If history teaches us anything, it is that acting like “everything is up for grabs” is precisely what produces reigns of terror.
There is no doubt that Burke studies have received a new point of departure in Richard Bourke’s masterful Empire and Revolution. This work of surpassing scholarship enables us to place Burke fully in the context of the political history through which he lived. In many ways it is an authoritative demonstration of the Cambridge School approach of examining ideas in context, only here the connection is even more integral than is generally the case. Burke not only developed his ideas out of the political setting in which he found himself, but shaped that setting through the sheer intellectual force of his ideas. It is that intimate relationship between ideas and history that makes Richard Bourke’s study of significance for a far wider arena than just students of Edmund Burke.
Indeed, Burke’s understanding of the reciprocal relationship between politics and principles is the foundation for this study. Richard Bourke merely gives Burke the room to unfold the relationship. Where previous scholars had been all too eager to interrogate Burke from the perspective of their own preoccupations, Bourke marks the genuine innovation of allowing Burke to speak for himself. This study does not laud Burke’s conservative bona fides or enlist him as a natural lawyer, and certainly it does not view him as undergirding social democracy or classical liberalism. This work takes seriously the scholarly responsibility of trying to understand Burke as he understood himself, which includes straining to understand the times in relation to which Burke was compelled to work out his ideas. The novelty of Burke as a philosophical statesman meant that there was a fair chance of finding the guiding thread that animated his entire public career. He understood himself to be engaged in an unusual mode of political practice that continually sought to ground itself in the constancy of principle. Burke can be examined, therefore, from the perspective of the unifying philosophy that had guided him because it had been consciously elaborated throughout the course of his extensive public career.
In contrast to the magisterial biography of F.P. Lock whose two volumes are a treasure trove of detailed reportage on Burke’s life, Bourke’s study is in many ways more closely engaged with its subject. It wrestles with the same issue with which Burke himself struggled. The fact that Bourke hit upon such a perspicuous choice of framing ideas as “empire and revolution” is indicative of the explanatory reach of the project. There is no possibility of finding a starting point outside of the political reality in which Burke was immersed. He was compelled, as we are too, to make sense of the historical reality in which he found himself and thereby articulate the enduring principles by which it can be judged and addressed as best as possible. As a philosophical statesman, Burke is sui generis in the history of political thought. There have, of course, been statesmen capable of giving their convictions and actions the stamp of profound reflection, but scarcely any achieves the range of Burke’s penetration. Burke refounds politics in the modern era by confronting the problems of politics at their deepest level. Empire and revolution are only the tip of the historical iceberg that encompasses the imperative of founding a political order that always precedes any such attempt.
Even in his own time, Burke was viewed as a notorious defender of lost causes. Yet the story of his life was that political success or failure was, if not irrelevant, of considerably less relevance than the enduring principles that were the only means of remediation. In this sense, Burke was the complete opposite of a utopian. All of his interventions were undertaken in light of the field of possibility, without ever losing sight of the principles by which that possibility was glimpsed. The connection between political reality and political principle, far from being a mere ideal or an illusion, was intimate and irrevocable. Burke’s elevation of the historical perspective on politics was not a mere avocation but the presupposition of his whole long engagement in public life. Politics is inescapably bound up with movement toward or the departure from the enduring. His was the eternal perspective continually emerging from the mundane struggles of the day.
In Bourke’s skillful narrative, empire and revolution are the alternative forces that shaped historical events but the principles contained within them are conquest and liberty. Burke’s achievement was to clarify and reconcile the opposition between those divergent political impulses. The genius of the British constitutional tradition that was the lodestar of his thought was the realization that opposing drives must reach an accommodation. Conquest might well be at the origin of political order but it could not endure as a naked imposition of force. Only an accommodation that acknowledged the primacy of the common good could generate the free consent from which all legitimate rule derives its authority. Britain in the eighteenth century was embarked on a full scale reassessment of the tensions embedded in the notion of imperial rule by a constitutional polity. Burke, and his collaborators among the Rockingham Whigs, was singularly attuned to the dangers to the British constitution itself, already visible in the corrupting power that the Court had accumulated in its contest with Parliament. The issue was the same as in the preceding century but the balance had tipped decisively in the direction of the crown. One of the signal merits of Bourke’s study is that he explores the constitutional crisis that is at the core of the great controversies of Burke’s period.
