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When is a revolution not a revolution? Edmund Burke and the new America

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was an Irish statesman, author, and orator chiefly remembered for his championing of various causes such as Catholic emancipation, reform of the government of India, and preserving the balance of the British constitution. It is commonly assumed that Edmund Burke took up incongruous positions on the American and French Revolutions: that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Americans, and a bitter opponent of the French. Much ingenuity was expended by Burke’s contemporaries and others since, in seeking to explain this seemingly considerable change in his political beliefs—a shift to the right, from Whiggism towards a more conservative stance.

Burke’s speeches provide an interesting window into this apparent volte-face, with Burke himself denying that there had been any such change. In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs of 1791, he wrote of himself in the third person that “if he could venture to value himself upon anything, it is on the virtue of consistency that he would value himself most.” In relation to the American and the French Revolutions, this was not implausible. There can be no question about Burke’s unremitting hostility to change in France—but on America, he condemned the British policies that he believed were bringing on the crisis with the colonies, utterly rejected their forcible coercion, and accepted their right to meet force with force, and in the process to throw off British authority. But did this mean that he endorsed the American Revolution?

If the American Revolution is defined as the achievement of independence from Britain, then Burke (even though he hoped that having defeated unjustifiable British aggression against them, the Americans would accept a form of continuing union) can be regarded as a supporter of it. But the American Revolution was about more than independence. It was a movement of political and social change that produced something very different from the survival of the old colonial order without British rule. Burke had deep reservations about such changes.

edmund_burke_by_james_northcote
Image credit: Edmund Burke, painted by James Northcote. (1746-1831). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Burke’s chief fear was that Americans would depart from their inheritance of the British constitution, which he believed they’d been defending from British transgressions. In 1791 he wrote that if “the Americans had rebelled merely to enlarge their liberty, Mr Burke would have thought very differently of the American cause.” Some of the early state constitutions enacted after 1776 must have confirmed his anxieties. In January 1777 he warned Americans against “Untried forms of Government.” True liberty could only be maintained by union with Britain “under the present limited monarchy.”

Burke’s attitude to the post-war Republic was ambivalent. He initially argued it should be put on the same footing as the thirteen colonies, in having free commercial access to the British Empire. But he was later recorded as speaking intemperately to an American about suggestions that more trade concessions should be made to the United States: “Great Britain could do, As she had done without America. That she was not yet a conquered Country and ought not to be treated with Insolence.”

The terms of the Federal Constitution, however, served to reconcile Burke to American independence. On 6 May 1791 he said that the Americans “had erected Republics as near to the principles of our Constitution as Republics could be … They have guarded their constitution by reciprocal checks, they have established an imitation of the House of Lords and House of Commons of this Country, a Congress, and a Senate.”

By a strained, but not a totally indefensible, interpretation of the American Constitution—as the culmination of a conservative movement, in which the Americans had acted “on a defensive footing” aiming to preserve for themselves the constitution which Britain had violated, Burke had vindicated his consistency, at least in his own eyes. He opposed revolution in France while supporting justified resistance which, he claimed, had not amounted to a revolution in America.

Featured image credit: “The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777”, Yale University Art Gallery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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