What are historians supposed to do in analyzing the past? More particularly, what categories should they employ to scrutinize the thoughts of historical actors? One approach says: why not use our own categories, and look at the past through the lens of the present? Such an approach appears to have immediate advantages. We can evaluate past authors to see how liberal or conservative they were, and perhaps glean lessons for present politics, especially for the current North American imperium. This is the approach Daniel I. OʼNeill adopts in Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire, a clearly written revisionist account of Edmund Burkeʼs political thought. Burke, according to OʼNeill, developed a clever strategy for British politicians when dealing with the constituent elements of their empire. The implication is that contemporary politicians should listen to OʼNeill for his distillation of Burkeʼs lessons. For OʼNeill, Burke was an enemy of liberalism—defined as the advocacy of democracy, human rights, and gender equality—and a lifelong and coherent supporter of conservatism, meaning, in the case of the British Empire, supporting “landed aristocracy,” social hierarchy, and the “established church” (5). OʼNeill further argues that Burke was both an Orientalist and an Ornamentalist (1–2). O’Neill employs Edward Saidʼs category of Orientalism to explain Burkeʼs view of Africans and Native Americans, whom Burke held to be the “other” and beyond the norms of civilization because of what he saw as their violence and peculiar cultural practices, possibly including the rejection of religion. O’Neill also uses David Cannadineʼs term “Ornamentalism,” the strategy of creating a common culture within an empire, to encompass Burkeʼs view of North American settlers, the inhabitants of Ireland, and aspects of long-standing communities in the various provinces of India (172–173). In other words, Burke perceived certain peoples living within the British Empire to have developed social orders that were parallel to British experience, and ultimately to be capable of becoming part of the same civilization. This led Burke, in turn, to justify the alternative forms of worship and culture to be found within foreign societies, such as Hinduism and Islam in India, and to applaud them for fostering social hierarchy and the forces that made their societies stable. Those beyond the pale were savages and barbarians, to be dealt with accordingly. Burke sought to identify across the British Empire the social groups capable of promoting forms of life that would help to sustain the empire, and advised the government in London to support these groups. Burke, in consequence, wanted the taxation of goods in North America to be reduced or abandoned, productive landowners across India to have their property protected, and the Irish to enjoy life without penal laws and restrictions upon trade. The conservative logic of empire is therefore the strategy of identifying the forces in foreign societies that promote order, and the policy from the metropolis of defending them. OʼNeillʼs view of Burke is both interesting and challenging. The presentist categories O’Neill employs, however, fail to capture Burkeʼs obsessions. Among OʼNeillʼs enemies is David Bromwich, who in The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (2014) presented Burke as a liberal critic of Britainʼs empire. OʼNeillʼs Bromwich is something of a straw man, however, because Bromwichʼs Burke did not want the British Empire to collapse. Rather, and following his friend Adam Smith, Burke identified a cancer at the heart of Britainʼs empire, which was the unnatural and retrograde order of the mercantile system, personified, in Burkeʼs view, by Warren Hastings in his capacity as governor-general of Bengal. At the same time, in Burkeʼs view, any political or economic policy for reform had to be evaluated to see if it was a “project,” an overly general scheme unsuited to particular circumstances, or the product of “enthusiasm,” being false and mad hopes that things would turn out for the best because the world could be transformed by implementing the right political strategy. The science of the statesman or legislator taught that humans always live in a second-best world of failure and tragedy, where unintended consequences were to be expected, and anyone with a set of maxims to solve political problems everywhere was not to be trusted. Circumstance and history defined modern prudence, teaching that everything depended upon the detail, especially when it came to matters of trade. Another weakness of OʼNeillʼs book is that it does not deal systematically with political economy. OʼNeill does not list in the bibliography Istvan Hontʼs classic work The Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (2005), which would have moved him beyond the distinction between an empire-loving Burke and a cosmopolitan Smith advocating peace and commerce. Was Burke coherent in his writings, as OʼNeill claims? Burke lived a long life, and saw unparalleled upheavals in the system of European states, including the experience of global war. Achieving coherence through so much really would be remarkable. I think Burke changed his mind about a lot of things, and especially in the final decade of his life. His Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, was an optimistic book because it predicted that revolutionary France would collapse under the weight of its mad politics. In all likelihood, monarchy, church, and aristocracy would return. By 1794 in a series of letters, and ultimately through the appearance of his Two Letters … on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France in 1796, Burke made clear that he was no longer of this opinion. The republic of regicide was defeating all of the armies of the monarchies of Europe, spreading its doctrine everywhere, and appeared to be on the verge of causing a revolution in Burkeʼs home country. In the Letters the so-called conservative Burke advised a war to the very death, the extermination of revolutionary doctrine at whatever the cost for Britain and its empire. The map of the world was going to have to be redrawn, and the internal politics of states transformed, but so be it. Burke knew that Old Regime France was dead, and could never be resurrected. Burke ended up as something of an enthusiast with regard to his final project, and very different from the calmer soul facing the calamities of previous decades. The French Revolution changed everything. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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