Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) was a great Irish statesman and political philosopher of the eighteenth century. Burke was born to a middle-class family in Dublin. His father was a Protestant but his mother was a Roman Catholic. At the age of fifteen, Burke entered Quaker school and then went to Trinity College, Dublin. Although he studied law in London, he worked as a secretary to political figures rather than practicing the legal profession. Edmund Burke wrote several books concerning political philosophy where he laid out ideas of natural right and community, prescription, and traditions which continue to remain influential in our contemporary world.
In 1774, Burke was elected to Parliament as a Member from Bristol. He served nearly twenty years in Parliament. His attention was concerned with the conflict in the American colonies, the affairs of India, the Irish question, and the war with France after the French Revolution.
The “Rockingham Whigs” with whom Burke was associated upheld traditional institutions and beliefs. They were a stalwart opponent to Lord North’s political policies toward North America which alienated American colonies.
His finest speeches are about the emerging revolution in the North American colonies and “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” The selection which included here is “Speech on Conciliation with America” in 1775. This speech didn’t influence the American Revolution directly. The revolution erupted a month before the speech was published and long before the news Burke’s speech reached the American colonies. The speech eloquently presents the position of the colonists concerning American liberty.
As Englishmen, the American colonists were owed “ancient rights” of Englishmen which were well established and enjoyed since those rights were numbered in the Magna Charta. Those rights include: the right to own and enjoy private property which was violated through excessive taxation. Furthermore, they were owned government that represented the interests of the American colonists. Burke clearly expresses the fountainhead of that the ‘fierce spirit of liberty’ was found in the Christian religion. The ‘spirit of liberty’ was nurtured by the experiences and beliefs of the Puritans, Quakers, and other “Dissenters” who settled in the region of the East coast of the North American continent.
Edmund Burke’s perceptive writings clearly represent the principles and beliefs that guided the American revolutionaries and those of the framers of representative constitutional government in America.
These, Sir, are my reasons for not entertaining that high opinion of untried force, by which many gentlemen, for whose sentiments in other particulars I have great respect, seem to be so greatly captivated. But there is still behind a third consideration concerning this object, which serves to determine my opinion of the sort of policy which ought to be pursued in the management of America, even more than its population its commerce, I mean its temper and character.
In this character of Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people on earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; which, which to understand the true temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.
First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most prominent; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favorite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened, you know, Sir, that the great contests for freedom in this country were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing. Most of the contests in the ancient commonwealths turned primarily on the right of election of magistrates; or on the balance among the several orders of the state. The question of money was not with them so immediate. But England it was otherwise.
On this point of taxes the ablest pens, and most eloquent tongues, have been exercised; the greatest spirits have acted and suffered. In order to give the fullest satisfaction concerning the importance of this point, it was only necessary for those who in argument defended the excellence of the English constitution, to insist on this privilege of granting money as a dry point of fact, and to prove, that the right has had been acknowledged in ancient parchments, and blind usages, to reside in a certain body called a House of Commons.
They went much further; they attempted to prove, and they succeeded, that in theory it ought to be so, from the particular nature of a House of Commons, as an immediate representative of the people; whether the old records had delivered this oracle or not. 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. I do not say whether they were right or wrong in applying your general arguments to their own case. It is not easy indeed to make a monopoly of theorems and corollaries. The fact is, that they did thus apply those general arguments; and your mode of governing them, whether through lenity or indolence, through wisdom or mistake, confirmed them in the imagination, that they, as well as you, had an interest in these common principles.
They were further confirmed in this pleasing error by the form of their provincial legislatie assemblies. Their governments are popular in a high degree some are merely popular; in all, the popular representative is the most weighty; and this share of the people in their ordinary government never fails to inspire them with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their importance.
If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the form of government, religion would have given it a complete effect. Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it. I do not think, Sir, that the reason of this adverseness is the dissenting churches, from all that looks like absolute government, is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Everyone knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favour and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government.
But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the Northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when the spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been a constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed…
Then, Sir, from these six capital sources; of descent; of form of government; of religion in the northern provinces; of manners in the southern; of education; of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government; from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth; a spirit, that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England, which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us.
Edmund Burke, 1775