Sain column: Edmund Burke and the rise of conservatism

The statue of Edmund Burke on the campus of Trinity College in Ireland, where Burke was a student in the 1700s. He is recognized as the father of conservative thought, but his ideas were quite radical in their time. (Stock)

The statue of Edmund Burke on the campus of Trinity College in Ireland, where Burke was a student in the 1700s. He is recognized as the father of conservative thought, but his ideas were quite radical in their time. (Stock)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth column trying to answer a reader’s question: What is a liberal and what is a conservative? Here are parts 1, 2 and 3.

John Locke and the other great thinkers of the Enlightenment — a period that began in the 17th century and continued into the 19th century — changed how people viewed themselves and altered the justification for government. The visionaries of the Enlightenment emphasized reason over tradition.

One of those visionaries, Sir Isaac Newton, in 1686 published his “third law” — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Locke meet Edmund Burke, one of the leaders of the counter-Enlightenment.

An Irish statesman born in Dublin, Burke was skeptical of anyone who claimed they could use reason to understand the universe. A deeply religious man, he thought anyone who claimed science could unravel the mysteries of God lacked humility.

In Burke’s view, the world is a wonderful and complicated place. Read his Ideas on the Sublime to get a sense of those views.

In politics, Burke had some rather radical views for being the father of modern conservative thought. While Locke and his fellow liberals were talking about an individual’s natural rights, Burke was having none of that. To him, society is what mattered, not the individual.

Who are you, he believed, to think that you can, with your selfish demands for an individual’s natural rights, overturn a society that has been evolving over centuries?

Burke’s best known work is “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”

As I mentioned in a previous column, Burke supported the American colonists in their revolution against England, but he was an outspoken critic of the French Revolution. Burke viewed the Americans as justified in their action against England because it had broken the social contract with the American colonists by taxing them without representation, ignoring generations of English traditions.

Burke’s view of the social contract is that if there is a long-standing tradition, rights come from that tradition. But traditions can differ from society to society, so what may be a right in England may not be a right in China, in Burke’s view. It depends on the traditions in each country.

The American colonists were British citizens and, as such, were justified in objecting when their societal rights were violated, Burke believed. So he favored the American Revolution.

The French Revolution, however, began with street riots. There was no intent of keeping old traditions; the only intent Burke saw in the French Revolution was an intent to burn down every societal norm. He predicted chaos would come from the French Revolution and a dictator would likely arise as a result (hello, Napoléon Bonaparte!)

Burke argued that the citizens of France would be less free with their revolution because they were tossing aside all their traditions. He was right.

Generations were important to Burke. He felt strongly that it was not possible for any one person to understand this complex world, but over generations, humanity slowly figures it out, he believed.

In his view, society, as a whole, learns what works and what does not, and we owe it to the generations that came before us, and those who will come after us, to heed those lessons, value them and never just toss them aside.

Burke was not against change, but he wanted slow change. He figured that, because human beings can’t possibly understand this world fully, radical change was filled with the risk of unintended consequences.

He wanted to conserve traditions and to be humble enough to admit that we cannot know how everything works. Because of such limitations, he felt we should all be very careful in making changes.

When people would suddenly write down new “natural” rights on a sheet of parchment, he doubted them. He called those abstract rights, and, the American Bill of Rights would fall into that category.

The only rights that Burke recognized were rights that society had granted over decades or more, rights that had survived the test of time.

“A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice, ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” Burke wrote. “[W]henever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe.”

When the Constitutional Convention took place, in the summer of 1787, Burke was in his prime and a leading thinker of his age.

Author Russell Kirk argues that Burke’s philosophies are apparent in the U.S. Constitution.

First, it respects established institutions.

Second, it recognizes historical experiences much older than Britain’s colonies in the New World.

Third, the constitution rejected a priori theories of government, settling for what was possible instead of taking chances on something new.

Next week, I will discuss the formation of American political parties and the start of how we got where we are today.

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