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Patriots and Populists: From Burke to Trump
If any voice from the past can enlighten us in these strange times—amid a revolution that might almost rank as “the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world”—one would imagine it could be that of Edmund Burke, the prophet who caught the essence of Jacobinism in its earliest manifestations. But tempting as it is, I am not going to present here an analogy of Burke’s anti-revolutionary thought in the Age of Trump. Instead, I suggest that the most illuminating aspects of Burke’s writings for our current purpose might be found at the commencement of his political career, when his principles and rhetoric were being shaped by seismic events in mid-eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland: the breakup of a decades-old political consensus with its accompanying labels and vocabulary; the growth of “popular” extra-parliamentary movements, driven by a larger, loosely tethered press; and increasing instability and flux among the political elites.
What linked these events in the maturing mind of Edmund Burke was the concept of “patriotism”—twisted, ground, and contested between shifting movements. The “Patriot” position in British politics of the time grew out of the fear that the king and the newly emerging office of the prime minister (especially in the hands of its great innovator, Robert Walpole) could together bribe, subvert, and enthrall parliament, thereby depriving the country of popular representation. This could lead to betrayal in war—or in the unsatisfactory conclusion of war—as well as corrupt financial dealing at home. The Patriot cause’s chief theorist was Lord Bolingbroke, a Tory, former Jacobite, and, in his posthumous writings, trenchant critic of institutional or “artificial” religion. Most Patriots, however, were Whigs—the Tory party’s reputation having suffered from its association with the Jacobite cause, which had sought to restore the Stuart dynasty to the throne. The final Jacobite uprising in 1745 met a crushing defeat the following year on the battlefield of Culloden.
In this setting, two figures cut similar images and posed similar threats on the political stage while Burke was coming of age as a critic and commentator: Charles Lucas, the demagogue whose campaign for a seat in the Irish parliament in 1748–49 sparked a fierce print war that ended in his flight into exile and the nullification of an ally’s election in 1749; and John Wilkes, whose involvement with the famous Middlesex elections of the 1760s and the “Wilkes and Liberty” movement fueled a protracted campaign of public petitions and protests for greater popular representation and rights in the British parliament. These figures shared a claim to a refashioned Patriot program, and on this point their intersection with Burke becomes crucial. For, following the death of Lord Bolingbroke in 1751, Burke himself was also absorbed in the potential for a reconfiguration of the Patriot inheritance. In the diverging conceptions of patriot thinking (using the lowercase p for the legacy of this tradition after 1746), we can usefully draw some provisional observations on today’s movement to “Make America Great Again.”
Burke’s contemporaries were not slow to tie together the campaigns of Lucas and Wilkes. In 1768, Viscount Townshend, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, retrospectively dubbed Lucas “the Wilkes of Ireland.” It was hardly a fastidious coupling: Lucas did not share the moral opprobrium that tarnished—or burnished—Wilkes’s reputation, and Wilkes always enjoyed greater support from opposition groups within the British political establishment than did Lucas. Yet their campaigns fed upon common themes: the tradition of “commonwealth” thinkers, respect for the Glorious Revolution and the historic succession of chartered rights of British citizens, advanced propaganda machines, and an ability to energize the loyalty of “forgotten” people in their country’s liberal inheritance.
Their campaigns were also pursued against a background of chronic instability that reflects a number of today’s circumstances. These conditions still get overlooked in the stubborn impression of Georgian England as an era of entrenched oligarchical stasis: there was the dislocation brought about by the fall of Walpole in 1742, the subsequent disappointment with the Patriot politicians who replaced him over the next two decades, and the continuing shadow of Jacobite dynastic resistance up until the 1750s. In the 1760s, we find the “scare” of the military setbacks in the first years of the Seven Years’ War replaced by the economic dislocation of eventual victory, the intervening succession of a new monarch, and the subsequent focus on George III’s prime minister Lord Bute and the power of the court in parliament, awakening fresh perspectives on privilege and exclusion among the elites and the “people.” Accompanying such political developments were the steady encroachments of the “print culture” and the increasing access to political and economic news provided by the midcentury Republic of Letters. All offered rich opportunities for the transformation of the patriot cause.
In such circumstances, both Lucas and Wilkes consciously posed as patriot defenders of historic liberties, storming an established social and political order that had closed ranks against the rights of the people and had betrayed an inheritance enshrined in successive revolutionary charters, most recently those of the Revolution Settlement following the Glorious Revolution. Lucas and Wilkes each forged a coalition of political powers that transcended existing expectations. For Lucas, Magna Carta and the Treaty of Limerick (that ended the Williamite War in 1691) buttressed claims to Irish parliamentary independence that allowed space to combine Protestant and Catholic interests more tightly than before. Wilkes attempted to negotiate shifting associations among aristocratic factions and novel alliances between parliamentary groups and mercantile interests in opposition to Lord Bute and the perceived creatures of the court. Both fought campaigns that brought patriotism out of the “Country Party” and into the city, yoking to the stable historical markers of “hard” constitutional rights inscribed on parchment the more volatile energy of an urban mass movement. These novel combinations have been perceived by some scholars as providing a bridge between patriotism and early nationalism.
