The Founder of Modern Conservatism’s Perspective on the Current U.S. Political Turmoil

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in Britain’s House of Commons as a member of the Whig party. He is remembered for his support of the cause of the American Revolution and for his later opposition to the French Revolution. He often has been regarded as the philosophic founder of modern conservatism.[1]

In 1774 Burke was elected to Parliament for Bristol, which at the time was “England’s second city” and a great trading city. Many of his constituents were opposed to free trade with Ireland, which Burke supported. This and other issues lead to his defeat in the 1780 parliamentary election.

After his election in 1774, Burke gave what became a famous speech on the philosophy of the duties of an elected representative. He said:

  • “[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs—and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
  • But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure—no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. . . .
  • [G]overnment and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide, and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
  • To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to consider. But authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest convictions of his judgment and conscience—these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution.. . .
  • Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest—that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavour to give it effect.” [2] (Emphasis in bold added.)

Fast forward from Britain in 1774 to the U.S. in 2011. Many groups now ask or demand that candidates for public office sign pledges to adhere without exception to certain positions held by the group. I think especially today of Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform with his insistence on “no new taxes.”[3]

This is a horrible development in our political life. I am opposed to all such pledges on the grounds advanced by Burke. I am also opposed to the Norquist pledge in particular.[4]


[2] Edmund Burke, Speech To The Electors Of Bristol At The Conclusion Of The Poll (Nov. 7, 1774), http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html.

[3]  Wikipedia, Grover Norquist, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist; Americans for Tax Reform, http://www.atr.org/taxpayer-protection-pledge.

[4] Post: My Political Philosophy(April 4, 2011); Post: Passionate, Committed Political Leadership (July 22, 2011); Post: Disgusting U.S. Political Scene (July 23, 2011).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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