An Analysis by August Glen-James
By March 1775, the British situation in the Colonies was growing daily more tense; the first shots of the American Revolution were less than a month away. Edmund Burke, in response to this crisis, delivered a speech in Parliament wherein he said, “I do not mean to commend either the spirit in this excess, or the moral causes which produce it.” “Perhaps,” he continued, “a more smooth and accommodating spirit of freedom in them would be more acceptable to us. Perhaps ideas of liberty might be desired, more reconcilable with an arbitrary and boundless authority. Perhaps we might wish the colonists to be persuaded, that their liberty is more secure when held in trust for them by us (as guardians during a perpetual minority) than with any part of it in their own hands.” Continuing, Burke delivered the essence of his remarks: “The question is, not whether their spirit deserves praise or blame, but—what, in the name of God, shall we do with it?”
Prior to these remarks, Burke detailed the “spirit” and “moral causes” of friction between Great Britain and the American Colonies: His analysis produced “six capital sources.” Using extended quotes and editorial summaries, this investigation will address Burke’s fundamental argument.
Before enumerating and explaining the “six capital sources,” Burke characterized the Americans in these terms:
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 [sic], 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 of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; 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.
Burke then began to “lay open” the American spirit. “First,” he said, “the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen,” the importance, of which, being that England, as a nation, traditionally “adored” her freedom. When the colonists emigrated, this freedom-loving character was at its strongest. “They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.” Moreover, the concept of English liberty was not an abstraction; rather, the English conceptualized liberty “in some sensible object” that became a “criterion” for happiness. For instance, on the germane issue of taxation, the “ablest pens” and the “most eloquent tongues” insisted that the “privilege of granting money as a dry point of fact” resided in a certain body called a House of Commons as the “immediate representative of the people.” From this, the fundamental principle emerged 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.”
Burke continued this line of reasoning as follows:
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. . . . 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.
Although in the next paragraph, Burke qualified the foregoing as “a pleasing error,” he ducked the issue as to whether the colonies were right or wrong when applying the general arguments to their own case. It was “not easy indeed to make a monopoly of theorems and corollaries,” but, in fact, the colonies viewed the general arguments of “common principle” as applicable to themselves, as Englishman and inheritors of English liberty, as they were to those in England proper.
Second, Burke discussed colonial resistance issuing from the form of their legislative assemblies. “Their governments are popular in a high degree,” Burke observed, which made the popular representative “most weighty.” And as the people shared in their “ordinary government,” they had “lofty sentiments” and a “strong aversion” to whatever may deprive them of the popular nature of their local institutions.
Third, Burke addressed the impact of religion. “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.” Burke identified Protestantism as central to this “mode of professing” and “free spirit” thus making them “adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.” Moreover, their brand of Protestantism was “a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it.” Burke went on to suggest that the averseness of the “dissenting churches” to anything “that looks like absolute government” is most likely to be found in history rather than their religious tenets.
Burke suggested that the history of both the Roman Catholic religion and the Church of England was one of intertwinement with government. The “dissenting interests,” however, “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.” He continued:
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 brand of religion, Burke said, dominated the northern provinces (i.e., New England) where the various denominations agreed in nothing but “the communion of the spirit of liberty.” Even those not associated with the dissenting churches, according to Burke, emigrated from England when liberty-loving dissent from the establishment was high. Foreigners, too, who were entering and mixing in the colonies were dissenters from whence they came and “brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.” It seemed to be a sort of perfect storm of dissenters assembling in the colonies.
Burke moved to a fourth point wherein he addressed a palpable skepticism in the room. How could his theories about history and the tradition of dissent apply to the Southern Colonies? After all, the Church of England formed “a large body” with “a regular establishment” in the South. Burke answered that the Southern Colonies had a circumstance that counterbalanced the regulating influence of the Church of England and, actually, made the spirit of liberty still “more high and haughty” than what was found in the New England colonies, i.e., slavery. Buke explained:
It is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal.
Burke saw this “high and haughty” attitude in slave societies as the result of human nature. Because of it, Burke believed those in the Southern Colonies to be “more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty, than those to the northward.” History, said Burke, bears this interpretation out and thus it will always be amongst “masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. . . . In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders in invincible.”