It would be reasonable to assume that Burke was uncomfortable with the patriot programs of Lucas and Wilkes and by extension that he would have little but contempt for the brash populism of Trump’s campaigns and presidency. Such an assumption might be reinforced with Burke’s own words on Lucas and patriotism in the early 1760s: “I am somewhat out of humour with patriotism; and can think but meanly of such Publick spirit, as like the fanatical spirit, banishes common sense; I do not understand that Spirit, which could raise such hackneyed pretences, and such contemptible Talents as those of Dr Lucas to so great consideration, not only among the mob, but, as I hear on all hands, among very many of rank and figure.”
Added to this is the ambivalence evident in Burke’s dutiful dealings with Wilkes—an ambivalence that broke cover, most famously, in the shaping of his conception of party and political opposition in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), and more explicitly in his famous confirmation of the principles of parliamentary representation in the Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774), where he restated the traditional distinction between a representative and a delegate and bolstered his defense of the concept of virtual representation in the British constitutional system, flying in the face of one of the foundations of Wilkes’s program.
Yet the Burke of the 1750s and 1760s also shared the language of patriotism and a number of its formative inclinations. While a student in Ireland, he had been deeply influenced by the work of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. His early writings, both public and private, show a passion for exposing corruption in the Irish body politic and a pronounced recognition of the link between character and civic duty. So respectful is he of the value of a moral literary imagination in engaging and energizing true “public spirit” that he is particularly alert to the threat of false rhetoric—a novel application, in his hands, of the false sublime—to the stability of society. And, while we have just encountered Burke’s use of the term in a dispirited tone, “public spirit” remains a central concept in his patriot thought, and he never departs from investigating its operation and the ways it might be summoned with vigor and discipline. As he indicated in his 1769 speech on the St. George’s Field Massacre (considered at length below), there exists a wisdom latent in popular disturbance, although “Order . . . must be preserved at any rate or at any price,” for “Peace is the great End in all Governments; Liberty is an End only in the Best.” This tension was only intensified by Burke’s comfort in locating the city as the cauldron of that spirit. Like Lucas and Wilkes, his patriotism was anything but bucolic.
For Burke, “public spirit,” even in its expanding social forms, was not a factor to be feared in itself. But the opportunity that opened up for sophists and false prophets to manipulate its energy through rhetorical and philosophical legerdemain, for private or factional ends, that was the proper locus of vigilance. Such a concern he embedded provocatively, before his political career had begun, in his first substantial publications, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). The latter (which may have been drafted first, while the author was still living in Dublin) explores the effect of images and sounds on the senses and thence the social affections of the spectator or audience, with a subsidiary aim of exposing the double-edged power of the sublime in promoting the cohesion of society. The former work indicated more directly, in its parody of the thought of Lord Bolingbroke, the author of the Idea of a Patriot King, Burke’s own immersion in the reconfiguration of patriot thinking after the disappointments of the 1740s and the new political realities of the post-’45 settlement under the Duke of Newcastle. It did so through a thinly veiled parody of the philosophical approach of Bolingbroke’s historical writings—specifically, the disjunction between Bolingbroke’s Remarks on the History of England, which appeared first in the pages of The Craftsman at the beginning of the 1730s, and the Letters on the Study and Use of History, which was written toward the end of that same decade but was published only posthumously, in 1752.
The parody in Burke’s Vindication appears at its most subversive if seen as a grotesque hybrid of both works—which, as Isaac Kramnick has discussed, point ambivalently both to the unreliability of factual narrative and to the didactic importance of history in promoting the cause of patriotism: hence the Vindication’s ponderous footfall of monumental facts, applied cavalierly to a sophistical revelation of the vacuity of “artificial” society, conveyed in a dazzling rhetorical tour de force. If we trace the roots of this parody back to Burke’s student days in Dublin, we see that they implicate Charles Lucas in the ignis fatuus of Bolingbroke’s vision of the “development of English history as a manichean struggle between good [liberty] and evil [faction].” It is here that we confront the destabilizing potential of a “patriot history,” and on this point I shall rest my first chief comment on the relevance of Burke’s patriotic message to the present day.
Lucas energized his campaign with a concentrated focus on charters as nurturing within themselves the spirit of liberties enshrined in an “original compact” reaching back to times before Magna Carta. In this, he was following what were understood to be the salient features of patriot history—the tracing of a consistent “spirit of liberty” that provided an identity to the Englishman that, in its periodic chartered manifestations, transcended the long periods of corruption and factional appropriation of constitutional rights. In the context of a heated political campaign, Lucas also hoped that the canonizing of select charters and the accompanying universalizing of their spirit would achieve two more specific goals: proof of the legislative independence of the Irish parliament, and, perhaps tangentially, the convergence of Catholic and Protestant forces under a rejuvenated Irish national identity. This program is laid out in his Tenth Address to the Free Citizens and Free-Holders of the City of Dublin (1748) and in its successor, the Eleventh; and it is reiterated later in the Appeal to the Commons and Citizens of London (1756), a collection of writings, old and new, relating to Lucas’s arrival in London after a period of exile in France (and published in the same year as the Vindication of Natural Society).