The French Revolution, with which any account of Burke must end, was not an isolated development but the denouement of the historical fate of Europe. From Burke’s long perspective he had contemplated the prospect of unlimited revolution that finally erupted in France. But he knew that it could arise anywhere and it was his long meditation on it that spurred him to sound the alarm once it burst forth in 1789. Attention to the pre-revolutionary murmurings, Bourke shows, had alerted Burke to the explosive potentialities that could also endanger the British constitutional system. The loss of empire in America had demonstrated the ease with which constitutional rule could be jettisoned and the risks inherent in the search for a new constitutional arrangement. The chapters that detail Burke’s sympathetic involvement with the cause of American independence are among the most illuminating in the book. They show that Burke did not condemn revolution out of hand but indeed recognized a legitimate right to cast off government whose oppressive indifference had already robbed it of legitimacy. Yet the transition back to constitutional order would remain a precarious negotiation.
The Americans had been fortunate in the rupture that had merely transferred allegiance rather than overturned the established order of their societies. This was what made it possible for Burke to play the role of defender and ally of the Americans even as they separated from the British imperium. What mattered to Burke, as this study shows, is that they retained the core of constitutional rule in submitting to the unassailability of prescription. Other Burke scholars have acknowledged his emphasis on settled possession, but Bourke is singularly effective in delineating the way in which this conviction provides the guiding thread of his subject’s thought and life. Once scrutiny of the origin of entitlements, whether to rule or property, is admitted then nothing is secure or securely settled. Long viewed as a moderate reformer, Burke’s stance was not merely prudential caution. Rather, it derives from the fundamental principle of his thought that political reality is historical in nature and must therefore take its beginning from the settled arrangements history has bequeathed to it.
The secret veil that conceals the origin of all government, however, did not shield government from judgment for its actions within history. That was the issue that arose most vividly in the controversy over British rule in India and most acutely in the actions of the East India Company through which the imperium had been exercised. Bourke provides a reliable and exhaustive guide to the meandering political history of that relationship into which his protagonist chose to inject himself most energetically. The longest running campaign of Burke’s career was his single-minded prosecution of Warren Hastings whose impeachment trial he managed in the House of Lords. It was in this context that Burke brought forth the correlate to his principle of prescription. That was the principle of government as a trust never to be abrogated. Prescription might be its foundation but the common good was its irrevocable pledge. The contract that the early modern theorists had placed at the origin of political society was reconceived by Burke as a primordial agreement. It was the violation of that “faith, the covenant, the solemn, original, indispensable oath, in which I am bound, by the eternal frame and constitution of things, to the whole human race,” that drove Burke to pursue the case of Hastings. His was not merely a personal failure but an indictment of the British rule in India that Burke sought to salvage through the mechanism of the impeachment trial.
A similar mismanagement of political trust was on display in the relationship of Britain to Burke’s home country, Ireland. There the explosive consequences remained largely invisible although the first stirrings of independence were already evident. The prospect of a divorce from his fellow countrymen weighed on Burke’s mind as he sought to mitigate the worst effects of the penal laws that disenfranchised the majority of the Catholic population in Ireland. Bourke’s study provides a nuanced account of the obstacles that stood in the way of such moderated reforms as Burke championed. Once again the mother country found itself held hostage to the self-interest of an ascendant class whose dominance rested on continued exclusion of the Catholic majority. Burke argued that no government could forever disregard the interest of the largest part of any society. At a minimum it would have to guarantee the freedom to practice their religion openly. This was how Burke became instrumental in making it possible for the training of Catholic clergy to be reinstituted at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. In the end such palliative efforts would prove insufficient to staunch the demand for national independence, but that was a century away.
