Edmund Burke – “Speech on the Conciliation with the American Colonies” (the end)

The third factor which according to Burke contributed to Americans’ special love of liberty is their being Dissenters, While both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have been enjoying the support of the state, Puritans, who colonized America, were in opposition to the political establishment. It is “dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion” which makes them oppose any form of state tyranny. The Church of England followers constitute no more than 10% of the colonists, in Burke’s estimation.

At this point Burke notices some opposing voices, pointing out that there are in fact more Anglicans in southern colonies, but he says that they are slave-holders. (Was this argument actually improvised in the House or something Burke planned for, I wonder?) In the slave-owning states being free is a part of one’s social status and also their inhabitants don’t see that liberty often goes with being poor and working hard. (I am not an expert on American history, but I have a feeling Burke over-generalizes here a bit. I’m sure not every white person in pre-revolutionary Virginia was a manor owner.) So, because being free in the South equals being white, the colonists living there are going to guard their freedom as jealously as in the North.  Burke doesn’t say it’s good or bad (in fact he opposed slavery), but at this point he merely states the fact and says it was the rule all over the world, for instance it used to be so in Poland. And here the NAEL editors make a howler by claiming in the footnote that “Slavery was abolished in Poland in 1772.” Slavery never existed in Poland in modern times (I don’t mean pre-Christian or early Middle Ages), and if the editors mean serfdom, it was not fully abolished until the 19th c. What happened in 1772, and to which Burke may be referring, was the first partition of Poland between the Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. So Burke in this speech, delivered in 1775, uses past tense not because serfdom stopped existing in Poland, but because Poland itself at this point was not truly free.

The next factor Burke names is the widespread education in America, and especially legal education, which means people can spot a bad law even before they feel its effects. And finally the distance, which means Britain can’t rule America effectively, just like any other huge empire, where the state control is bound to be more lax in the peripheries than in the centre.


Edmund Burke – “Speech on the Conciliation with the American Colonies” (excerpts)

Methinks the American origins of the NAEL show here, and personally I would choose maybe something from Reflections on the Revolution in France, or something like that. But the American editors of the anthology like this text, so let’s read it. The excerpt starts with Burke stating that Americans are renowned for loving liberty, and Burke is going to explain why. They are descendants of freedom-loving Englishmen, they left England just at the time when the question of liberty was the most pressing one, and their idea of freedom is constructed around one particular issue, that is of taxation. Burke says freedom is never abstract or general, but people usually need some actual issue, and that of taxation has always been the hot button issue for Americans, like it is for the English. They may overlook twenty other infringements on their freedom, but the question of money is going to set them off. Burke says he’s not saying they are right or wrong, but that’s the way it is. The character of their regional assemblies, many of which are elected by popular vote, further confirms their view.

David Hume – “Of the Liberty of the Press” (the end)

The next three paragraphs were actually excised by Hume in a later edition of this essay, when he got old and stuffy. They are about why the freedom of the press is a good thing. Notably, Hume by “the freedom of the press” Hume doesn’t mean “the freedom of speech”, because he points out specifically that the freedom of the press is less dangerous than populist tribunes, because it does not pose as much danger of inciting mobs to violence or riots: “a man reads a book or pamphlet alone and coolly”. I guess he wouldn’t support the total freedom of the speech on the Internet as well. People are always going to complain against the government, and it’s better to give the vent to their dissatisfaction in words.  People are also more rational than they are given credit for, Hume believes: nobody had thought total religious toleration was possible, but Holland proved them wrong. Hume ends his essay with a rather optimistic claim that the freedom of the press is going to stay in Britain forever, because people are too afraid of slavery. If it could be every taken away, it would have to be all at once, with preventative censorship and the power of the court to suppress whatever they didn’t like. But that would be the last desperate actions of a despotic government, and as such, quite improbable in Britain.

