Monday, August 22, 2016

"To criminate and recriminate"

Edmund Burke believed that Britain's troubles with its American colonies should be conciliated and he deplored the decisions that led to the Revolutionary War. What he wrote about the deteriorating level of discourse in Britain on the subject has relevance to the nature of our electoral disputes today.  From his "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol":
.... [W]e have to lament, that in most of the late proceedings we see very few traces of that generosity, humanity, and dignity of mind, which formerly characterised this nation. War suspends the rules of moral obligation, and what is long suspended is in danger of being totally abrogated. Civil wars strike deepest of all into the manners of the people. They vitiate their politics; they corrupt their morals; they pervert even the natural taste and relish of equity and justice. By teaching us to consider our fellow-citizens in a hostile light, the whole body of our nation becomes gradually less dear to us. The very names of affection and kindred, which were the bond of charity whilst we agreed, become new incentives to hatred and rage, when the communion of our country is dissolved. We may flatter ourselves that we shall not fall into this misfortune But we have no charter of exemption, that I know of, from the ordinary frailties of our nature. ....

.... It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven, (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched. ....

I know many have been taught to think, that moderation, in a case like this, is a sort of treason; and that all arguments for it are sufficiently answered by railing at rebels and rebellion, and by charging all the present or future miseries, which we may suffer, on the resistance of our brethren. But I would wish them, in this grave matter, and if peace is not wholly removed from their hearts, to consider seriously, first, that to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men. ....
On the purpose of government:
I was persuaded that government was a practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity, to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians. Our business was to rule, not to wrangle....

Liberty too must be limited in order to be possessed. The degree of restraint it is impossible in any case to settle precisely. But it ought to be the constant aim of every wise public council, to find out by cautious experiments, and rational, cool endeavours, with how little, not how much of this restraint, the community can subsist. For liberty is a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened. It is not only a private blessing of the first order, but the vital spring and energy of the state itself, which has just so much life and vigour as there is liberty in it. ....

.... For as the Sabbath (though of divine institution) was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, government, which can claim no higher origin or authority, in its exercise at least, ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people, with whom it is concerned; and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection. ....
The introduction to the letter included this information. Burke and Johnson were contemporaries and friends.
Burke was one of the few men whom Dr. Johnson respected as equals. He said: "Burke is the only man whose common conversation corresponds with the general fame which he has in the world. Take up whatever topic you please, he is ready to meet you. ... He does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full. ... He is never what we call hum-drum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off." When Burke with other friends came to bid farewell to Johnson on his death bed, he expressed a fear that so many callers might oppress the sick man. Johnson replied : "I must be in a wretched state, indeed, when your company would not be a delight to me."
I read Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol" after reading "Navigating Political Strife and Unrest With Edmund Burke" in the Weekly Standard.