Last week, we looked at the Declaration of Independence, which was in many ways the fruit of the Enlightenment political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others. We saw how Locke, in particular, influenced the Declaration of Independence, which began the Revolutionary War. During the period leading up to and including the Revolutionary War, the British writer and political thinker Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament and opposed British colonial policy, which he saw as foolish and self-defeating. He based his opposition on practical, moral, and philosophical grounds, and in so doing crafted an important political philosophy that has continuing importance. 
Burke was born in Ireland in 1729. His father was an attorney. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and after a short time in London preparing for the bar, became a writer, like Rousseau whom we previously studied and with whom Burke was acquainted. In 1765, Burke became the Private Secretary to the Earl of Rockingham, then leader of the Whig party and was elected to the British Parliament. He served as a member of Parliament for twenty-nine years. During this time, he was especially concerned with the treatment of the American colonies by the British crown, the situation in Ireland (a Catholic nation controlled by Protestant Great Britain), and British policy in India. For all of his political career, Burke was a defender of religious freedom.
When the French Revolution turned radical and violent, Burke was appalled and near the end of his political career. In 1790, he published what has become his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. In 1794, after a split in the Whig party over the French Revolution, Burke retired from politics. Broken by the early death of his son, Burke died in 1797.
Basic Political Orientation
There has always been a division between admirers and detractors of Burke. Some view him as reactionary. Others view him as essentially a political pragmatist, often using moral arguments as a cover for utilitarian conclusions. Modern political conservatives frequently view him as the intellectual founder of their movement. Fans of Rousseau and of the French Revolution regarded his opposition to that event as unfortunate. Those who opposed religion found his defense of religion wrong-headed, though they often approved of his policies.
In my view, Burke is what we might call a “Classical-Organic” political thinker. Writing to one of his friends early in his career he recommended reading the classics as opposed to the writers of the Enlightenment, a view that underscores his rejection of the abstract theoretical substructure of their thought in favor of a more measured historically guided approach.  His political views were strongly impacted by his reading of history and the classics. In addition, his views on politics were impacted by the study of history and the organic growth of institutions and policies. His tendency was to work for organic modification.
In particular, Burke was suspicious of abstract and theoretical approaches to government, approaches characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers both in Britain and on the European continent. In this “Letter to the Sherrifs of the City of Bristol” (1777), he states:
Civil freedom, gentlemen, is not, as many have endeavored to persuade you, a thing that lies hid in the depth of abstruse science. It is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation; and all the just reasoning that can be upon it is of so coarse a texture, as perfectly to suit the ordinary capacities of those who are to enjoy, and of those who are to defend it. Far from any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysics, which admit no medium, but must be true or false in all their latitude; social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, and shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community. 
In this quote one clearly sees Burke’s rejection of false rationalism in favor of an organic adaptation of policy to the circumstances of a concrete people.
Burke and the American Revolution
I placed Burke in this spot in this series of blogs because of his opposition to the British policy during the American Revolution. His thought forms a bridge between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the American Constitution (1789), both of which his life and career spanned. It is also appropriate because of his principled opposition to the conduct of the Crown and Government in connection with the Revolutionary War and its causes. History has proven him to be correct in his basic judgements.
Conflicting Duties of Parliament. Burke realized that Parliament was in a difficult situation with respect to the colonies. As the Parliament of Great Britain, it had a duty to act as best profited Great Britain and its citizens. The colonies were a part of an empire, and the natural course of events was to manage that empire for the benefit of the King and those who elected them to Parliament. On the other hand, the citizens of the colonies were also British subjects, and the conduct of Parliament and the King was sometimes not in the best interest of the citizens of British colonies. In particular, the American colonies were large and important, but had no direct representation in Parliament. This had the potential to lead to conflicts of interest and mistreatment of the colonies and their citizens.
Distance and Difference. Burke also recognized that any scheme for governance of the American colonies had to take account of the fact that the American people were accustomed to a high degree of freedom and certain to oppose heavy-handed rule from a Parliament 3,000 miles away.  It was simply not possible for the King or Parliament to rule South Carolina in the same way or same degree as it might Bedfordshire. Distance and the cost of government made it simply impossible. As Burke put it, “No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government.” 
By the mid-18th century, the American colonists were used to a high degree of freedom and independence from Great Britain. The colonies had legislatures, and those legislatures were accustomed to raise taxes for local government and had a significant degree of power over the inhabitants of their jurisdictions. As a matter of historical fact and precedent, the colonists had long enjoyed a large degree of freedom. The imposition of laws, and especially tax laws, by Parliament in far-away London was bound to cause problems in America.
Taxation without Representation. Historically, British colonies had always been taxed. However, during the years leading up to the American Revolution, these taxes became more and more burdensome as Britain sought to undergird the costs of their new empire. As to citizens of Great Britain, it had been a guaranteed right of the English since 1689 that they could not be taxed without the consent of Parliament. The fact that the colonists were being taxed without representation in parliament, was noticed by many thinkers, including Burke and Adam Smith, both of which thought that the colonists should not be taxed without some kind of representation, though the mechanism was a matter of dispute and discussion. 