David Hume – “Of the Liberty of the Press”

Hume begins his essay by stating that the British liberty of the press is exceptional and unheard of in other European countries, either monarchies or republican. Every action of the government can be freely criticized. He asks the question: why in Britain? His answer is that it is probably Britain’s mixed form of government, when you have a mostly republican country with a little bit of monarchy. He uses the examples of Holland and France as the extreme cases of total republican liberty and total absolutist slavery, to show that the extremes meet. In France, his argument goes, the monarch has total power over the people and is so secure in his position that he can give them quite a lot of liberty of speech (but, I assume, not as much as in Britain). On the other hand, in the republican Holland, no government official can become too powerful, and for  that reason they are given large discretionary powers, which in turn restrain people and make them very respectful towards the government.  The ancient Rome was mostly slavery with a little bit of liberty: just enough to make every noble family dream about themselves becoming emperors on day, which in turn made the residing emperors suspicious and cruel. Britain struck a happy balance: its liberty means that every magistrate has to be controlled, and he can’t do anything but what is prescribed by the law. I am not sure I understand Hume’s argument here, but I guess it’s something along the lines of : “In Britain, the regular people are free, and the government officials are slaves to the law”. And the liberty of the press is necessary to protect Britain’s delicate balance of government against the encroachments of court despotism.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

In the second excerpt Shaftesbury wonders whether there can be too much raillery and irony in our everyday life. He supports “defensive raillery”, covering “more truth that can be conveniently told”, because too much truth, like too much light, can blind you. I wish he gave some examples of what he meant, because all I can think of is when you try to fend off some personal questions from the people you are not really very close with, nor want to be. The kind of wit of which Shaftesbury does not approve is the one which makes people confused or perplexed, and I again don’t quite know what he means. True, I know some people who want to be witty all of the time and they are sometimes infuriating, but was it really so widespread in Shaftesbury’s times? Anyway, Shaftesbury is all for free market, both in economy and culture. He believes that this “gross” sort of raillery will just naturally die out, just like the “wit” of the 17th c., with its incessant punning, died out. “All politeness is owing to liberty”, and there is no way prescriptions can force it. (I’m not sure anybody ever attempted to fine or imprison people for making bad jokes – I don’t mean political, just simply not funny – so I feel Shaftesbury is attacking a straw man here.)

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

The future 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury was pretty much the child of John Locke without actually sharing his DNA: Locke allegedly negotiated his parents’ marriage, assisted as a physician at his birth and was his tutor. The excerpt starts with Shaftesbury addressing a nameless friend, who yesterday expressed his surprise, when Shaftesbury defended in his conversation “raillery”, and Shaftesbury decided to give this thought a more thorough treatment. Firstly, he hopes his friend was surprised not because he considers him to be such a grouch, but because most people, while they are OK with making fun of other people’s views, do not like it when the same thing happens to them. But truth can exist only in full light, and raillery is one of such lights.

Mary Astell – “A Preface, in Answer to Some Objections to ‘Reflections upon Marriage'” (the end)

The last excerpt starts with Astell saying that men have all the power, political, physical and cultural, and she’s not going to argue with that. But what should the fatherless orphans or widows do? Who is going to have the authority over them? (well, in lots of countries is just the nearest male relative, or even your own son, so the argument could be countered quite easily.) Women can’t be subjected to all men, because they don’t agree all the time, so should they be subjected to the first man who finds them? You could think so, judging by some men and women. But even if it should be so, women should be at least allowed to improve their reason. (This is a bit of a non-sequitur, I think.) And if you just don’t believe they are reasonable creatures, they should be chained in the chimney corner.

Astell says she doesn’t mean to prevent a rebellion, because there won’t be any – women just like their chains. They also internalized patriarchy and think about themselves as inferior to men – but not necessarily to other women, as every woman likes to consider herself superior to others of their sex. In a very ironic passage Astell writes that all women who like the roles assigned to them by society should be celebrated for that. No man can accept a woman of understanding, and even if he does, he still thinks that if she is wise, she should understand his superiority. But what is called “the very women” or “good devout women” should not be the standard for all women, because when God made various creatures, he meant only the best of their kind to be the standard for the rest.