Skip to comments.Of Great Empires and Little Minds
Posted on 07/04/2011 7:56:57 AM PDT by Kaslin
He rose to speak in the midst of a colonial war that would prove more than a colonial war but a whole Novus Ordo Seclorum, as it still says on the dollar bill, or A New Order for the Ages.
Eloquent rhetorician, thoughtful student of history and insightful analyst of events in his own time, Edmund Burke had decided ideas about what made nations great and what undermined them. The member of parliament for Bristol understood very well what was at stake in the coming conflict over the nature of the British empire: the empire itself.
Author, orator, thinker, and loyal but not blind servant of the Crown, he would not, could not, keep silent. Any more than a faithful sentry would fail to sound the alarm at approaching catastrophe. His every thought and impulse, fortified by his experience as a statesman and its hard-won lessons, told him His Majesty's ministers were embarked on a disastrous course. Their colonial policy was not only wrong in principle but, perhaps worse in the eyes of a statesmen, sure to fail in practice.
A great statesman has qualities beyond calculation. He has vision, and the will to fulfill it. Edmund Burke fully envisioned the ruin his colleagues were inviting by their persistence in adopting punitive measures rather than conciliatory policies toward British America, which might yet be saved for his Sovereign.
So it was only to be expected that he would speak out, however futile the effort might prove, in favor of "Conciliation With America" on the 22nd of March, 1774. It would not prove the first time his counsel and foresight would be vindicated by sad events. For in the years ahead he would prove as incisive a critic of the French Revolution as he would a defender of the American one.
If an editor had to choose a single phrase to sum up Burke's extensive oration on the wisdom of conciliating America -- an oration that used to be studied in courses on rhetoric, back when rhetoric was still being studied -- it would be Burke's pointed warning that "a great empire and little minds go ill together.''
Even by his time, the American character had already been formed. And it was not one that could be bullied by an imperial establishment an ocean away from the New World and, as it turned out, from reality. Anybody who thought Americans were likely to yield to superior force, even the force of the greatest empire in the world in its day, didn't know Americans. Or the beliefs that had shaped us. And that we would hold fast to. Come what may. And it came: one defeat and retreat after another, out of which somehow emerged victory, independence and a new order for the ages. By some mysterious process -- Providence? -- our beliefs would be vindicated.
Those beliefs would be given their most concise and enduring expression in the Declaration of Independence of July the 4th, 1776:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Those words would have to be redeemed in blood and fire before they would become among the best known and most influential in the course of human events. They would become the creed of a revolution that goes on across the world even today. That revolution succeeded not only because of the vision and courage of American's founding generation, but because of the blind willfulness of those who thought they could bully us into obedience.
They didn't know us. Edmund Burke did.
His assessment of the American character proved remarkably accurate, and may it ever remain so:
"In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole. ... Sir, from these six capital sources -- of descent, of form of government, of religion in the Northern Provinces, of manners in the Southern, of education, of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government -- from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your Colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth; a spirit that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us."
The British could not say they weren't warned, and by their leading statesman at that. To those of his colleagues who believed their Force Acts would render us pliant subjects, Edmund Burke responded:
"The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."
It was not only the American spirit that the rulers of that great empire failed to apprehend when they adopted a tyrannical course in the colonies, but their own. They could not see that what they might have preserved through vision, they would lose by folly. Or as Edmund Burke warned his colleagues, "a great empire and little minds go ill together."
Now it is we who find ourselves with a great empire, or at least with all the responsibilities of one, however loath we are to acknowledge it. For we never sought an American empire. With all our being, we reject any such idea, respecting others' freedom as we love our own. But over the many hard years, as one threat after another materialized, we've been obliged to accept imperial responsibilities in response. Not out of imperious ambition but in self-defense.
Despite the happy myth of an America isolated from the all the world's troubles and intrigues, it was never so. We tend to forget that even our Revolution was part of a world war, fought with the critical aid of an international alliance with a still royal France. Whether through the long twilight struggle called the Cold War or now, deep in a war on terror that indecisive leaders refuse even to call by that name, the burden of empire has been thrust upon us. Shall we be up to bearing it? Or will we again see that a great empire and little minds go ill together?
This much is clear: Nothing so girds the spirit and informs the mind like memory. Which is why, on bright days like this one, we recall all the dark tides of history we have overcome, and are strengthened. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.
Edmund Burke ping.
