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The Burkean Regicide

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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Moral Imagination
Essays.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke
From the Sublime and the Beautiful to American Independence.
By David Bromwich.
Buy this book

A Whig rather than a Tory, and thus a progressive in the politics of his time, Burke was no simple conservative. Bromwich goes further: “No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism,” he writes in the opening volume of the biography.

It must be said that Bromwich’s achievement in tracing Burke’s life is wholly magisterial, one of the great accomplishments of the contemporary humanities, and a joy to read. It is a pitch-perfect survey of Burke’s career through the American Revolution, in which the professor’s own measured eloquence augments the politician’s oratorical genius. “Nobody ever found out Burke’s meaning by excerpts,” Bromwich has written, and in response to that imperative he has larded his account of Burke’s life with quotations, to supplement a wonderful compilation of Burke’s speeches and letters, published fifteen years ago as On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, that Bromwich put out to offer a fairer impression of his idol.

Bromwich returns us to the long era of Burke’s life when, as a grizzled veteran, he famously inveighed against democracy and equality in Reflections on the Revolution in France, and troublingly pined for the lost hierarchy that he felt Marie Antoinette symbolized so gracefully. Bromwich reminds us that Burke’s chief fame for a long time consisted in his theory of aesthetics, and of his commitment as a longtime member of Parliament for Bristol not to old-style monarchy but to the sovereignty of Parliament secured since the Glorious Revolution, itself cast as a traditionalist act in the name of the ancient rights of Englishmen.

Finally, Bromwich restores Burke’s subtle engagement with the American scene. In the pre-revolutionary phase in which he begged for reform and conciliation, Burke castigated the British Empire for treating its western holdings (like its eastern ones) as a device for the reaping of profits rather than the propagation of liberty. When the crisis accelerated, Burke approved the American bid for secession across the ocean as a grim necessity that Britain had brought on itself, and he warned about the threat of war to civil liberties at home. How could a man fear war so much as to approve revolution in America, and later inveigh against revolution in France to the point of encouraging violence to stamp it out? “The two concerns at the heart of Burke’s politics, hatred of violence and love of liberty, were twice in his lifetime confronted by a stark either-or,” Bromwich explains. “With America, he chose revolution instead of war; with France, he would choose war against revolution. It is not to be supposed that he arrived at either position free of regret.”

Bromwich is on the mark about Burke’s criticisms of imperial wrongdoing and their centrality to his career, with the very important proviso that Burke advocated the improvement rather than the end of empire. With the treatment of Irishmen typically somewhere in the back of his mind, he favored imperial reform over revolutionary sovereignty, except under specific conditions. Similarly, he argued for the humanization of the slave trade—rather courageously so, given the centrality of his Bristol constituency to its eighteenth-century rise.

Within these stark limits, however, Bromwich is right to see Burke’s condemnation of the scandal of empire—still too little known even today—as of continuing relevance. “Were we to be driven out of India today,” Burke stormed in the House of Commons in 1783, “nothing would remain, to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ouran-outang or the tiger.” And his long obsession with Hastings revolved around a series of vicious counterinsurgencies that the governor-general had ordered in Bengal. Bromwich was driven to make similar criticisms of America’s rule in the Middle East and beyond. Burke expected “the wrath of heaven would sooner or later fall on a nation, that suffers, with impunity, its rulers thus to oppress the weak and innocent,” and Bromwich hoped to summon the same providential justice.

Bromwich doesn’t discuss the Hastings trial in the first installment of his intellectual biography. But the Burke straddling it and the forthcoming volume—defending Americans and South Asians in and from Britain’s imperial system—is the one whom Bromwich channeled most of all after 9/11, selecting from the various faces of Burke’s reformist love of liberty the one most apt to gaze critically on our imperialist times.

Yet his mobilization of Burke as a critic of the “peace-prize war president” has risked obfuscating any larger vision of reform, whether its sources were in the former’s thought or anywhere else. It even led Bromwich, in perhaps the most revealing instance of his activism, to reach out to the audience of The American Conservative, a paleoconservative magazine founded in 2002 to oppose the ascendant neocons. True to form, Bromwich invoked Burke in his coalitional plea for a cross-party force to reject strong states and imperial war-making alike.

In an age when Rand Paul speaks out more forcefully than most Democratic politicians against the national surveillance state, Bromwich’s impulse is not unfounded. But his concern about the overweening state and its imperial outcomes, and his desire to seek common cause with libertarians, is a risky gambit. “It would be hard to say whether statist liberals or statist conservatives are more seduced by love of the state,” he writes. That both have been prone to imperial misadventures seemed to be what mattered most to him—and opened him to making strange bedfellows on the right.

Actually, deepest in Burke, according to Bromwich (and perhaps in Bromwich himself), is an anti-political streak that treats the government as a mere necessary evil. People “want to be left alone with their families and enterprises, affairs of person and neighborhood,” Bromwich summarizes. No wonder that, across his whole career, Burke “seldom mounts a campaign for anything.” It is a deep but troubling insight—one that Bromwich knows is inimical to democracy. On this theory, it is not for us to take control of our society, but merely to ensure that our regrettably necessary government is kept within bounds. Especially after 2001, Bromwich’s affection for Burke insensibly passed from a liberal reformer’s to that of a libertarian anti-statist’s. “Power, in whatever hands, is rarely guilty of too strict limitations on itself” has become his favorite saying from Burke, a much-cited new credo that risks displacing the old one. Indeed, Bromwich chose it as the single epigraph for his biography.

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