“Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, ‘All in All’”
By Greg Weiner
“In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke took aim at Lord George Gordon, who had led the anti-Catholic riots that bore his name. By the time of the Reflections, Gordon resided in Newgate Prison, convicted of libel and unable to afford the security the judge demanded for his freedom. In the interim, Gordon had converted to Judaism. Burke took note. Gordon should stay in Newgate, Burke suggested, to “meditate on his Talmud” until France bought his freedom “to please [the Jacobins’] new Hebrew brethren.” Burke continued, referring to the church lands the French revolutionaries had seized:
He may then be enabled to purchase, with the old hoards of the synagogue, and a very small poundage on the long compound interest of the thirty pieces of silver, . . . the lands which are lately discovered to have been usurped by the Gallican Church. Send us your Popish Archbishop of Paris, and we will send you our Protestant Rabbin.
Perhaps excepting Jeremy Corbyn, no British politician would speak this way in 2020. The caustic use of Gordon’s conversion and the characterization of Jews as heirs of Judas are unmistakably tinged with anti-Semitism.
As one of those heirs, I cringed the first time I read the passage. But it has never induced a sense of profound offense or inhibited me from calling myself a Burkean or from writing about Burke. The passage is otherwise unremarkable, though it does contain a priceless bit of Burkean wit. After referring to the Gordon rioters as a “mob,” he apologizes parenthetically: “Excuse the term, it is still in use here.”
But in a 280-character world, Burke would be reducible to one label — anti-Semite — and, to the extent that is an offense to the avatars of cancelation, canceled. The accusation consumes a few characters. A handful more words of quotation wrenched from context, a pile-on of denunciation, and a tweet hits its limits. There can be no overall assessment of a scholar-statesman’s body of action and writings. There is no space for noting Burke’s eloquent parliamentary defense of the Jews whom British troops looted on the West Indies island of St. Eustatius, or his rousing defense of the rights of India against British imperial abuses. In her history of Judaism in British thought, The People of the Book, Gertrude Himmelfarb recalls the Gordon passage as well as the St. Eustatius speech, concluding that the latter may not qualify Burke as “a philososemite,” but that it was also an honorable defense of the Jews when no one else offered one…”
Gregory Weiner is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Assumption College. His research and teaching interests include the political theory of the Constitution, the political thought of James Madison, civil liberties, and the role of the Supreme Court. In addition to The Political Constitution, he is the author of Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, & the Politics of Prudence (2019), American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (2015), and Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics (2012). Professor Weiner’s research and teaching are informed by the several years he spent as a high-level aide and consultant in national politics, including his service as Communications and Policy Director to U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, D-Nebraska, and as founder of the Washington, D.C.-based speechwriting firm Content Communications, LLC.
Professor Weiner is a Jack Miller Center faculty partner.
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