Edmund Burke and Religious Toleration

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXV

The same principle of justice which made Burke take the side of America against England, or rather made him see that it would be the real advantage of England to conciliate America, made him also take the side of liberty on the Catholic question. The short-sighted and narrow-minded politicians who resisted the reasonable demands of a colony until it was too late to yield, were enabled, unfortunately, to resist more effectually the just demands of several millions of their own people.

It is unquestionably one of the strangest of mental phenomena, that persons who make liberty of conscience their boast and their watchword, should be the first to violate their own principles, and should be utterly unable to see the conclusion of their own favourite premises. If liberty of conscience mean anything, it must surely mean perfect freedom of religious belief for all; and such freedom is certainly incompatible with the slightest restraint, with the most trifling penalty for difference of opinion on such subjects. Again, Burke had recourse to the argumentum ad hominim, the only argument which those with whom he had to deal seemed capable of comprehending.

"After the suppression of the great rebellion of Tyrconnel by William of Orange," writes Mr. Morley,[1] "ascendency began in all its vileness and completeness. The Revolution brought about in Ireland just the reverse of what it effected in England. Here it delivered the body of the nation from the attempted supremacy of a small sect; there it made a small sect supreme over the body of the nation." This is in fact an epitome of Irish history since the so-called Reformation in England, and this was the state of affairs which Burke was called to combat. On all grounds the more powerful party was entirely against him. The merchants of Manchester and Bristol, for whose supposed benefit Irish trade had been ruined wished to keep up the ascendency, conceiving it to be the surest way of replenishing their coffers.

The majority of Irish landlords, who looked always to their own immediate interest, and had none of the far-sighted policy which would enable them to see that the prosperity of the tenant would, in the end, most effectively secure the prosperity of the landlord, were also in favour of ascendency, which promised to satisfy their land hunger, and their miserable greed of gain. The Protestant Church was in favour of ascendency: why should it not be, since its ministers could only derive support from a people who hated them alike for their creed and their oppressions, at the point of the sword and by the "brotherly agency of the tithe-procter," who, if he did not assist in spreading the Gospel, at least took care that its so-called ministers should lack no luxury which could be wrung from a starving and indignant people?[2]

There were but two acts of common justice required on the part of England to make Ireland prosperous and free. It is glorious to say, that Burke was the first to see this, and inaugurate the reign of concession; it is pitiful, it is utterly contemptible, to be obliged to add, that what was then inaugurated is not yet fully accomplished. Burke demanded for Ireland political and religious freedom. Slowly some small concessions of both have been made when England has feared to refuse them. Had the grant been made once for all with manly generosity, some painful chapters of Irish history might have been omitted from this volume—some moments, let us hope, of honest shame might have been spared to those true-hearted Englishmen who deplore the fatuity and the folly of their countrymen.

In 1782 the Irish Volunteers obtained from the fears of England what had been vainly asked from her justice. Burke's one idea of good government may be summed up in the words, " Be just, and fear not." In his famous Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, written in 1792, upon the question of admitting the Catholics to the elective franchise, he asks: "Is your government likely to be more secure by continuing causes of grounded discontent to two-thirds of its subjects? Will the constitution be made more solid by depriving this large part of the people of all concern or share in the representation?"

His Indian policy was equally just. "Our dealings with India," says an English writer, "originally and until Burke's time, so far from being marked with virtue and wisdom, were stained with every vice which can lower and deprave human character. How long will it take only to extirpate these traditions from the recollections of the natives? The more effectually their understandings are awakened by English efforts, the more vividly will they recognize, and the more bitterly resent, the iniquities of our first connexion with them." The Indian policy of England and her Irish policy might be written with advantage in parallel columns. It would, at least, have the advantage of showing Irishmen that they had been by no means worse governed than other dependencies of that professedly law and justice loving nation.

I have treated, briefly indeed, and by no means as I should wish, of two of the questions of the day, and of Burke's policy thereon; of the third question a few words only can be said. Burke's idea of Reform consisted in amending the administration of the constitution, rather than in amending the constitution itself. Unquestionably a bad constitution well administered, may be incomparably more beneficial to the subject than a good constitution administered corruptly. Burke's great leading principle was: Be just—and can a man have a nobler end? To suppress an insurrection cruelly, to tax a people unjustly, or to extort money from a nation on false pretences, was to him deeply abhorrent. His first object was to secure the incorruptibility of ministers and of members of parliament. When the post of royal scullion could be confided to a member of parliament, and a favourable vote secured by appointing a representative of the people to the lucrative post of turnspit in the king's kitchen, administration was hopelessly corrupt. There were useless treasurers for useless offices. Burke gave the example of what he taught; and having fixed the Paymaster's salary at four thousand pounds a year, was himself the first person to accept the diminished income.

He has been accused of forsaking his liberal principles in his latter days, simply and solely from his denunciations of the terrible excesses of the French Revolution. Such reprobation was rather a proof that he understood the difference between liberty and licentiousness, and that his accusers had neither the intellect nor the true nobility to discriminate between the frantic deeds of men, whose bad passions, long indulged, had led them on to commit the crimes of demons, and those noble but long-suffering patriots, who endured until endurance became a fault, and only resisted for the benefit of mankind as well as for their own.


[1] Morley.—Edmund Burke, an Historical Study, p. 181.

[2] People.—Chesterfield said, in 1764, that the poor people in Ireland were used "worse than negroes." "Aristocracy," said Adam Smith, "was not founded in the natural and respectable distinctions of birth and fortune, but in the most odious of all distinctions, those of religious and political prejudices—distinctions which, more than any other, animate both the insolence of the oppressors, and the hatred and indignation of the oppressed.—Morley's Edmund Burke, p. 183.