Burke’s 1775 speech on the American colonies is a natural outgrowth of the famously conservative point of view of the great Irish statesman. This is a systematic work in that Burke lays out a series of concepts, concepts connected to a certain cultural type, that has led to the American demand of freedom from the British crown (and parliament) as well as why that freedom is legitimate: in sum, Burke is arguing that the Americans are freedom loving because they are ultimately Englishmen.
What remains important about this speech is that the concepts that Burke provides that justify the American demand for independence are not concepts that float in mid air, in other words, they are not the cogitations of philosophers. These concepts such as education and ethic background are ideas that develop in context: specifically, the Anglo-Saxon context of religious dissent. He says, concerning the American colonists: They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.
Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness. The concept of “freedom” is not an abstraction, it is always a freedom for something, to something and about something, words like “freedom” or “liberty” cannot exist without an object about which they modify. In the English case, from which the American case derives, the freedom at issue was freedom from arbitrary taxation, this would be the “favourite point” of the British.
Much of what became the English “constitution” developed out of this central concern. From a philosophical point of view, this is the central concern of the speech. But the concepts as such are worth discussing. First of all, Burke mentions that the local governments of the colonies are genuinely popular. The Americans are dedicated to representative government in all senses of that word, and this has come to pass in the colonial states. Secondly, the religious background is central.
In general, the northern immigrants from Britain came from the Dissenting sects such as the more radical Puritans who were victorious in the English Civil War. What is important about such a background is that the dissenters, of whatever stripe, have a history of persecution and hence, are sensitive to any attacks on their liberty. This is important. In the south, the Church of England has a strong base, but the south has its own specific claim to liberty that is rather quirky.
Burke holds that the fact that the southern elites own slaves make them specifically sensitive to any attacks on their own freedom. The existence of a slave society means that freedom becomes not a state of affairs but becomes “a kind of rank and privilege. ” As a result, Burke concludes that, regardless of the moral issues among the slave holders, it makes the society as a whole value its freedom more than elsewhere, where it might be taken for granted. Third, the American education is peculiar because it is so law based.
Americans love to study the books of English law, and as a result, are very well informed as to their rights and privileges as inheritors of this same English law. Citizens who are informed about the nature of the law are dangerous to try and control, since they have an informed sense of whom they are and what is the circumscribed nature of their actions. Those who know the law are aware of their moral worth. Burke says to his colleagues that the study of law “renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources.
” Fourth, speaking geographically, Burke holds that an empire the size of England’s will always have to deal with rebellions on its periphery. Probably thinking of his native Ireland, Burke was aware that Ireland’s unfortunate geographical position made her vulnerable to British control, but the “three thousand miles of ocean” is a barrier that keeps British rule effectively at bay. Burke is indirectly saying that it would cost Parliament a fortune to fight a war so far away.
Fifth, Burke notes that the Americans have already created a de facto government of their own already, and hence, the war it would take to smash this would be a huge assault on liberty itself. These governments are popular and created and staffed by the people themselves. The British dedication to liberty can only, to remain consistent, accept these for what they are–expression of a law-based liberty and love of freedom. Lastly, Burke mentions that situation in Massachusetts, the hotbed of religious dissent, the British colonial state collapsed, leading to a situation of “anarchy. ” Yet, “the anarchy was found tolerable.
” The Americans have proven their love of liberty to such an extent that even the basic absence of a bureaucracy has not harmed the people in any way, if anything, they thrive under this regime of freedom. “A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigour, for near a twelvemonth, without governor, without public council, without judges, without executive magistrates. ” What does this say about Americans and the protection of liberty? It should be noted that Burke develops this defense of American freedoms from a purely conservative point of view.
The English mind and its religious tradition loathe arbitrary government, and hence, nothing less can be expected from the Americans, who descend from this same stock. The usage of “concepts in context” is a method that is very difficult to gainsay, due to the fact that the American drive exists on the same moral level as the English drive during the Civil War. Since history shows that there is a basic moral equivalence between the two movements, the British must respect the American (that is, English) demand for liberty for its own sake at least.