Some Lessons Worth Learning from Edmund Burke

We must begin to think like a minority.  Not like those modern minorities who are protected clients of the state; but like the old despised and friendless minorities that had to be shrewd.  A rich man can be careless with his money.  A poor man must be thrifty.  And a man no longer rich finds old habits hard to break.  This post contains some lessons on how to be a shrew minority taken from a letter Edmund Burke wrote to the Marquis of Rockingham in the summer of 1775.  The American rebellion was coming to a boil and Burke and Rockingham were in the despised and friendless minority that opposed the war.

Burke wrote to Rockingham in the hope that, despite being a minority, they could “keep the poor, giddy, thoughtless people of our country from plunging headlong into this impious war.”  He was at the same time nearly certain that plunge headlong into impious war is exactly what the poor, giddy, thoughtless people of their country would do.  The King and his ministers had no caution because their places were safe no matter what happened.  It was not as if George Washington might land at Dover and march his rebel army into London.  Thus the King and his ministers were unworried jingos, just like many jingoistic American legislators of today.

“As to the good people of England, they seem to partake every day, more and more, of the character of that administration which they have been induced to tolerate.” 

Good people play follow the leader and cannot be better than the people they follow.  Good people are credulous and obedient by nature, and especially credulous and obedient when it comes to the people in charge.  This is why there is no such thing as a “grass roots” rebellion and why every real rebellion is the work of a conspiracy.  As Burke wrote to Rockingham

 “To bring the people to a feeling, such a feeling, I mean, as tends to amendment, or alteration of system, there must be plan and management.  All direction of public humor and opinion must originate in a few . . . . I never yet knew an instance of any general temper in the nation, that might not have been tolerably traced to some particular persons.”

Burke proposed that he and Rockingham head such a conspiracy.  Unless a conspiracy of few particular persons undertook to direct public humor and opinion,

“it is my clear opinion that a nation may slide down fair and softly from the highest point of grandeur and prosperity to the lowest state of imbecility and meanness, without any one’s marking a particular period in this declension . . .”

Burke is describing what we nowadays call “boiling the frog.”  To mark a particular period in declension is to note the signs of decline and apprehend their ominous meaning.  Nations fall to ruin much like men, by imperceptible degrees.

The merchants of Great Britain were not alarmed by the prospect of an American war.  Quite the reverse.  Indeed it is a great mistake to suppose that a commercial nation cannot be militaristic because militarism is so very good for business.

“They all, or the greatest number of them, begin to snuff the cadaverous haut gout of lucrative war.  War, indeed, is become a sort of substitute for commerce.”

Haut gout  is “high” or strong flavor derived from heavy spicing; but the phrase also denoted the strong and appetizing aroma of cooking food that is highly spiced.  Burke is saying that the simmering war was to all men of business intensely mouth-watering, that it stimulated their hunger and made them impatient to dine.

Likewise the legislators who always welcome war as a pretext to enlarge their power.

“Parliament will plunge over head and ears.  They will vote the war with every supply of domestic and foreign force.  They will pass an act of attainder;—they will lay their hands upon the press.”

To plunge over head and ears is to dive headfirst, and thus to act without prudence, discretion, or good sense.  The idiom denotes impetuosity and impetuous spending is one way legislators show their zeal for war.  Another is by disabling their political enemies with slander, defamation, and acts of attainder (criminal judgements of political enemies by a legislature).  Yet another is censorship and propaganda, since legislators long to lay their hands upon the press even more than they long to lay their hands on the more fetching members of their staff.

Burke then turns to the peculiar difficulties of a political dissident and acknowledges that moral courage is noble but very often foolhardy.  Taking an truly unpopular stand makes a man truly unpopular, and a truly unpopular man can do nothing at all.

“I hope I am as little awed out of my senses by the fear of vulgar opinion, as most of my acquaintance.  I think, on a fair occasion, I could look it in the face; but speaking of the prudential consideration, we know that all opposition is absolutely crippled, if it can obtain no kind of support without doors.”

“Support without doors” meant support avowed publicly by persons of consequence.  There is no support in “support” that is not public because private assurances of sympathy and agreement do the dissident no good at all.  A lone dissident without public allies is a “crippled” man.

Burke told Rockingham that he would, for a time, absent himself from Parliament because he understood the service a “feeble opposition” does to the power it feebly opposes.

