Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. The American Controversy

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 5. The American Controversy

Of the American speeches, the greatest, as it is the most elaborate, is, doubtless, the second, On Conciliation; but the first, On American Taxation, which has more the character of being, as, indeed, it was, the spontaneous product of debate, combines, in a wonderful manner, simplicity and directness of reasoning with ardour and splendour of eloquence. There is something of Rubens or Rembrandt in the easy, broad, bold strokes with which Burke paints the history of English policy in America; the rich, diffused, warm colouring of the whole; the concentration of the high lights and more brilliant tints on the chief episodes and figures—the upright but narrow-minded Grenville; Conway, whose face in the hour of victory was as the face of an angel; the tessellated ministry of Chatham; the passing of that great and theatrical figure, and the dazzling advent of Townshend. Such “characters” had been a feature of earlier oratory and history like that of Bolingbroke and Clarendon—both of them writers with whose work Burke was intimately acquainted—but these, again, are, in Burke’s speeches, no mere rhetorical device or literary ornament. They illustrate his conviction that politics have their roots in human character; that, to understand policies, we must study personalities, whether individuals or corporate bodies like the House of Commons and the National Assembly.

The speech On Conciliation is the most greatly builded of all Burke’s speeches, not excepting those on India, which belong rather to forensic than deliberative oratory. Perhaps its structure is too elaborate for its immediate purpose. The sonorous parade of the parallel cases of Wales, Chester and Ireland was not likely to have much weight with the House of Commons. It is rather a great concio ad populum et regem, a last impassioned, elevated and conciliatory appeal to the government and the nation; and, if delivered under the conditions of a later period, when it would have been read in every household on the day following, could not but have reacted with power on both House and government. As it is, it remains some compensation to English literature for the dismemberment of the British empire. Whether we reflect on the art with which it is constructed, the skill with which the speaker winds into the heart of his subject and draws from it the material of his splendid peroration on “the spirit of the English constitution” and its power to unite, invigorate and vivify the British empire in all its diverse members; or reflect on the temper, passionate and moving yet restrained and conciliatory, in which the argument is conducted; or recall simply the greater flights of picturesque eloquence, the description of American industry and enterprise, the imagery in which the speaker clothes his conception of the spirit of the English constitution and the sovereign authority of parliament—the speech takes its own place beside the greatest masterpieces of our literature, the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Milton. It produces the same impression of supremacy in its own kind; it abounds, like these, in phrases which seem to enrich our language with a new felicity and dignity: “enjoyments which deceive the burthen of life,” “a wise and salutary neglect,” “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” “man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations,” “magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.”

In these speeches, Burke is the orator following consciously the ancient tradition of oratory; combining all the styles, the plain, the ornate, the impassioned, each used as the theme requires, in the manner which Cicero, in the Orator, describes as constituting the authentic Attic and Demosthenic eloquence. In Burke’s Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, the style is more uniform and unadorned, a vigorous and straight hitting polemic. He sweeps aside with the scorn of which he was a master the cant charges which, in time of war, are levelled at those who question either the foolish policy or arbitrary tyranny of the government, and defines, more clearly than ever, what had always been his conception of the nature of the problem presented by the government of a complex and scattered empire, and the entire competence in the matter of “prudence, constituted as the god of this lower world,” and prudence only.

What Burke deplored in the American policy of George III and his ministers was the entire absence of this prudence. He did not take any side in the battle of “rights,” natural and legal, but stood firmly upon the basis of experience and expediency. In the cases of Ireland and India, he showed that, by a policy based on expediency he understood something very different from opportunism; that, if he disdained discussion of metaphysical rights, it was not that he did not believe in the existence of rights prior to and above all human conventions and laws, but because he deemed that their abstract definition was either an impossible or a useless labour, apt to hinder, rather than to promote, their practical realisation. But that there is an eternal law of which human law is, at its best, but declaratory is the assumption and the express affirmation underlying his attacks on the tyranny of the penal laws in Ireland and on the claim to arbitrary power in India put forward by Warren Hastings, as the vindication of his treatment of the rajah of Benares. There is a law which neither despot nor people may violate; any law in contradiction of it not only may, but must, be resisted,

  • because made against the principle of a superior law, which it is not in the power of any community, or of the whole race of men to alter—I mean the will of Him who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law upon it. It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the wonder and beauty, of all the peace and happiness of human society, than the position—that any body of men have a right to make what laws they please, or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely and independent of the quality of the subject-matter. No argument of policy, reason of state, or preservation of the constitution can be pleaded in favour of such a practice.
  • So he wrote between 1760 and 1765 in Tracts relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland and his position is unchanged in 1788 when he denounces Warren Hastings.
  • Arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold nor any man can give.… We are all born in subjection … to one great, immutable, pre-existent Law, prior to all our devices, and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas, and all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the Universe, out of which we cannot stir.… Those who give and those who receive arbitrary power are alike criminal, and there is no man but is bound to resist it to the best of his power whenever it shall show its face in the world.
  • It is in view of this fundamental doctrine that we must interpret Burke’s appeals to experience and expediency. In the last resort, Burke’s politics are religious, and rest on the conviction that human authority and laws derive from an ultimate Divine authority and law. The bearing of this conviction on Burke’s attitude to the incidents and doctrines of the French revolution will appear later. It accounts for the deeper note of passion audible in the speeches and pamphlets on Irish and Indian questions when these are compared with the more persuasive and conciliatory defence of the Americans and the cause of prudence and her great teacher experience.