The "Honest Whigs"
Upon receiving the first two volumes of Political Disquisitions by James Burgh in 1774, John Adams waxed lyrical: I cannot but think those Disquisitions the best service that a citizen could render his country at this great and dangerous crisis, when the British empire seems ripe for destruction and tottering on the brink of a precipice."1 What was so unusual about these volumes to draw such extravagant praise from the usually restrained John Adams? And who was the hitherto relatively unknown author, James Burgh?
Burgh was one of the members of an informal group calling themselves "Honest Whigs," who met regularly to enjoy light refreshments and discuss science, philosophy, and political developments. Most were Dissenters, several were ministers, and all were well educated. Though the members included Benjamin Franklin, James Boswell, and some twenty others, we shall concentrate in this chapter only on James Burgh and Catherine Macauley.
Burgh was born in Scotland in 1714. He attended St. Andrews University with the aim of becoming a Presbyterian minister but ill health made this impossible. Instead, he followed a lifelong teaching career. (By midcentury, he had his own school a few miles outside of London.) Ever the moralist, Burgh first written work was Britain's Remembrancer in which he portrayed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 as a warning to the British people to reform their way of life. In later years, he wrote other works on education, morals, economics, politics, public speaking, and religion. Disillusioned by George III's failure to live up to the high hopes he had for him, Burgh took up Wilkes's cause (though finding Wilkes's lifestyle repugnant). 2 Beginning in 1769, Burgh wrote a series of articles under the pseudonym "Constitutionist," calling for thoroughgoing parliamentary reform.
In the following year, this time calling himself "the Colonist's Advocate," he penned eleven articles challenging Parliament's right to tax the