Dr. Richard Samuelson examined “John Adams vs. Edmund Burke” in the Summer 2014 Claremont Review of Books. Two scholars have agreed to discuss his argument in this edition of “Upon Further Review.” Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in history at Hillsdale College, and currently the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado. Richard Samuelson is assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernadino.
Yuval Levin: Richard Samuelson’s thoughtful essay is a cause for rejoicing, because it means that Samuelson is in the midst of turning his deep wisdom and enormous talents to a study of John Adams. Adams deserves so great a student and analyst, and while the rest of us can’t justly claim such deserts we will benefit all the same.
It is not hard to understand why Samuelson, in seeking to offer an essay-length summary view of his reading of Adams, would reach for a foil in contrast to whom he could better encapsulate Adams’s thought. But I think he has picked the wrong foil, and in the process has offered a portrait of Edmund Burke that is almost as misleading as his portrait of Adams is clarifying.
The trouble begins early. In expressing his reasonable aim to contrast American with European political thought in the age of revolutions, Samuelson puts the British on the continent, and so seeks to associate the conservative liberalism of the great Whig Edmund Burke with the throne-and-altar reactionism of anti-Enlightenment Europeans of the period. Burke no more represents the instincts of continental conservatism in the late 18th-century than Adams does, and the effort to compel him to do so does no one any favors. America’s political tradition is rooted in Britain’s, and was much nearer to those roots in the era of the founding.
At the core of his effort to treat Burke like a continental reactionary is Samuelson’s assertion that Burke is a relativist, if not a historicist, when it comes to the meaning of justice in politics. He associates Burke with “the notion that law is nothing more than the will of the legislature or the government, however just or unjust,” which he rightly says “was never accepted by the colonists.” But it was also never accepted, and was frequently and forcefully rejected, by Burke. “It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, all the peace and happiness, of human society than the position that the body of men have a right to make what laws they please; or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely,” Burke insisted. “All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.”
Essentially everything about Samuelson’s description of Burke hinges on the failure to recognize Burke’s insistence on this point, and therefore renders his Burke largely unrecognizable. Samuelson seems to me, for instance, to confuse Burke’s point in arguing that the abstract perfection of natural rights can never be fully embodied in a government for an argument that natural rights have no place in our thinking about government. But it was Burke who said that “Everybody is satisfied that a conservation and secure enjoyment of our natural rights is the great and ultimate purpose of civil society; and that therefore all forms whatsoever of government are only good as they are subservient to that purpose to which they are entirely subordinate.”
Burke’s understanding of rights was different from that of the philosophes, but surely Adams’s was too. In particular, Burke insists that our ability to know what the laws of justice underlying politics require in particular cases was limited. And this is where he turns to tradition. He thought our traditional institutions and practices could help us clarify the truth of our condition in ways that abstract reflection alone could not.
Samuelson describes such a method of reaching for enduring truths by recourse to historical experience, writing approvingly of arguments intended “to demonstrate, empirically, by piling on example after example after example, that there is such a thing as human nature, that it cannot be changed, and that statesmen cannot afford to ignore it.” He offers this as a summary of Adams’s views in contrast to Burke’s, but surely it stands just as well as an outline of some of Burke’s key methods and aims.
Indeed, the emphasis on human nature points to the element of Samuelson’s argument that struck me as most off the mark regarding Burke. He writes that “Adams’s critique of the French Revolution was not Burke’s” because “Burke denounced the French revolutionaries primarily for making war on their traditions; Adams denounced them for making war on human nature.” But Burke again and again argues that the essence of the error of the revolutionaries is that they are “at war with nature,” or overturning “the order of nature,” and that politics must be oriented by an understanding of human nature.
Samuelson grants in passing that Burke “also criticized the French revolutionaries for ignoring the realities of human nature, but it was not his main focus,” and insists Burke’s focus was instead on their rejection of their own traditions. I think this has it backwards. Burke does tell the French that, in transforming their regime, they should have sought for materials in their own tradition rather than in an entirely new beginning. But he does not advise them to build on the old regime but to build anew in accordance with a proper understanding of politics and to inform and justify their edifice with lessons and examples drawn from their glorious past:
If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired.
