Edmund Burke on the Six Reasons Why Americans Love Liberty

Edmund Burke on the Six Reasons Why Americans Love Liberty

Timothy Taylor 04/07/2018 5

The British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke gave a "Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies" on March 25, 1775. He sought to explain why those pesky Americans were so strident and obsessive about their love of freedom and liberty. He said:

"In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole ... This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; which, to understand the true temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely."

Burke then proceeded to explain six causes why "a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up" in America. Here is my list of his six causes, with some snippets from his speech.

Cause #1: Seeing the power to control one's own taxes as as central part of liberty. 

They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. ... Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened, you know, Sir, that the great contests for freedom in this country were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing. Most of the contests in the ancient commonwealths turned primarily on the right of election of magistrates; or on the balance among the several orders of the state. The question of money was not with them so immediate. But in England it was otherwise. On this point of taxes the ablest pens, and most eloquent tongues, have been exercised; the greatest spirits have acted and suffered. ... The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. 

Cause #2: A love of popular representation in government. 

"Their governments are popular in a high degree; some are merely popular; in all, the popular representative is the most weighty; and this share of the people in their ordinary government never fails to inspire them with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their chief importance."

Cause #3: Religious belief, and especially the Protestantism of the northern colonies

"Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. ... All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all ... "

Cause #4: Those who live with slavery, especially in the southern colonies, tend to see liberty as more noble 

"It is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty, than those to the northward. ... In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible."

Cause #5: Lots of lawyers, and lawyerly thinking. 

"In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavour to obtain some smattering in that science. ... This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."

Cause #6: Geographical distance from England encourages thoughts of liberty. 

"Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system. ...  In large bodies, the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it.  ... Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies too; she submits; she watches times. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law, of extensive and detached empire."

Burke points out that the issue was not whether these arguments were virtuous or moral, or whether the American spirit of liberty was in some way unreasonable or excessive. When faced with the reality of liberty-loving Americans was what to do:

"I do not mean to commend either the spirit in this excess, or the moral causes which produce it. Perhaps a more smooth and accommodating spirit of freedom in them would be more acceptable to us. Perhaps ideas of liberty might be desired, more reconcilable with an arbitrary and boundless authority. Perhaps we might wish the colonists to be persuaded, that their liberty is more secure when held in trust for them by us (as their guardians during a perpetual minority) than with any part of it in their own hands. The question is, not whether their spirit deserves praise or blame, but -- what, in the name of God, shall we do with it?"

Obviously, Burke's six reasons apply to the time and place in which he was writing, but it seems to me that they have echoes in the American character that persist.

For example, Americans continue to have an intense focus on taxation. The idea of direct representation of people in government is a civic religion (especially when it feels as if it is not being properly accomplished). For many Americans, of all faith traditions, their religion is in some way "a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent." The aftermath of American slavery has made the call of "freedom" perhaps even stronger. Public gatherings often involve broad claims about desirability of freedom, and the sense that people are in some way being denied their freedom. The country is full of lawyerly thinkers who are "acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources," and who "augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze." And the geographic location (and sheer size) of the United States means that American liberty is not under threat from neighboring countries in the way that is experienced by people in so much of the world.

On July 4, it's worth noting some of these continuities and divergences in the American experience. And in looking ahead, one can do worse that repeat Burke's question: The question is, not whether their spirit deserves praise or blame, but -- what, in the name of God, shall we do with it?"

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.

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  • Diana Hoffmeister

    Americans do seem more obsessed with freedom because the word itself has a very different connotation for them than it does for people in other countries who share the same literal understanding of the term.

  • Mason Joel Harley

    Great read. Liberty is at the heart of the US foundation story.

  • Christopher Leigh

    America is different from many other countries, because it was founded after the Reformation. Most countries have longer histories, so they were having to struggle with and embed Reformation ideas into their older, pre-Reformation traditions. Think of England, with its democratic government and its symbolic monarch. This is the sort of uneasy compromise many democracies had to make, or in any case, the one they wound up making.

  • Daniel Palma

    Just a few years ago, a black president was unthinkable. As was a woman president. We've now had high-ranking female politicians in both parties, and it's just a matter of time before one is in the Oval Office.

  • Ricky Hackett

    Freedom in America is deeply embedded in the psyche of the citizens of The United States. We began our country when we broke ties with King George III, of England. The colonies were heavily taxed and the citizens were under constant harassment by British troops occupying Boston.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Guru

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

   

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