May 21, 2005


The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke's Realism (John R. Bolton, Winter 1997/98, The National Interest)

On this side of the Atlantic, Burke is often seen as a friend of the American Revolution, which he most certainly was not. He argued not on behalf of Americans seeking independence, but as a Briton striving, vainly as it turned out, to preserve his country's choicest asset from the foolishness of his own countrymen.

In the first place, Burke argued that it blinked reality for British policymakers to ignore what had happened in America, where "a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up." Not only was Burke undisturbed by the American love of liberty, he feared that London's efforts to reduce that liberty threatened his own:

. . . in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavoring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself.

Here is the confluence of interest and ideology so typical of Burke. He was not celebrating America's "spirit of liberty" as a pure value, but because his government's threat to America directly and tangibly threatened him.

Second, Burke was appalled at the arguments advanced by the parliamentary supporters of King George III, who seemed determined to justify policies such as taxation of the Americans solely on the basis that they had a sovereign right to do so. In the context of the period, the drumbeat in London about British sovereign rights was nearly an absolute, and would not tolerate objections based merely on practicality and history. Burke, however, disdained the "sovereign right" argument: "I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries; I hate the very sound of them."

Burke stressed that trade had bound the colonies to England before, and could do so again; taxation had not previously been deemed necessary, and that was reason enough to abandon it now. "These are the arguments of states and kingdoms", he said. "Leave the rest to the schools; for there only may they be discussed with safety." Burke saw correctly that endless disputes with Americans over the abstract concept of sovereignty would "teach them . . . to call that sovereignty itself in question." He warned that "If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery." To Burke, the theory of sovereignty was manifestly secondary to the practical need of keeping the Americans in the Empire.

As a result, Burke was fully content to allow Americans the fullest measure of liberty (which he called "the high spirit of free dependencies"), not for its own sake, but because so doing maximized Britain's chances for retaining America. His argument illustrated classic cost-benefit reasoning:

In every arduous enterprise, we consider what we are to lose as well as what we are to gain; and the more and better stake of liberty every people possess, the less they will hazard in an attempt to make it more. These are the cords of man. Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations.

Indeed, Burke cited Aristotle in arguing against "delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, the most fallacious of all sophistry."

Although all this talk about "liberty" might sound suspiciously like "democracy" and "human rights" in today's rhetoric, Burke would disagree. His ideas of "liberty" were just as grounded in reality as his strategy to keep America British. The man who ordinarily disdained broad generalizations said unequivocally that "Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object." For Burke, that "sensible object" was, as it was for the Americans, the measure of taxation.

Indeed, he goes out of his way to note that in "the ancient commonwealths", disputes turned on political issues such as "the right of election of magistrates" because the "question of money was not with them so immediate." Not so in England, says Burke proudly, whose history he correctly summarizes for Parliament in his speech On Conciliation with America as having been the struggle between King and people over money. As for the colonists: "Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe or might be endangered in twenty other particulars without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound."

No mincing of words here--it is the money, not the principle, that measures liberty.

Because Burke's analysis and strategy for dealing with the American problem were so thoroughly rooted in practicalities, it comes as no surprise that in giving them expression he articulated the prudential guidelines that shaped so much of his political life. In the justly famous 1777 Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, Burke defends the 1766 Rockingham "plan of pacification" for the colonies as "being built upon the nature of man, and the circumstances and habits of the two countries, and not on any visionary speculations." This was, in fact, a plan of prudence, a quality that Burke characterizes "as the god of this lower world."

Unlike those beating the "sovereign rights" drum, Burke pleaded for "rational, cool endeavors" to bring the colonies back into line. He urged that government from London "ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people with whom it is concerned, and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection." Against those who saw no problem in unleashing force against the colonists to uphold sovereignty, Burke was nearly contemptuous: "A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood." Consistent with that approach, Burke was not afraid to shift his tactics or his positions as the need arose and as circumstances changed. When challenged on such changes, Burke answered: "Because a different state of things requires a different conduct."

Handling the American question in Burke's way might not have saved the colonies for Britain, but King George III could hardly have done worse than he did. Burke's approach was grounded in the political reality of his time, addressed to the vital national interests of England, and utilized practical, commercial, non-coercive means. George and his ministers stood on their absolute, abstract, sovereign rights, and lost the best part of their Empire forever.

Had such a wiser head prevailed in Britain the Revolution could have been avoided and much of the mischief that followed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 21, 2005 7:49 AM

"George and his ministers stood on their absolute, abstract, sovereign rights, and lost the best part of their Empire forever." Thus saving us from becoming a lesser greater Canada.

Posted by: Genecis at May 21, 2005 12:13 PM

P.S. "Milton argued that the true nature of a monarch's power lay in the popular sovereignty that grants him that power. Thus, the people have the right to overthrow a monarch who abuses his power." Elections are so much easier and term limits are so necessary.

Posted by: Genecis at May 21, 2005 12:26 PM

--Unlike those beating the "sovereign rights" drum, Burke pleaded for "rational, cool endeavors" to bring the colonies back into line. He urged that government from London "ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people with whom it is concerned, and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection." --

China now.

