Edmund Burke

Fortnight For Freedom: Edmund Burke

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have proclaimed a second Fortnight for Freedom from June 21-July 4th, and, as last year, The American Catholic will participate with special blog posts each day.

 

“For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

So wrote Edmund Burke, brilliant writer and member of Parliament, of the Catholic penal laws in the Eighteenth Century.  Son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, suspected in his lifetime, probably incorrectly, of being a secret Catholic, Burke was a man who fought during his life for many causes:  reform in Parliament, support for Americans in their fight against oppression by the English government, prosecution of Warren Hastings for his misrule in India, his crusade against the French Revolution, all these and more engaged his formidable intellect and his luminous pen.  However, one cause he championed from the beginning of his career to the end of it:  relief for Catholics in Ireland and England from the Penal Laws.

What were the Penal Laws?  A series of statutes dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and codified and harshened after the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, to transform Irish Catholics into helots in their own land and to keep English Catholics a despised and helpless minority.  Burke summarized the penal laws nicely in a speech to his Bristol constituents on September 6, 1780:

“A statute was fabricated in the year 1699, by which the saying mass (a church service in the Latin tongue, not exactly the same as our liturgy, but very near it, and containing no offence whatsoever against the laws, or against good morals) was forged into a crime, punishable with perpetual imprisonment. The teaching school, an useful and virtuous occupation, even the teaching in a private family, was in every Catholic subjected to the same unproportioned punishment. Your industry, and the bread of your children, was taxed for a pecuniary reward to stimulate avarice to do what Nature refused, to inform and prosecute on this law. Every Roman Catholic was, under the same act, to forfeit his estate to his nearest Protestant relation, until, through a profession of what he did not believe, he redeemed by his hypocrisy what the law had transferred to the kinsman as the recompense of his profligacy. When thus turned out of doors from his paternal estate, he was disabled from acquiring any other by any industry, donation, or charity; but was rendered a foreigner in his native land, only because he retained the religion, along with the property, handed down to him from those who had been the old inhabitants of that land before him.

Does any one who hears me approve this scheme of things, or think there is common justice, common sense, or common honesty in any part of it? If any does, let him say it, and I am ready to discuss the point with temper and candor. But instead of approving, I perceive a virtuous indignation beginning to rise in your minds on the mere cold stating of the statute.” Continue reading

Misappropriating Burke

One of the most tiresome and repeated tricks I see in political discourse is right-leaning moderates using Edmund Burke’s name in justifying big government conservatism. The latest to use Burke’s name to justify political moderation is Peter Berkowitz in his book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. Here’s a blurb from the book.

The first entrenched reality is that the era of big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping America’s expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role. Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality…..the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.”

And here’s a blurb from Harvey Mansfield.

Peter Berkowitz makes a match between Edmund Burke and the American Founders to give ‘political moderation’ a good name on our partisan battlefield. A short, effectual book with shining prose, a telling argument, and a lasting message. –Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard University

Jeffrey Lord takes on Berkowtiz as well as Jennifer Rubin, Joe Scarborough and others who are preaching the value of capitulation moderation. As usual, Lord does a fantastic job of eviscerating the case for moderation. First, addressing the blurb quoted above, Lord writes:

So the New Deal is now the Founding principle of America? And attempts to “dismantle or even substantially” roll back the New Deal “reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities”?

Really?

Even Bill Clinton waxed Reaganesque when he said in that famous 1995 State of the Union message that “the era of Big Government is over.”

Berkowitz’s thinking — which Rubin shares — is a pluperfect example of what led a couple generations of American leaders to believe the Soviet Union was here to stay. Those were the folks rolling their eyes in their supposed sophistication when President Reagan insisted the Soviets were headed to the “ash heap of history.” Only to watch astonished as the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. Precisely as Reagan predicted.

Lord further examines how this bedrock principle and the programs created by the New Deal are crashing around us. As he writes:

The fact of the matter is that the New Deal is imploding all around us. With all manner of experts repeatedly warning the U.S. is being relentlessly driven towards a financial cliff, with entitlement spending on track to eventually consume first the defense budget before polishing off the entire federal budget. The fact that Democrats are tying themselves to the equivalent of an unexploded political IED is their decision.

But what, pray tell, is moderate, Republican or conservative about accepting the idea that America is headed irrevocably to bankruptcy and chaos?

There’s much more at the link as Lord explains how the social consensus keeps moving the left. “Moderation,” therefore, will only lead to more government control and, eventually, less freedom.

Jeff Goldstein also discusses Lord’s article and has more insights as well.

Lord and Goldstein both do great jobs of explaining the problems with Berkowitz’s position, but I want to focus on the admittedly more academic point, and that’s Berkowitz’s misappropriation of Burke. Continue reading

Electoral Defeat-1780

 

 

“For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

(I originally wrote this post in the wake of Obama’s election four years ago.  It tells the story of how the great Edmund Burke suffered electoral defeat in 1780 for standing up for principle.  It reminds us that fighting for that which one believes in, no matter the outcome at the polls, is never a real defeat over time.)

