At times of intense controversy, it can be a valuable exercise to turn to the works of the past not to escape the present but instead to gain a truer view of it. It is in this spirit that Edmund Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol" offers a rewarding rereading.
Burke's "Speech to the Electors of Bristol," delivered in 1774 shortly after he was elected to Parliament, is one of his more famous pieces of writing; in it, Burke declared that an elected representative owes his constituents "not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving [these constituents], if he sacrifices it to [their] opinion." Burke's remarks in this speech have been acclaimed for his insistence that an elected government should not be run by blind opinion or the sudden eddies of passion—but with the deliberative care of sober reflection.
The "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," though, complements and enriches our understanding of Burke's theory of governance in this time of national strife and deep divisions. Burke wrote this letter in 1777, when the American Revolution had broken into an outright war with the United Kingdom. Burke was a voice for conciliation with the American colonies (a voice that was often ignored), and Burke's letter reflects on the role of conciliation, compromise, and reason in public life. Turning to Burke can help us recover the language of an integrated body politic, something of great urgency in this present moment.
Notably, this letter combines a defense of political liberties (Burke spends part of this missive condemning a proposal to suspend partially habeas corpus) with a reflection on civil norms. Burke portrays government as an expression of a broader civic culture. This culture constrains what is possible and practical for a government. His vision of government here offers a corrective to contemporary technocratic views of government, where government is an abstract administrative body for distributing various material goods and realizing various ideological imperatives. Instead, he focuses on the broader cultural conditions that shape the mechanics of government.
One of the great vices of politics is what Burke terms the "blindness of heart," where we become so embroiled in political controversies that we ignore the broader demands of empathy and understanding. He argues for the importance of "manners," of our comportment in everyday life, to mitigate the "vices of the law." Our laws will never be perfect, but the maintaining of "generosity, humanity, and dignity of mind," among other virtues, will help us compensate for this imperfection. The alienation caused by extreme partisan polarization imperils, Burke implies, the foundations of civil life: "By teaching us to consider our fellow-citizens in an hostile light, the whole body of our nation becomes gradually less dear to us." By undermining our connections to our countrymen and women, rabid controversy can threaten our integrity as a nation.
Identity politics cultivates "blindness of heart" by locking us in narrow categories, but it is not the only entity that might blind us to political realities and our deeper moral obligations. Burke retains skepticism about an ideological approach to politics. Government, he writes, is a "practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians." Recent years have seen increasing public tensions in part because of a divergence of the "schemes of visionary politicians" and the actual desires of the people themselves. For instance, proponents of the European Union thought that their schemes of integration could go forward without a buy-in from the broader body politic. The success of Brexit, the increasing tensions of refugee politics throughout the continent, and the broader nationalist surge are in part due to the divergence of ideology and public will.
And looking forward, whatever the results here in the U.S. in November, conservatives and others would do well to remember these words by Burke: "to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men." If it hopes to avoid an irreparable schism, the right will need to focus on diagnosis rather than castigation.
This loss of faith goes far beyond the electoral interests of the right, however. For those interested in warding off the risk of authoritarianism, re-establishing public trust in democratic institutions is a necessary enterprise. This trust does not mean uncritical obedience, but it does entail an essential faith in the pillars of our republic. Remove that faith, and you open the door to tyranny or at least turmoil. Much could be done to restore that faith, but a key part of this restoration involves the act of having a mutual exchange, of those in power rising to the challenges of the time and collaborating with—rather than looking down on—those they govern. The citizenry of a republic are not simply to be managed, nor are they to be viewed as mere vehicles for the realization of ideological imperatives. Instead, they are agents with their own wants, desires, and beliefs. A serious republican politics recognizes this fact.
While the challenges are real, the strengths of this republic are real, too. Burke wrote to the Bristol sheriffs, "I am aware that the age is not what we all wish. But I am sure that the only means of checking its precipitate degeneracy is heartily to concur with whatever is the best in our time." In our time, there is much that exemplifies the traits of generosity, humanity, and dignity of mind. One only has to look at the herculean response of local communities in Louisiana to the recent catastrophic flooding, to the triumph of discipline and talent at the Olympics, to the everyday endeavors of parents to ensure a brighter future for their children. By remembering that essential dignity of our fellow citizens, we can work for a government that is worthy of its people—and have confidence that such a government can be achieved.
Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.