This is far from a case for blind traditionalism.
In describing Adams’s reaction to the same extremism to which Burke was here reacting, Samuelson notes that Adams’s inclination “was not to denigrate principles or reason, but to contrast what the philosophes called reason with reason rightly understood.” And that is of course precisely what Burke did as well. “The operation of dangerous and delusive first principles,” Burke argued, “obliges us to have recourse to the true ones.”
Indeed, Adams largely (though not entirely) associated Burke’s view of the errors of the revolutionaries with his own view, even claiming in an 1814 letter to his Dutch friend Adrian Van Der Kemp that Burke had approved of the revolution until he encountered Adams’s arguments against it and that Burke in the late 1780s was a kind of Adams disciple. He goes so far as to offer Van Der Kemp this charming (if plainly apocryphal) little story of a conversation that he claims took place in that period:
A Gentleman in company with Burke, speaking of General Washington, said he was “the greatest name in the world.” Burke answered him “I thought so too, till I knew John Adams.”
This delightfully illustrates Adams’s boundless self-regard, but it surely also tells us something about his own sense of his and Burke’s analyses.
Clearly, Adams was friendlier than Burke to the direct application of theory to practice in politics, but it seems to me that their different circumstances might help explain that in a way that bears on the circumstances of today’s American conservatism. Burke suggested that a working constitutional arrangement—brought gradually into line over the years with first principles that answer to human nature—could create a relatively broad space in which most political questions could be treated as prudential questions and did not need to be decided on the basis of a recurrence to fundamental rights and principles. But that was not to deny that some questions did require such recurrence, as Burke plainly believed some did. And in a less established order, surely more such fundamental questions would arise.
Discerning the proper mix of principle and prudence, or of tradition and philosophy, is of course no simple matter. And the difference between Burke’s and Adams’s circumstances meant each man’s mix would have to differ some. Russell Kirk went too far when he argued, in his book The Conservative Mind, that “it is difficult to draw any clear line of demarcation” between Adams and Burke, yet I do think he was right to suggest that “these two great conservatives occupy common ground, but they press their separate assaults against radicalism with different weapons” and that these weapons were honed for their different circumstances.
This difference of circumstances, as Samuelson suggests, means that Burke’s and Adams’s conservatisms could not have been identical, and were not. “Whatever the provenance of Burke’s traditionalism, even a Burkean would allow that the differences between America and Britain would suggest a very different conservatism in America than in Britain,” he writes. But does that make Burke the foil of Adams, or his counterpart? And does it not suggest that, now that our republic has endured for more than two centuries, we might have more to learn than ever from a conservative who articulated his conservatism in an established, ordered society with political traditions of its own?
“Americans (progressive ideologues excepted) believe it’s important to study the founding not just because it’s part of our history,” Samuelson writes, “but because its self-evident truths really are true.” Indeed, we Americans are fortunate to be possessed of a political history and a set of national traditions that can help us clarify the truth about man and society. To learn how to make the most of such a history, we can find few better guides than Edmund Burke. And to appreciate John Adams’s contribution to our understanding of that truth, we can find few better guides than Richard Samuelson.
Bradley J. Birzer: The somewhat radical (relatively speaking) Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania recorded the following moment in his journal, April 27, 1790.
This is a day of no business in the Senate. Before the House formed, Mr. Adams, our Vice-President, came to where I was sitting and told how many late pamphlets he had received from England; how the subject of the French Revolution agitated the English politics; that for his part he despised them all but the production of Mr. Burke, and this same Mr. Burke despised the French Revolution. Bravo, Mr. Adams!
Maclay held no love for Adams, and Adams had just affirmed this intensely personal dislike of the man from Braintree even more by embracing the latest ideas of Burke and the opponents of the French Revolution. The “bravo” in the diary record served the purpose of a frustrated sarcasm. To be fair, Senator Maclay fails to transmit the image of a genial and liberal soul across the ages. We remember him more for his bitterness than for anything else.
