“[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.”
In 1775, Edmund Burke, a member of the House of Commons, offered his thoughts on the deterioration of relations between the American colonies and the British Empire. As the colonists became more agitated, Parliament introduced more coercive laws and regulation. Burke, a practical leader, introduced a series of ideas designed to present parliamentary power in a decentralized light, thereby mitigating the prevailing view of British power as dominating and tyrannical. Burke’s ideas were not implemented at the time, but his principles have nonetheless been seen as revolutionary, with the potential of preventing the violence of the American Revolution had they been brought to fruition.
By 1775, the relationship between Britain and the American colonies had become heavily strained. Although a growing number of colonists agreed with the philosophical notions of democratic governments as espoused by the Enlightenment a century earlier, the strains between the two entities truly became manifest as Parliament sought a greater contribution to the British Empire from the colonies.
Due to the tremendous debt that developed as a result of Britain’s participation in the French and Indian War, Parliament looked to the colonies for additional tax revenues to offset the deficit. In 1765, for example, Parliament introduced the Stamp Act, which required that all formal documents (such as contracts and other legal documents) in the American colonies be printed on officially stamped paper, which cost more than other forms of stationery. After a considerable backlash from the colonies, the Stamp Act was repealed, but the damage had already been done, as more and more colonists expressed their indignation over increasingly onerous British regulations.
On March 5, 1770, the issue was exacerbated by a violent confrontation in the city of Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The large presence of British soldiers in that city caused a colonial backlash, as colonists threw rocks and snowballs at the troops. More troops were called in to quell the uprising, which culminated in gunfire and the deaths of several colonists. The incident—which came to be known as the Boston Massacre—only fanned the flames of anti-British sentiment.
Meanwhile, the prevailing view in Parliament was that only stronger measures governing the colonists would reverse these tensions. One of the few dissenters to this view was Edmund Burke, who believed that increasingly coercive laws only emboldened the rebellious attitudes of the colonists. Burke observed that the primary focus of colonial anger was not the British Crown but Parliament itself. He therefore worked to introduce another course of action that might satisfy Parliament’s need for order and revenues without causing further consternation among the colonists.
Burke’s pragmatic approach to the growing colonial problem, manifest in his “Speech on Conciliation with America,” entailed decentralizing the power of Parliament in the colonies. This approach, he believed, could alleviate the perception of Parliament’s perceived tyranny and, in the process, work to reconcile relations between the parties. His proposals were not approved until 1778, however, long after they might have had a positive effect. The more heavy-handed approach was maintained, which likely contributed to the violence of the American Revolution.
Edmund Burke was born on January 12, 1729, in Dublin, Ireland. His father was a successful British attorney and member of the Church of England, while his mother was a Roman Catholic. Burke was first educated at home before he was enrolled at a Quaker school in the County of Kildare. He later graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, where he studied the classical traditions of Homer, Cicero, Virgil, and other great philosophical minds. It was while at Trinity that Burke became interested in government and politics, writing frequently to Dublin newspapers and speaking out against political corruption in Ireland.
Following his education in Dublin, Burke attended the Middle Temple in London, where he received training in law. However, he left the Middle Temple, having become more interested in writing and government than in pursuing a legal career. Among his earliest works were A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), and An Account of the European Settlements (1757). Also in 1757, Burke married Jane Nugent, who was the daughter of his physician; the couple had two sons.
In 1761, Burke accepted a position as the private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, the Chief British Secretary for Ireland. In 1765, Burke (by that time a successful writer) accepted another position as private secretary for Charles Wentworth, the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham—who had been appointed as the king’s new prime minster and chancellor of the exchequer. Upon assuming his role, Burke immediately became the target of controversy, as a political rival of Wentworth’s accused Burke of being a papist and a spy. Rockingham staunchly defended Burke, who offered his resignation but was denied by his mentor.
Later that year, however, Burke was elected to Parliament as a member of the Whig Party. One of his first accomplishments as a member of Parliament was the repeal of the Stamp Act, which had been passed under Lord Rockingham’s unpopular predecessor, George Grenville. During his tenure, Burke also became known as one of the first legislators to speak out in favor of political parties, which he saw as a constitutional bridge between members of Parliament and the king.
In 1770, Burke was elected by the New York Assembly to be its colonial agent in London. He developed a reputation as someone who sought to mitigate the souring relationship between Britain and its colonies. Following the American Revolution, Burke would also speak out against the French Revolution, arguing with his colleagues about the event’s significance. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794, although he would continue to write on political matters. He died in Beaconsfield, England, on July 9, 1797.
