Burke approached the American crisis, which heated to a boil in the mid-1770s, with this mix of inclinations toward preservation and reform. As he saw it, the Tory administration of Lord North had acted imprudently in trying to pay Britain's war debts by levying new taxes on the Americans without consulting them. People who argued about whether Parliament had the right to tax the American
10 THE GREAT DEBATE
colonies - the question essentially everyone on both sides of the debate took up - were focused on the wrong subject. Parliament certainly had that right, Burke suggested, because its legal prerogative to govern the empire was unquestionable. But having that right did not mean Parliament had to exercise it or that the government was wise to do so. The government of human beings, he argued, is a matter not of applying cold rules and principles, but of tending to warm sentiments and attachments to produce the strongest and best unified community possible. Surely London could work with the Americans to yield greater revenues rather than commanding their assent.
"Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part," Burke said. The Americans, he argued in his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, had over time developed robust habits of freedom and an independent spirit, and if they were to be governed as Englishmen, some reasonable effort must be made to accommodate their character. In this way, Burke put himself at odds with the most passionate American advocates of independence (including Thomas Paine) by denying their most basic claims of rights and principles claims he rejected not only as false in that instance but also as inappropriate for political judgment in general. Burke certainly believed in the central importance of political rights, but he thought that rights could not be disconnected from obligations in society and therefore could not quite be understood apart from the particular circumstances of particular societies in particular moments. The more radical liberals of his day treated politics as a kind of philosophical geometry, he thought, applying principles and postulates to come up with the right solution, but real societies did not work - or at least did not work well - that way. And yet he put himself on the radicals' side of the practical question, concluding finally that if North's administration could not govern the Americans prudently, it ought to set them free for the good of empire.
In these speeches, we begin to get a sense of the richness of Burke's understanding of society and politics. Especially evident in his
Two Lives in the Arena 11
understanding of how to properly manage political change to balance the desire for justice and the need for social stability - a subject that, as we will see, was often foremost on his mind. In the years that followed the American war, these views continued to drive Burke to restrain and resist abuses of government power. "Government," he wrote, "is deeply interested in every thing which, even through the medium of some temporary uneasiness, may tend finally to compose the minds of the subjects, and to conciliate their affections. Excessive and needlessly aggravating uses of power can undermine these affections, and this idea moved Burke to worry about the king's excessive involvement in politics in the early 1760s, the needless irritation of the Americans later in that decade and into the 1770s, and British abuses of the natives of India in the 1780s. Out of the latter concern, Burke in 1787 even launched a lengthy, albeit ultimately futile, impeachment effort against Warren Hastings, the chief British administrator of India. All of this made Burke a prominent reformer, though for reasons other than those of most of his fellows in that camp. He was never a radical modernizer, as some of his fellow Whigs were, but he worked with these more radical elements when he thought their efforts could counterbalance an abuse of power.
But the abuse of power was not the only solvent of the sentiments essential to a strong and happy people. The corrosion of public feelings, mutual attachments, and basic human dignity that resulted from reducing politics to abstract rights and principles could be no less caustic. Indeed, as Burke had seen in his earliest published work, such corrosion could be far more dangerous in the long run because it tended to encourage a radical disposition toward politics. Politics was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. "I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions," Burke said in his "Speech on American Taxation". "I hate the very sound of them."