Victor Nuovo: Burke and the English Constitution

Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
Edmund Burke (1730–97) was born in Dublin before Ireland was an independent republic. His father was a successful lawyer, a Protestant, and a member of the Church of Ireland, the Irish counterpart to the Church of England. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, which was then a staunch Protestant institution. He began his career as a writer.
One of Burke’s earliest books was devoted to aesthetic values: A Philosophical Enquiry on the Sublime and the Beautiful. However, he mostly devoted himself to history and public affairs. In 1765, he was elected to Parliament, and remained there until near the end of his life. There he gained the reputation as a powerful orator and an acute political thinker.
In Parliament he was a moderate Whig, i.e., a liberal and a centrist. He supported the American colonies in their struggle for independence. He opposed the slave trade and condemned British colonial practices in India. Therefore, the publication in 1790 of his Reflections on the Revolution in France evoked surprise. After reading it, Jefferson remarked, “The Revolution in France does not astonish me as much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” Others speculated whether he had lost his mind.
The occasion for writing the Reflections was a request from a young Frenchman, a revolutionary, who was recently elected to the National Assembly. Burke was asked by this gentleman for his thoughts on the revolution in France and also for his advice. Burke drafted a response, but was reluctant to send it. He communicated this to the young Frenchman, who renewed his request with greater urgency.
By this time, Burke realized that his thoughts on the revolution in France had enlarged beyond anything that could be contained in a personal letter, and that they required a larger audience. Thus, although he retained the informal style of a letter, he produced a long and rambling monologue. The order that he followed was simply the sequence of his thoughts. Reflections isnot a systematic work. It would be futile to try to outline it. The best one can do is to follow Burke’s train of thought, paying attention to each topic as it passes by, going with the flow. This is not unpleasant. It is like slowly drifting down a river and taking in the scenery.
However, in this case, the scenery is not always tranquil, but often disturbing and terrifying, and the sky above is threatening. However, it should not be forgotten that Burke, the philosopher of aesthetic value, was aware that terror, or the contemplation of it, can be pleasing as well as instructive. In any case, Burke’s Reflections is a work of high literary quality, full of ambiguity, and a major work of political thought — a classic.
At the outset, Burke’s thoughts turn to the English Constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the English Constitution is not a document. Rather it is a tradition, perhaps an ancient one. However, like our constitution, it is supposed to be a fundamental law, and one of its foremost features is the separation of powers. In this case, the powers have to do with the Commons or the people’s representatives in Parliament; a hereditary monarch; and the Lords, also hereditary.
Burke desired to conserve these hereditary rights for they provided stability. He worried that revolutionary zeal would cross the channel and catch fire and consume them. He observed that a revolutionary club had already been founded in London, and that Richard Price, a Christian, minister, and leader of the club, had recently preached a sermon fomenting revolution. It had been widely circulated. Price ended his sermon with a visionary declaration and a solemn warning: “I see the ardor for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment [i.e., universal change] beginning in human affairs, the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws. Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments and slavish hierarchies! You cannot now hold the world in darkness. Restore to mankind their rights and consent to the correction of abuses; before they and you are destroyed together.”
Burke’s response to all this is legal and historical, rather than reflective or philosophical. He declares himself fully in favor of a robust liberty, but he has in mind liberty not as an abstract principle, but as a social practice regulated by law and moderated by morality, whose roots lie in the ancient constitution of England.
“You will observe,” he wrote, “that from the Magna Charta [1215] to the Declaration of Rights [1689—following the Glorious Revolution], it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without reference to any prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.”
Upon careful examination, he finds this ancient law to be “the result of profound reflection,” which he describes as “the happy effect of following nature.”
In this respect, he seems to take a naturalistic view of political and social history. The English constitution is organic, like the soul of a living body it develops gradually, responding to social needs and renewing itself through practical experience, increasing in scope and efficacy and gaining in wisdom by trial and error.
It is the product of centuries of human judgment, and is learned through practice by a people, who by participating in social and political institutions, are nourished and edified by its wisdom. The constitution is the soul of the people.
Burke observes that the French were not lacking a similar resource. “You had all these advantages in your ancient states,” he wrote, “but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into a civil society and had in everything to begin anew.”
It is noteworthy, when comparing the French to the American revolutions, that Condorcet made a similar observation with respect to America—the colonies had their governments and legal traditions which they adjusted to independence; the French had their traditions also, but they regarded them as not worth preserving.
Burke supposed that Condorcet and other revolutionaries had allowed their minds to be carried off by abstract principle. Condorcet read Burke’s Reflections and denied this claim, insisting that whereas the English in 1688 and the Americans in 1776 already possessed their rights and only needed to enlarge them, the French had none. He might have added that the French aimed higher — they desired complete equality.

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