Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, by Jesse Norman, Bassic Books, $18.78, 336 pages
Edmund Burke’s name, if it is known by Americans at all, is generally associated with conservatism. But what is conservatism, really? And what exactly is a conservative?
Today the terms conservative and liberal get tossed around as pejorative labels or badges of honor, yet their real meanings are widely misunderstood.
If you went out “Jay-Walking” with Jay Leno and asked people to define what a conservative is, some people might define the term by association with a specific person: a conservative is (fill in the blank). Other people might define it by describing it: a conservative is someone who (again, fill in the blank.) The list of who is and who isn’t a conservative, and the list of characteristics that constitutes what a conservative is would likely vary based on the person to whom you were talking.
Few people, however, would probably say that conservatism is a political philosophy that promotes the value and stability of traditional social institutions while also being able to adapt to inevitable changes that evolve over time rather than to promote radical revolution.
Many students of political philosophy identify Burke as the first and the most important conservative thinker. Jesse Norman’s new book is sure to help introduce many to Burke and his ideas.
Born in 1729, Burke was an Irishman who sat as a member of Parliment for 30 years. He believed the law should be applied equally to all people, but as an advocate of free markets, he didn’t believe that everone, regardless of their share of ownership, had an equal right to the distrabutions of profit. He advocated for the betterment of the Irish Catholic who lived under British rule but were not afforded equal justice under the law or equal access to the opportunities, such as education, afforded other British subjects.
And while he is considered by many to have been an ally of the American revolutionaries, he was not. He had sympathies for their complaints against the treatment by Parliament, and he predicted the course of history if Parliament continued in its heavy-handed rule of and taxation imposed on the colonies.
In a speech before Parliament on April 19, 1774, he advised a continuation of the policy of benign or salutatory neglect that England had exercised since the British colonies had been founded: “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 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 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. Nobody will be argued into slavery.”
Although he was sympathetic to the colonists lament about “taxation without representation” Burke was not an advocate of disregarding the law and overturning a government by either coup d’état or revolution. In one of his most famous writings, Reflections on the French Revolution, Burke argued against the French Revolution because of the destabilizing affect it would have on the country.
Freedom alone was not the ultimate good in and of itself. Freedoms had to be balanced, Burke believed, with discipline and what he called the “moral imagination,” a drapery woven from right order in both the soul and society. He believed in the necessity of religion to provide the pillars on which a society could be strong. Society and the social contract, he argued is ‘”a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Burke was Rousseau’s polar opposite. Burke wasn’t willing to throw the baby out with the bath water; he wanted to retain the important social institutions that provided coherence and continuity. Rousseau, the intellectual architect of the French Revolution, saw revolution of government, religion and social institutions as the ultimate act of independence. And while the conditions in France were not ideal, the French Revolution plunged France into many years of economic and political instability which led to the reign of Napoleon, a host of military campaigns, more bloodshed and more strife for the common man and woman.
Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol expressed his view of the right role of representative government in a democracy versus the role of a delegate to do the bidding of the influential: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form a hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.”
One of Burke’s great political battles was against the crony capitalism of the East India Company and Warren Hastings, who had been the Governor General of Bengal. Burke’s moral compass was so strong that he could not abide corruption. Burke exposed the colonial exploitation of India for monetary gain at the expense of the indigenous people in India.
Norman’s book is divided into two sections, the first half biography, the second half a reflection on Burke’s writings and philosophy. Burke was an accomplished author, an eloquent orator, and a benevolent man who was truly a public servant. Written by a member of the British House of Commons, Norman presents us with a concise, readable book on Burke and the philosophy of conservatism which may help both those on the right and the left to accurately define the term and to identify those who espouse and embrace its principles.
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