Murray Rothbard, the Austrian school economist and student of Ludwig von Mises, regarded Edmund Burke in his youthful days as a libertarian and even a philosophical anarchist. Russell Kirk, the renowned man of letters and author of The Conservative Mind, viewed Burke as the progenitor of the modern conservative movement.
Rothbard and Kirk differed on many things, but on this they agreed: Edmund Burke was one of the greatest political thinkers of the last 300 years, a man to whom lovers of liberty owe a considerable intellectual debt.
“The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.” — Edmund Burke
Born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland, Burke gained a reputation as a promising writer and political commentator by his early 30s. After he moved to England in 1750 to study law, he considered himself at least as much English as he was Irish. He began a long career as a Whig member of the House of Commons in 1766 and the first major issue he addressed was the approaching crisis with the American colonies. Historian Jim Powell writes,
Burke wasn’t a great orator — indeed, his speeches, which were sometimes three hours long, emptied the seats in Parliament. But Burke had acquired deep knowledge of history which gave him valuable perspective, and he developed a passionate pen. He urged religious toleration for Irish Catholics. He supported freer trade. He favored ending the secrecy of Parliamentary proceedings. He expressed his outrage when a mob murdered two men convicted of homosexual contact. He defended the right of Middlesex voters to choose their representative, radical John Wilkes.… Burke opposed schemes to tax the American colonists because he believed proposed taxes were unjust, they would yield little revenue, and trigger rebellion. After the schemes were enacted, Burke called for repeal.
The beginning of George III’s reign in 1760 marked the end of a long period of British “salutary neglect” of colonial America. The new king, his ministers, and a majority of Parliament were intent on letting Americans know who was boss. Increasing tensions led directly to the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington in 1775, followed a year later by the Declaration of Independence and open warfare. Not until late in the war, which ended formally in 1783, did British public opinion turn against the heavy-handed policies of the government in London. So for almost all the years that Burke defended America and opposed the conflict, he was in the minority.
In 1774, Burke rose in Parliament to deliver an eloquent appeal. He urged that London leave the colonists alone on the all-important issue of “taxation without representation”:
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.... Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it.... Do not burthen them with taxes.... But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question.... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side... tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation either to his feelings or to his understandings.
A year later, as the bonds between Britain and America were rapidly slipping away, he once again urged peace and reconciliation. He poignantly reminded his colleagues in the House of Commons that Americans were fellow Englishmen:
For almost all the years that Burke defended America and opposed the conflict, he was in the minority.
They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants... a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it.... My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government — they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation — the cement is gone, the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution. As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you…Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia. But, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you.
War with America, in Burke’s view, could only lead to disaster. Even if Britain were successful, it would come at a great cost in lives, treasure, and goodwill. “The use of force alone is but temporary,” he warned. “It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.” He openly declared that to support the war was to “wish success to injustice, oppression and absurdity.”
Burke criticized the overreach of government in all spheres, arguing that treating people as pawns of power only bred violence and disorder. “People crushed by law,” he reasoned, “have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws; and those who have much to hope and nothing to lose, will always be dangerous.” In his famous letter to the sheriffs of Bristol in 1777, he noted that liberty is usually lost not by one fell swoop but by one slice at a time: “The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.” He was a leader in Parliament’s debates — perhaps the most important one in his day — in favor of enacting constitutional limitations on government power, whether it emanated from the king or from Parliament itself.
The Anglican Burke championed the unpopular cause of Catholic emancipation, supporting the right of Catholics to hold positions in government and opposing the appropriation of public funds for the support of the Anglican Church in Ireland.
He was an ardent free trader at a time when Adam Smith‘s ideas against protectionism were only beginning to take root: “Free trade is not based on utility but on justice.” He spoke of “the advantage of free intercourse between all parts of the same kingdom” as well as “the evils attending restriction and monopoly.” Echoing Smith, he asserted that “the gain of others is not necessarily our loss, but on the contrary, an advantage by causing a greater demand for such wares as we have for sale.”
The French Revolution surely defined Burke and his political philosophy more than any other.
Enjoying special privileges bestowed by the British government, the East India Tea Company by the 1780s dominated the political and economic life of India. Abuses of Indians were rampant, leading Burke to champion the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the British governor-general of Bengal. Piers Brendon, in his The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781–1998, recalls that Burke’s piercing, well-documented indictment labeled Hastings a “captain-general of iniquity”; a man “who never dined without creating a famine”; a blackguard “whose heart was “gangrened to the core,” and a despoiler who resembled both a “spider of Hell” and a “ravenous vulture devouring the carcasses of the dead.” Though the House of Commons did impeach Hastings, his friends in the House of Lords refused to convict.
The French Revolution that began in 1789 provided Burke with an issue that has surely defined him and his political philosophy more than any other. His powerful treatise in 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is perhaps the best-known contemporaneous critique of the revolution and the primary source for Russell Kirk’s claim that Burke is the father of modern conservative political theory. Though he applauded the spirit of liberty that provoked the upheaval, he quickly saw where the French were tragically headed. They were becoming, in his words,
the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures... [there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy.
When the French added hyperinflation and price controls to their panoply of tyranny in the mid-1790s, Burke showed himself to be a staunch defender of sound money. He upbraided the French for the destruction of private property and commercial order that their depreciating paper money engendered:
Your legislators, in everything new, are the very first who have founded a commonwealth on gaming, and infused this spirit into it as its vital breath. The great object of these politics is to metamorphose France from a great kingdom into one great play table; to turn its inhabitants into a nation of gamesters; ... With you, a man can neither earn nor buy his dinner without a speculation. What he receives in the morning will not have the same value at night.... Industry must wither away. Economy must be driven from your country. Careful provision will have no existence.
Burke understood a cardinal rule of society, one that I stress explicitly in this Real Heroes series: the vital connection between liberty and personal character. “All who have ever written on government are unanimous,” he wrote, “that among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.” His most eloquent statement of this principle appeared in a letter to a member of the National Assembly in 1791:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Burke died in 1797 at age 68, leaving behind a legacy of eloquence in the defense of liberty and of those oppressed by authority, from Catholics to Americans to Indians. I think Winston Churchill summed him up well when he wrote,
On the one hand he is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.
For further information, see:
- Gary North, “Edmund Burke on Inflation and Despotism”
- Edwin J. Feulner on “The Roots of Modern Conservative Thought from Burke to Kirk”
- Jim Powell, “Charles James Fox, Valiant Voice for Liberty”
- Russell Kirk’s biography, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
- Jesse Norman’s biography, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative