Reading Burke

I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty.—Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke is a writer that everyone talks about but few actually read. Admittedly only now have I found time to pick up his masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Though Burke is considered a founding father of Anglo-American conservatism, he was by no means a reactionary. He was a Whig (albeit of the more traditional wing) who opposed slavery and sympathized with the grievances of the American colonists. Yet Burke was appalled by the violence of France’s political experimentation.

The first section of the Reflections is devoted to justifying the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was a bloodless coup which deposed James II. For an American reader of the twenty-first century, his lengthy apologia for William III and parliament may seem the least useful part of the book. James has gone down in history as one of the most unpopular sovereigns in English history, and no doubt some of it was deserved. Even his defenders considered him a humorless and impolitic ruler. But the black legend that surrounds him was unduly colored by the fact that he was the last Catholic king in a country that was staunchly “anti-papist.” For the Whigs, one of James’ chief offenses was his attempted “subversion” of the established Church of England. A point conveniently overlooked is that his reign was marked by attempts at widespread religious liberty that extended to low church “dissenters” as well as Catholics.

More pertinent to Burke’s thesis, however, is the fact that James was an absolutist who was seen as threatening traditional liberties and legal precedent. The Reflections make the valid point that 1688 was a limited political transformation and not a pervasive social rebellion. Burke objected to any attempt by his contemporaries to “justify” the events in France by those of a century earlier. England’s culture and politics had remained essentially the same. Continuity was as important as change. At the same time, says Burke, a polity “without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” This was also true of the American Revolution. By contrast, said Burke, “the very idea of the fabrication of a new government [as in France] is enough to fill us with disgust and horror.”

Burke’s work is not an easy one for the modern reader. He is no Boswell in style, but his thinking is perceptive. Indeed, the opening pages of Burke’s Reflections are highly aphoristic. “Flattery corrupts both the receiver and giver,” he says, “and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings.” One suspects, however, that few people get beyond the introduction. In future posts I hope to share my thoughts on Burke’s contributions to our political understanding and his relevance to modern times.

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