THE AMERICAN LOVE OF FREEDOM
By Edmund Burke
THE AMERICAN LOVE OF FREEDOM, from his “Conciliation with the Colonies.” Speech in Parliament March 22, 1775, against the Penal Bill proposed by Lord North, a bill which became law on March 30, 1775.
Edmund Burke （1727-1797）, English statesman and orator.
In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole; and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. 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.
- First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation which still, I hope, respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favorite 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. In order to give the fullest satisfaction concerning the importance of this point, it was not only necessary for those who in argument defended the excellence of the English Constitution to insist on the privilege of granting money as a dry point of fact, and to prove that the right had been acknowledged in ancient parchments and blind usages to reside in a certain body called a House of Commons. They went much farther; they attempted to prove and they succeeded, that in theory it ought to be so, from the particular nature of a House of Commons as an immediate representative of the people, whether the old records had delivered this oracle or not. They took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must in effect themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. 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. Liberty might be safe, or might be endangered, in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound. I do not say whether they were right or wrong in applying your general arguments to their own case. It is not easy, indeed, to make a monopoly of theorem and corollaries. The fact is, that they did thus apply these general arguments; and your mode of governing them, whether through lenity or indolence, through wisdom or mistake, confirmed them in the imagination that they, as well as you, had an interest in these common principles.
- They were further confirmed in this pleasing error by the form of their provincial legislature assemblies. 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.
- If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the form of government, religion would have given it a complete effect. 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 favorable to liberty but built upon it. I do not think , Sir, that the reason of this averseness in the dissenting churches from all that looks like absolute government is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Everyone knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favor and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world, and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. 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 Englalnd when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners which has been constantly flowing into these colonies has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, who have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.
- Sir, I can perceive by their manner that some gentlemen object to the latitude of this description, because in the southern colonies the Church of England forms a large body, and has a regular establishment. It is certainly true. There is, however, a circumstance attending these colonies which, in my opinion, fully counterbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. 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. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic ancestors; such in our days were the Poles;and such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible
- Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable spirit. I mean their education. 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 Congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavor to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on the law exported to the Plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentariesin America as in England. General Gage marks out this disposition very particularly in a letter on your table. He states that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smattered in law;and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitutions. The smartness of debate will say that this knowledge ought to teach them more clearly the rights of legislature, their obligations to obedience, and the penalties of rebellion. All this is mighty well. But my honorable and learned friend on the floor, who condescends to mark what I say for animadversion, will disdain that ground. He has heard, as well as I, that when great honors and great emoluments do not win over this knowledge to the service of that state, it is a formidable adversary to government. If the spirit be not tamed and broken by these happy methods, it is stubborn and litigious. Abeunt studia in mores. This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, 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.
- The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the natural constitution of things. 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. You have, indeed, winged ministers of vengeance, who carry your bolts in their pounces to the remotest verge of the sea. But there is a power steps in that limits the arrogance of raging passions and furious elements, and says, “So far shalt thou go, and no farther.” Who are you, that you should fret and rage, and bite the chains of nature? Nothing worse happens to you than does to all nations who have extensive empire; and it happens in all the forms into which empire can be thrown. In large bodies the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Egypt and Arabia and Kurdistan as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all;and the whole of the force and vigor of his authority in his center is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders. Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies, too; she submits; she watches time. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law of extensive and detached empire.
（Summary） Then, Sir, from these six capital sources—of descent, of form of government, of religion in the northern provinces, of manners in the southern, of education, of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government—from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth;a spirit that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us.
jealous, disposed to suspect rivalry in matters of interest and affection;apprehensive regarding the motives of possible rivals.
restive, unwilling to go on; obstinate in refusing to move forward;impatient under coercion, chastisement, or opposition.
untractable, not capable of being easily led, taught, managed, or controlled.
shuffle from them by chicane, take away by trickery.
amiss, wrong, faulty, out of order, improper.
when this part of your character was most predominant. During the reigns of James I （1603-1625） and of Charles I （1625-1648）. James became involved in a bitter quarrel with Parliament by increasing the customs duties without its consent. The attempts of Charles to raise revenue by means of forced loans and ship money were among the causes which led to the great civil war in 1642 and to the execution of the king in 1649.
inheres, belongs, as attributes, qualities, rights, powers, etc.
some sensible object, some concrete object or definite interest:sensible, that which is evident to the senses.
criterion, standard of judging; rule or test by which facts, principles, opinions, and conduct are tried in forming a correct judgment respecting them.
the great contests for freedom, for example, in 1297, in the reign of Edward I, and in 1628, in the reign of Charles I.
the ablest pens, and most eloquent tongues, the best writers, like Pym, Hampden, Selen, St. John, and the most fluent speakers.
ancient parchments and blind usages, established practices, the origin of which is lost in antiquity.
oracle, authoritative or wise expression.
mediately or immediately, indirectly, through chosen representatives, or directly, in their own persons.
theorem and corollaries, meaning here, your principles of government.
pleasing error. Why pleasing error?
merely popular, wholly in charge of the people, as in Connecticut and Rhode Island, where even the governors, instead of being appointed by the Crown, were elected by the people.