By 1772, it became apparent to all involved parties that relations between the American colonies and the British Empire (particularly the Parliament of which Edmund Burke was a member) had soured considerably. The growing pro-liberty movement had taken hold not only in New England but throughout the colonies, including those in the south. Burke and his colleagues initially took solace in the fact that Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act, which had raised significant ire among the colonists and fanned the flames of the independence movement. Then again, the Stamp Act was the product of the previous parliamentary administration, and Burke and Rockingham could distance themselves from that issue. Still, the colonists’ indignation continued to grow even after the Stamp Act’s demise, requiring a parliamentary response.
Burke looked to educate his colleagues on the nature of this increasingly passionate movement. This discourse would, he hoped, help Parliament respond appropriately to the crisis and reconcile relations between the two entities. Burke begins his presentation by speaking directly to what he believes to be the most prominent characteristics of American colonists. Americans, he says, love the notion of freedom to the point that it has become their distinguishing feature. Burke says that this characteristic so consumes Americans’ thoughts that they become zealous and somewhat paranoid about maintaining freedom. When the colonists even suspect that that their freedom is in danger of being taken from them (whether through violent confrontation or through trickery), Burke says, they become restive and defiant. In fact, he says, protection of that freedom is the highest priority for which fighting would be acceptable.
According to Burke, Americans’ love of freedom was therefore an important factor for the British to consider when dealing with them. This passion was borne of a number of important causes. Burke therefore states that it would be useful to understand the roots of the colonists’ interest in liberty and the directions in which this passion is taking the colonists.
Foremost among the forces driving Americans was their English heritage as “descendants of Englishmen.” Britain, Burke states, is a nation that has long been and remained respectful and adoring of freedom. Although the Puritans and other Dissenters (non-Anglicans) immigrated to the American colonies in the seventeenth century, they brought with them this characteristic. Therefore, he says, the adoration of liberty and freedom demonstrated by the colonists is an English ideal or principle. Burke’s point was that a love of freedom and liberty was a shared characteristic between the two disparate parties.
However, he adds, freedom is not a principle that is embraced in the abstract; rather, it is attached to a specific object. In other nations, he says, freedom was associated with the popular election of magistrates or on the formation of government institutions that worked to the advantage of the people. In eighteenth-century Britain, however, freedom was attached to the system of taxation. Indeed, Burke says, Britain’s past power struggles frequently arose over equitable collection and revenue distribution. In these cases, Burke says, activists and political leaders argued, based on the English Constitution, over the proper government institution that would be tasked with the collection of taxes and the reallocation of funds. Over time, it was determined that the House of Commons would be that institution, as it was clearly focused on representing the people. Even in a monarchy, these leaders asserted, the people should retain the power (through their elected legislators) to administer their own money.
As is the case in Britain, Burke argues, the American colonists attach their own love of liberty to the pursuit of taxation with representation. This attachment was, in Burke’s estimation, representative of the colonies’ roots and lifeblood in England. The colonies were therefore drawing from Britain’s example by connecting the issue of taxation with freedom. Furthermore, the notion of freedom might have been loosely connected to any number of other issues, but with regard to taxation, the colonists “felt its pulse,” becoming “sick or sound” based on how the issue was resolved. The most recent example available for Burke and his colleagues was the aforementioned Stamp Act, which provided a clear demonstration of how inequitable taxation helped raise the call for colonial independence. The fact that Parliament continued to pursue tax policy in the colonies as the latter’s indignation became evident only reaffirmed the high value both Britain and the colonies placed on taxation.
Burke continues his assessment by analyzing the colonists’ preferred vehicle for speaking to the taxation issue. The colonists looked with considerable favor upon their local legislative assemblies and provincial legislatures (such as the Massachusetts General Court), giving strength to their popular representation. Those representatives in turn saw the value of using the pulpits to sound their “lofty sentiments” and strong opposition to the issues to which they were averse.
Adding to the passions of the provincial legislatures, Burke adds, is religion. Religion, Burke says, adds energy to government—those government officials who invoke it while performing their duties do so with a sense of “free spirit.” The colonists, who were Protestants, are no different in this regard, Burke says. In fact, he says, the Protestant mind is one that becomes highly defiant in the face of perceived calls for submission. To be sure, he notes, many churches in the colonies voice dissent over what is seen as an effort by Parliament to impose “absolute government” on the colonies.