“My experience is worth nothing, if it has not made it as clear to me as the sun, that, in affairs like these, a feeble opposition is the greatest service which can be done to ministry; and surely, if there be a state of decided disgrace, it is to add to the power of your enemies by every step you take to distress them.”

When a man is crushed for speaking truth to power, spectators go home with a greater regard for  power and a smaller regard for truth.  Martyrdom is far less efficacious than many suppose because most people take it as a lesson in how not to become a martyr.  Every shrewd dissident therefore resists the urge to vainglorious grandstanding and restrict himself to obstructive sabotage.

“A minority cannot make or carry on a war; but a minority, well composed and acting steadily, may clog a war in such a manner as to make it not very easy to proceed.”


*) Edmund Burke, Letter to the Marquis of Rockingham, August 23, 1775, in  Charles William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam and Richard Bourke (eds.), Correspondence of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, four vols. (London: F&J Rivington, 1844), vol 2, pp. 46-57.

7 thoughts on “Some Lessons Worth Learning from Edmund Burke

  1. But then one is still in the fray.

    Observers and Artists (I don’t mean the hacks who call themselves artists, but real Artists) are always in the minority. Their detachment from the human scene — being within it, but not of it — permits them, positions them, instinctively, to see what most do not, can not.

    Their analyses and aesthetic works become channels for those who are susceptible to awareness, to see as well. They work, if and when they do, to pull many out of the morass in which they find themselves.

    I was reading Blake this morning, aloud, and, seeing something I’d not heretofore realized (about spirit) could only thank him for the beauteous revelation. He was as much outside the fray as those who contend within it. That is also a mode of existence, and I offer it as a complementary idea for consideration to your own.

    Wonderful essay, great quotes, well done.

  2. Hm, me, the more I read of and from the era the more it seems to me that it was more the Americans who were blindly and jingoistically pushing toward war, what with stockpiling weapons, attacking British officials and ships, destroying property, setting up an alternate government, and repeatedly making thoroughly unreasonable demands as a condition of their continued loyalty while refusing any attempted compromise.

    Plus ca change… (and speaking of taking unpopular stands)

    • I have ancestors who were tories. Family legend says they had a farm on the upper part of Manhattan Island, although it may have just been in that general vicinity. By 1790 they were in Upper Canada, where they remained until my great grandfather moved to Illinois. They may have been what are called late tories who moved to Canada for economic reasons, but the family legend is that they were hounded out of the old homestead by republican rabble. Burke opposed the intransigence of the Tory party in England. He would have appeased the Americans and given them representation in Parliament. This would almost certainly have benefited his own party, the Whigs.

      • Representation in Parliament probably would have been an excellent way to defuse the situation. Trouble is that the Americans – or Congress at least – weren’t interested in it; they explicitly rejected the idea as ‘impractical’ while continuing to insist that no representation meant they could never be taxed. I wonder what would have happened if Burke and his fellows had prevailed and Parliament had tried to set up representation for them anyway? Probably would have undercut a lot of the Republican support, but odds are they would have rejected it as just a ploy to tax them (as they did every other compromise offered by the British).
        Though then the British would have had to face the problem of ‘can any local government or any colony refuse to be taxed until it gets a member in Parliament and where do we draw the line on this?’ And as you say, since American MPs would almost certainly be Whigs, the Tories would essentially be destroying their own political power in the process after a long struggle to try to get a majority. So, I understand why they didn’t, though in hindsight they probably should have. One of several opportunities on both sides to defuse the situation, though I think the British generally have more excuse in that regard than the Americans.

      • …but the family legend is that they were hounded out of the old homestead by republican rabble.

        I don’t doubt it, given your sympathetic views towards Southerners like R.L. Dabney, Lost Cause mythology/orthodoxy, and the Southern Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States.
        One surname in my family line(s) is, by a preponderance of the evidence that would hold up in most any American court of law, of Yankee extraction. Yet, I have yet to find a single man related to me and from the generation who fought on the side of the “Glorious Union.” I don’t know, as yet, that any of them spent time in one of Lincoln’s (or, Seward’s) “American Bastilles” either, so perhaps they were cowards. I doubt that too, since several of their sons and grandsons served valiantly in the 1st and 2nd WW’s.

  3. Haut gout is ‘high’ or strong flavor derived from heavy spicing”
    Actually it is the gamey flavour from hanging pheasants or other wild game for a couple of weeks; much appreciated by cultivated palates.

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