Protestants, Christians who are in protest against the Roman Catholic, the Old Catholic Church, and the Eastern Church.
coeval, of the same age; existing during the same period of time, especially time long and remote.
the dissidence of dissent, the extreme of dissent or disagreement. Compare, for a similar superlative sense the Hebrew phrase “Holy of Holies.”
a variety of denominations, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, etc.
notwithstanding its legal rights. The Church of England was nominally established in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina. But the colonists were skilful in evading the maintenance of its endowments. In Virginia it was customary for each parish to hire its incumbent from year to year, so that no freehold in the endowment might be established. By a curious anomaly, the Episcopal Church in America was without bishops at the close of George II’s reign. Lord Halifax, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, proposed to introduce them, but the scheme was received with suspicion by the colonists, and regarded as a part of an attempt to undermine their liberties.
that stream of foreigners, those who were not English.
dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, such as French Huguenots and Irish Presbyterians.
latitude, freedom from confinement or narrow limits; independence of action, thought, opinion, etc.
the southern colonies, the thirteen colonies of. America were divided into north and south colonies.
has a regular establishment, see note explaining “notwithstanding its legal rights.”
they have a vast multitude of slaves. Johnson pertinently asks: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?”
as broad and general as the air,from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, III, iv, 23.
abject toil, servile toil or labor.
Gothic, in the now obsolete sense of Teutonic or Germanic.
such in our days were the Poles. Compare the Annual Register for 1763, p. 3, in a description of the Polish aristocracy: “Each noble Pole seems rather an independent sovereign than a citizen. . . . He is master of life and death on his own estate, all his tenants being in the strictest sense, his slaves.” In his speech Burke uses the past tense “were” because in 1772, when Poland was partly divided among Russia, Austria, and Prussia, the existing condition was destroyed.
the deputies sent to Congress, the Continental Congress which met on September 5, 1774.
smattering, slight superficial knowledge.
tracts of popular devotion, books on religion.
the Plantations, the American colonies.
Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” Sir William Blackstone （1723-1780）, an eminent English jurist who wrote “Commentaries on the Laws of England.”
General Gage, Thomas （1721-1787）, British gerneral in command of troops in America.
successful chicane. In August, 1774, when the people of Boston held a town meeting, General Gage reminded the selectmen of the act of Parliament which made the holding of a town meeting dependent upon the governor’s permission. The selectmen replied that they were merely holding an adjourned meeting and referred the governor to the lawyers of the Crown. “By which means,” replied Gage, “you may keep your meeting alive these ten years.”
my honorable and learned friend on the floor, Edward Thurlow, Attorney-General, a Tory leader and bitter enemy of the colonists.
animadversion, remarks by way of criticism and usually of censure;adverse criticism; reproof; blame.
will disdain that ground, will not present that argument as given in the lines above: “the rights of legislature, their obligations to obedience, and the penalties of rebellion.”
emoluments, profits from office, employment, or labor;compensations; fees or salary.
Abeunt studia in mores, studies are transmuted into character. Ovid, Heroides, XV,83，
less mercurial cast, less acute, less dexterous, less sensitive to influences.
snuff, scent, smell.
tainted, imbued with something noxious, contaminated.
winged ministers of vengeance, in those days, the fast warships of the British Government.
your bolts in their pounces, your thunderbolts in their hold, referring to the cannons carried by the British warships.
“So far shalt thou go, and no farther, ” possibly a reminiscence of Job XXXVIII, 11; “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.”
to truck and huckster, to give in exchange, or deal in or bargain over in a petty way.
Sultan, referring back to “the Turk” of a few, lines back.
with a loose rein, loosely, not strictly.
Spain, in her provinces. At that time Spain possessed Peru, the greater part of South America, the country west and north of the Gulf of Mexico, and the greater part of the West Indies.
capital, leading, chief, principal.
unhappily meeting, coming into direct conflict.
- What is the predominating feature of the American character?
- Explain from what six sources a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up in the colonies.