The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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Burke, Edmund
Peter J. Stanlis - 06/30/11

Burke knew that under English rule Ireland’s Catholic majority had suffered “penalties, incapacities, and proscriptions from generation to generation” and was “under a deprivation of all the rights of human nature.” He summarized the “vicious perfection” of the laws against popery:

It was a complete system full of coherence and consistency; well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance; and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.

Burke perceived that the best means of depriving the Irish people of their natural and civil rights was to exclude them from the benefits of the English constitution, particularly in economics and religion.

Burke’s method in seeking redress for Ireland was cautious, subdued, and prudent, partly because Ireland’s subjection in religion, economics, and politics had deep historical roots, and also because anti-Catholic feeling in England, and among Irish Protestants, was so intense that every attempt to eliminate a few civil disabilities always provoked fanatical resistance. Three elements combined to make Burke’s efforts to help Ireland very complex factors in his politics: his favorable view of the British Empire; his great sympathy with the plight of Irish Roman Catholics; and his general hatred of political tyranny. Yet during the 1770s, when Britain was increasingly involved in American affairs, Burke and his colleagues in Parliament succeeded in partially rescinding some of the anti-Catholic penal laws. In 1778 and 1782 Burke worked to eliminate restraints on Irish trade and to secure relief for Catholics. Although Irish Catholics complained that he did too little for them, Burke lost his Bristol constituency because his political enemies charged him with doing too much for them. In 1793 Burke helped to win the franchise for Irish Catholics. Most of Burke’s policies for Ireland were fulfilled during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Historians have also largely ignored Burke’s politics regarding India. Yet Burke considered his work on behalf of the “undone millions” of India as his most important achievement. The affairs of India occupied his attention for twenty-seven years, from 1767 until his retirement in 1794, but most actively during his last fourteen years in Parliament.

Burke’s main objective was to secure a just government for India within the British Empire. To achieve this goal he sought to establish in practice the undoubted legal right of the British government to regulate the internal policies and public actions of the East India Company. He described the East India Company as “a state in the disguise of a merchant,” and he was aware that, under Governor General Hastings, the agents of the company were the real rulers of India.

Between 1773 and 1783, Burke came to realize the nature and extent of British misrule in India and therefore abandoned his initial support of the East India Company against the encroachments of the Crown to become its most severe critic. In 1781, Burke became a member of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the affairs of India, writing many of the reports it submitted to Parliament. In an attempt to provide India with its Magna Carta of liberty, Burke probably wrote most of Fox’s East India Bill (1783). The bill was defeated in the House of Lords, and Burke became convinced that the East India Company was unwilling to reform itself. After much evidence of serious, systematic, and repeated abuses of power under Hastings, in 1786, with the help of Sir Philip Francis and others, Burke drew up the proceedings for Hastings’s impeachment trial. Burke managed the trial before the House of Lords. The trial lasted eight years because of the legal impediments and delays thrown up by Hastings’s lawyers, and ended in Hastings’s acquittal. Many of Burke’s efforts on behalf of India were realized through reforms enacted by Britain in the nineteenth century.

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