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Edmund Burke on the Question of Commercial Intercourse in the Eighteenth Century

  • Gregory M. Collins

Scholars have noticed that Edmund Burke's impassioned economic tract in favor of market liberty, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, appears to be at odds with his political philosophy and rhetorical temperament of prudence and restraint. This essay challenges this interpretation. I contend that Burke's emotional statements in the writing reflect strong continuities with his earlier reflections and political activities regarding economic issues. From his earliest days in Parliament to his final years, Burke was a firm supporter of commercial liberty, both domestic and foreign. I conclude by arguing that we cannot properly understand Burke's belief in gradual reform unless we grasp his idea of incremental commercial improvement.

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1 Cobban Alfred, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century: A Study of the Political and Social Thinking of Burke, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey (London: Allen & Unwin, 1962), 196 .

2 Ibid., 193.

3 Shklar Judith N., After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 225 . See also Kramnick Isaac, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 157–65 for the view that Burke's embrace of liberal economics conflicted with his belief in aristocratic order.

4 Himmelfarb Gertrude, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 71 .

5 Ibid., 72.

6 Preece Rod, “The Political Economy of Edmund Burke,” Modern Age 24 (1980): 268 .

7 Ibid.

8 Frazer Michael L., “Seduced by System: Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Embrace of Adam Smith's Philosophy,” Intellectual History Review 25 (2015): 358 .

9 Stevens David, “Adam Smith and the Colonial Disturbances,” in Essays on Adam Smith, ed. Skinner Andrew S. and Wilson Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 204 .

10 Cone Carl B., Burke and the Nature of Politics: The Age of the American Revolution (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957), 326 .

11 Cone Carl B., Burke and the Nature of Politics: The Age of the French Revolution (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964), 79 .

12 Canavan Francis, The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995), 119 .

13 This essay will use “rationalist dogmatism” and similar phrases, rather than “principle,” to capture scholars’ criticism of Burke's apparent abstractionism in Thoughts and Details. Because Burke frequently invoked principles in his arguments, this latter term does not reflect the philosophical distance he perceived between his principles and Jacobin rationality.

14 Burke to William Pitt, November 7, 1795, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 8, September 1794–April 1796, ed. McDowell R. B. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 337–38. See also Lock F. P., Edmund Burke, vol. 2, 1784–1797 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009), 513–15.

15 Burke Edmund, Writings and Speeches, vol. 9, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 119–20.

16 MP Samuel Whitbread introduced the minimum wage bill on December 9, 1795. Whitbread's bill failed owing to the House's reluctance to regulate wages and because Pitt had pledged to draft a new poor law. (Whitbread later reintroduced the bill in 1800, but it again failed to pass.)

17 Lock, Edmund Burke, 2:514.

18 See Himmelfarb, Idea of Poverty, 65–66.

19 See Writings and Speeches, 9:123n1.

20 Bourke Richard, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 888–89.

21 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:124.

22 Ibid., 125.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 121.

25 Ibid., 123.

26 See Sowell Thomas, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 163 . As Burke also mentions in the quotation, the minimum wage in his judgment would increase the cost in provisions.

27 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:133.

28 Ibid., 126.

29 Ibid., 133.

30 Shklar, After Utopia, 225.

31 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:124.

32 Ibid., 127–28.

33 Ibid., 128.

34 Ibid.

35 Hayek F. A., “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35 (1945): 524.

36 Ibid., 521–22.

37 See Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt, 193–96 and Shklar, After Utopia, 225.

38 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:137.

39 Ibid., 120.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., 143.

42 “That the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity” (ibid., 143).

43 Ibid., 26.

44 Ibid., 123.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., 126.

48 Ibid., 133.

49 Ibid., 123: “Wages have been twice raised in my time, and they bear a full proportion, or even a greater than formerly, to the medium of provision during the last bad cycle of twenty years.”

50 Ibid., 135–36.

51 Ibid., 137.

52 Burke's conception of landed property played a central role in his reflections on political economy.

53 This affair arose when Sir James Lowther claimed the right to part of the landed property occupied by the third Duke of Portland. Lowther used the principle of nullum tempus occurrit regi—“no length of time in possession may be pleaded against the claims of the Crown”—to justify receiving a grant from the Crown to the lands. See Burke Edmund, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 2, Party, Parliament, and the American Crisis, 1766–1774, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 76 and Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 246.

54 Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 249.

55 Wright J., ed., Sir Henry Cavendish's Debates of the House of Commons, vol. 2 (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1841), 318 .