Burke then moved on to the fifth “circumstance . . . which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable [sic] spirit.” In short, it was the colonists’ penchant for legal education and study. “In no other country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers.”
The colonists, said he, consumed books on law and had taken to printing them for their own use. “I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England,” Burke observed. Furthermore, “General Gage marks out this disposition very particularly in a letter on your table. He states, that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law; and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitution.”
At this point, Burke recognized what may be considered a contradiction. Shouldn’t this legal knowledge encourage the colonists to be better subjects? Shouldn’t it teach them “more clearly” the legal rights of the legislature and their obligations thereto? Almost cynically, though, he recognized the fact that if the people were not lured by “great honours and great emoluments” to support the state, their knowledge becomes a “formidable adversary to the government” and if “this spirit” is not broken, “it is stubborn and litigious.” Burke specified the following:
This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze. [italics added]
The idea of snuffing “the approach of tyranny” was a powerful force in the American colonies. John Adams, responding to charges of exaggeration about Crown abuses, conceded the point but added that if the small abuses were not nipped in the bud, larger abuses would ensue. He articulated the point thusly:
Obsta principiis—Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers and destroyers press upon them so fast that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants [sic] and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality, swallow up the whole society.**
Finally, Burke addressed “the last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies” which was, he said, “hardly less powerful than the rest.” It boiled down to geography: three thousand miles of ocean, specifically. The physical distance between the colonies and the Mother Country rendered communication months in the making. The “want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system,” he claimed. Burke believed that this situation made the disobedience completely natural and was, furthermore, a fact of rule borne by all empires throughout history . . . Britain being only the latest to experience this natural phenomenon. “This is the immutable condition,” Burke concluded, “the eternal law, of extensive and detached empire.”
After summarizing these “six capital sources” of friction, Burke remarked that “every principle of authority and resistance has been pushed, upon both sides, as far as it would go, there is nothing so solid and certain, either in reasoning or in practice, that has not been shaken.” Burke continued, “We thought that the utmost which the discontented colonists could do, was to disturb authority; we never dreamt they could of themselves supply it; knowing in general what an operose business it is to establish a government absolutely new.”
He further explained:
Some provinces have tried their experiment, as we have tried ours; and theirs has succeeded. They have formed a government sufficient for its purposes, without a bustle of a revolution, or the troublesome formality of an election. Evident necessity, and tacit consent, have done the business in an instant. So well they have done it, that Lord Dunmore . . . tells you, that the new institution is infinitely better obeyed than the ancient government ever was in its most fortunate periods. Obedience is what makes government, and not the names by which it is called; not the name of governor, as formerly, or committee, as at present. This new government has originated directly from the people; and was not transmitted through any of the ordinary artificial media of a positive constitution. It was not a manufacture ready formed, and transmitted to them in the condition from England.
Burke saw an “evil” arising from the colonial experience in self-government: Now that the colonists had found that “order” could be had, even in the midst of a struggle for liberty, “henceforward . . . the settled and sober part of mankind” won’t find such endeavors “so terrible . . . as they had appeared before the trial.” At this juncture, it may be fair to infer that Burke foresaw an increasing difficulty in maintaining the empire in light of colonial actions.
Burke subsequently acknowledged, in essence, that British plans had completely backfired. They seemed to believe that by “abrogating the ancient government of Massachusetts,” the people would be terrified by the anarchy. Sorely amazed, however, he admitted that the province had “subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigour . . . without governor, without public council, without judges, without executive magistrates.” How long this could go on, not even the wisest could guess. Burke then concluded:
Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent. I am much against any further experiments, which tend to put to the proof any more of these allowed opinions, which contribute so much to the public tranquility. In effect, we suffer as much at home by this loosening of all ties, and this concussion of all established opinions, as we do abroad. For, in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.
The American Revolutionary War began in earnest after this speech and concluded, finally, with independence for the several American States via the Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783.
*Burke's Speech is in the public domain.
**For the Adams quote (also in the public domain), see his Novanglus letters, No. III, 1774, @ http://www.masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/view?&id=PJA02dg5