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.''
Even by his time, the American character had already been formed. And it was not one that could be bullied by an imperial establishment an ocean away from the New World and, as it turned out, from reality. Anybody who thought Americans were likely to yield to superior force, even the force of the greatest empire in the world in its day, didn't know Americans. Or the beliefs that had shaped us. And that we would hold fast to. Come what may. And it came: one defeat and retreat after another, out of which somehow emerged victory, independence and a new order for the ages. By some mysterious process -- Providence? -- our beliefs would be vindicated.
Those beliefs would be given their most concise and enduring expression in the Declaration of Independence of July the 4th, 1776:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Those words would have to be redeemed in blood and fire before they would become among the best known and most influential in the course of human events. They would become the creed of a revolution that goes on across the world even today. That revolution succeeded not only because of the vision and courage of American's founding generation, but because of the blind willfulness of those who thought they could bully us into obedience.
They didn't know us. Edmund Burke did.
His assessment of the American character proved remarkably accurate, and may it ever remain so:
"In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole. ... Sir, from these six capital sources -- of descent, of form of government, of religion in the Northern Provinces, of manners in the Southern, of education, of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government -- from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your Colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth; a spirit that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us."
The British could not say they weren't warned, and by their leading statesman at that. To those of his colleagues who believed their Force Acts would render us pliant subjects, Edmund Burke responded:
"The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."
It was not only the American spirit that the rulers of that great empire failed to apprehend when they adopted a tyrannical course in the colonies, but their own. They could not see that what they might have preserved through vision, they would lose by folly. Or as Edmund Burke warned his colleagues, "a great empire and little minds go ill together."
Now it is we who find ourselves with a great empire, or at least with all the responsibilities of one, however loath we are to acknowledge it. For we never sought an American empire. With all our being, we reject any such idea, respecting others' freedom as we love our own. But over the many hard years, as one threat after another materialized, we've been obliged to accept imperial responsibilities in response. Not out of imperious ambition but in self-defense.
Despite the happy myth of an America isolated from the all the world's troubles and intrigues, it was never so. We tend to forget that even our Revolution was part of a world war, fought with the critical aid of an international alliance with a still royal France. Whether through the long twilight struggle called the Cold War or now, deep in a war on terror that indecisive leaders refuse even to call by that name, the burden of empire has been thrust upon us. Shall we be up to bearing it? Or will we again see that a great empire and little minds go ill together?
This much is clear: Nothing so girds the spirit and informs the mind like memory. Which is why, on bright days like this one, we recall all the dark tides of history we have overcome, and are strengthened. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.