The addresses were publicized through Lucas’s own newspaper, The Censor: or, The Citizens Journal, which was launched in June 1749. They are replete with familiar Patriot obeisance to public spirit, duties and rights, Bolingbroke and the Whig Patriot Pulteney, and their design is to educate the people in the history of the “antient and present State, or Constitution, of all the Cities, Boroughs, and Towns Corporate in this Kingdom.” In issue no. XX, commentaries on a succession of constitutional charters for Ireland are presented to emphasize rights held independently of the English parliaments, by grant of the king of Ireland, and to fold the searing memory of the 1641 rebellion and massacre of Protestants into the thicker narrative of a Whig liberal inheritance for Ireland.
Belief in the constancy of a “spirit of liberty”—and, in truth, the only way that this “original” Patriot history of the 1730s could inoculate itself against the disintegrative impact of Bolingbroke’s as yet unpublished historical skepticism—had as a corollary the belief that awareness of the liberties of the original compact had been dulled over time by political corruption on the part of the elite and ignorance on the part of the public: an early version, perhaps, of the contemporary focus on fake news. The solution had to be a vigorous policy of public education, or historical enlightenment, which soon took on an urgency and pomposity of style that Lucas’s political opponents were quick to turn into a source of ridicule and parody. Sir Richard Cox, perhaps the most implacable of Lucas’s opponents, dismissed such a project of popular enlightenment, in his anonymous tract The Cork Surgeon’s Antidote, as built upon “musty old documents, hardly legible.” A mock supplement to The Censor, The Censor Extraordinary, also probed the stratagem with periodic overblown references to obscure historical documents.
John Kearney, younger brother of one of Burke’s college friends, states in a letter to one of Burke’s executors, French Laurence, in 1801: “Mr. Burke seems to have been engaged in a Paper call’d the Censor Extraordinary, written in ridicule of Dr. Lucas.” While it is possible that Kearney misremembered details after half a century, the specificity carries a certain force, and we do know that one of the leading lights of The Censor Extraordinary was Paul Hiffernan, who, though he was not a personal friend of Burke, had earlier taken part in preparing a campaign against the Dublin theater manager and Lucas ally Thomas Sheridan in 1748—a campaign that occasioned Burke’s first known publication, Punchinello.
Yet this raises a complication: Burke himself became known as a defender of the chartered rights of Englishmen. From his later writings, we may recall his praise of the genius of the British constitution and the liberal inheritance that he placed as a contrast to the metaphysical liberties of the French revolutionaries. Since such comments could almost qualify him for Lucas’s amanuensis, we need to be clear about how the early Burke’s approach to chartered liberties differed from Lucas’s.
The answer lies in his historical method, which is an attempt to rescue a patriot historical narrative from its debilitating dependency on Bolingbroke and his disciples. The result is complex and subtle in its variants, and, like much in Burke’s thought, it is found within the folds of responses to more urgent concerns, but it is also distinctive. It underlies the parodic technique employed in the Vindication, which rests on the ambiguous authority of historical detail; but it breaks cover in a more fruitful source, Burke’s Abridgment of the English History, which differs from other histories of the period and which was still being composed, as far as we can tell, as Lucas’s reputation in Ireland entered its redemptive but sterile phase in the early 1760s.
Where do we find the patriot “spirit of liberty” in Burke’s historical narrative? The answer is revealed in the Abridgment’s notable focus on the contours carved by natural associations and movements of people, whether in the area of religion, trade, or migration, and the constant friction established in the evolution of overlapping religious and political institutions. Here the roots of popular discontent lie in resistance to the disruption or violation of customs and social patterns, and, if defended successfully, that discontent may become focused on the weaknesses of leading actors and instantiated in monumental charters. But such specific details appear only as a culmination of the process—they do not drive a narrative, but define, as it were, a still point in the whirlwind (for Walter Benjamin’s angel of history).
This historiographical approach is, at the least, a distinctive form of the “philosophic history” associated with Burke’s age, and the points of distinction are illustrated in Burke’s lengthy treatment of the compilation and passing of Magna Carta in 1215, the period with which the Abridgement manuscript closes. In this narrative of the last years of King John’s reign, which follows the intensifying frictions of the English political and social order, Burke first stresses the “indistinct view of the object, at which [the rebellious barons] aimed.” He argues that while “they had always kept up the memory of the ancient Saxon liberty,” the barons under John, exasperated by taxation, war, and the intrusions of the Holy See, nevertheless “rather felt their wrongs, than understood the cause of them,” and explains that “Their idea of liberty was not (if I may use the expression) perfectly free.” By this, Burke seems to mean that they saw liberty in terms rooted in their practical circumstances as feudal lords. It was left to the church and Archbishop Langton to give sharpness and definition to this general sense of unease, to transform it, and thereby to incorporate within it a much broader conception of the “body politic” than the rebels would have conceived.
By the end of his explication, Burke has placed before us a document—the Great Charter—that, rather than marking a recovery of a spirit of liberty, fills a void created by the eddy of deeper currents and contingencies that had stripped the crown of its “independency to the Pope,” its “prerogative,” and “a large part of [its] dominions.” Similarly, in his posthumously published fragment, “An Essay Towards an History of the Laws of England,” Burke traces the potency of pre-political currents (“Providence”) in the shaping of laws that are seen not as having “continued very much in the same state from an antiquity” but as “growing stronger, clearer, and more decisive by the violence they had suffered; enriched even by those foreign conquests, which threatened their entire destruction; softened and mellowed by peace and Religion; improved and exalted by commerce, by social intercourse, and that great opener of the mind, ingenuous science.”