Still, the connection between Burke and Adams should not be treated lightly. Most Americans of the Revolutionary generation possessed a deep fondness for Burke if for no other reason than he had never lost faith in the American cause. Indeed, no single person in all of the United Kingdom did more for the American cause than did Burke. Sadly, modern scholars of the Left and the Right—as well as those above, below, next to, near, etc.—almost always forget the absolutely crucial role he played in supporting the American rebellion. Not surprisingly, the affection Americans felt toward Burke was more for the person than for the thinker.
When it comes to John Adams and his importance to the founding, to America, to conservatism, and to Western civilization, I will gladly defer to the writings and works of Gilbert Chinard, Bradley Thompson, and, especially, Richard Samuelson. For what it’s worth, no single scholar has shaped my own views on Adams more than has Samuelson.
But, I do believe we in 2014 must be very careful about our views on Edmund Burke. It would be quite easy to fall into the debates of the 1950s on the role of Burke. After all, the three greatest figures not on the Left—Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Russell Kirk—each tried to claim Burke as a symbol for a certain way of interpreting the world.
For the conservatism of the 1950s—of whatever stripe, from traditionalist to libertarian—wanted Burke as its own, along with Alexis de Tocqueville. And, of course, it was not just Hayek, Strauss, and Kirk who vied for this. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, figures as diverse as Robert Nisbet, Peter Stanlis, Ross Hoffman, Francis Canavan, and Harvey Mansfield studied the grand Anglo-Irish statesman as philosopher and as political thinker. In many ways, the very legitimized existence of conservatism today owes its immediate origins to the debates following the Second World War.
It is worth considering the Burke of Hayek, of Strauss, and of Kirk to understand his importance to the rise of conservatism in academia after the war.
Hayek’s Burke is the easiest to grasp, as Hayek loved the Celtic qualities of the man. That is, Hayek tied together the work of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Each, in the way only the Scots and Irish of the 18th century understood, embraced theories of spontaneous order, the process of discovery, and the “evolution” of societal institutions. Contrary to accepted academic myth (throughout the academy, regardless of political inclinations), Burke strongly endorsed the notion of natural rights, he simply refused to believe that any one man or any one generation could identify such rights in a list or as a program. “The natural rights of mankind are indeed sacred things,” he argued in 1783. To claim an exact understanding of them, he feared, would be playing God, giving man a power that was not his to know. In this belief, these Celtic Enlightenment thinkers seemed almost Roman. One could know that Justice existed while radically disagreeing about how that Justice might apply to any immediate situation, locked in a specific time and place. Additionally, Burke held an almost anarchic notion of politics when it came to the relationship of government and economy, far surpassing his close friend, Adam Smith. In 1795, Burke wrote in what was to become—but never did—an answer to The Wealth of Nations: “The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of the market will be subverted.” Further, he argued, anticipating the Austrian economists of a century later, “Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants.”
Not surprisingly, Leo Strauss offered a much more complicated picture of Burke. He concluded his 1953 masterpiece, Natural Right and History, with an analysis of Burke’s noble failures, as he saw them. Well understanding the ancients, respecting their pursuit of virtue, and consistent in his advocacy of rights for Catholics, the Irish, Indians, and Americans, Burke too readily embraced and combined two dangerous thoughts, Strauss contended. First, he took too much thought from the greats of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. Of course, this is exactly what Hayek liked about Burke. The “sound political order for him, in the last analysis,” Strauss wrote, “is the unintended outcome of accidental causation. He applied to the production of the sound political order what modern political economy had taught about the production of public prosperity: the common good is the product of activities where are not by themselves ordered toward the common good.” Burke maintained enough classicism, Strauss held, to resist the Enlightenment thought of his day completely. Still, Burke so feared the systematic that he embraced a romantic notion of the individual, freeing man from the restraints of virtue. “The natural is the individual, and the universal is a creature of understanding,” Strauss wrote of Burke. Burke, thus, embraced the irrational, the particular, the dogmatic, and the irregular, thus obviating much of his classicism and its desire for symmetry. Related to this—indeed as his Celtic view of spontaneous order was little more than a secularized version of medieval divine providence, according to Strauss—was Burke’s understanding of the limits of man and the overwhelming mysterious ways of God. “According to the classics, the best constitution is a contrivance of reason, i.e., of conscious activity or of planning on the part of an individual or of a few individuals. For Burke, though, the best government reflected not the will of man but the order of history and nature, understood slowly through and across time. It emerged or grew, Burke claimed, rather than being manufactured or designed. Through this misunderstanding, Strauss taught, the well-intentioned Burke “paves the way for ‘the historical school.’” By embracing the will of Providence, even if Providence decreed an age of slow and corrupting evil, Strauss feared that “it is only a short step from this thought of Burke to the supersession of the distinction between good and bad by the distinction between the progressive and the retrograde.” With no other conclusion offered in Natural Right and History, the reader comes away with the impression that the noble and brilliant Burke, misguided by the thoughts of his time (thoroughly historical), opened the door to progressivism in Western civilization.
