All Sail And No Anchor?


Reviewing David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, David Womersley raises the vexed question – familiar to any student of the British statesman – of his consistency:

A frequent emphasis in the radical ripostes published in the early 1790s to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, such as those written by Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, is that Burke had no consistency as a political thinker. In the 1790s with his attacks on revolutionary France he had emerged as a defender of monarchy and the hereditary principle; but previously (as in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents) he had been acutely critical of the growing influence of the British Crown under Bute and George III. In the 1770s and 1780s Burke had been the advocate of the American colonists and had urged Britain towards policies of peace and conciliation, but in the 1790s he had become the unappeasable enemy of the French revolutionaries and the unflinching spokesman for a regicide war to be pursued à l’outrance. The passage of less than a decade had transformed (so it seemed to the radicals) the indignant champion of the Indians suffering under the despotic administration of the East India Company into an apologist for Europe’s ancien régime who had nothing but indifference for the hardships imposed on the French people by an absolute monarchy.

How Bromwich answers those charges:

Bromwich identifies two areas of important recurrent concern. The first is a nuanced formulation of the proper role of the people in the political life of a nation. As one might expect, it is a position tensed between two simpler, but more damaging, poles:

The people, says Burke, should not be trusted as advisers on policy or even necessarily as true reckoners of their interests in the short run, but they are always the best judges of their own oppression — so much so that we ought to fear any power on earth that sets itself above them.

The second is Burke’s undeviating commitment to justice. And it is in relation to the theme of justice that we encounter moments when Bromwich — himself a respected commentator on contemporary American politics — allows his exposition of the 18th-century British scene to resonate with our present discontents. Sometimes these connections with the present are introduced gently by way of an explanatory analogy, as in this helpful guidance about how to grasp Burke’s insistence that, in politics, the means must justify themselves, and that consequently means “always alter the character of the actor”:

Thus, if you justify the torture of suspects in order to assist a war against a wicked enemy, you will find that in doing so you have incorporated torture in your idea of justice.  You have come to an understanding with yourself, and the utmost savagery will be compatible with your nature thereafter.  You have become one of those who can acquit themselves of any wrong by appealing to a result in a plausible future.

(“Cincinnatus in Retirement” by James Gillray, 1782, a cartoon that caricatured Burke’s support of rights for Catholics, via Wikimedia Commons)