This mode of interpretation is consistent with Burke’s later defense of the Glorious Revolution, and of the American rebellion, and it informs his resistance to what he saw as the manufactured spirit of innovation that shaped the French Revolution. The central point for our discussion of patriotism and patriot history is that, in contrast to Bolingbroke or Lucas, Burke places historic charters as expressions of particular aspirations toward order, and thus as sources inclined much more to fresh integration than to retraction or separation. Seen in this context, Burke’s antipathy toward Lucas suggests a divergence of patriot histories made the more bitter by their similarities of aim.
By the mid-1760s, Burke’s concern about the drift of patriot history could only have been confirmed by his reentry into Irish politics as secretary to William Hamilton in Dublin. The Lucas controversy appeared only to have increased division in the body politic and reduced the chances for extending the liberties of the citizens of the island, as Irish patriot writers, despite continuing differences of interpretation of significant events, endeavored to subordinate historic injustices between Catholic and Protestant to a more sweeping historical progression of chartered liberties. While this was an important factor in constructing a narrative of greater constitutional independence and for achieving a more comprehensive enjoyment of the rights of the citizen, such a narrative risked antagonizing the English, who still held Ireland’s destiny in their hands. Burke’s evident position was to fix upon a more flexible, culturally embedded narrative of the history of the island that would assist in the integration of Catholic and Protestant classes in the spirit of the peaceful support of the Hanoverian succession—a spirit that appeared to have manifested itself in Irish Catholic passivity during and in the wake of “the ’45.”
Burke’s commitment to this integrative project of patriot history may be discerned in the urgency of tone employed in his unpublished “Tracts on the Popery Laws,” which he penned, in all likelihood, in the years he was working for Hamilton. Here, by necessity, the emphasis of his argument falls upon matters of jurisprudence rather than the existence of a spirit of liberty or an “original compact”: “But though the means, and indeed the nature of a publick advantage, may not always be evident to the understanding of the subject, no one is so gross and stupid as not to distinguish between a benefit and an injury.” The argument here, drawn from Cicero, places the root of law and justice, and therefore the recalibration of order and liberty, not in a superstructure of successive charters or in a fabricated tradition of ancient Irish liberty, but in the felt experience of equity and utility, which cannot ultimately be determined by the apparatus of the state, but only through an examination of the operation and vigor of the natural bonds of pre-political human sociability.
In summary, Burke brought to his patriot history an imagination that worked to detect symptoms of the collapse of liberty and order not in the slogans of political conflict, nor in the texts of monumental charters, but in the fabric of social customs and economic exchange. He writes in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) of how the rifling of old documents can be a “wonderful convenience” for the critic of modern times, productive of a sort of “retrospective wisdom, and historical patriotism” that may “serve admirably to reconcile the old quarrel between speculation and practice” but that may not penetrate further to the workings of human nature in the cultural principles that forged the events and struck out the charters themselves.
In this return to the recurring patterns of human nature and human interaction as the touchstones of public liberty and order, we are brought back to the fundamental significance of the “pre-political” sphere in Burke’s thought, and to the root of his concern that a “patriotism” resting on canonical texts was prone to metastasize into what we may now regard as a proto-nationalism. The result would be, as in Revolutionary France later, the release of a public spirit blinded to the historical relationship of liberty and order and thus possessed by a terrible, unrestrained potential for “ascendancy” and the self-righteous abuse of power.
The year after Lucas published his Appeal to the . . . Citizens of London, John Wilkes, a Londoner himself and one who would have been a “target” voter for the Lucas campaign, was elected to parliament as member for Aylesbury, about twenty miles from where Burke was later to establish his country roots in Beaconsfield. Wilkes, like Lucas, was to reach for the voice of the forgotten by evoking an inheritance of constitutional liberty enshrined in historical, chartered rights of political representation. Wilkes exploited journalistic license to assail an establishment that he claimed had betrayed the people of England in its historic military struggle with France and Spain through a weak settlement in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In this narrative of supine negotiation, patriots were fired up by the military success that had preceded it combined with the imputed actions of “foreign” elements close to the Crown—a war won and a peace lost or stolen, as it were. Then they were enraged by the apparent attempt to silence their hero when a charge of libel was brought against Wilkes over his North Briton #45. Wilkes himself was arrested under a general warrant on 30 April 1763, just a few weeks after his publication had incited the “spirit of liberty” to “a noble opposition . . . to the wicked instruments of oppression” that threatened the constitutional prerogative of the people.
At his trial that year, he claimed to be fighting for “the liberty of all peers and gentlemen, and (what touches me most sensibly) that of all the middling and inferior set of people who stand most in need of protection.” Speaking such truth to power earned him exile from Britain, and then, after financial matters forced his return, led him to flirt with “revolutionary principles” under the umbrella of the Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights, and to make four failed attempts to take his seat in parliament by the summer of 1769. In words that could have issued from the pamphlets of Lucas, an anonymous continuator was to write in the North Briton, in October 1768, that “the constitution may occasionally be brought back, as Machiavel observes, to its first principles, and perhaps may spring up, from these successive originals, with fresh beauty and vigour.” For Wilkes, as for Lucas, Magna Carta was the bedrock of an appeal to ancient rights.
