Many conservatives have assumed that Edmund Burke was opposed to the American Revolution. It is, to my mind, an erroneous assumption.
“Burke broke his agentship and went publicly silent on the American cause once war broke out,” Robert Nisbet claimed in his most definitive analysis of Edmund Burke, written and published in 1985. His fellow great conservative of the era, Russell Kirk, argued something similar, though 30 years earlier. “But it is a confusion of ideas to say that Burke was in favor of the American Revolution. Burke never was in favor of any revolution,” Kirk wrote.
Kirk, especially, must be identified with Burke when looking at the history of Burke in the 20th century. “If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke,” Kirk famously wrote. He “was the first conservative of our time of troubles. He labored to safeguard the permanent things, which have converted the brute into the civil social man.”
Not surprisingly, given the prevalence (well deserved, of course) of Kirk and Nisbet, conservatives ever since have echoed this assumption. It is, to my mind, though, an erroneous assumption. While it would be too much to claim that Burke actively championed American notions of Natural Rights—as understood in the founding through the Declaration of Independence—it would be, to my mind, equally wrong to claim that Burke vehemently disagreed with American ideas. Given the evidence available in Burke’s private letters and in his public addresses, it is impossible to argue either extreme.
There are several things we do know for certain, however. From his inaugural address to Parliament in early 1766 until the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, Burke dealt with almost nothing in Parliament that did not, in some way, affect the British effort to suppress American independence.
During the Crises period, especially in 1774 and 1775, Burke openly defended the rights of Americans as the rights of Englishmen.
Leave the Americans as they anciently stood and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. They and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system. Let the memory of all actions in contradiction of that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished forever . . . Do not burden 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 only there may they 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 into your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery.
And, again, giving the Americans a specific historical context:
The mode of inquisition and dragooning is going out of fashion in the Old World, and I should not confide much to their efficacy in the New. The education of the Americans is also on the same unalterable bottom of their religion. You cannot persuade them to burn their books of curious science, to banish their lawyers from their courts of law, or to quench the lights of their assemblies by refusing to choose those persons who are best read in their privileges. It would be no less impracticable to think of wholly annihilating the popular assemblies in which these lawyers sit. The army, by which we must govern in their place, would be far more chargeable to us, not quite so effectual, and perhaps, in the end, full as difficult in obedience.
One might, based on these quotes alone, assume that Burke did become quiet about the revolution after the war actually broke out. Yet, he remained far from silent. “The despair that has seized upon some, and the Listlessness that has fallen upon almost all, is surprising, and resembles more the Effect of some supernatural Cause, stupyfying and disabling the powers of a people destined to destruction, than anything I could have imagined,” a bewildered Burke wrote in August of 1775. “The people seem to have completely forgot the resources of a free government for rectifying publick mismanagements and mistakes.”
Here’s, perhaps, Burke’s most radical public statement, given on November 6, 1775, more than half a year after the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. This (below) came as a response to the King’s call for a day of fasting to support British troops in America.
In this situation, Sir, shocking to say, are we called upon by another proclamation, to go to the altar of the Almighty, with war and vengeance in our hearts, instead of the peace of our blessed Saviour. He said ‘my peace I give you;’ but we are, on this fast, to have war only in our hearts and mouths; war against our brethren. Till our churches are purified from this abominable service, I shall consider them not as the temples of the Almighty, but the synagogues of Satan. An act not more infamous, as far as respects its political purposes, than blasphemous and profane as a pretended act of national devotion—when the people are called upon, in the most solemn and awful manner, to repair to church, to partake of a sacrament, and at the foot of the altar, to commit sacrilege, to perjure themselves publicly by charging their American brethren with the horrid crime of rebellion, with propagating ‘specious falsehoods,’ when either the charge must be notoriously false, or those who make it, not knowing it to be true, call Almighty God to witness, not a specious but a most audacious and blasphemous falsehood.
These are, in no way shape or form, the words of a conservative, prudent, or timid man. In a way that can only regarded as treasonous to the crown, Burke had identified George III with Satan. Burke backed all of his rhetoric up by proclaiming “Feast Days” in honor of the American soldiers.
In January 1776, Burke wrote privately: “As to America—what will happen to her God knows. She is acting a part of the utmost Magnanimity under every distance, (except the distance of her Enemy), that can be imagined.”
By mid-August of 1776, he feared that all was lost. “We are deeply in blood. We expect now to hear of some sharp affair, every hour. God knows how it will be. I do not know how to wish success to those whose Victory is to separate from us a large and noble part of our Empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression and absurdity.”
In December of 1777, Burke wrote, again privately: “The fate of my worthy and unhappy friend the brave Genl Burgoyne and his whole Army, must be a subject of very melancholy interest to this Country, in whatever light it may be considered; and nothing, but the success of that Army, in wasting and ruining a Country, just beginning to emerge from an hideous desart [sic] by the indefatigable industry of its Inhabitants, could be more deplorable.” Five months later, in April 1778, Burke conceded, “There is a dreadful schism in the British nation. Since we are not able to re-unite the empire, it is our business to give all possible vigour and soundness to those parts of it which are still content to be governed by our councils. Sir, it is proper to inform you, that our measures must be healing.”
A year later, in June 1779, he wrote, “I mean pleasant as to the principle, for nothing is so perfectly disagreeable as the present aspect of things which regard to the public, in which (however odious it may sound) I include our breather in America, whether they find it in their Interest to embody under our Monarchy, or to regulate themselves in Republics of their own.” Again, one must ask Kirk and Nisbet, if Burke so adamantly opposed the principles of the American Revolution, why did he note that he would be satisfied with America as an independent republic of republics?
Four months later, in October 1779, Burke wrote: “If nothing else can free us from that cursed American War why let this do it—and the total failure of all our absurd designs may become the beginning of our salvation.”
Finally, we have Burke’s very confessional letter to Benjamin Franklin, dated December 1781, two full months after British forces surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown.
There was a day when I held high the honour and dignity of the Community I belong to. Indeed its authority, which I always connected with its Justice and its Benevolence was a subject of my warmest enthusiasms. I ever wished and not wished only, but struggled that this Government in all Stages of this unfortunate Contest, and in all the variety of Policy which arises in it, should take the lead in every act of Generosity and benignity, and without derogating from the regard due to the younger and (not the inferior) Branch of our Nation, wishd that as the older we should furnish you with examples. But providence has not done its work by halves. You have Success; and you have added and may yet add more to what success is unable to bestow. I never had the smallest reason to be personally proud; Nationally I was high and haughty. But all the props of my pride are slipped from under me. I wishd to bestow, and I am left to supplicate.
Again, it is possible that Burke actively disliked the principles of the American Revolution, but there exists no such evidence one way or another. What we do know is that Burke, when pushed, supported the American cause for independence, though he very much lamented the breakdown and breakup of the British commonwealth.
From my perspective, Burke was a vital ally in the cause, as patriotic to the American cause as any American revolutionary leader. He not only defended our cause, he did so in a way that could have easily been regarded as treasonous by his own people.
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The featured image is “The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781″ and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.