Burke, the Great Orator. Illustration from Pictures of English History (published 1850).
Edmund Burke was the greatest Parliamentary speaker during the reign of George III. He was a passionate defender of the colonies in their grievances against the king. Here in my hand is a tiny 1908 edition of Burke’s Speech for Conciliation, delivered March 22, 1775. It is one of the treasures from last week’s dumpster dive at my local recycling center.
I could not leave it for the shredder. In a sane culture, this slim little hardcover would be showcased in a vitrine at the local library, on display as both an honored testament to the colonial character and a jewel of argumentation. In literary style and logical structure it stands as one of the most restrained and dignified of Burke’s speeches. An education in diction for any polemical writer, there is never the half-word, never ambiguous approximations. He uses none of what we today call weasel words. There is only the tempered, lucid handling of facts delivered with great calm.
But it is not his rhetoric that bears attention just now. Instead, it is his depiction of the American character, the attributes and mettle of the colonists. We can hardly recognize ourselves in his description of our predecessors. Listen:
“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 [of keeping them obedient to the crown under unjust circumstances] would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.”
After surveying the achievement of the colonies in agriculture, industry, and commerce, Burke returns to the colonial spirit:
“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and . . . your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane [sic], what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth . . . .”
What Burke was certain could not be done, has been accomplished. Not by other Englishmen, but by ourselves. It has taken little more than a century but by now only an imbecile or a lunatic could refer to us as “a fierce people.” The turn-of-the-century generation that troubled to publish this speech could see in it a reflection of themselves. Not ours. In our entitlements and entertainments, in the degradation of our public discourse, we have flattened ourselves, grown flaccid, sentimental, and gullible. We have slowly, inexorably, exchanged the crown for the state.
Out of all the reasons for this diminished and diminishing transaction, one falls more readily than others within my grasp. I cannot help wondering about the contribution of our hastening reliance on imagesthe Trojan horse of consumer technologyto the trivialization of public information that prompts corrosive sentimentality and distorts history. Add to that warp the reigning paradigm of our concept of information: sound and sight bites, including the grunts we call tweets and text messages. Taken together, they insure the abolition of our attention span. Popular understanding, once honed on the primacy of print literacy, buckles under the pressure of media-enduced enthusiasms that make Mad Hatters of us all.
Meaning requires content; content takes time. Yet what we accept as the truth of things are fragments that flit past the eye in numbing succession. It is always tea-time and we want a clean cup. In the spectators we have become, Edmund Burke would never recognize the people on whom he showered his admiration.