August 16, 2014


No Theatricks : a review of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke from the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence by David Bromwich (Ferdinand Mount, 8/21/14, ondon Review of Books)

It is David Bromwich's aim in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke that people should know a good deal more about what Burke actually said and wrote. This is the first of two projected volumes; the second will cover the two great causes of Burke's later life: the British misgovernment of India and the French Revolution. Bromwich's patient and subtle exposition is a continuing delight. After reading this first volume, several major misreadings of Burke and a more general ignorance of his arguments and actions will not be possible, or at any rate won't be legitimate, by no means the same thing. The book is not intended as a guide to Burke's personal and family life or to the ups and downs of his political career. It just tells the reader what Burke thought and why he thought it.

Burke was on the side of the underdog. That is a pallid way of putting what must be one's first and abiding impression. There were at least six great issues on which he defended the victims of mistreatment with a steely vigour and an unhesitating sympathy. These six issues deserve to be listed, if only to dispel once and for all the illusion that Burke was the lackey of the rich and powerful.

From first to last, he stuck up for John Wilkes and the cause of liberty. He drily recognised Wilkes's failings: 'There has been no hero of the mob but Wilkes'; 'He is not ours, and if he were, is little to be trusted. He is a lively agreeable man, but of no prudence and no principles.' Yet he defended Wilkes throughout his struggle to be elected to a House of Commons which repeatedly refused to recognise his election. It was a sacrosanct principle that in a free country the people must be allowed to choose their own representatives. Which did not mean that Burke was a democrat in our modern sense. He believed in government for the people, not by the people, and he opposed the proposed reforms of Parliament - wider suffrage, more frequent elections, the end of rotten boroughs - on the grounds that, though the British constitution might be imperfect, it worked and its faults should be corrected only over time and with great caution.

Almost simultaneously, Burke was defending the American colonists in their struggle not to be taxed by a Parliament three thousand miles away, not simply because there must be no taxation without representation and it would be absurd to send American MPs to Westminster, but also because the colonists had grown away from their mother country, grown too 'Whiggish' for their internal democracy to be crushed or checked. Here we see, perhaps for the first time, Burke's crucially socio-historical bent. It was not simply a sound principle that the people should choose their own governors. In the historical situation of the American colonies, they were going to choose them whether George III and Lord North liked it or not. There was no point in arguing with that political fact: 'I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.'

Burke's opposition to the American war has a further dimension which comes close to a blanket opposition to war per se. He had been educated at a Quaker school outside Dublin, run by Abraham Shackleton, who in his prospectus declared that he declined 'to teach that part of the academic course which he conceives injurious to morals and subversive of sound principles, particularly those authors who recommend, in seducing language, the illusions of love and the abominable trade of war'. Abraham's son Richard became Burke's best friend (Burke wrote sixty letters to him over five years), and the Quaker and Huguenot connections, both in Dublin and in Co. Cork (where Burke's mother originally came from), are not to be underestimated. As for his Catholic connections, there was no danger of those being overlooked. Edmund's mother and his wife were both Catholics of Irish stock and his father may have converted in order to pursue his successful legal career. Certainly the cartoonists kept his origins in public sight; he was typically portrayed in cassock and biretta as well as his trademark specs.

Burke constantly insisted that it was common humanity and not his Irish origins which led him to support the gradual emancipation of Catholics and Dissenters and to press for the repeal of the cruel tariffs and import bans which prevented his ex-countrymen from earning any sort of living. Even after reinventing himself as an Englishman, he never abandoned Ireland, although free trade with Ireland was scarcely a cause calculated to endear him to the Bristol merchants who had elected him to Parliament. Nor was his support of the American colonists, which made him so unpopular in Bristol that he told his constituents in August 1776, 'in this temper of yours and of my mind, I should sooner have fled to the extremities of the earth than have shewn myself here.' It was in Bristol that Burke made famous the proposition that 'your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays if instead of serving you, he sacrifices it to your opinion.' And it was in Bristol that he lived up to that doctrine, and they duly kicked him out.

After the Bristol years he took up the cause of abolition of the slave trade, anathema to those same merchants, who profited from it so hugely. The slave trade was, he said, 'the most shameful trade that ever the hardened heart of man could bear' and 'rather than suffer it to continue as it is, I heartily wish it at an end.' But he recognised the interests of the slave merchants and the economic dislocation that would be caused by immediate abolition. So he devised a detailed blueprint for its slow strangulation, his Sketch of a Negro Code which he allowed to be sent to Pitt's home secretary Henry Dundas in 1792. Under the Code, there would be strict controls over the transport of slaves: breathing room, diet, medical treatment. On arrival, there were to be severe criminal sanctions against maltreatment or the seizure of their property; plantations were to have churches and schools; brighter pupils would be sent to the bishop of London for further education, where they would automatically become free, though Burke does not spell this out. Above all, families were not to be separated, and slave-owners would have to offer proper support to pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. Negroes over the age of thirty with three children or more would be entitled to purchase their freedom at half their market value. All this would make slave-holding so costly as to become ultimately unviable. But what should also be noted is how Burke goes beyond sloganising for abolition and sets himself to work out a more tolerable way of life for slave families during and after the transition.

The same practical humanity is there in his great campaign against Warren Hastings and the East India Company, which is to come in Bromwich's second volume. One final campaign is worth listing here to complete the record. It was a small affair at the time, but Burke's words resonate to us in this post-Holocaust age with a terrible vibrancy. During the American war, the British invaded the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius and roughed up the inhabitants. The brutality was all the more callous because the tiny volcanic island had recently been flattened by a hurricane. The people who came off worst were the little band of Jewish merchants who resided there. Their plight might have been utterly forgotten except for Burke's speech:

The persecution was begun with the people, whom of all others it ought to be the care and the wish of humane nations to protect, the Jews. Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community, and a system of laws, they are thrown upon the benevolence of nations, and claim protection and civility from their weakness, as well as from their utility ... Their abandoned state and their defenceless situation calls most forcibly for the protection of civilised nations.

By setting out in such detail what Burke said and did in these six cases (and in others, such as the cruel treatment of debtors), Bromwich sets us a puzzling question: why should such a man have provoked the loathing of so many liberal-minded scholars? What is it about Burke that gets their goat? The first thing that inflames this aversion, I think, is the way Burke plunged headlong into party politics. His speeches and writings are so immersed in political negotiation as often to be inaccessible to modern readers, and also for that reason rather offputting. He deliberately avoids the marmoreal detachment from the fray that we are accustomed to in political thinkers. Worse still, Burke refuses to regard parties as a grubby tactical necessity. On the contrary, he presents party affiliation as a noble aspect of political life. Bromwich reminds us that Burke never uttered those famous words attributed to him: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' What he did say was: 'When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.' Burke was proud to be a leader of the Rockingham Whigs, who have a claim to be the first ongoing political party in British history, for 'Commonwealths are made of families, free commonwealths of parties also; and we may as well affirm that our natural regards and ties of blood tend inevitably to make men bad citizens as that the bonds of our party weaken those by which we are held to our country.'

Posted by at August 16, 2014 1:30 PM

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