Most people have heard of the quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “the only thing necessary for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Yet this quote, which itself is spurious, may be the only bit of trivia connected to the name of the British Parliament member Edmund Burke in the American mind.
Such a thing is a recent phenomena. Few American students left high school before 1970 without reading “On Conciliation with America,” a speech to Parliament advocating a peaceful resolution to the concerns and protests of the American colonists. Burke was in the minority, and instead a policy of strong handed posturing instead led the British into a long war they eventually tired of, giving us our country by default. Yet, looking at many of his positions, we would barely believe that Edmund Burke is considered by most intellectual historians as the founder of modern conservatism. And frankly, that fact is more sad than ironic.
Perhaps we could get past a few of his positions such as:
1) strong advocation of diplomacy with those committing guerrilla acts (in America)
2) support for rights of religious minorities like Catholics Jews and Unitarians,
3) support for the just governing of “foreigners” living under rule but who were non-citizens (in India and Ireland).
Many claiming the label of Conservative in America, especially as of late, share more in common with classical liberalism than Burkean prudence. These supposed American Conservatives are more likely to identify with:
George W. Bush talking about the simple desire by all people for democracy and freedom and doing away with old governments, rather than Burke:
“The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. “
Thomas Jefferson when he proclaims that Liberty requires frequent revolution and the “watering of the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” and innovation rather than Edmund Burke who wrote:
“instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”
Thomas Paine who proclaimed the glories of democracy and majority rule, rather than Burke who said:
“A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless…that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single scepter.”
Thomas Paine who thought that Government exists for the purpose of granting us our natural rights, rather than Burke who said:
“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions.”
This is not to say Edmund Burke was right on everything he did and said. It is to say, Conservatism is a more endangered worldview than most realize, and if you value an optimistic view of human capacity in democracy, liberty above justice, innovation above tradition, and democracy as the only legitimate form of government, you may be a lot of things, and very American, but not conservative. Well, not Burkean at least.
[If I haven’t discouraged you by now, I’d recommend reading Burke’s “On the Revolution in France” with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s great intorduction to get a picture of his conservative thought. Also, Russell Kirk wrote a great short intellectual biography of Burke, and traces his founding of Conservatism in “The Conservative Mind.”].