56 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:80.

57 Ibid., 84, emphasis added. Burke also refers to the “sacred principles of property” in a letter of 1790. See Burke to Captain Thomas Mercer, February 26, 1790, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 6, July 1789–December 1791, ed. Cobban Alfred and Smith Robert A. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 94 .

58 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:514.

59 Ibid., 515.

60 Ibid.

61 See Stanlis Peter J., Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2009).

62 See Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 249n164.

63 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:120.

64 Burke Edmund, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 8, The French Revolution, 1790–1794, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 2007), 127 .

65 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:55, emphasis added. Note that, like many of his other writings, Burke wrote this sentence against the backdrop of politically contingent circumstances, in this case, the Rockinghamites’ ambitions against Grenville.

66 Burke to Sir Charles Bingham, October 30, 1773, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 2, July 1768–June 1774, ed. Sutherland Lucy S. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 480 .

67 Ibid., 474. Admittedly, this tax concerned land and not pure commercial matters.

68 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:508, emphasis added.

69 The Autobiography of Arthur Young, ed. Betham-Edwards M. (London: Smith, Elder, 1898), 303 .

70 Burke to William Pitt, November 7, 1795, in Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 8:337.

71 Ibid., 337–38.

72 Lock, Edmund Burke, 2:514n24.

73 See Langford Paul, The First Rockingham Administration, 1765–1766 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 113 ; and Christelow Allan, “Contraband Trade between Jamaica and the Spanish Main, and the Three Port Act of 1766,” Hispanic American Historical Review 22 (1942): 335 .

74 See Armytage Frances, The Free Port System in the British West Indies: A Study in Commercial Policy, 1766–1822 (London: Longmans, Green, 1953). Also see Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 309–14.

75 See Armytage, Free Port System, 36.

76 See ibid., 36–44.

77 See Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 310.

78 Quoted in Langford, First Rockingham Administration, 206.

79 Koehn Nancy F., The Power of Commerce: Economy and Governance in the First British Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 199 .

80 See Armytage, Free Port System, 40.

81 Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 310.

82 Burke to Charles O'Hara, March 4, 1766, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 1, April 1744–June 1768, ed. Copeland Thomas W. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 239–40.

83 See Burke, Short Account on a Late Short Administration, in Writings and Speeches, 2:55. See also Armytage, Free Port System, 28.

84 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:55.

85 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:159.

86 Ibid.

87 Burke to Charles O'Hara, April 23 and 24, 1766, in Correspondence, 1:252.

88 See Herbruck Wendell, “Forestalling, Regrating and Engrossing,” Michigan Law Review 27 (1929): 365–88.

89 Forestalling was also illegal under common law. See ibid., 366.

90 Burke to Young, May 23, 1797, in Autobiography of Arthur Young, 303.

91 Young Arthur, ed., Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts, vol. 7 (Bury St. Edmund's: Rackham, 1786), 47 .

92 Burke Edmund, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 4, Party, Parliament, and the Dividing of the Whigs, 1780–1794, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 2015), 241 .

93 Ibid.

94 Wharton Mary, “Sir Gilbert Blane Bt (1749–1834),” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 66 (1984): 375–76.

95 Sir Blane Gilbert, Inquiry into the Causes and Remedies of the Late and Present Scarcity and High Price of Provisions, 2nd ed. (London: Wright, 1800), 6162 .

96 Hansard T. C., ed., Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates, vol. 1 (London: Wyman, 1820), 550 . To be fair, Smith was also sensitive to the importance of prudence when calling for the incremental reform of existing trade regulations. See Smith Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Campbell R. H. and Skinner A. S. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981), 2:606 : “In what manner, therefore, the colony trade ought gradually to be opened; what are the restraints which ought first, and what are those which ought last to be taken away; or in what manner the natural system of perfect liberty and justice ought gradually to be restored, we must leave to the wisdom of future statesmen and legislators to determine.”

97 Herbruck, “Forestalling, Regrating and Engrossing,” 382.

98 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 4:242.

99 Ibid., 243.

100 See Langford's discussion of this political dynamic in First Rockingham Administration, 113–14.

101 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:507.

102 Ibid., 511.

103 Ibid., 514.

104 Ibid., 514–15.

105 Burke to Samuel Span, April 9, 1778, in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 3, July 1774–June 1778, ed. Guttridge George H. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 426 .

