He delivered it on April 19, 1774, in an attempt to calm down the anger and passions of a Parliament still grappling with the recent news of the Boston Tea Party. Full of ego and lacking even the semblance of self-restraint, Parliament wanted American blood. Almost alone, Burke understood what this lack of prudence might and probably would do. He recognized that most members would rather implode the British commonwealth than allow its own sovereignty to be challenged. This moment, he knew, could very well determine the entire course of British as well as American history.
Every where in England, he lamented, the mood prevailed against America. Burke had especially taken alarm that Parliament had decided to decry the very person of Benjamin Franklin, so long regarded with affection by his colleagues. A member of Parliament presented “a furious Philippic against poor Dr. Franklin. It required all his Philosophy natural acquired to support him against it,” he wrote in a private letter (February 1, 1774).
Burke, however, assured the New York extra-legal Committee of Correspondence that he would continue to advance the American cause, but he feared with no effect. “My advice has little weight anywhere,” he claimed on May 4, 1774. He would counter every measure presented against the interest and rights of the Americans. In his several very detailed letters, he offered the Committee details upon the mood as well as the possible legislation that might emerge. In each case, Burke predicted the various measures and intent of the legislation correctly. Unlike almost every other member of Parliament, Burke even predicted the Americans would view the Quebec Act with unrelenting hostility.
As noted above, his speech, printed later as a “A Speech on American Taxation,” is nearly flawless in argument and beauty as well as in resolve. It cost Burke a great deal. Not only did he further alienate himself from his fellow members of Parliament, but he also sunk into poor health and even depression after.
Burke began his speech by noting that Parliament had spent almost all of the previous nine years dealing with little other than the problems in America. Exhausted, Parliament would allow the commonwealth to collapse rather than acquiesce to the Americans. By reacting in anger, though, it merely proved the American point that Britain governed through force, not reason. “Parliament is every day and everywhere losing (I feel it with sorrow, I utter it with reluctance) that reverential affection, which so endearing a name of authority ought ever to carry with it; that you are obeyed solely from respect to the bayonet,” he said. For the sake pride, Parliament would lose it all. By pursing such a course, Britain would do nothing but enslave those under its dominion. He compared the author of reconciliation in the previous crisis, 1765, with St. Stephen and those advocating punishment of the American colonies of the betrayers of eternal as well as English truth, the maggots festering in lust, taking “wing.” The Americans, while not perfect, had reacted as any just man would when being denied his ancient rights and traditions. The most famous part of the speech, though, is worth reprinting at length:
Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. 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. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No-body will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side call forth all their ability; let the best of them get up, and 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 islegal slavery, will be no compensation, either to his feelings or his understanding.
Should America submit, she would no longer be America. Should Britain prevail, she would no longer be Britain. In following a path of anger, the English would not only undo England, but they would also fly against the natural order of God’s creation.
Burke lost the contest, and so did the Americans. Almost everything Burke predicted, came true. As he knew, it was the beginning of the end.
A close friend of Burke’s, Oliver Goldsmith, passed away that spring. On his death-bed, he composed a poem about his friendship with the Burkes.
Fare Well, my dear Burkes, on your Tomb be it read
I loved you whilst living, I Honour you dead
Never sure were Three friends so well formed for debate
Let what will be the subject, be dog, or state—
Each fierce to defend, each as fierce to confute
Here ends all your love, here ends all your dispute.
Even pro-Burke scholars find this aspect of his thought and life difficult to reconcile with his later anti-French Revolutionary stance. Indeed, many Burke scholars over the last seventy years have privileged (and been sympathetic with) the younger as well as the older Burke, while selectively taking what they liked or understood from the middle-period, pro-American Burke. Prior to the late 1940s, many scholars had dismissed Burke for the same reasons as post 1945 scholars had liked Burke. Many of these earlier academics had taken Thomas Paine’s arguments against Burke to heart, believing he had embraced a kind of Hegelian providentialism and a politically reactionary stance. That Burke became the fountainhead of all English romantic and pastoral poets seems to be lost on almost all Burke scholars with the exception of Christopher Dawson.
There are few inconsistencies in Burke’s thought, though one can readily find development of thought. As with almost the entirety of his political career up to this point, he defended the rights of American colonists. As he did with the Asian Indians, the Irish, and Roman Catholics in Britain, the Anglo-Irish statesman always defended the dignity of the human person.
No matter how much the figure of Burke might wax and wane in terms of his reputation among historians, his ideas will be as relevant as they are timeless; they come from a source beyond the immediate.
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