Again, not surprisingly, given his own love of myth, symbol, and poetry, Russell Kirk recognized the potential of the Burkean “historical moment” a full year before his own The Conservative Mind had been released. Though little known by the present band of conservative academics, Russell Kirk and his closest academic ally, Peter Stanlis, did everything possible throughout the 1950s and ’60s and even into the late 1980s, to secure the thought of Edmund Burke as the conservative. Much of this history remains unknown in current academic scholarship, but it would not be an exaggeration to claim the successful revival of both Burke and Tocqueville as persons and thinkers in the second half of the 20th century rested on the shoulders of Kirk and Stanlis. Their plans were as detailed as they were spirited. In his 1994 retrospective on Kirk, Stanlis first revealed the impressive extent and scope of these meetings. Not only did they plan out a series of books and articles, but they also discussed how to present ideas at academic conferences and how to plant the seeds of Burke in even the shortest of book reviews. Stanlis often researched for Kirk, especially if the latter had a national appearance on radio or television and needed information not readily available in Mecosta or Scotland. They agreed to promote each other’s work in America and throughout Europe, and they enlisted existing and potential allies, noting how best to recruit them to a common cause. While Stanlis would remain in academia, Kirk would write as a scholar from the outside. How far to take this last point, remains unclear. It is worth noting, however, that the two had certainly anticipated Kirk’s resignation from Michigan State and possibly even planned it out, or, at the very least, planned out how to capitalize on it. As early as March 1953, a good five months before Kirk revealed his plans to anyone else, he wrote to Stanlis: “Probably I shall resign from Michigan State College soon; a progressive lowering of standards is being arranged, and I shall protest against it by my resignation.” Kirk could promote Burke from outside of the academy more easily than from the inside.
The Irishman represented the single best nexus between the classical, medieval, and modern worlds, Kirk and Stanlis believed. Who better to answer the ideologues of the 20th century than the man who understood the existence of ideology before anyone else had or before the term had even come into existence? Through the symbol of Burke, they could present arguments on current problems, but, equally important, they could also lay claim to the humanist heritage found in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Saint John, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More, all of whom shaped the thought of Edmund Burke. Burke, in other words, became the culmination of all of the best of the Western tradition. A sort of living, breathing Great Book. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis wrote in 1994. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. “This meant that in every historical epoch in Western civil society there have always been some conservatives.”
It would be difficult to exaggerate their success in promoting the thought of Burke. The overrated Peter Gay (Columbia University) complained: “The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” Gay and Maclay would have been good friends.
As my final point, though, I would like to stress the importance of Edmund Burke to the very existence—or at least acceptance and legitimization of America by non-Americans-of an independent America. Edmund Burke had led the British opposition to the war against the American colonists in Parliament. From his opening speech in Parliament against the Stamp Act, calling for immediate repeal, to the end of the conflict, Burke regretted the war against men and women who so clearly—at least to his mind—defended the proper notions of the English tradition. From the opening of hostilities in the spring of 1775, Burke thought of the conflict as a civil war with little hope for the restoration of a peaceful empire. He sympathized with the colonists that Parliament had innovated against them, thus depriving them of their ancient liberties. “These things depend on conventions real or understood, upon practice, accident, the humour or Genius of those who Govern or are governed, and may be, as they are, modified to infinity,” he wrote in July 1775. “No bounds ever were set to the Parliamentary power over the Colonies; for how could that have been but by special Convention. No such convention ever has been; but the reason and nature of things, and the growth of the Colonies ought to have taught Parliament to have set bounds to the exercise of its own power.” A month later, Burke held his own people in contempt. Most Englishmen, in and out of power, despised the conflict in North America, but none would stand up against the king. It was, Burke argued, a “collective madness.” In this madness and attack against Englishmen in North America, the English in the mother country had forgotten all proper political decorum. “The despair that has seized upon some, and the Listlessness that has fallen upon almost all, is surprising, and resembles more the Effect of some supernatural Cause, stupefying and disabling the powers of a people destined to destruction, than anything I could have imagined,” a bewildered Burke wrote in August 1775. “The people seem to have completely forgot the resources of a free government for rectifying publick mismanagements and mistakes.” Burke held feasts and parties when the king declared fast days to support the war in America, and he even briefly seceded from Parliament in protest. Perhaps, most surprisingly, in a speech before the House of Commons, Burke equated the king of England, as the head of the Anglican Church, with the king of the fallen angels.