Posted by: Sandy P. at May 21, 2005 12:29 PM

oj is anti-Burkean, an American Tory, a (dare I say it) Canadian!

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 21, 2005 12:41 PM

The Canadians aren't Tory--they're democrats.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 1:16 PM

If any of you ever have the chance, look up Burke's remarks when General Gage's letter attempting to twist the events at Concord and Lexington into a British victory was read in Parliament. The man didn't suffer fools gladly, that's for sure.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 21, 2005 2:39 PM

That his suggestions were soundly rejected is not evidence that they were almost adopted or that they could have worked. Even if parliment had been willing, the colonies wouldn't have gone for it. By the time Burke was writing, the colonies had talked themselves into a state where only a return to benign neglect would have sufficed, and that only for a little while. But it doesn't really matter, because parliment needed a colonial capitulation. They weren't going to let the Anglican church be disestablished, they weren't going to let the colonies not pay imperial taxes, they weren't going to give the colonies parlimentary representation (which would have called parliment's legitimacy in England into question) and they certainly weren't going to allow the colonies to pass laws without London having a veto. The colonies wanted to be independent of parliment and they wanted the King to be a figurehead. Frankly, parliment couldn't but oppose such a settlement.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 21, 2005 7:21 PM

Tom C:

I gotta admit, I never thought I'd live to see the day an American patriot would accuse us of being too democratic.

Posted by: Peter B at May 21, 2005 9:29 PM


Yes, they needed to do it sooner, when guys like Franklin were pushing it.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 9:33 PM


The patriots weren't democrats.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 9:35 PM

It was already too late then, too. It was too late when the Hanoverians took the throne. England was Whig, but the colonies were Tory.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 22, 2005 3:09 PM

Late, not too late. History isn't inevitable just because it happened.

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2005 3:14 PM


I meant 'tory' in the loyalist sense, just like the revolutionary era Americans who resettled in the great white north.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 22, 2005 4:12 PM


Yes, they aren't loyalist.

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2005 4:42 PM

History isn't inevitable, but neither was it random. The colonies revolted for real reasons, even if the stated reasons sound a little weak to modern ears. Losing the revolution was more likely than not revolting in the first place. Once the Hanoverians took the throne, and particularly once George III tried to reinstate royal prerogatives, it was inevitable that the colonies would start to chafe at the bit. That threw the last chance to avoid the revolution back onto parliment: could parliment agree to sufficient reform fast enough to catch up with the colonies, whose demands kept increasing. The answer is probably not. Parliment actually did make a substantial effort to satisfy the colonial demands, but in the end the colonies were demanding changes that would have undercut parliment's legitimacy at home.

Take, for example, the rotten boroughs. Parlimentary districts were never changed, though populations changed drastically. As a result, some more or less depopulated districts in effect gave rich landowners their own parlimentary seat (which were bought and sold) while more recent cities had no representation at all. Here is Tom Paine:

The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?

Giving the colonies representation in parliment simply wouldn't have been possible unless England was also redistricted. Could parliment have done this? Sure. Should it have? Absolutely. Would it have? No way. The rotten boroughs weren't touched until the Reform Act of 1832, passed after violent riots in its favor and the threat of civil war. Still, the suffrage was restricted (with incomes of at least 10 Pounds per year) and while the rotten borough problem was attenuated, there were still great disparities in voters per MP.

If history were rerun 100 times from 1714 on, the colonies would revolt each time, not because they have to revolt, but because the conditions were such that the human beings involved would not bend enough to avoid it.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 22, 2005 6:26 PM

Even token representation would likely have been sufficient.

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2005 7:26 PM

Any representation would have been the end of the theory of virtual representation, which would have been the end of parliment as constituted at the time.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 22, 2005 10:58 PM


Posted by: oj at May 22, 2005 11:36 PM

When the colonists complained about taxation without representation, the parlimentary response is that they were represented by the members of parliment, equally with every Englishmen. MP's were not tied to their constituencies and weren't, in theory, at parliment just to do the bidding of their constituents. Rather, each MP is supposed to vote in the country's best interest. Even today, MP's don't have to be residents of their constituencies, where Representatives are required to be residents of their districts. Giving the colonies representation in the imperial parliment would have been an admission that virtual representation was a fiction and that Englishmen deserved actual representation.

The problem with that is the rotten boroughs. Remember, it wasn't just the English poor and landless without the franchise were denied representation. Substantial English landowners and merchants who did not own land without a parlimentary constituency were also without representation, as we would see it, or only virtually represented, as parliment argued. If the colonies had been given representation, all of parliment would have had to have been reformed.

(Also, it's not overly cynical to ask whether the colonies' primary concern wasn't with "no taxation" rather than "representation". Parliment certainly thought that they kept moving the line in order to maintain their protest against paying the relatively mild imperial taxes imposed against them.)

Posted by: David Cohen at May 23, 2005 12:06 PM

If the colonies had been given representation, all of parliment would have had to have been reformed.

Is merely an assertion.

Posted by: oj at May 23, 2005 2:25 PM