Academic journal article Policy Review

The Liberalism of Edmund Burke

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Liberalism of Edmund Burke

Article excerpt

FEUDING AMONG AMERICAN conservatives for the title True Conservative is nothing new. Ever since conservatism in America crystallized as a recognizable school in the 195os, more than a few limited-government conservatives, or libertarians as they have come to be called, and more than a few social conservatives--and their forebears, traditionalist conservatives--have wanted to flee from or banish the other. To be sure, the passion for purity in politics is perennial. But the tension between liberty and tradition inscribed in modern conservatism has exacerbated the stress and strain in the contending conservative camps. Fortunately, a lesson of political moderation is also inscribed in the modern conservative tradition, and nowhere more durably or compellingly than at its beginning.

Moderating the tension between liberty, or doing as you please, and tradition, or doing as has been done in the past, is a hallmark of the speeches and writings of 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. While the conservative spirit is enduring and while some have always been more amply endowed with the inclination to preserve inherited ways and others more moved by the impulse to improve or supersede them, the distinctively modern form of conservatism emerged with Burke's 1790 polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Writing as a friend of liberty and enlightenment, Burke eloquently exposed the brutality of the revolutionaries' determination, inspired by a perverse understanding of liberty and enlightenment, to transform political life by upending and sweeping away tradition, custom, and the inherited moral order. Burke's conservatism operates within the broad contours of the larger liberal tradition and embraces much of the spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It is distinguished by its determination to moderate the tendencies toward excess that mark both liberty and reason.

Burke's devotion to "a spirit of rational liberty" (1) drives the great reform efforts of his political career: conciliation with America, toleration for Ireland's Catholics, and protection of the interests and rights of the people of India. But even if we had only the Reflections, he would still deserve to be counted among our preeminent teachers concerning the balance of principles that favors liberty.

The causes to which Burke dedicated himself, and the well-wrought arguments he summoned in their behalf, teach that the paramount political task is to defend liberty. They also illustrate that while the purpose of politics is not to perfect man, securing the rights shared equally by all depends on tradition, religion, and community cultivating the virtues that fit citizens for freedom. And they clarify how the rival interests, multiplicity of groups and associations, and competing conceptions of happiness that characterize free societies make accommodation, balance, and calibration indispensable to the conservative mission. Burke's storied career demonstrates that political moderation is not only consistent with but essential to vindicating the principles of liberty.

Liberty and the French Revolution

BURKE'S Reflections on the Revolution in France is the work of a Whig who cherished freedom and, in the name of individual liberty, sought throughout his long parliamentary career, in battles with the Tories as well as with fellow Whigs, to limit the political power of throne and altar. But to limit is not to abolish, and can be consistent with cherishing, as it was in Burke's case. He saw that within proper boundaries, religious faith disciplined and elevated hearts and minds, and monarchy upheld the continuity of tradition, reflected the benefits of hierarchy and order, and provided energy and agility in government. Both institutions, in his assessment, encouraged virtues crucial to liberty's preservation.

Whereas for the sake of liberty Burke sought to limit the political power of the monarchy in Great Britain, he defended the throne of Louis XVI in France against what he regarded as the revolutionaries' radical conception of freedom. …

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