reflected the national character of its people and its history. Even though Edmund Burke lost every political battle he fought, he seemed to be right every single time. Ironically history, the thing he loved to adhere to, would vindicate him.
It’s strange that the man who absolutely despised revolution, which typically ended in failure, would sympathize with the Americans when they revolted. Why was America the exception for Burke? The answer is, for Burke, it wasn’t really a revolution. A revolution sweeps away old structures of government and society in favor of theoretical new ones. The American revolution was more of a reformation. It was not a drastic change in political principles but a way to preserve American traditions –something the British had tried to do away with. The Americans were not trying to do something new by being independent and having a popular form of government, they were just trying to get their autonomy and systems back. This brings us to our question today? “Do you agree with Burke? Do you think it was more of an American Reformation rather than an American Revolution?” Let us know what you guys think in the comments below. In our next episode, we will see what Burke has to say about the revolution in France, something he deemed to be more of a revolution than what happened in America.
Burke, Edmund. Bruk’s Conciliation with America. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1924.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. James Dodsley, Pall Mall,
Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Intercollegiate Studies Institute; 2nd
Kramnick, Isaac. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of An Ambivalent Conservative. Basic
Books, Inc., Publishers; New York, 1977.
Levin, Yuval, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.
Basic Books; New York, 2013.