One of conservatism's founding fathers

Edmund Burke died on July 9th, 1797, having spent nearly three decades in Parliament, and laying down in his writings and speeches what became the philosophical foundations of conservatism.

Part of that philosophy emerged in his different responses to two different revolutions. When the American colonists began to rebel against what they saw as an irksome rule by a distant Britain, Burke was generally supportive of them because they were seeking to preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen against new encroachments. “They augur misgovernment at a distance,” he reported, “and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Burke made speeches in Parliament opposing new taxes on the colonists and urging restraint and compromise in dealing with them. The British constitution had evolved naturally over centuries, and incorporated accumulated wisdom built up over many generations. Burke thought the Americans were trying to hold on to that constitution and the rights enshrined within it. He regarded them as brothers and sisters united by blood and heritage, and hoped that if they secured their independence, they would opt to work in close union with their mother country.

When the French Revolution took place, Burke’s initial sympathy vanished within weeks into outright hostility. This was not a conservative revolution staged to retain traditional values, but an outright rejection of those values in the name of abstract ideas about what their rights ought to be. He thought the French had discarded “the yoke of law and morals.” He contrasted the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, which he described as “an adjustment” of the constitution, with the French destruction not only of their constitution, but the religion and the culture that bound them to each other as a society. They had instead descended into anarchy, he said.

His “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) was an instant best-seller, going through several editions in its first year alone. There was at the time a general optimism in England about what the French might achieve by shaking off their feudal past, and Burke alienated many of his Whig friends, including Charles James Fox, by publishing so extreme a condemnation. People in general were optimistic about France, but Burke was not, and events proved him right.

He became the leading figure within the conservative faction of the Whig Party which he dubbed the Old Whigs as opposed to the pro-French Revolution New Whigs led by Charles James Fox. Burke's former friendship with Fox never recovered.

A part of Burke's case was that society stores up in its customs and traditions the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, the practices that have been found to work and to be conducive to a fulfilled life. Of course change happens, but it should take place naturally and organically, by evolution, not revolution.

Hayek echoed this in his account of the three sources of human values. Those we acquire biologically and those we think up in our minds are trivial compared to those we receive culturally from society. Burke put it succinctly:

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.”

Rather than mocking custom and discarding it as outdated, Burke thought we should try to discern what it is about customary ways that have caused them to be retained.

“Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.”

The philosophical basis of Conservatism is not simply wanting to keep things the same. It is wanting change to be spontaneous: evolution not revolution, and based on the tried and tested, rather than on the novel. This is one reason why it has lasted.