Burke's Words Should Hearten Dismayed Conservatives

Burke's Words Should Hearten Dismayed Conservatives

By Peter Berkowitz - February 25, 2012

The drawn-out Republican primary season, which is almost certain to extend well beyond March's Super Tuesday round of voting, has sparked puzzlement over conservative principles and provoked consternation about the persistence of disagreement over conservative priorities.

The jockeying between the four remaining GOP contenders for the affections of the conservative base of the party commands the headlines. But at times like these, conservatives would be well-served to recall the now-forgotten causes championed by British statesman Edmund Burke in some of his greatest speeches and in his 1790 classic, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” which, it is no exaggeration to say, is one of the founding documents of modern conservatism.

Burke’s causes, and the trenchant arguments he summoned in their behalf, are instructive because they teach that liberty’s defense is the paramount political task, not perfecting man. His career is reassuring because it illustrates that quarrels, indeed bitter disputes, about the policies that advance liberty are not a function of some temporary breakdown in civility. They are endemic to self-government.

Prudent reform to meet the changing requirements of liberty was a hallmark of Burke’s long service in Parliament, stretching from his election in 1765 as member of the House of Commons to his retirement in 1794. The signature stances he took were hugely controversial, affecting weighty interests, stirring bitter passions, and roiling party politics. Although often unpopular with his constituents and rejected in the short run, his positions and principles were vindicated in the long term and honorably reflected his conviction that beyond unflagging devotion to their interests, a legislator owed constituents his reasoned and independent judgment.

Burke delivered his “Speech on Conciliation With the Colonies” in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775 -- 10 years to the day that Parliament passed the Stamp Act, substantially increasing taxes on the colonists while ignoring their demands for representation, and less than a month before the battles of Lexington and Concord would ignite the Revolutionary War. In that speech, Burke counseled Britain against armed conflict with America and advised how to reestablish relations with the colonists on a solid footing. The key, he argued, was to recognize their shared love of freedom.

In appreciation of America’s “fierce spirit of liberty,” Burke favored granting the colonists limited representation in Parliament on questions of taxation, though not as a matter of right. Under British law, he stressed, the colonists had none.

Statesmanship, however, required a further consideration: “The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.” Statesmanship also called for more than crude calculations of utility: “I am not determining a point of law,” he said. “ I am restoring tranquility; and the general character and situation of a people must determine what sort of government is fitted for them.”

While conciliation, “the ancient constitutional policy of the kingdom,” involved a concession to the Americans, its propriety was rooted in the very nature of politics: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”

Conciliation was specifically warranted in the case of America because it advanced Britain’s material and moral interests. By allowing English liberties to flourish in the colonies, Britain would encourage the spirit that made America prosperous, reinforce liberty at home, and conserve English dominion on the most favorable long-term basis.

Two hundred and 20 years before Newt Gingrich converted to Catholicism, Edmund Burke gave a speech at the Guildhall in Bristol offering his constituents a carefully crafted defense of a bill -- his support for which contributed to the loss of his Parliamentary seat that year -- that eased harsh disabilities imposed by England’s Penal Laws on Irish Catholics. Passed in 1699, the Penal Laws, among other things, required Catholics to renounce their Catholicism or forfeit their land, disqualified them from holding public office, and placed severe restriction on their professional advancement (Burke’s father almost certainly converted from Catholicism to Anglicism to practice law).

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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