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A second great issue that confronted Burke in was the quarrel with the American colonies. British policy was vacillating; determination to maintain imperial control ended in coercion, repression, and unsuccessful war. Opposed to the tactics of coercion, the Rockingham group in their short administration of —66 repealed the Stamp Act but asserted the imperial right to impose taxation by the Declaratory Act.
British policy, he argued, had been both imprudent and inconsistent, but above all legalistic and intransigent , in the assertion of imperial rights. Authority must be exercised with respect for the temper of those subject to it, if there was not to be collision of power and opinion.
This truth was being ignored in the imperial quarrel; it was absurd to treat universal disobedience as criminal: Burke made a wide historical survey of the growth of the colonies and of their present economic problems. Ireland was a special problem in imperial regulation. It was in strict political dependency on England and internally subject to the ascendancy of an Anglo-Irish Protestant minority that owned the bulk of the agricultural land. Roman Catholics were excluded by a penal code from political participation and public office. To these oppressions were added widespread rural poverty and a backward economic life aggravated by commercial restrictions resulting from English commercial jealousy.
Burke was always concerned to ease the burdens of his native country. He consistently advocated relaxation of the economic and penal regulations, and steps toward legislative independence, at the cost of alienating his Bristol constituents and of incurring suspicions of Roman Catholicism and charges of partiality. The remaining imperial issue, to which he devoted many years, and which he ranked as the most worthy of his labours, was that of India. The commercial activities of a chartered trading concern, the British East India Company , had created an extensive empire there. Burke concluded that the corrupt state of Indian government could be remedied only if the vast patronage it was bound to dispose of was in the hands neither of a company nor of the crown.
He drafted the East India Bill of of which the Whig statesman Charles James Fox was the nominal author , which proposed that India be governed by a board of independent commissioners in London. He appealed to the concept of the Law of Nature, the moral principles rooted in the universal order of things, to which all conditions and races of men were subject. The impeachment , which is now generally regarded as an injustice to Hastings who was ultimately acquitted , is the most conspicuous illustration of the failings to which Burke was liable throughout his public life, including his brief periods in office as paymaster general of the forces in and His political positions were sometimes marred by gross distortions and errors of judgment.
His Indian speeches fell at times into violent emotion and abuse, lacking restraint and proportion, and his parliamentary activities were at times irresponsible or factious. The outbreak of the French Revolution in was initially greeted in England with much enthusiasm. Burke, after a brief suspension of judgment, was both hostile to it and alarmed by this favourable English reaction.
He was provoked into writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France by a sermon of the Protestant dissenter Richard Price welcoming the Revolution. In the first instance Burke discussed the actual course of the Revolution, examining the personalities, motives, and policies of its leaders. Further, he challenged the whole rationalist and idealist temper of the movement.
It was not merely that the old social order was being pulled down. He argued, further, that the moral fervour of the Revolution, and its vast speculative schemes of political reconstruction, were causing a devaluation of tradition and inherited values and a thoughtless destruction of the painfully acquired material and spiritual resources of society. Against all this, he appealed to the example and the virtues of the English constitution: It is for the criticism and affirmation of fundamental political attitudes that the Reflections and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs retain their freshness, relevance, and force.
Burke opposed the French Revolution to the end of his life, demanding war against the new state and gaining a European reputation and influence. But his hostility to the Revolution went beyond that of most of his party and in particular was challenged by Fox. His last years were clouded by the death of his only son, on whom his political ambitions had come to centre. Burke, in fact, never gave a systematic exposition of his fundamental beliefs but appealed to them always in relation to specific issues.
But it is possible to regard his writings as an integrated whole in terms of the constant principles underlying his practical positions. Natural impulse, that is, contains within itself self-restraint and self-criticism; the moral and spiritual life is continuous with it, generated from it and essentially sympathetic to it. It follows that society and state make possible the full realization of human potentiality, embody a common good , and represent a tacit or explicit agreement on norms and ends.
The political community acts ideally as a unity. This interpretation of nature and the natural order implies deep respect for the historical process and the usages and social achievements built up over time. Therefore, social change is not merely possible but also inevitable and desirable. But the scope and the role of thought operating as a reforming instrument on society as a whole is limited.
It should act under the promptings of specific tensions or specific possibilities, in close union with the detailed process of change, rather than in large speculative schemes involving extensive interference with the stable, habitual life of society. Also, it ought not to place excessive emphasis on some ends at the expense of others; in particular, it should not give rein to a moral idealism as in the French Revolution that sets itself in radical opposition to the existing order.
Such attempts cut across the natural processes of social development , initiating uncontrollable forces or provoking a dialectical reaction of excluded factors. His influence in England has been more diffuse, more balanced, and more durable.
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He stands as the original exponent of long-lived constitutional conventions, the idea of party, and the role of the member of Parliament as free representative, not delegate. More generally, his remains the most persuasive statement of certain inarticulate political and social principles long and widely held in England: We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles. You can make it easier for us to review and, hopefully, publish your contribution by keeping a few points in mind.
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