J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Edmund Burke Supports the Troops

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was part of a small faction in Parliament called the “Rockingham Whigs,” after his patron, the Marquess of Rockingham. This made Burke one of a handful of voices arguing against plans by various ministers to impose new revenue laws and enforcement measures on the North American colonies.

In late 1774 London was gradually realizing that almost all the army regiments in North America were effectively bottled up inside Boston, with armed rebellion looming if it hadn’t already started. The ministers in power demanded a forceful response, and in fact won reelection on that platform. On 20 Dec 1774 Burke, confirmed in the minority, concluded a speech in the House of Commons this way:

I cannot sit down without saying a word or two on the solicitude the honourable member on my left hand [fellow Rockingham Whig David Hartley] has expressed for the situation of General [Thomas] Gage, and the troops under his command.

It is, I confess, most humiliating and mortifying; and it is difficult to say, whether those who have put them into it deserve most our compassion or our ridicule. It is, indeed, an absurdity without parallel; a warlike parliament, and a patient forbearing general.

I would not be understood to reflect on the gentleman, who I understand is a very worthy, intelligent, deserving man; no, sir, it is those who have sent him on such an errand that are to blame. The order of things is reversed in this new system. The rule of government now is to determine hastily, violently, and without consideration, and execute indecisively, or rather not execute at all.

And have not the consequences exactly corresponded with such a mode of proceeding? They have been measures, not practicable in themselves in any event, nor has one step been taken to put them into execution.

The account we have is, that the general is besieging and besieged; that he had cannon sent to him, but they were stolen; that he himself has made reprisals of a similar nature on the enemy; and that his straw has been burnt, and his brick and mortar destroyed.

It is painful to dwell on such monstrous absurd circumstances, which can be only be a subject of ridicule, if it did not lead to consequences of a very serious and alarming nature. In fine, sir, your army is turned out to be a mere army of observation; and is of no other use but as an asylum for magistrates of your own creating.
Basically, Burke accused the current government of trying to pacify Massachusetts for bad reasons, in haste, with poor preparation and feeble execution. The best way to serve the nation’s troops, he argued, would be to pull back from those measures and find a reasonable accommodation with the king’s subjects in North America, who in his view merely sought to govern themselves.

1 comment:

Robert S. Paul said...

I've cross-posted and linked this article from my own blog. Seemed fitting.