So wrote Edmund Burke, brilliant writer and member of Parliament, of the Catholic penal laws in the Eighteenth Century.  Son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, suspected in his lifetime, probably incorrectly, of being a secret Catholic, Burke was a man who fought during his life for many causes:  reform in Parliament, support for Americans in their fight against oppression by the English government, prosecution of Warren Hastings for his misrule in India, his crusade against the French Revolution, all these and more engaged his formidable intellect and his luminous pen.  However, one cause he championed from the beginning of his career to the end of it:  relief for Catholics in Ireland and England from the Penal Laws.

What were the Penal Laws?  A series of statutes dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and codified and harshened after the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, to transform Irish Catholics into helots in their own land and to keep English Catholics a despised and helpless minority.  Burke summarized the penal laws nicely in a speech to his Bristol constituents on September 6, 1780:

A statute was fabricated in the year 1699, by which the saying mass (a church service in the Latin tongue, not exactly the same as our liturgy, but very near it, and containing no offence whatsoever against the laws, or against good morals) was forged into a crime, punishable with perpetual imprisonment. The teaching school, an useful and virtuous occupation, even the teaching in a private family, was in every Catholic subjected to the same unproportioned punishment. Your industry, and the bread of your children, was taxed for a pecuniary reward to stimulate avarice to do what Nature refused, to inform and prosecute on this law. Every Roman Catholic was, under the same act, to forfeit his estate to his nearest Protestant relation, until, through a profession of what he did not believe, he redeemed by his hypocrisy what the law had transferred to the kinsman as the recompense of his profligacy. When thus turned out of doors from his paternal estate, he was disabled from acquiring any other by any industry, donation, or charity; but was rendered a foreigner in his native land, only because he retained the religion, along with the property, handed down to him from those who had been the old inhabitants of that land before him.

Does any one who hears me approve this scheme of things, or think there is common justice, common sense, or common honesty in any part of it? If any does, let him say it, and I am ready to discuss the point with temper and candor. But instead of approving, I perceive a virtuous indignation beginning to rise in your minds on the mere cold stating of the statute.” Continue reading

Bastille Day and the Transformative Power of History

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Something for the weekend.   The La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.  Today is Bastille Day, the great national holiday in France, the equivalent our Independence Day.  In France it is known as La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration, or Le quatorze juillet, the fourteenth of July, rather like Independence Day is often known here as the fourth of July.  There the similarities end.  Although almost all Americans look back at the American Revolution with pride, many of us dedicated to the great truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution is looked upon much more ambiguously in France.

Bastille Day recalls an event July 14, 1789 in which the mob of Paris, joined by mutinous French troops, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had in the past held political prisoners.  The Bastille fell to the mob after a fight in which some ninety-eight attackers and one defender were killed.  After the fighting, in an ominous sign of what was to come in the French Revolution, the mob massacred the governor of the prison and seven of the defenders.  The Bastille held a grand total of seven inmates at the time of its fall, none of political significance.

So began the Revolution which promised Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in theory and delivered in practice, Tyranny, Wars and Death, with France embarked on a witches’ dance of folly which would end at Waterloo, after almost a quarter of a century of war which would leave Europe drenched in blood.  Edmund Burke at the beginning of this madness, in 1790, saw clearly where all this would lead:

The Ever Quotable Edmund Burke

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My favorite political philosopher is without a doubt Edmund Burke.  The reasons why I set forth in a post which may be read here.  Any day is a good day for some Burke quotes, and here are a few:

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.

For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man. (Burke on the Irish Penal Laws) Continue reading

Father Barron and Edmund Burke on Atheism

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We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.

Edmund Burke and Political Reform

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Edmund Burke is the political thinker most central to shaping my own political views.  Regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, Burke was an odd mixture of idealistic philosopher and practical politician.  Although he presents his ideas in luminous prose, he has often been caricatured as a mere reactionary.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Burke realized that societies change all the time, just as individuals change as they proceed through life.  How the change occurred in the political realm was to Burke of the greatest moment.

Rather than a reactionary, Burke was actually a reformer, fighting against abuses in his time, for example the penal laws which treated Irish Catholics as helots in their own land, and English Catholics as foreigners in theirs’.  When the colonists in America carried on a decade long struggle against the colonial policies of the government of George III before rising in revolt, Burke ever spoke on their behalf in a hostile Parliament, and defended his stance before a hostile electorate.  He prosecuted the first British Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, for crimes committed against the native population.

One of the things that has always struck me about Burke is his consistency, whether defending the rights of Irish and English Catholics, of the American colonists, of the Indians under British rule or attacking the tyranny of the French revolutionaries.  He was always against arbitrary power and held that government could not simply uproot societies. Continue reading

Burke on Marie Antoinette

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The French Revolution had the effect of lessening anti-Catholicism in England.  The English admired the courage with which many Catholics fought against the Revolutionaries in France and tolerance was extended to French Catholic refugees in England.  This was a great change as all the French had traditionally been regarded as the mortal enemies of the English.  Edmund Burke began to change this traditional attitude with his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Here are his comments on Marie Antoinette:

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0h, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

Continue reading

Electoral Defeat-1780

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“For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

Continue reading

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