Unlike Lucas, however, Wilkes’s patriot campaign was to be tainted by his infamous libertinism, which complicated the issue for all but his extra-parliamentary supporters—the “Tea Party” of the time—that marched under the banner of “Wilkes and Liberty.” By all accounts, Burke, though politic in his utterances, shared in the general distaste for Wilkes’s character. In this, if in little else, he appears to have been in agreement with Edward Gibbon, who had written in his diary entry for 23 September 1762: “[Wilkes’s] character is infamous, his life stained with every vice, and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy. These morals he glories in, for shame is a weakness he has long since surmounted. He told us himself that in this time of public dissension he was resolved to make his fortune. Upon this noble principle he has connected himself closely with Lord Temple and Mr. Pitt, [and] commenced public adversary to Lord Bute, whom he abuses weekly in the North Briton.”
Consequently, Wilkes’s campaign to rescue parliament from the king’s friends elicited only guarded support from the parliamentary opposition, in particular the Rockingham Whigs, with whom he was nevertheless attached sometime before the end of 1765. Burke’s own election to Wendover in December of that year was greeted with raucous cries of “Wilkes and Liberty, Burke and Wilkes, Wendover and Freedom.” After the collapse of Rockingham’s brief ministry in July 1766, the Rockingham Whigs used Wilkes’s popularity outside parliament as part of their campaign to pressure the new administration, and Burke was one of the chief negotiators in a policy complicated by the fact that Wilkes himself was rarely a compliant or predictable player.
The chief purpose of this strategy, as Burke evidently understood it, was to harness the popular energy generated through this charismatic “patriot” leader to provide leverage against the king’s ministers. As Burke wrote on Wilkes’s election for Middlesex in March 1768, “the crowd allways [sic] want to draw themselves, from abstract principles to personal attachments; and since the fall of Ld Chatham, there has been no hero of the Mob but Wilkes.” Within two months, Burke felt in a position to reflect on the Rockingham policy in more detail:
The plan of our party was, I think, wise and proper; not to provoke Administration into any Violent measure upon this Subject [Wilkes and Liberty]; nor be the means of stirring questions, which we have not strength to support, and which could not be lost, without leaving the Constitution worse than we found it. It could be no service to Wilkes to take him out of the hands of the Law, and to drive him under the Talons of power; besides we had not the least desire of taking up that Gentlemans Cause as personally favourable to him; he is not ours; and if he were, is little to be trusted: He is a lively agreeable man, but of no prudence and no principles.
“The plan of our party,” as it crystallized in Burke’s own mind, was actually a fresh conception of party that could apply the wedge of Wilkes’s popularity as a lever for reform within the parameters of the existing constitution and raise the standard of liberty while preserving property rights and a restricted electoral system. This was a vision of a new patriot party designed to provide, through honorable parliamentary opposition and within the existing constitutional arrangement, a conduit from people to legislative. The whole apparatus was to be set in motion by an essential infusion of virtue.
How was this to be achieved in practice? While Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) is appropriately regarded as Burke’s most complete statement on “party,” the essential aspects of that question can be answered by reference to his earlier parliamentary speeches delivered at the peak of the “Wilkes and Liberty” crisis, most particularly those on the St. George’s Fields Massacre, delivered on 8 March, 1769; the Middlesex Election, 15 April 1769; Parliamentary Incapacitation, 31 January 1770; and the London Remonstrance, 19 March 1770. None of these was published at the time, but each can be reconstructed from Burke’s own notes and those of contemporary auditors.
Underlying Burke’s formulation was the concern—running alongside the formation of a new patriot history—that without the moral and institutional restraints instantiated in the operations of party, patriotism would likely place its own ideals in jeopardy. In the words of one city trader in 1765, early in the “Wilkes and Liberty” phenomenon, “The Nation has lost its good Humour and unless things are set to rights, it is become a matter of great Indifference to the Publick, and will be more so every day, ‘who have the places.’” These words appeared prophetic of some great threat after the St. George’s Fields Massacre in May 1768. As Burke himself was forced to insist: “the constitution . . . nourishes and is nourished by Virtue only.” Within a year, the public humor had clearly not been soothed, and Burke’s tone had become more direct. “Our Judgments stink in the Nostrils of the people,” he declared in the House early in 1770. “They think us not only to be without Virtue, but without shame.”
Burke’s solution to this perceived crisis was the crossing of the discipline of party with the spirit of the gentleman Patriot of his youth. The goals of such an institution may be divided into two predominant areas. The first was to provide a mediating filter between the volatile temper of the populace outside parliament and the stratagems of parliamentary opposition expressed in respected and customary political principles. Thus, in his speech on the St. George’s Fields Massacre, Burke constructs an argument upon the acceptance that “publick dissatisfaction will represent a ‘just cause,’” and this is a much more consistent aspect of his thought than one might glean from a cursory reading of his later anti-revolutionary works. Burke reminds his readers in the subsequent Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents that “in all disputes between [the people] and their rulers, the presumption [of right] is at least upon a par in favour of the people. Experience may perhaps justify me in going further. Where popular discontents have been very prevalent; it may well be affirmed and supported, that there has been generally something found amiss in the constitution, or in the conduct of Government. The people have no interest in disorder [my italics].”