Then again, Burke states, the pro-liberty passions fanned by religious institutions in the face of parliamentary policy are not rooted in the traditions of Protestantism. Burke cites the fact that the Roman Catholic Church worked in tandem with government institutions in the past. The development of the Church of England was also fostered under the care of “regular” government. In the American colonies, however, the predominant faith was Puritanism, Burke asserts, describing it as the “dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.” This fundamentalist, conservative view of Protestantism was what forced the Pilgrims to leave England over a century earlier. In other words, although the dissenting colonists invoked the tenets of Puritanism in their posturing, this difference of opinion stemmed from their historical (and not spiritual) history.
Burke adds that, over time, the Puritans who dominated the New England colonies (and demonstrated continued defiance) were joined by many other dissenters who were, for a variety of reasons, forced to leave England for the colonies. This stream of immigrants to America added many more dissenting voices, fostering an apparent culture of dissent.
At this point, Burke observes some of his colleagues’ apparent disagreement with his assessment. He acknowledges their collective point that, in the southern colonies, there is a much larger concentration of Church of England parishes than Puritan churches, but there remains a considerable push for the notions of freedom in the face of British policy. In fact, he notes, many southern colonies display an even stronger set of pro-freedom principles. The fact that the pro-liberty movement took root in Virginia and elsewhere in the southern colonies, despite prevalence of Anglican churches (in comparison to Puritan churches), created what appeared to be a contradiction to Burke’s theories on the contributions of Puritan religious tradition to the rebellion.
Burke theorizes that the southern colonies are also influenced not by religion, but by the fact that they own slaves. Colonists who owned slaves but lived free understood the value of freedom and viewed it as a privilege to be protected. Burke adds that he does necessarily believe that such attitudes are understandable; however, it explains why southern colonists are even more zealous and stubborn in this matter than their counterparts in the north. He adds that many other civilizations that held slaves demonstrated a similar passionate appreciation of freedom.
Burke next describes what he sees as another factor contributing to the colonists’ spirit: their education. Burke says that an exceptionally large number of colonists have studied law. In some regions of the colonies, the legal profession was one of the leading industries. The colonial governments included large concentrations of lawyers. Education in general was dominant in the colonies, and, according to Burke, most colonists read. Law again was the topic of choice for many of these colonists—even if they were not formally trained lawyers, most colonists at least had an understanding of the law.
Burke explains that books are an important part of the colonial life. He recalls that a British bookseller told him that he exported a large number of books on law to the plantations in Virginia and the other colonies. In fact, Burke says that he is aware that the colonists had entered the business of publishing their own copies of certain legal texts—some titles were being published in America in as great a volume as they were in Britain.
The quantity of legal texts that were being published and read in the colonies did not go unnoticed by the British officials living in the colonies. General Thomas Gage, governor of Massachusetts Bay, said that most of the colonists working in his government were either lawyers or people who were well versed in legal matters. Furthermore, many colonists in Boston were able to avoid imprisonment and other legal punishments because of their familiarity with the law—a large number were able to defend their rights successfully in court.
Conventional wisdom suggested that the colonists’ knowledge of the law would keep them from entering the apparently irrational pursuit of rebellion; a thorough understanding of legal matters would have also made colonists aware of the severe punishments associated with disobedience. Then again, Burke states, the colonists were educated and driven with passion. Furthermore, the colonists were able to parlay their knowledge of the law into a perception that questioned the viability of an “ill principle” and act in response thereto. Their keen intellect made them more likely to be stubborn (if not heavily litigious) in opposition to a disagreeable laws and policies. Burke says that, in other countries, because the people are less educated, they are also less likely to move beyond filing simple grievances without further action. The colonists of America, Burke suggests, would not back down from a legal confrontation over any policy, large or small, to which they were averse.
The final factor contributing to the deterioration of relations between the American colonies and Britain was simply natural: Between the colonies and Great Britain are thousands of miles of ocean. This fact created a significant slowdown in government processes, since the colonies were managed under the direction of Parliament and the king. The obstructions created by geography meant that any government procedure that required information to travel to and from Parliament and the king would take a great deal of time to complete. Burke says that even a brief answer to a simple question would take months. The want of a more expeditious transoceanic process, Burke says, is enough to cause the complete breakdown of government systems, sparking frustration and potentially creating errors during the transit (thereby prolonging an already time-consuming process).
