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Wednesday, April 1, 1992

A Reviewer’s Notebook: Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke is a name that was once well-known to Americans. He never visited America, but he could be counted on to oppose King George III and his ministers in their efforts to tax the colonies without a by-your-leave. He opposed the Stamp Act, and he would have taken part in the Boston Tea Party if he had been anywhere in the American Northeast. His speech on conciliation was once read in hundreds of American schools. It was dropped when the teaching of history was abandoned in favor of that vague thing called social studies.

Two books are available to help revive the name of Burke. One, just published by Peter J. Stanlis, is titled Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment and Revolution (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J., 259 pages, $34.95 cloth). The older book, by Alice R. Miller, is Edmund Burke and His World (published some years ago by the now defunct Devin-Adair Company, Greenwich, Conn., 232 pages, $12.95). Each book comes with a foreword by Russell Kirk, a one-man claque who gives more words to Stanlis than to Mrs. Miller.

Burke, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin, was the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He believed that politics was more of an art than a science. Prudence was a big word in his vocabulary. This meant that he could follow his friends of the so-called Enlightenment just so far. He believed that the “moral natural law” had been violated by the British in both America and Ireland, and by the East India Company in India. He was for rescinding the charter of the East India Company because it was a political entity in the “disguise of a merchant.”

Very much a Jeffersonian, Burke approved of several rebellions—the English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution, the efforts of the Poles to prevent partitioning, the rebellion of the Corsicans, and the many rebellions of the people of India against the rule of Warren Hastings. But, as a Whig, he was for parliamentary change, not violence.

Burke’s colleagues of the Enlightenment erred in their lack of prudential willingness to respect tradition in pursuit of scientific truth. Gradualness was Burke’s proposal for change. It was a key element to the moral prudence that should guide economic reforms. In his reflection on the French Revolution, Burke said that “thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers.” We had been saved, he said, from the violence of the guillotine where the French were not.

Burke’s view of the extremist nature of the French Revolution brought him into conflict with Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and other Whigs. He said that if Britain took revolutionary France as a model, there would be anarchy in government and atheism in religion. Burke proved to be a good prophet, and in time the Whigs came around to his view.

Burke went to a Quaker school in Ireland called Ballitore. The school, barely mentioned by Stanlis, instilled in Burke practically all the beliefs that guided him through his many years in Parliament. At Ballitore, Burke studied Latin and Greek, wrote poetry with the son of the school proprietor, and passed the entrance exams into Trinity. He debated and did extemporaneous speaking, calling mild attention to some of the defects of the class system, and went on to London to study law and become a writer. Next came marriage and the long period in which he championed the anti-tax cause of the American colonies. Mrs. Miller adds many homey touches to the running story of Burke’s life. His friends included Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He lost his own son, but found solace in bringing French children displaced by the Revolution to the “nursery” he established at his home in Beaconfield.

Personally, I found the chapters in the Stanlis book very confusing. They are choked with names that are almost immediately forgotten. The Miller book, which establishes a chronological sequence and sticks to it, is much easier to follow.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.