YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Look to 1777 and Learn, Mr. Bush

June 24, 2004|David Bromwich | David Bromwich is editor of "On Empire, Liberty and Reform: Speeches and Letters of Edmund Burke" (Yale University Press, 2000).

Edmund Burke, the greatest British political writer of the 18th century, was a principled opponent of wars and revolutions. Hatred of violence and love of liberty were the central motives of his work, and sudden political change, whether imposed from above or below, from within a country or by an external force, inevitably produced an increase of violence and a loss of liberty. Above all, Burke opposed wars that were entered into from choice and not necessity.

The pertinence of Burke's thinking to the crisis in Iraq, as the United States seeks to impose a good revolution by force of arms on a large portion of the Arab world, requires little comment in view of the startling aptness of his words.

A "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," from which all of the passages below are taken, was composed in early 1777 when Burke was a member of Parliament from Bristol. England then appeared to be winning the war with America, yet Burke was alarmed by the means his country employed (for example, its reliance on mercenaries) and deeply skeptical regarding the announced purpose of the war: the projection of British power into America in order to subdue the resistance of the colonists. Burke recognized that King George III's prime minister, Lord North, had consistently underestimated the number of troops that would be required. North and his administration, the "king's men," had persuaded themselves that America was full of friends who would welcome the stabilizing authority of British arms as soon as a determined show of force was offered.

This was not the first mistake of North and his administration. Burke believed that their preference for force over diplomacy had been the cause of the war. Why did they do it?

"Let them but once get us into a war, and then their power is safe, and an act of oblivion passed for all their misconduct."

"Has any of these gentlemen, who are so eager to govern all mankind, shown himself possessed of the first qualification towards government, some knowledge of the object, and of the difficulties which occur in the task they have undertaken?"

"They promise their private fortunes, and they mortgage their country. They have all the merit of volunteers, without the risk of person or charge of contribution."

"They are continually boasting of unanimity, or calling for it. But before this unanimity can be matter either of wish or congratulation, we ought to be pretty sure that we are engaged in a rational pursuit."

By a recent act of Parliament, England had suspended the protection of habeas corpus. Persons accused of treason in America could now be transported to England and jailed without a chance to confront the charges against them:

"To try a man under that act is, in effect, to condemn him unheard. A person is brought hither in the dungeon of a ship's hold; thence he is vomited into a dungeon on land; loaded with irons, unfurnished with money, unsupported by friends, three thousand miles from all means of calling upon or confronting evidence, where no one local circumstance that tends to detect perjury, can possibly be judged of; -- such a person may be executed according to form, but he can never be tried according to justice."

Burke saw a connection between the continuous violence of the war in America and the contempt shown for civil liberties at home:

"Power in whatever hands is rarely guilty of too strict limitations on itself."

"Not one unattacked village which was originally adverse throughout that vast continent, has yet submitted from love or terror. You have the ground you encamp on; and you have no more. The cantonments of your troops and your dominions are exactly of the same extent. You spread devastation, but you do not enlarge the sphere of authority."

Having failed to anticipate the difficulties of the war, the administration blamed the chaotic result on militias organized by the enemies of the empire. Burke, on the contrary, believed that the resistance was largely spontaneous, that it was becoming more virulent because of the presence of an occupying army and that its cause lay in human nature:

"General rebellions and revolts of an whole people never were encouraged, now or at any time. They are always provoked."

"If any ask me what a free government is, I answer that, for any practical purpose, it is what the people think so; and that they, and not I, are the natural, lawful, and competent judges of this matter."

Not only the outlines but many details of Burke's analysis show an uncanny resemblance to what critics of the Bush administration have said; so it may be asked what deeper continuity of political life accounts for the strength of the parallel. A tentative answer seems possible. When imperial conquest is grafted onto the normal structures of constitutional government, the change will produce grotesque distortions of thinking that undermine judgment and common sense.

Los Angeles Times Articles