Edmund Burke and the American Question

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXV

In the year 1765, when Lord Grenville was driven from office by the "American Question," the Marquis of Rockingham succeeded him, appointed Burke his private secretary, and had him returned for the English borough of Wendover. His political career commenced at this period. Then, as now, Reform, Ireland, and America were the subjects of the day; and when one considers and compares the politics of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the progress of parliamentary intellectual development is not very encouraging. The speeches of honorable members, with some few very honorable exceptions, seem to run in the same groove, with the same utter incapacity of realizing a new idea, or a broad and cosmopolitan policy.

There were men then, as there are men now, who talked of toleration in one breath, and proclaimed their wooden determination to enforce class ascendency of creed and of station in the next. There were men who would tax fresh air, and give unfortunate wretches poisonous drinks on the cheapest terms. There were men whose foreign policy consisted in wringing all that could be wrung out of dependencies, and then, when the danger was pointed out, when it was shown that those dependencies were not only likely to resist, but were in a position to resist—in a position in which neither shooting nor flogging could silence, if it did not convince—they hid their heads, with ostrich-like fatuity, in the blinding sands of their own ignorance, and declared there could be no danger, for they could not discern it.

I have said that there were three great political questions which occupied the attention of statesmen at that day. I shall briefly glance at each, as they form a most important standpoint in our national history, and are subjects of the first interest to Irishmen and to Irish history; and as Burke's maiden speech in the House of Commons was made in favour of conciliating America, I shall treat that question first. The facts are brief and significant, but by no means as thoroughly known or as well considered as they should be, when we remember their all-important results—results which as yet are by no means fully developed.[5]

The actual contest between the English nation and her American colonies commenced soon after the accession of George III.; but, as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, Thomas Pownal, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Jersey, came to England, and published a work on the administration of the colonies. He seems even then to have had a clear view of the whole case. There is an old proverb about the last grain of rice breaking the back of the camel, but we must remember that the load was made up of many preceding grains. The Stamp Act and Tea Duty were unquestionably the last links of an attempted chain of slavery with which England ventured to fetter the noblest of her colonies, but there were many preceding links. Pownal's work affords evidence of the existence of many.

The crown, he said, in theory considered the lands and plantations of the colonists its own, and attempted a far greater control over the personal liberty of the subject than it dared to claim in England. The people, on the other hand, felt that they had by no means forfeited the rights of Englishmen because they had left England; and that, if they submitted to its laws, they should at least have some share in making them. A series of petty collisions, which kept up a state of constant irritation, prepared the way for the final declaration which flung aside the bonds of allegiance, and freed the people from the galling chains by which that allegiance was sought to be maintained. A wise policy at home might have averted the fatal disruption for a time, but it is doubtful that it could have been averted for many years, even if the utter incapacity of an obstinate sovereign, and the childish vindictiveness of a minister, had not precipitated the conclusion.


[5] Developed.—Since this sentence was penned, I find, with great satisfaction, that a similar view has been taken by a recent writer. See Secularia; or, Surveys on the Main Stream of History, by S. Lucas, p. 250. He opens a chapter on the revolt of the American States thus: "The relations of Great Britain to its colonies, past and present, are an important part of the history of the world; and the form which these relations may hereafter take, will be no small element in the political future. Even our Professors of History . . . abstain from noticing their system of government, or the predisposing motives to their subsequent revolt. " The italics are our own. Neglect of the study of Irish history is, I believe, also, one of the causes why Irish grievances are not remedied by the English Government. But grievances may get settled in a way not always satisfactory to the neglecters of them, while they are waiting their leisure to investigate their cause.