Liberty, Authority, and Trust in Burke’s Idea of Empire

Richard Bourke, "Liberty, Authority, and Trust in Burke's Idea of Empire," Journal of the History of Ideas 61.3 (2000), 453-471.

When Edmund Burke first embarked upon a parliamentary career, British political life was in the process of adapting to a series of critical reorientations in both the dynamics of party affiliation and the direction of imperial policy. During the period of the Seven Years’ War, a reconstituted militia became a focus for patriotic enthusiasm, uniting national sentiment against France and effectively eradicating the remnants of Jacobite rhetoric and aspiration. Traditional opposition between Tory and Whig became irrelevant, while Court and Country jointly came to the support of the Pitt-Newcastle ministry. However, in due course the Old Corps disintegrated as George III succeeded to the throne with the promise of an end to factional strife and the beginning of a patriotic alliance in government. But while competing ideologies and interests on the domestic political scene were undergoing comprehensive realignment, the pursuit of a blue-water policy in tandem with strategic continental campaigns brought Britain’s struggle against France into North America, the Caribbean, and India. Trade continued to expand into Asia and West Africa, but the principles of commercial advantage were continually brought into open conflict with the exigencies of war. The division of power in Europe became embroiled in a substantial redivision of empire, and by 1763 British territorial expansion had reached its zenith.

When Burke was appointed private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, with the national debt standing at an all time high and the demands of imperial defense unlikely to diminish, the politics of empire called for urgent attention from all sections of the political establishment. In particular the Rockinghamites, adopting a posture of aloofness from venality and petty interest, were obliged to advance policies for imperial government on the solid basis of political principle. Coming into parliament as a member for Wendover in the wake of Grenville’s Stamp Act, at a time when the East India Company was assuming control of the revenue in Bengal, Burke set about formulating a doctrine of imperial sovereignty which would be serviceable to the party either in power or in opposition and which would be adequate to the complex reality of detached and extensive empire. The immediate reception of that inquiry, both in Britain and on the Continent, into the fraught world of post-Revolutionary political debate has had the long-term effect of distorting the order of emphasis in terms of which his career as a whole ought properly to be understood.

The vigorous elaboration, in opposition to the Jacobin experiment in France, of the conditions under which moderate government could be exercised within the context of an absolute sovereignty was expressed in terms which had originally been invoked as part of a sustained attempt to reconcile civility with empire. As we shall see, that attempt involved a process of delicate coordination by means of which the interests of freedom would be brought into harmony with the demands of public power. In that sense the effort to make liberty and authority mutually responsible can be said to constitute the core ambition of Burke’s political rhetoric. In this context responsibility defines the optimally beneficial relation between government and people on the one hand and national sovereignty and the extended empire on the other. This article outlines the practical and theoretical exploration of those relations within the frame of Burke’s intervention in the world of eighteenth-century political discourse.

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