My dear late friend, Evelyn Burke, was a direct decedent of Edmund Burke. Born of her Irish father and English mother in England in 1896, she died at 103 in 1999, just short of living in 3 centuries.
An avid student of history, a sharp mind and sharper wit, a story teller extraordinaire, stubborn and intractable but with a honed sense of humor, she was a delight - as long as you didn't get on her bad side.
Her father was a ‘Queen's Life Guard” in India and England, handsome in his red coated uniform atop his black horse. she had stories of intrigue to tell of him.
When she died, at 103, she was still healthy of mind and body. She just wanted to check out. (She had married first an RAF pilot (from Canada) who was shot down over Germany. She moved to Canada with her baby boy and later to the US, marrying a Navy man. Her son grew up to fly for the RAF in WW11, and was shot down over Normandy - with ‘no issue’. the end of the Burke line in her branch.
And speaking of genes, she even looked much like Edmund.
We get not only our physical characteristics, but inner attributions from our ancestors as well.
Seclorum is the possessive plural of saeculum.
When you read this or some of what De Tocqueville wrote you have to sit and wonder are we the same nation those people saw or has our national character changed? If the latter what do you attribute that change to, immigration of those who hold a different view of government than the original English, Scots and Irish who made up much of early American population, a general laziness of the population that has grown more problematic over the last 50-60 years, a rather successful, planned attack on the cultural by those who crave only control over others or something else entirely? Comments welcomed.
The apparent disconnect between the British statesmen who insisted on their own freedom while denying that same freedom to their fellow countrymen is actually no such thing.
British “freedom,” the most advanced of any nation on earth, did not mean freedom for all. It merely meant the freedom of the rulers to rule over their subjects. It’s just that the “rulers,” the political nation, was much larger in England than anywhere else. There were the “free men” or electors, who had started their demand for freedom with Magna Carta and finally won it in 1689 with the Glorious Revolution.
At the time of Magna Carta the “free men” were essentially the barons. By the time of our revolution this had greatly expanded, with the franchise varying by parliamentary district, but of course expansion of the franchise and full political freedom was always strenuously resisted by those who already had it, since expansion reduced their own importance and power proportionately.
The political nation of Britain did not have the least intention of sharing power with their inferiors.
Burke was one of the few members of the political class who saw that Americans did not accept that they were the inferiors of the British ruling class and had no intention of bowing to them. Our own society in 1776 was by no means truly egalitarian, but it was much more so than anywhere else on earth, as the aristocracy never came here in quantity. The “political nation” in the colonies was the majority of white men, and they would fight as fiercely to hold onto what they saw as their right to rule themselves as their equivalents in England would to hold what they saw as their right to rule over them.
The problem, to Burke, was the excesses of social revolution and what they portended to (and in time, did) destroy in France. It was clear that many Enlightenment-inspired French aristocrats felt that they could simply renounce their right to rule, put on the revolutionary cockade, and be done with it - Lafayette certainly did, and nearly paid with his life for his innocence. Not the case, and Burke stated why it was not, and in time even Paine would have to concede he had a point.
The difference is in order and the rule of law. There were, to be sure, the inevitable abuses of faction in America, farms burnt, loyalists forced to depart. But the abuses in France were more widespread and related to social class: one could be killed not for what one had done, but for what one was. And Burke's point was that for all the demonstrable abuses certain social classes also provided values that the new plans, such as they were, did not cover: not simply the functions of law-giving, but the underlying respect for law itself.
The results were graphic. A British citizen or loyalist could sue in an American court for remediation of debts incurred before and during the War of Independence, and many did. Public debts were recognized across administrations, the half-million owed to the French government that broke the Confederation government and nearly broke the French, for one. In short, while the laws changed, the rule of law remained.
Not so in France. Once the Etats-General had lost control of the thing, the law changed so kaleidoscopically on a day-to-day basis that the rule of law became force without respect - Napoleon did not succeed because the French love despots, he succeeded because he was the best alternative of the moment. And promptly declared himself Emperor. The Enlightenment, Burke had said, could lead that direction too.
This is, for modern Americans, something more than a simple conflict between historical narratives. Marx's model for revolution was decidedly the French type, the old order being completely overthrown in a frenzy of class vengeance. Its fruits were there for all the world to see in the economic, industrial, and human rights disasters that were the Communist bloc. A coming change in the form of the American government must run along the lines of the War of Independence or it will tear us all apart. Grim thoughts on this day of celebration.