The problem, Burke explains, is not the wisdom or ignorance of the people, but the character of those who are most successful in harnessing its potential for political action: “It is unfortunately but too true; that whoever takes up any thing which has long been the Subject of publick discontent must expect to find mixed and confounded with a great deal of the dross and dirt of popular passion, popular prejudice; and with a great deal of the ignorance of the vulgar, into which will insinuate itself a great deal of the evil designs of wicked and seditious men and make a strange sort of compound enough to disgust some and frighten others—but we must not be too nice for our Duty [my italics].”
This brings us to the second predominant area. Burke is imagining here a party, or an organized association of individuals, that can by nature of its composition both diffuse and focus policy at the same time: a patriot party of a distinctive nature, shaped by minds themselves molded by principles antecedent to political calculation. (Whereas bad men combine, the good associate.) It is a difficult, almost paradoxical conception in many ways, but achievable if party is envisioned as a sort of reservoir of wisdom and talent, operating at a longer measure of time than the current of specific political circumstances, and providing a pool for the slow mixing of new, active ambition with established landed power.
Its particularly patriot nature resides not only in its goals but also in its composition, which rests on the quality of character developed primarily outside the political system, in the earlier and more fundamental experiences of social interaction and negotiation. This is “men not measures,” but it is also a tart, double inversion of that Patriot term canted by certain of Burke’s contemporaries, such as Pitt the Elder. In the sphere of political activity and social concord, it urges us both to believe in the superiority of character over theory and to doubt the superiority of individual genius over the common performance of duty. If it is the “Business of the wise and good, to seperate [sic], what the weak or wicked have confounded,” then we find ourselves having recourse to virtues both defined and refined in the pre-political realms of association—of friendship, simply stated—that transcend, precisely because they precede, particular political goals or principles.
Such a virtuous association, institutionalized, would also require a regulated but more porous delineation of social boundaries than would be found in faction. But was it feasible? Burke’s own example suggested that it was so, and he famously drew upon his own self-identity as a Ciceronian novus homo to promote a combination of “active” ambition and the more rooted, “sluggish” prerogative of the landed interest within the Rockingham Whig connection. A party so comprised would enjoy a shared social inheritance and memory—a complex historical imagination or tradition that would support concord and order, at least to the point when fissures in those relationships rendered the uncoerced performance of mutual duties in the community impossible.
As a mediating body, then, a patriot party would fit the role played by the Church in Burke’s narrative of the formation of resistance to Angevin rule under King John and the shaping of Magna Carta. And it would itself, mutatis mutandis, be energized by the “chivalric” ideal of the “gentleman,” with manners and virtuous dispositions rooted in pre-political, parochial locations and informed by the sluggish grind of real, lived experience in the hierarchy of neighborhood or local community. As he wrote in 1770, crises in the body politic were an admonition to all citizens “so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen.”
All this is to emphasize how, in Burke’s patriot mind, the chief threat to peace and liberty lay in a demagoguery for which the end was almost inevitably an accelerating propulsion to greater, immediate radicalization. Ironically, the threat had increased with the growth of parliamentary power, Burke indicates, in his speech on Parliamentary Incapacitation: “Since the Revolution at least—the power of the . . . state nearly melted down into this house [of Commons].” As such, it opened the door to Burke’s worst nightmare: “I am by opinion, principle, Constitution,” he had written earlier, “an hater of violence and innovation.” And he explained those words thus: “My Ideas of Liberty have been always very much tempered and chastened; they have been pitched a key lower than I think is common, because I am afraid of myself [my italics]”—a haunting phrase that found an echo in his Letter to a Noble Lord, when he wrote, in the closing years of his life, that a “more dreadful calamity cannot arise out of hell to scourge mankind” than when man throws off “the fear of man.”
This is a double-edged anxiety, aimed at the establishment but with a glance over the shoulder at the new men beyond the walls of the citadel. Wilkes’s shelf-life was determined, in Burke’s mind, by the fact that he had “no prudence and no principles”; he was no gentleman, and this was the scale against which to measure the damage he could do with the powerful tool of patriotism. In retrospect, the years from 1768 to 1770, under the intensity of the energy fueled by Wilkes and his patriotic campaign, witnessed a transitional shift in patriotism revealing the differences between Burke’s and Wilkes’s position in a way that is most instructive for us today. It is in this fresh conception of party that Burke’s own patriot beliefs go, as it were, underground, only to reemerge as a powerful, though lightly heeded, critique of the emerging “homicide philanthropy” of the French Revolutionary patriots.
Patriotism devouring its children?
What light might all this shed upon President Trump’s patriot program in America? To attempt some response to this question is not pointless, even accepting the snares of anachronism and presentism. In some ways, those snares are rendered less problematic by the evident shifts in the party system nowadays and by the ideological slipperiness of “Trumpism” itself. That said, we might advisably restrict any such reflections here to those that arise from the distinctive concepts of history and party that were Edmund Burke’s contribution to the patriot debate in the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters.