In this situation, Sir, shocking to say, are we called upon by another proclamation, to go to the altar of the Almighty, with war and vengeance in our hearts, instead of the peace of our blessed Saviour. He said ‘my peace I give you;’ but we are, on this fast, to have war only in our hearts and mouths; war against our brethren. Till our churches are purified from this abominable service, I shall consider them not as the temples of the Almighty, but the synagogues of Satan. An act not more infamous, as far as respects its political purposes, than blasphemous and profane as a pretended act of national devotion—when the people are called upon, in the most solemn and awful manner, to repair to church, to partake of a sacrament, and at the foot of the altar, to commit sacrilege, to perjure themselves publicly by charging their American brethren with the horrid crime of rebellion, with propagating ‘specious falsehoods,’ when either the charge must be notoriously false, or those who make it, not knowing it to be true, call Almighty God to witness, not a specious but a most audacious and blasphemous falsehood.
Given the time period and cultural norms of the 18th century, it would be hard to label Burke as either a monarchist or a conservative after his actions and words during the American Revolution. He continued to hope against hope for a reconciliation and a move toward a more “federal” empire than a centralized one England had been moving in this direction during the reign of George II, William Pitt, and Lord Newcastle, but George III had favored a much stronger empire. When, after the spring of 1778, Burke realized no reconciliation was possible, he defended America’s right to be independent.
In the end, I would ask us to consider both John Adams and Edmund Burke not only as great thinkers and brilliant men, but also as upstanding men. Each understood what is permanently true but the need for reform and change. Each, in his own way, embodied genius of mind and spirit.
We should remember the relationship between the two not an “either-or” but a “both-and.” By failing to accept the genius of each, we throw doubt on two fine men, a million fine ideas, and our own patrimony (from the 18th as well as the 20th century) as conservatives.
Richard Samuelson: Yuval Levin and Brad Birzer offer such kind words that I hesitate to respond at all. I am tempted to say thank you and call it a day. There are, however, some interesting issues on the table here.
Both Birzer and Levin wish to affirm the relevance and importance of Burke to American politics today. Birzer goes so far as to call him an “honorary American” for his stance with regard to the American Revolution. Meanwhile, Levin seeks to collapse the distance between Burke and Adams, quoting Russell Kirk’s argument that “these two great conservatives occupy common ground, but they press their separate assaults against radicalism with different weapons,” and that we are in need of both today. Similarly, he notes that the American republic is no longer young, and, hence, statesmanship entails the prudential management of a tradition. Fair points. We could certainly use statesmen with Burkean prudence today. (When is it not needed?) And Americans should always be grateful for Burke’s support of their cause.
Levin is clearly correct that there’s much more nature in Burke than I allowed. Upon looking back at the Reflections on the Revolution in France, I concede that I oversimplified Burke’s perspective and point of departure. Hence, Adams and Burke both realized that, to the degree that human nature is constant, the desire to change the world can easily become misanthropic. Levin also reminds us that Burke and Adams were on fundamentally the same (Ciceronian?) page about the nature of law, strictly understood. As Adams quoted Cicero in the Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, “Those laws, which are right reason, derived from the Divinity, commanding honesty, forbidding iniquity; which are silent magistrates, where the magistrates are only speaking laws.” (On question in this area, how does this square with his comment about Epicurean physics being those “most approaching to rational”? Or did Burke rethink that comment as he aged?)
