Acton and Burke: For the conservative wisdom of history and tradition
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
What Lord Acton particularly admired in the later Edmund Burke was his empirical philosophy of politics, his refusal to give way to the metaphysical abstractions, the a priori speculations, that had been insinuated into public life by the rationalists of the French Revolution. Facts, Burke had admonished, are a severe taskmaster. They prohibit the idle vanities of philosophy and the bureaucratic pretensions of a logical, all-embracing political science, a summum bonum of mankind available to the benevolent legislator or administrator. Against the revolutionist who would reform all of society in accord with a preconceived logical plan, they urge the Conservative wisdom of history and tradition, which have evolved institutions that stand the test of time if not of logic. It was the genius of the English political system to adhere to the facts of English history.
“The English constitution,” Acton noted in 1858, “was excellent until removed by foreign writers into the domain of theory, when in direct contradiction with its nature and origin it came to be admired as a common representative government.” Correctly interpreted, it would have taught foreigners the wisdom of reflecting in their governments the history and character of their own countries, so that by resembling it least in externals, their constitutions would have resembled it most in spirit. Continental Liberals might have learned much from the English who, when they were obliged to resist oppression, harked back to their traditional laws, and when they had to appeal to rights, evoked their hereditary rather than natural rights. It was by the intensity of their Conservatism, not by the fanaticism of revolution, that the English purchased their freedom.
The principle of Conservatism was history, the principle of revolution was sovereignty; the Conservative found law in history, the revolutionist found it in the will of the sovereign power. One of the great confusions of political thinking, Acton warned, was the curious fact that the Whig (or Liberal) Party had a double pedigree, tracing its descent on the one hand through Fox, Sidney and Milton to the Roundheads, and on the other through Burke to Somers and Selden, the parliamentarians in the reigns of the Stuarts. In Acton’s view, “between these two families there was more matter for civil war than between Cromwell and King Charles.” Macaulay was a Whig of the Fox school, to whom nothing was sacred but the will of the people. Macaulay and Burke were separated by the same chasm that separated legitimate authority and popular sovereignty, for while a government in which the people were unrepresented was “defective,” one in which the law was not supreme was “criminal.”
Against what he described as the “violent Liberalism” of Macaulay, Acton urged not a program of reaction, of opposition to all progress, but a slow evolution of institutions with changes arising from special historical situations rather than from the minds of presumptuous men. There was nothing admirable, he wrote, in the attempt to apply mechanically “the dead letter of a written code to the great complications of politics.” Law should, and normally did, follow the course history, and the good jurist was he who knew how to distinguish between what was temporary and dispensable in it and what was essential. Acton deplored the “immoral and subversive” habit of pitting the past against the future, assigning one or the other exclusive validity.
The English were wise in refusing to be lured into the false dilemma of choosing between a sterile legalism and a series of arbitrary, violent innovations. They were wise to cherish the ancient principle of the constitution while contriving new forms by which to implement those principles. The most revered principles of social organization and the most compatible with true liberty were aristocracy and monarchy, Acton argued, turning on its head the modern democratic theory that aristocracy and monarchy are the epitome of the arbitrary and illiberal. And not monarchy alone, but monarchy by the grace of God, by divine right, he declared to be the necessary condition for freedom. Freedom was secure, he reasoned, only when all authority was fixed and defined by law, inaccessible to arbitrary change, when there was a recognized “divine, objective right, anterior to every human law, superior to every human will.” The presence of an aristocracy in countries boasting a divine monarchy he adduced as proof of the legality and liberality of the government, for an aristocracy meant that others than the King had a share in power. The true government of brute force, he noted, was not monarchy but democracy:
Government of one, or of a minority [is] not a government of force, but in spite of force, by virtue of some idea. The support makes up for inferiority of brute strength. This is aristocracy—which is not equivalent to simple strength. Democracy is government of the strongest, just as military despotism is. This is a bond of connection between the two. They are the brutal forms of government and as strength and authority go together, necessarily arbitrary.
The young Acton was truly the disciple of Burke—both in his metaphysics and his anti-metaphysics.