If we turn, first, to Burke’s “patriot history,” we might ask, “How great is the gap between President Trump’s appeals to history and the understanding Burke held of history’s guiding role in a patriot vision of the nation?” There is, I would argue, a common point of departure in this comparison: the question of who we are as a people. This inquiry is a central theme of Burke’s Abridgment of the English History (my emphasis) and, in a more critically reflective way, of the “Tracts on the Popery Laws.” But just as Burke’s historical imagination differed in important respects from the “philosophical histories” of other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, so it subverts (I would say instructively) the intended implications of that question as it is posed nowadays.
Presidents Obama and Trump have both drawn upon that fundamental historical question of who we are as a people to attempt a patriotic rebinding of a deeply divided nation. President Obama applied it more than once as a rebuke to those citizens who were reluctant to follow his national vision. The result veered toward the nonsensical—the royal “we” appealing to a common set of values that it simultaneously denied in its implicit assumption of individual choice. It was as if to say, “We are the people who stand together on this principle: We are who we choose to be.” One might be put in mind here of a passage in the Social Contract, where Rousseau mentions “mountebanks of Japan [who] are said to dismember an infant in the sight of the spectators, throw its limbs one after the other into the air, and make the child come down alive and whole.”
In his famous speech in Warsaw, President Trump used very similar language to the same effect. “Our adversaries . . . ” he declared, “are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don’t forget who we are, we just can’t be beaten. Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget.” Here, the repetition of “forget” hints at a more authentic reach into a collectively remembered national history, but the statements of consequence serve only to reify the object and make our memories static and unreflective.
Suppose we superimpose Burke’s historical approach in the Abridgment onto the familiar American narrative that lurks behind that question of identity. We are likely to see the ultimate pointlessness of the appeal to who we are as a people reflected vividly in the interminable wrangles that are waged over the Founding and the founding documents of the nation. Whether the Constitution is carved in stone or a living, evolving document, the debate adds nothing to the question of who we are. A static document denies the freedom we claim: an evolving one dissolves the very point of the question. And we find an echo of the totemism of charters that so discomforted the early patriot Burke. The issue is well illustrated in a publication of some fifty years ago by Willmoore Kendall and George Carey entitled The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. In this study, the authors took to task what they identified as the shadowing of the Constitution by that other foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, and particularly the elevation of the declaration by President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Here the president “turned our tradition upside down by linking our beginnings or ‘founding’ as a united people with the Declaration of Independence and by deriving a binding national commitment to the advancement of equality from its ‘all men are created equal’ clause.” Putting aside for the moment the value of their own interpretation, the authors have brought us to American patriotism’s Serbonian Bog—the “disordering” effect of turning the inscribed result of political deliberation and compromise into instantiated ideological “fact.”
As a way round this swamp, the authors contend that “the founding era and its key documents must be viewed and understood in terms of a prior, indigenous, and coherent political tradition,” which, if my reading of their work is correct, brings us somewhat closer to the spirit of Burke’s “patriot history.” Both approaches grind an answer to the question “Who are we?” out of the undirected movements of peoples and the cultural weft and warp of history, where patterns of order, aspiration, and occasional contagious discontent offer echoes of the basic symbols by which an evolving community finds definition and direction. To refer back to Burke’s treatment of the formation of Magna Carta, the monuments and crises upon which the eye of the future rests are simply the foam of powerful underlying currents, propelled by the natural inclination of each person toward order and liberty. Order, in this reading, is part of who we are as persons, or individuals in relation to other individuals, and it is antecedent to liberty; it is not established by the deliberations or contests of political actors.
Whereas Trump and Obama speak of fashioning our identity in the progressive currents of civilization, not in engagement with common cultural features, Burke’s argument requires an inversion of that order, so as to achieve two results: first, reclaiming the space between the satisfaction of the ordinary needs for human existence and the superstructure of the state; second, reasserting the claim that the identity we take to our politics arises first and foremost from unchosen relations and affiliations that satisfy those ordinary needs. As a corollary, freedom sought in the name of the individual—that is, in a denial of the formative power of pre-political instincts and affections—is corrosive of both culture and freedom.
Party has a bad name among patriots nowadays, and Trump’s populism still rests upon an association of party with corruption, elitism, venality, and detachment from the real concerns of the common citizen. But “party” had a bad name in Burke’s time for largely the same reasons, and so what Burke saw as a corrective in his time might reasonably offer pointers in ours. If I were to break a career promise of two decades and engage in a kind of “Dialogue of the Dead” with Edmund Burke, I would surely hear him commence his observations with a restatement of his commitment to the vital importance of manners and the “little platoon” to the recovery of some kind of unity and common purpose in the body politic, and presumably blend his own voice with those calling for a program of greater subsidiarity within the state—smaller government and a return of powers to those mediating associations so respected by Tocqueville and many other political and social commentators since. But I imagine I would also hear him balancing that approval with a crucial rider, arising from his very conception of a patriot party: that is, that the flourishing of intermediate social and political associations is not of itself necessarily a sign of pre-political vitality.
