Origins of Conservatism Part IV: Edmund Burke
Brad Johnson, Politics Contributor
*Read the third installation here.*
For any introspective conservative, it cannot be any surprise where this series will conclude. Just as the Colorado River shaped the Grand Canyon, Edmund Burke shaped Conservatism. Known widely as the Father of Modern Conservatism, Burke remained a principled supporter of liberty and natural rights while still in staunch opposition to chaos and populist tendencies. Burke is the culmination of the three previous Founding Fathers of Conservatism (Richard Hooker, Marquess de Halifax, and David Hume), with his own twist. If he is not already, Edmund Burke should remain an oft cited name in every conservative mind.
A precise moral and ethical code underwrites all of conservatism’s maxims. Edmund Burke once said, “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” Politics is an extension of morality and all decisions must derive from that fundamental morality. However, to Burke, morality in practice differs from morality in the abstract. Mankind is not perfect. No better explained than by the famous quote from James Madison in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Thereupon, a central idea of conservatism sits. Government is a necessary evil that must be held in check, but must exist nonetheless.
Edmund Burke recognized this as fact, and thus modeled his positions after such an idea. The institutions that exist between the individual and the state, are necessary for society and prevent irreverent statism. Devices like the religion, business, and family, allow man reprieve from controlling tendencies of an omnipotent government. The continuance of such societal aspects are in the best interest of every participant of the aforementioned society.
Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France directs focused criticism greatly on the deterioration of society by democratically and populist-speared chaos. The inherent tendency towards mob-rule exhibited by democracy in its truest sense, cemented the virtues of representative government in Burke’s mind. Tyranny of the majority was part and parcel to tyranny experienced at the hands of a single man. The evils were no different and thus were equally subject to condemnation. Representative governments, and constitutional republics in particular, allowed for flourishment of individual liberties while also preserving stability in society.
Many of Burke’s contemporaries, and perhaps most notably Thomas Paine, maligned Burke for his supposed inconsistencies in his praise and criticism of various significant events. These errant slights show a lack of understanding of Burke’s thinking in regards to famous rebellions of the time. The four most famous being the French Revolution, the American Revolution, British treatment of India, and British treatment of the Irish. In each of these examples, Burke illustrates his innate consistency on the balance of individual rights and authority.
Burke, a natural born Irishman, saw first-hand the indiscretions committed by the Crown on the Catholics of Ireland (despite being a Protestant himself). As a member of the House of Commons, Burke criticized greatly the British treatment of Irish Catholics. The Irish, just as the Americans and Indians, were citizens of Great Britain, and thus were entitled to the rights and privileges awarded to Englishmen. Therefore, the denial of such rights were cause for opposition. Burke remained steadfast in this point throughout his time in Parliament.
Most famously, Burke is known for his ardent support of the American Revolution, and zealous objection to the Revolution in France. He saw the American colonists as citizens resisting oppressive practices by George III, and attempting to reclaim the rights accompanying citizenship under the British Constitution. This “revolution” (he did not really see it as such) was grounded in reality. Herein lies the crucial distinction, at least as Burke saw it. The French Revolution pursued an ideal that was grounded in theory, and in practice only resulted in turmoil.
The slogan cited in Revolutionary France was “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” This translates into “liberty, equality, and brotherhood.” Burke saw each of these as noble pursuits, but in application the French Revolutionaries fell drastically short. To the French Revolutionaries, liberty and equality were not explicitly defined and written into law, but rather were subject to the mood of the majority. This fact undermined those very three ideals, in Burke’s mind.
In America, on the other hand, the pursued ideal had already been in existence. England, for centuries, had gradually worked toward perfection of a representative government. The American Revolution was merely a continuation of that. Meanwhile in France, chaos was the name of the game and mob-rule was the medium by which it materialized. That balance between authority and individual rights was discarded by the Jacobins in France. Thus, Burke saw it as a great threat to stable society.
Burke’s consistency on these issues, where others wavered, eventually caused his political fall from grace. His contemporaries in Parliament ended friendships with him over his opposition to Jacobin France. To Burke, lost acquaintances were no reason to submit himself to dereliction of duty. Despite the overwhelming support in his wing of Parliament for the French Revolution, Burke never budged. The man, in short time, lost reelection to his seat in Parliament.
Therein lies the chief lesson to be learned from Edmund Burke. His preference for stability and incremental change, if indeed it is needed, are important. The same goes for his support of religious freedom and individual rights, and likewise the opposition to chaos and subjectivity to the winds of public opinion. Above all, the primary lesson Edmund Burke has taught Conservatives, is to stand up for your beliefs, even in the face of certain defeat. Just because a majority believes something, does not make it morally right.
Winning at the price of principle, is no victory at all. Practicality is important for functioning society, however should one find himself at an impasse between political victory paired with dereliction of principle and adherence to moral truth paired with political suicide, the more noble route lies in the latter, not the former. Edmund Burke paved the way for Modern Conservatism today. It is time we honor his example, and become the Burkean Conservatives we strive, in principle, to be.
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