Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Conservatisms of Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a writer, a philosopher of aesthetics , and politician best remembered today as the founder of modern conservatism. As we shall see, however, Burke articulated a conservatism that is much more at home in Europe than here in America.

Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland to a prosperous lawyer. He attended law school in the Middle Temple, but left without finishing. He first attracted attention as a thoughtful and eloquent writer when he published A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. He eventually became secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, until the latter's death in 1782. One of the ironies of Burke's life is that this son of a middle class lawyer became connected with and a supporter of England's landed aristocracy. Burke became indebted both financially and politically to Rockingham. Burke led a materially comfortable life owed to Rockingham. When Rockingham died, he forgave a debt owed him by Burke of nearly £30,000. Through Rockingham's influence, Burke represented one of England's corrupt “pocket boroughs” in the House of Commons. A “pocket borough” was a largely depopulated village in which a local landed aristocrat exercised his influence among the few residents to secure the election of his own nominee. Through his speeches and writings while in the Commons, Burke espoused view of the world that later became known as conservatism.

So what contributions did Burke make to modern conservatism? Burke offered up a sophisticated and nuanced approach to change. Rather than opposed to change altogether (as conservatives are sometimes described), Burke recognized and even embraced change as a natural process. He rejected changes resulting from abstract speculative schemes. Society, he wrote, “is 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.” Whatever the contemporary circumstances of any particular generation, they reflect the accumulated wisdom of those who came before them. Burke believed that no one generation should radically uproot the social institutions that they have inherited.

But he was not opposed to all change or even revolution. He conceded that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Consequently, Burke expressed strong reservations about the impact of British imperial policies on traditional ways of life in Ireland, India, and the North American colonies. During the imperial crisis that eventually resulted in the War for Independence, Burke repeatedly spoke out in Parliament on behalf of the American grievances. Burke's reflections on the concept of change and his historical reputation as “a friend of the colonies” has endeared his to a small but influential intellectual wing of the American conservative movement.

Burke's views on conservatism, however, supported a particular social and political order that is in many respects distinctly European.

He believed in Parliamentary supremacy and defended it against all challengers. Burke resented efforts of George III to enhance the power of the monarchy through what was then called “influence” or “corruption.” These phrases referred to the practice of creating new entitled peers in the House of Lords or awarding pensions and military titles (along with salaries) to representatives in the House of Commons in exchange for support for the programs of the king's ministers. So far so good. The Americans, too, shared his views on ministerial corruption of the Parliament.

But he also upheld the sovereignty of Parliament over the colonies. Because he believed that the policies adopted for the colonies were ill conceived, Burke enjoyed a reputation of an ally of the Americans. The Americans, however, based their opposition on very different principles. The Americans denied that Parliament had any legislative authority over the colonies. In their eyes, the American imperial connection came through the king.

More important, he idealized Parliament and resisted all efforts at reform. Despite his recognition that change sometimes is necessary, he experienced apocalyptic visions at the prospect of Parliamentary reform and reacted to reform proposals with emotional speeches and intemperate language. He once observed that if the public concluded that “our constitution is not so perfect as it ought to be, only ruin of the nation will follow.”

When Parliament considered a bill to reduce the term between Parliamentary elections from seven to three years, he predicted “a society dissolved, industry interrupted, ruined—of those personal hatreds that will never be suffered to soften, those animosities and feuds which will be rendered immortal, those quarrels which are never to be appeased—morals vitiated and gangrened in the vitals.

When William Pitt introduced legislation in 1785 to expand the franchise, bring about a more equitable scheme of representation, and to abolish “rotten boroughs” like those represented by Burke, he opposed it. Such reforms would reduce the influence of the landed aristocracy. When Pitt argued that lack of representation in Parliament led to the American rebellion, Burke shockingly denied it. It created such a stir that when Burke attempted to deliver a lengthy prepared speech against the reform bill, members of Parliament shouted him down. (This happened with increasing frequency in the 1780s, sparking emotional outbursts from Burke that led some people to conclude that he was emotionally unstable. (Literary critic Samuel Johnson remarked that “if a man will appear extravagant as he does, and cry, can he wonder that he is represented as mad.”)

In the speech he never delivered, Burke expressed contempt for the idea that “every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go, himself, he must send his representative ." Worse, according the Burke, those who make this argument based it upon “the supposed rights of man.”
He asserted that the British constitution rested on prescription: “its sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind.” He in effect restricted liberties traditional or inherited liberties. He concluded that the great object of most of these reformers is to prepare the destruction of the Constitution by disgracing and discrediting the House of Commons.

Finally, he supported hierarchical churches and the official establishment of the Church of England. Although he supported removal of legal restrictions against Catholics, he had little sympathy for religious dissenters in general. “Dissent,” he cynically observed, “not satisfied with toleration,is not conscience but ambition.” As for infidels, they were “outlaws of the constitution of the human race.”

Burke's reflections on change, especially on how they influenced his positions on issue of the day, seem far more relevant to a European kind of conservatism rather than American variety. Burke seemed devoted to conserving a hierarchical society, through a hierarchical church establishment, and a Parliament dominated by a landed aristocracy.

Burke's conservatism was most famously expressed,however, over an event beyond Britain's shores: the French Revolution.


CW said...

That was an interesting read, V.L. I didn’t really know anything about Edmond Burke. I guess the lesson is that “conservatism” means different things to different folks, and it comes in baby steps.

RightDetour said...

I never heard of him either, until a read The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945, by George Nash (1976). I "became" a conservative, or "became aware" that I was a conservative by watching Wm F. Buckley's Firing Line television show. I eventually subscribed to his magazine, the National Review. Later, I wanted to read about the history of modern conservatism so I picked up Nash's book. Nash describes how Buckley and others forged an coalition in the 1950s of libertarians, anti-communists, and "classical conservatives" in what then because known as "The New Conservatism." This "classical conservative stream" was pushed in a book entitled "The Conservative Mind" that came out just two years before the National Review. It was a search for "roots" of conservatism and claimed to have found them in the aristocratic, high church, high culture views of Edmund Burke. As I conclude the review of this book in my post from last Sunday, the roots of this kind of conservatism aren't really fit for American soil.