Perhaps Burke would incline our attention to similar discussions being carried out in the mid-twentieth century, when the urgent fight against totalitarian oppression masked the dangers of both governmental overreach and social atomization in the resisting democracies. At that time, the moral theologian V. A. Demant (to whom T. S. Eliot credits his own use of the term “pre-political” in his critical essays) argued that “conflict is the minor key of civilization and grows with it, precisely because as civilization grows richer it provides more opportunities of association which are on the one hand a socializing influence, but on the other, provocations to more fateful conflicts as the socially disruptive force in man discovers the benefits of association in common enterprises.” In other words, if the proliferation of associations is truly voluntary—based on what we choose to do, or on who we choose to be—then their growth and growing complexity will lead, like our historical and constitutional “conversations,” only to more entrenched interests that then turn on each other.
With this in mind, perhaps Burke would offer support for two constitutional developments that appear at first sight somewhat contradictory. The first would be the recovery by Congress of a consciousness of its own ultimate constitutional precedence. This is paralleled in Burke’s own lifelong commitment to parliamentarianism of a distinct, patriotic sort. Kendall and Carey argue that the much prized balance of powers to which Americans are so closely attached is not a legal requirement so much as a moral imperative of government, emerging from the Federalist papers, but nowhere reflected in the Constitution itself. While they remain soaked into the channels of political practice, such moral imperatives, acting like tacit understandings, can smooth and elevate the political process. But, as a British politician remarked pointedly to me once in another context, the problem with tacit understandings is that they are not always understood. It is quite compelling to see the current polarity of politics as emerging from the collapse of confidence in those very moral imperatives, with no accompanying return to the specific reading of the Constitution. A modern-day Burke might rise to insist on the recovery, if not of the one, then of the other.
I have a suspicion, though, that Burke would yoke this proposal to another demand: that Congress also relinquish some of its powers by pulling closer to the immediate concerns of the people it represents—not as delegates, of course, but as representatives. Ultimately, this would involve practical constitutional changes such as a reconfiguration of the chambers of Congress to produce an environment friendlier toward the growth of state and local power. For example, Burke might encourage revival of the debate over the Seventeenth Amendment. Restoring to state government the appointment of state senators, and perhaps limiting that appointment to one term, would increase the direct influence of elected state legislatures on the operation of government, while avoiding an increase in frequency of elections and preserving the “sluggish” deliberations of government. He might argue that this would provide an opportunity to revivify party activity by increasing the leverage of the more local divisions on policy, and thereby turning the national party into a filtering and moderating operation, rather than being the locus itself of contending ideological positions.
You may well have concluded by now that such considerations really are a dialogue of the dead: that those perspectives I am arguing claim a tenuous lineage from Burke’s “patriotism” are hardly to be found today even on the far horizon. But I would be surprised if they had not, in some senses, contributed to the powerful undercurrents driving the events of 2016. All the while “patriotism” in contemporary thinking retains its stubborn adhesion to the idea of liberty above order, the immediate result of those events has been to intensify further the focus on political activism in a way that undermines the authority of party institutions and serves to accelerate the type of divisive political associations about which Demant warned. For the soi-disant patriot of today, we would seem to have reached the end game: the popular voice has called time on party games, and constitutional order will either stand or break through an unholy coupling of the executive and the judicial powers.
Is there, then, no way out of this vortex? Perhaps the best we can hope for is to recover the language by which we can still, as a national community, offer a coherent conversation on that question of who we are. And here, in examining Burke’s patriot writings over the course of these encounters, what appears most striking is the complexity of the historical imagination at play, which exposes modern “patriotic” thinking as stubbornly lead-footed. Burke’s particular patriot imagination appears to aim at nothing less than a transformation of our perspectives of time and place that is rooted in the conscious recovery of a pre-political dimension to our social and political affiliations. That recovery will not happen until we are prepared to revisit the distinction between the individual and the person in a way that brings us closer to Burke’s own perception of the commonality of our natures and the educative diversity of their expression. This is a conception of personhood that has been explored by thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil, and it is also, of course, an integral aspect of Catholic social thought. It has been encouraging to see it examined further recently in the writings of Roger Scruton. The challenge to be adopted here—it was Burke’s patriotic vision—is to see the particular affections or duties of the parochial transformed into a more expansive conception of respect and civic purpose. In its balancing of order and liberty, this approach was perhaps encapsulated succinctly by Weil in her book The Need for Roots: “Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.”
Ultimately, we may have arrived at a societal and cultural heteronomy that no longer recognizes itself as attached to the human environment it inhabits. If so, my final point would be that such pessimistic considerations jar against the whole dynamics of Burke’s patriot history, and so would have restrained Burke only so far: for, from the loftier perspective of his historical imagination, he also saw the dying cause as obliging the virtuous patriot to action. In a comment on the growing threat of the French Revolution in 1791, Burke famously wrote: “If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men.” Yet those who insist they are on the right side of history are mistaken to think they have mapped the mind of God. To appear to resist the decrees of Providence—like the forgotten people on November 8, 2016?
Ian Crowe is an associate professor of history at Belmont Abbey College, a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, and director of the Edmund Burke Society of America.
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