The Whigs, during a short time in power repealed the Stamp Tax that was so much hated by the colonies. Unfortunately, once the Whig government fell, the tax was re-imposed.  By 1765, the phrase “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny” was heard, often repeated, and deeply believed in the colonies.  Burke agreed that that the colonists should have the historic rights of Englishmen to have some kind of say in the levying of their own taxes.
In his “Speech on Moving his Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies” of March 22, 1775, Burke remarked:
They took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must in effect themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe, or might be endangered, in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound. 
Liberty is more than the right to do what one pleases. It has an economic character, and the right to control the kind and amount of taxes is one of the principle rights of a free people. Burke recognized that the colonies could not continue to be taxed without some say in the taxes they were required to pay.
Colonial Rights to Self-Government. By 1776, the colonies had a long history of self-government. They had state and local governments of varying duties, which governments had considerably more legitimacy in the eyes of the colonists (and considerably more impact on their day-to-day lives) than did a far-away government in London. There were legislatures, a judicial system, executive functions, and other duties performed at state and local levels. When in response to the Boston Tea Party and other revolutionary activities, the Crown attempted to impose direct rule, there was upheaval.
Burke recognized that, whatever might have been done at the beginning of colonial history, it was not possible to impose direct rule without a revolution. He recognized that the cost of such an endeavor would not only be more than the British treasury could endure, but it would be corrosive of the rights of all British citizens to deprive the colonists of their freedom. In this insight, we see the organic and moral basis of his political philosophy: Politics for Burke was a practical art of adapting to the facts of a particular moment in history within an inherited moral framework and tradition. In adapting to that moment, the past history of the situation and its organic development was important, and political morality placed limits on what a wise government might do. In politics, actions must conform to the character and circumstances of the people governed. 
Politics as Historical Wisdom
In “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent” (1770) he writes of a “retrospective wisdom,” meaning the study of history with a view towards practical application in public affairs.  In his speeches and writings, he often begins with an historical review of the events which created the present situation, seeking in history practical guidance in the resolution of current problems. He is always seeking a prudent and wise solution to political turmoil.
Burke’s respect for intellectual tradition and inherited wisdom results in his opposition to “abstract speculative political ideas” as a ground of policy, preferring to base policy on history, tradition and practical experience of the past. His rejection is directed towards the thought of Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Rousseau as to the French Revolution and Locke and Hobbes as to British law and policy.
Next week, I will continue looking at the thought of Burke. For this week, I would like to conclude with a few observations about the continued applicability of his thought to our situation in America today.
- Both of our political parties are inclined, when in power, to follow abstract ideas of policy without due consideration of the circumstances and history of a problem. This has led to many polity failures over the years. We desperately need a wiser, more organic, incremental view of government and the management of political change.
- Like the early British Empire, the late 20th and early 21st century United States of America often fails to calculate the importance of distance, the limits on power, the nature of other cultures, and the cost of military, economic, and other foreign adventures on our domestic freedoms. We cannot impose on other nations our social or economic institutions, nor should we generally try to do so.
- The role of morality and tradition in politics, a casualty of Enlightenment thinking, needs to be recovered. The notion that there are limits on what a wise and good government can and should do is one too often ignored today.
 The major readings on which this blog is based are found in Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches Peter J. Stanis, ed. (Washington, DC: Regency Publications, 1963). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this edition of Burke’s thought.
 Great Thinkers, Edmund Burke, Biography at https://thegreatthinkers.org/burke/biography/ (Downloaded April 27, 2017). In 1746, Burke wrote to a friend, “we are just on the verge of Darkness and one push drives us in … I would therefore advise more to your reading the writings of those who have gone before us than our Contemporaries …” Id.
 Selected Writings and Speeches, 243.
 Collected Works, prev. cited, at 189, 194.
 Id, at 193.
 Burkes ideas on this matter were highly complex and evolved during the years of discontent between Britain and the colonies. At times, there was talk of direct representation and some form of indirect representation.
 The Stamp Tax was imposed on every document or newspaper printed or used in the colonies. The tax ranged from one shilling a newspaper to ten pounds for a lawyer’s license, everything a colonist needed to was taxed. The income was directed to pay the cost of defending the colonies. The colonist particularly objected to the fact that violation of the taxes would be prosecuted by in Admiralty Courts and not by jury trials in which their fellow citizens would be their judges. History Central, https://www.historycentral.com/Revolt/stamptax.html (Downloaded April 28, 2021).
 The history of the use of this term is of itself interesting, for it had roots both in Great Britain and the colonies. The right of representation as to taxes was, as mentioned, felt to be a fundamental right of British subjects.
 Id, at 190. Burke’s argument at this point seems to be that, right or wrong, the issue of taxation without representation is one that the colonists were not likely to compromise because of their common views on the subject and the historic rights of British citizens.
 Id, at 211.