Birzer’s account of “three Burke’s” is fascinating and illuminating, and his caution about getting lost in the ’50s is well taken. I hope that he, someday, gives us a full account of Kirk’s work in engineering a Burke and Tocqueville revival. Because his account of Burke is less directly and explicitly a reaction to specific elements of my essay, I have less to respond to. That said, what Birzer calls the “Hayekian” side of Burke’s thought is worth considering in light of Adams’s thoughts. Birzer is discussing the question of property, markets, and regulations when he suggests that Burke “held an almost anarchic notion of politics when it came to the relationship of government and economy.” I wonder if Burke’s account of constitutional development is, in some ways, similar. That’s the implication of the lines from Leo Strauss that Birzer quotes: the “sound political order for him…is the unintended outcome of accidental causation.” Burke’s British constitution goes back into the mists of time, developing its reason gradually, adaptively, and cumulatively. Hence the Magna Charta does not play the same role as a touchstone for him as it did for Sir Edward Coke. America, however, had a very different revolutionary tradition. As I noted, in the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams suggested that “a frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty, and to maintain a free government.” Given the nature of the American Revolution, such a regular recurrence to the founding is an essential part of our politics. That is one thing that creates the “timelessness” of American political thought I was describing. (Indeed, one purpose of my essay was to remind American conservatives that when Progressives suggest that a given proposal is “not conservative” for no other reason than that it would overturn a century of precedent, they can very rightly say that’s not what conservatism is in America.) Along the same line, Adams was much more comfortable talking explicitly about the revolutionary actions that had from time to time been necessary to secure English and colonial liberty. To last, of course, Adams allowed that the resolution of those revolutions had to be congruent with British traditions.
Birzer’s account of the three Burkes provides an interesting context to consider Levin’s comments. Granted, Burke did discuss nature and even, at times, the natural right. But how did he discuss those things? The question is the relationship between law in that sense, and the law of the land. Perhaps because I have spent more time reading Burke’s speeches on the American Revolution than any other part of his writings, I have come to view Burke as someone who believes that, according to British law, the law of the land (or empire) was whatever Parliament said. Hence, as I wrote, “As a narrow matter of formal law, Burke agreed with the 2nd earl of Pembroke.” I did not say he thought that was law, strictly understood. In other words, the law of the land was that Parliament had the same legal authority as the American people have, in the American system, when ratifying a constitution or an amendment. Practically speaking, there is no authority that may check Parliament. As Adams’s friend and mentor James Otis put it, “the law of the Parliament is, that Parliament cannot err.” Consider the bit that Birzer quotes, “The natural rights of mankind are indeed sacred things,” Burke goes on to say that “if any public measure is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be fatal to that measure.” I take Burke to be speaking about how members of Parliament ought to vote. I don’t take him to be saying that the British constitution, as it had developed over time, with the tacit consent of the people, could, in fact, restrain a Parliament that voted otherwise.
As I read the history of the period, the Americans revolted rather than allow the new idea of a sovereign legislature to rise in the colonies. Burke, however, was in Britain. That being the case, his challenge was to get Parliament to follow law, rightly or strictly understood, even though the law of the land would have to be whatever Parliament wanted. As I read the old common law tradition, that was not the way common law used to be understood, nor was it how British law was understood in the colonies. Courts had the right to block legislation against the fundamental principles of the British constitution. If I read Burke correctly, he sought to teach Parliament to follow the same old prudence not because it was a legal necessity, as it had been to Coke, but rather because it was the right thing to do both as a matter of justice and as a matter of sound policy. In other words, Burke lived with, and perhaps fostered, a stronger separation between the law of the land (the law of his land) and law, strictly understood, than would be the Adams’s view, and the common American view.
