Paul Greenberg

He rose to speak in the midst of a colonial war that would prove more than a colonial war but a whole Novus Ordo Seclorum, as it still says on the dollar bill, or A New Order for the Ages.

Eloquent rhetorician, thoughtful student of history and insightful analyst of events in his own time, Edmund Burke had decided ideas about what made nations great and what undermined them. The member of parliament for Bristol understood very well what was at stake in the coming conflict over the nature of the British empire: the empire itself.

Author, orator, thinker, and loyal but not blind servant of the Crown, he would not, could not, keep silent. Any more than a faithful sentry would fail to sound the alarm at approaching catastrophe. His every thought and impulse, fortified by his experience as a statesman and its hard-won lessons, told him His Majesty's ministers were embarked on a disastrous course. Their colonial policy was not only wrong in principle but, perhaps worse in the eyes of a statesmen, sure to fail in practice.

A great statesman has qualities beyond calculation. He has vision, and the will to fulfill it. Edmund Burke fully envisioned the ruin his colleagues were inviting by their persistence in adopting punitive measures rather than conciliatory policies toward British America, which might yet be saved for his Sovereign.

So it was only to be expected that he would speak out, however futile the effort might prove, in favor of "Conciliation With America" on the 22nd of March, 1774. It would not prove the first time his counsel and foresight would be vindicated by sad events. For in the years ahead he would prove as incisive a critic of the French Revolution as he would a defender of the American one.

If an editor had to choose a single phrase to sum up Burke's extensive oration on the wisdom of conciliating America -- an oration that used to be studied in courses on rhetoric, back when rhetoric was still being studied -- it would be Burke's pointed warning that "a great empire and little minds go ill together.''


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.