For the moment the revolutionary outburst would occur outside of the British orbit. The French Revolution was the break from a prescriptively ordered tradition with which Burke is most notably linked. Richard Bourke reminds us in his skillful narration that Burke’s response to that singular event was elaborated in parallel with his futile prosecution of the misrule of Warren Hastings. Perhaps that contemporaneity prodded Burke to grasp how the character of the French Revolution was crucially different from his own protest against the misgovernment of India. At any rate it was the crowning achievement of Burke’s career to have illuminated the radical novelty of the French upheaval. It was there that all of the forebodings he had glimpsed in the Gordon Riots and other outbreaks of popular discontent had suddenly erupted on a national scale. But what made the French Revolution a new phenomenon in history was that it became a total demand for renovation. It ceased to be merely political and had assumed a messianic character. All of this is wonderfully evoked in Bourke’s concluding chapter aptly titled “Revolutionary Crescendo.” Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is not only a powerful summation of Burke’s own political thought but an extraordinary event in its own right. Rarely does an historical eruption coincide with a contemporary penetration of its significance.
It is this extraordinary coincidence that explains the immediate historical impact of the work. Almost single-handedly, Burke reversed the tide of British opinion that was hitherto moving in the direction of sympathy with the French revolutionaries. Far from merely reflecting on political history, Burke’s book played a pivotal role in history. It was the culminating achievement of his career even if its effects were less visible to his contemporaries and even Burke himself. He continued to feel that his warnings against the revolutionary contagion, which could leap across the channel to engulf Britain as well, had not been sufficiently heeded. In this vein he penned the Letters on a Regicide Peace and expended his efforts at influencing the direction of politics at the cost of his own welfare. It was easy to see how, as he slipped into retirement at the dawn of the Napoleonic era, that he could not shake off the sense of widespread disintegration. Burke had not been able to arouse sufficiently the necessary resources for the defense of the constitutional order.
In large part that looming disappointment as his life reached its end arose from the impossibility of seeing the fruits of his work that stretched into the future. Burke could not foresee the way in which his ideas would be taken up by other men and women in different times and places. One thinks of the way in which Russell Kirk installed Burke as the founder of the conservative intellectual tradition. From there it was possible for the Burkean convictions to work their salutary effect on a rejuvenated conservative political movement that emerged in the middle of the last century and endures amidst its wanderings up to the present. Yet it has always been a mistake to tie Burke’s significance to that residual influence in the always variable world of politics. He has earned a place in that far more lasting horizon of the thinkers who ultimately shape the direction of that world. Burke is a political theorist of the first rank and it is one of the achievements of this remarkably impressive book to have established that conclusively.
Amid the daily turmoil of political controversy that seems incapable of reaching a resolution, Burke was able to articulate a principled response to the issues of the day that permanently rises above them. This is the principled approach to politics that Richard Bourke exhaustively unfolds in this study. He shows how Burke, acting within history could nevertheless perceive the direction of history. The key is surely that Burke never simply contemplated the world in which he found himself but took responsibility for it. He shaped and enacted history, or sought to do so. It was this perspective of action that prompted a deeper appreciation of the turning point in which aristocratic privilege was giving way to an egalitarian leveling. Within this context Burke is very often seen as the defender of a past as outmoded as the forms of chivalry in which it was clothed. A far more accurate view is the one provided by Bourke who shows how Burke fully understood the inexorability of differences of rank, most of all in a society open to the dynamic instability of opportunity.
Modern commercial society had achieved its manifest success by simultaneously preserving formal equality with vastly unequal results. It was not that there would remain a difference of rank as an historical residue, but that such distinctions were likely to be a permanent feature of a capitalist political economy. Burke’s invocations of chivalry were not so much an exercise in nostalgia as a reminder of the need to find a modern equivalent of the imperative for the powerful to bow down before the condition of the vulnerable. If European society was to find a way out of the revolutionary abyss it would have to find a contemporary form of the “spirit of the gentleman” by which authority was admired and submission freely tendered. To have grasped through “moral imagination” the path by which the irreconcilable demands of liberty and equality would have to be reconciled was no small achievement. It may be that Burke sought to effect this accommodation through an aesthetic appeal to admiration but it was just as readily evoked, Bourke suggests, through the Aristotelian mutuality of friendship.