Edmund Burke and America

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXV

The master intellect of Burke at once grasped the whole question, and his innate sense of justice suggested the remedy. Unfortunately for England, but happily for America, Burke was beyond his age in breadth of policy and in height of honour. Englishmen of the nineteenth century have very freely abused Englishmen of the eighteenth century for their conduct on this occasion; and more than one writer has set down the whole question as one in which "right" was on the side of England, but he argues that there are circumstances under which right should be sacrificed to policy. I cannot agree with this very able writer.[6]

The question was not one of right, but of justice; and the English nation, in the reign of George III., failed to see that to do justice was both morally and politically the wisest course. The question of right too often develops itself into the question of might. A man easily persuades himself that he has a right to do what he has the power and the inclination to do; and when his inclination and his opportunities are on the same side, his moral consciousness becomes too frequently blinded, and the question of justice is altogether overlooked.

It was in vain that Burke thundered forth denunciations of the childish policy of the Treasury benches, and asked men to look to first principles, who could hardly be made comprehend what first principles were. He altogether abandoned the question of right, in which men had so puzzled themselves as almost to lose sight of the question of policy. The King would tax the colony, because his nature was obstinate, and what he had determined to do he would do. To such natures reasoning is much like hammering on iron—it only hardens the metal. The minister would tax the colony because the King wished it; and he had neither the strength of mind nor the conscientiousness to resist his sovereign. The Lords stood on their dignity, and would impose the tax if only to show their power. The people considered the whole affair one of pounds, shillings, and pence, and could not at all see why they should not wring out the last farthing from a distant colony—could not be taught to discern that the sacrifice of a few pounds at the present moment, might result in the acquisition of a few millions at a future day.

Burke addressed himself directly to the point on all these questions. He laid aside the much-abused question of right; he did not even attempt to show that right and justice should not be separated, and that men who had no share in the government of a country, could not be expected in common justice to assist in the support of that country. He had to address those who could only understand reasons which appealed to their self-interest, and he lowered himself to his audience. The question he said was, "not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy. It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice, tell me I ought to do."

The common idea about the separation of the States from England, is simply that they resisted a stamp duty and a tax on tea; the fact is, as I have before hinted, that this was simply the last drop in the cup. Previous to this period, the American colonies were simply considered as objects of English aggrandizement. They were treated as states who only existed for the purpose of benefiting England. The case was in fact parallel to the case of Ireland, and the results would probably have been similar, had Ireland been a little nearer to America, or a little further from England. For many years the trade of America had been kept under the most vexatious restrictions. The iron found there must be sent to England to be manufactured; the ships fitted out there must be at least partly built in England; no saw-mills could be erected, no colony could trade directly with another colony, nor with any nation except England. This selfish, miserable policy met with a well-deserved fate. Even Pitt exclaimed indignantly, in the House of Commons: "We are told that America is obstinate—that America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that she has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all sentiments of liberty as voluntarily to become slaves, would have been fit instruments to enslave their fellow-subjects."


[6] Writer.—Morley. Edmund Burke, an Historical Study : Macmillan and Co., 1867. A masterly work, and one which every statesman and every thinker would do well to peruse carefully. He says: "The question to be asked by every statesman, and by every citizen, with reference to a measure that is recommended to him as the enforcement of a public right, is whether the right is one which it is to the public advantage to enforce."—p. 146.