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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Myth of the Monolithic Conservative: A Conservative History - Burke


"The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations." -Edmund Burke
The so-called father American conservatism (some call him the antithesis) was Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke and his titan book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke found the French Revolution abhorrent on ideological grounds, as did many Americans like George Washington and John Adams. Unlike our Founders and their war to retain the rights of Americans, the French revolutionaries had the goal of totally remaking France based on a utopian vision of a new republicanism. A vision that wasn't readily agreed upon to the point inter-factional violence killed between 20 000 and 40 000 people and ended up crowning a little Corsican as emperor. Of the revolutionaries, Burke said: "Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphsyican. It comes nearer to cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passions of a man." [1]

Burke's main philosophy was that traditions and customs of states, especially states that have lasted for centuries, are a greater base for a nation than abstractions outside the natural order. Burke's England was one that had evolved from feudalism and monarchy to a country with much more separation of powers and protection of rights than any other nation, though nothing like modern liberal democracies have today. Burke found a slow, stable change much more appealing than the violent re-creation of a nation as the French attempted. In the 209 year since the French Revolution ended France has gone through over a dozen coups, revolutions and flips of ideologies. In the exact same time, the US has gone through one civil war, and the UK has gone through none.

Burke's lineage to American thought has be contented by both liberals and libertarians. Allen Guttmann held that Burke were "utterly remote from American life", affirming a thesis by Louis Hartz that said the only American philosophical tradition was that of John Locke [2]. Burke's adherence to British tradition alienated him from the more liberty maximizing factions in conservatism (F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mieses), but Kirk contends that Burke's defense of the natural truths of man, for which our Founders fought to defend, is what makes him part of the American time line. It's up to the reader's views to determine the authenticity of Burke's views on American life, but it cannot be denied that his writings on the dangers of the French revolution and on revolutionary theories have influenced countless numbers of conservatives.

[1] Kirk, Russel. The Conservative Mind, Seventh Revised Edition pg. 26

[2] Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. pg 173


P.M.Lawrence said...

"Unlike our Founders and their war to retain the rights of Americans..."

That's actually a misunderstanding, one which is quite understandable in view of just how incremental change works through. People interpret the new stuff they do in the light of old customs and traditions, adapting them - but often only see the old and not the new in what they do. This really shows up in the Civil War, with parliament going on about "ancient liberties" that had never actually been there except as things people got away with or were informally allowed; when the King started asserting various ancient rights of his that people had forgotten, to raise revenue, people saw that as his taking away their rights.

In the same way, the American rebels were not asserting their rights, they were asserting that they had rights to what they had become accustomed to, even though no such rights had ever been there originally. They honestly and sincerely supposed that those rights had been there, or that custom had developed them or - drawing on the revolutionary enlightenment stuff they had swallowed - that there was a separate source of a natural rights sort for them. But historically, they were only ever there by virtue of legalisms that allowed the mother country a final say; now you can disagree with that for all sorts of reasons, but one thing you can't do with intellectual accuracy is, say that they were asserting rights they had had all along under the old system, which were faced with encroachment. It was their customs that were being encroached on, or rights they had from another source if you buy into revolutionary thinking (with all its throw the baby out with the bath water tendency), not rights they had under the system.

By the way, you can consider that the UK had a partial civil war recently, in the form of the Irish Question, its resolution, and its aftermath.

Jordan said...

You're mixing law and philosophy. Under British law, specifically the British Bill of Rights, the American colonists had the same rights as any other British citizen and those rights were being violated. We can argue the merits of natural rights and natural law. We can talk Locke, Hobbes, Hume, etc. We can talk of the time before the BBOR and if said rights were there all along or, as you say, "never...been there". It won't matter. Their LEGAL rights were being violated, and they fought to retain their LEGAL rights.

Ireland was more of a regional uprising than a civil war.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Under British law, specifically the British Bill of Rights, the American colonists had the same rights as any other British citizen..."

No, actually; or, more precisely, the same rights where that applied, if they were there. An American in England would have enjoyed those rights, just as an Englishman in America would have enjoyed the same lack of them as an American in America. It has always been the case that the rights of Englishmen were based on location (Scots Law and Irish custom were based on connection and affinity). British in America had just as much right to a vote, say, as those in Birmingham; none, as neither place had representation. Likewise, tax exemptions were based on charters - which could always be modified or withdrawn by the granter. And the precedent that Parliament could legislate for overseas territories goes back to at least Poynting's Law, which asserted that for Ireland.

Essentially, English Law never recognised generic rights beyond a very few. The rest varied with region. The British in America had as much fundamental legal entitlement as those who went to Ireland. The Bill of Rights that applied to England had purely local force; it was not even passed for Scotland, originally (it was before the Act of Union). If you like, you can consider the court case that ended slavery in England. It didn't apply elsewhere in British territory, not even in Scotland (another case came up for that).

On the Irish troubles, I noted that it was only a partial exception, for precisely that reason.

Jordan said...

Law is law. Even if it was unfairly applied.

Just because the law making tying up your horse to the lamp post illegal is not enforced does not mean it is legal.

P.M.Lawrence said...

Jordan, As I read your last comment, that is just precisely the point I was making: that the legal structure did allow the British Parliament to legislate for the colonies. You can't pick and choose, claiming that the Bill of Rights applied but not accepting that it got its force from the same British structure that allowed further legislating.