Similarly, I did not mean to say that Burke was a relativist and historicist. What I was trying to suggest, and perhaps failed to do so, is that Burke’s mode of reasoning helped make the triumph of such reasoning easier. Looking at what passed for philosophy in his day, Burke may have concluded that it was prudent to denigrate abstract right—for what was coming to be understood as abstract right was deeply problematic, much more so than the old natural law. That problem, combined with the related problem of a sovereign Parliament (sovereign in Jean Bodin’s sense of the term, not Coke’s), is why it’s worth considering the provenance of the high value Burke placed on prudence, prescription, and the like. My sense, however, is that from the classic common law perspective those were legal terms, readily applicable by jurists, not less than members of the “High Court of Parliament.” For Burke, however, those terms were counsels of wisdom that a wise Parliament would follow because it made sense to follow them. Like the king’s veto, that element of common law reasoning was barely alive in England in Burke’s day.
Levin notes “Adams was friendlier than Burke to the direct application of theory to practice in politics.” That might be a more significant gulf than Levin allows. In addition to playing a role in the separation of legal reasoning from political thinking that I sketch above, it also plays a role in the question of constitutional thought, and to the question of a regular return to the principles of the founding. Burke spoke of, and defended, the great polyglot of the British constitution. He defended its wonderful eccentricity, as perfectly suited to Britain. That’s institutional thinking, of a sort. Adams’s main writings focused more broadly on fundamentals. American constitutionalism is rather more institutional, with more focus on the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial power. In Adams’s case, it also has a focus on the “tri-cameral” legislature—a House, Senate, and executive with a veto. (It might be worth recalling, in this context, that Adams rejected the modern effort to separate monarchies from republics. Classically speaking, any regime that was not a despotism might be a republic—it had a public and a public good. Recall that Coke often called England a Commonwealth, that Sparta had hereditary kings and, for that matter, that Rome had an hereditary aristocracy. (Interestingly, The Prince begins with the distinction between monarchies and republics. Machiavelli may be the one who put that distinction on Europe’s conceptual map). It might very well be, as I suggest at the end of my essay, that one of the key challenges we face today is to rectify the checks and balances in our constituiton in light of the creation of a massive administrative bureaucracy and the delegation of legislative power. We might need Burkean prudential wisdom as we seek to apply Adamsian institutional insights.
Even along this line, however, there might be more distance than Levin allows. One element of human nature is that “habit is a second nature,” as Pascal, one of Adams’s favorite authors, put it. I wonder if that reality, and the consequent difficulty of changing a particular society, is more important to Burke’s account of how the French were making war on human nature. Levin knows Burke much better than I, but in one of the passages he quotes, Burke is telling the French to look within their own tradition for “a standard of virtue and wisdom.” There is a standard, and that points beyond the French tradition but, at the same time, Burke toes the line of the particular tradition more closely than does Adams.
I have already rambled along too far, but I beg the readers’ indulgence for one further point. Adams was much more comfortable praising a middle-class regime than was Burke. Burke does say that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” But is Burke clear in exactly what makes a country lovely? He suggests something about a good constitution being harmonious with the particular people who live under it, and it being in accord with human nature. But what makes a constitution congruent with human nature? Burke objects to the idea that a king is “just a man.” Similarly, he suggests, regarding the splender of the aristocrats, that it is good: “the poorest man finds his own importance and dignity in it.” To Adams that was an aristocratic trick, using spender to manipulate and exploit the poor. Adams would regard that splendor as an aristocratic trick, designed to gull the common voter into surrendering his equal rights, and his equality under law. The challenge, Adams thought, was to use the high self-regard of the elites, and elites there inevitably would be, to serve the public, and to keep the human tendency to hierarchy from allowing the arisoi to subvert the rule of law. But Burke suggests that elites service a purpose by cultivating the sympathy of the common sort, and encouraging them to invest their own self-regard in that of their “superiors,” much as the king’s valet things himself of higher dignity than the valet of a banker. Down that road, Adams feared, was an assault on the rule of law—as it implied that the double standard, one for the common man, and one for elites, was, in fact, reasonable.
In sum, Adams’s contention that the best definition of a republic, or of a free republic at least was “a government of laws, not of men” puts law, rightly understood, at the heart of American conservatism in the way Burke puts prudence at the heart of British conservatism. Burke and Adams were certainly on the same side in many fights, and they both saw through the French Revolution and the philosophy upon which it was built, but there are also some real and significant distinctions which we need to keep in mind.