Burke adds that the British manner of governance in the colonies is compounding this issue. He says that the British Empire has agents throughout its colonies acting on behalf of Parliament and the king. These agents bristled at the colonists’ passions and showed their own defiance against the rebellious nature of the colonists in the same manner by which Parliament would crack down on rebellious groups in London. However, Burke says, such an approach to governing a remote location like the American colonies would be counterproductive. In a large empire, he says, it is important for the application of power to be “less vigorous” at its extremities.
Burke offers a number of examples of other empires in which this more moderate approach to governing in distant holdings proved effective. The Ottoman Empire offered such evidence, he says—the Turkish sultan could not expect to govern his subjects in distant Egypt and Algeria as he did closer to home in Constantinople or Smyrna. The sultan, Burke says, chose to hold the reins over these remote locations more loosely than he did closer to the center of his sphere of influence. The result of this relaxed approach to governance in the Ottoman Empire’s geographic extremities was very little backlash from the people, who, though part of the empire, did not feel the heavy hand of Turkish despotism.
The Spanish Empire, he adds, also saw the value of showing the people living in its farthest reaches more flexibility. To be sure, he acknowledges, the subjects of the Spanish Empire were not necessarily as obedient to the king as the British colonies were to King George III. The Spanish Empire compromised and complied with its subjects in outlying regions, Burke states, but this condition could not be changed, as it was a natural product of the limitations of expansive empires.
As he nears the end of his speech, Burke reminds his fellow parliamentarians of the six mitigating factors that contribute to the growing movement for colonial independence in America. First, colonists are descended from Englishmen who also loved freedom. Second, the colonists put great stock in their government institutions. Third, the colonists of New England are also the descendants of Puritan Protestants who embraced religious and cultural freedom as they established their respective colonies. Fourth, the southern colonies, in the face of the servitude in which their slaves live, greatly appreciate their own individual freedoms. Fifth, the colonists are extremely well educated, demonstrating great knowledge of law and applying that knowledge in debates with British officials. Finally, the vast ocean between Britain and the colonies slows government processes, and when the people express their frustrations about this issue, local officials treat them heavy-handedly.
Burke suggested that, based on each of these six factors, the disparities between the colonies and Britain would continue to grow. After all, he says, the colonies would continue to grow in population. More and more colonists were thus joining the cause. Meanwhile, the wealth of the colonists continued to grow as well, which meant that the colonists could afford greater resources to educate themselves and take steps toward independence from the Crown.
Burke concludes by implying that Parliament’s preferred course of action—demonstrating the empire’s power and ability to quell a rebellion—might be both lawful and justified. However, it would do little to undo the growing pro-liberty movement—rather, it would only add to the fire. Burke suggests that this “flame” has already been constructed and lit. If Parliament maintains the same course of action with regard to the colonies, he warns, this fire will only spread and consume all parties involved.
By the mid to late eighteenth century, it had become clear to Parliament that the American colonies were in an increasing state of revolt. The Stamp Act was one of many trigger events that contributed to the independence movement’s growth. Parliament, which had been identified by the colonists as the primary instigator of a number of overly intrusive and inequitable policies, stood at a crossroads with regard to its response to this movement.
Burke took the floor of the House of Commons to encourage his colleagues to understand the nature of the colonial pro-liberty movement. In doing so, he would help Parliament forge a set of policy responses that might calm colonial indignation and reconcile relations between Britain and the American colonies.
Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with America” offered six fundamental causes of the colonists’ independence movement. In some cases, these factors were historical and social characteristics that colonists shared with the nation from whence their ancestors came. In other cases, Burke cited the individual qualities of each group within the larger colonial territory—the legal education of many colonists, the traditions of religious freedom, and the experience of slaveholding—which helped foster a widespread appreciation of liberty among the colonists. Still another, geography, could not be corrected; however, Parliament could adapt its style of governance much in the same way other expansive empires successfully governed their outlying territorial holdings.
Burke’s speech helped lay the groundwork for a policy response that he felt could help alleviate the growing tensions between America and Britain. Burke suggested that Parliament allow a degree of sovereignty to regional governments. The colonists, after all, put great stock in these institutions, even if they were overseen by British law. This proposal also meant that provincial governments would collect taxes on the local level rather than on the controversial, colony-wide level on which such measures as the Stamp Act were implemented. Burke suspected that such an approach might prove more palatable among the colonists.
Burke’s proposals were not given attention until 1778, long after relations between the colonies and England had reached a point of irreconcilability. The Declaration of Independence, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and other engagements took place before Parliament decided to explore Burke’s pragmatic proposals. Whether they would have proven effective in avoiding a “flame that is ready to consume us” (as Burke referred to the potential war) continues to generate debate among modern historians.
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