106 Note, however, that Thoughts and Details primarily addresses the domestic grain market, not foreign trade.

107 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:507.

108 Ibid., 510.

109 Ibid.

110 Ibid., 514.

111 Burke Edmund, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 3, Party, Parliament, and the American War, 1774–1780, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 634 .

112 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:504–5.

113 Ibid., 505–6.

114 Ibid., 518. Apparently Burke was not aware that these privileges were already allowed. See Lock F. P., Edmund Burke, vol. 1, 1730–1784 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2012), 428 . The alternative explanation is that Burke set a trap for his trading constituents who opposed free trade. See Mahoney Thomas H. D., Edmund Burke and Ireland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 7778 .

115 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:549.

116 Ibid., 549–50.

117 Burke withdrew from the Bristol electoral contest in 1780 after six years as the city's representative. A combination of factors such as intraparty Whig rivalries, rather than simply Burke's controversial position on free trade, appears to have ultimately contributed to his loss of political support. See Christie I. R., “Henry Cruger and the End of Edmund Burke's Connection with Bristol,” Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 74 (1955): 153–70; and Lock, Edmund Burke, 1:476–78.

118 Lock, Edmund Burke, 1:234–35.

119 Burke, unlike Smith, does not appear to distinguish between “natural” price and “market” price. See Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:72–81.

120 Lock, Edmund Burke, 1:321–22.

121 Ibid., 322.

122 Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 2:234.

123 Lock, Edmund Burke, 1:322.

124 Ibid.

125 See Burke's famous formulation of this concept in “Speech at the Conclusion of the Poll,” in Writings and Speeches, 3:63–70.

126 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 8:83.

127 See Heal Felicity and Holmes Clive, The Gentry in England and Wales, 1500–1700 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 104–16; and Mingay G. E., The Gentry: The Rise and Fall of a Ruling Class (London: Longman, 1976), 104–7.

128 See Cone Carl B., “Edmund Burke, the Farmer,” Agricultural History 19 (1945): 6569 .

129 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 8:130.

130 Burke questioned the treaty on political, not commercial, grounds. See Writings and Speeches, 4:235–41.

131 Ibid., 237n2.

132 Investigation into the precise definition and particular strands of “mercantilism” lies beyond the scope of this essay. Mercantilism will be conceptualized generally as the economic thinking whose central ideas include the following: (1) regulations should be established to create an export surplus; (2) wages should be kept cheap to undersell foreign traders and preserve profit for domestic producers and merchants; (3) wealth is a zero-sum competitive enterprise; (4) wealth is measured in gold; (5) a nation should produce goods at home rather than purchase them abroad; and (6) imperialism and slavery are possible means toward the mercantilist pursuit of wealth. See Thomas Sowell, On Classical Economics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 56 . See also Wiles Richard C., “The Theory of Wages in Later English Mercantilism,” Economic History Review 21 (1968): 113–26; and Anderson Gary M. and Tollison Robert D., “Sir James Steuart as the Apotheosis of Mercantilism and His Relation to Adam Smith,” Southern Economic Journal 51 (1984): 456–68.

133 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:428.

134 Ibid., 432.

135 See Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 309–13.

136 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:432.

137 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 3:137–38.

138 Ibid., 114.

139 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:464–65.

140 Ibid., 2:606.

141 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:515n3.

142 William Charles, Fitzwilliam Earl and Bourke Richard, Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, vol. 4 (London: Francis & John Rivington, 1844), 477 .

143 Burke, Writings and Speeches, 2:145.

144 In March 1770, during a debate in a House committee over whether to relax the ban on corn exports, Burke said that “the policy of our laws for the bounty” had “rendered in effect corn cheaper than it had been before that bounty.” Burke is unclear on the nature of his free trade beliefs in this discussion, however, because he also stated that “a prohibition was contrary to the spirit of commerce.” He then said, “We ought to trust for a good harvest, and allow an exportation immediately.” See The Debates and Proceedings of the British House of Commons, From 1768 to 1770, vol. 29 (London, 1772), 302 .

145 In Thoughts and Details, Burke writes, “The domestic consumption of spirits, produced, without complaints, a very great revenue, applicable, if we pleased, in bounties to the bringing corn from other places, far beyond the value of that consumed in making it, or to the encouragement of it's encreased production at home” (Writings and Speeches, 9:141). See also Canavan, Political Economy of Edmund Burke, 137.

146 For example, Burke writes in Observations on a Late State of the Nation that the tax on beer and malt to help finance the Seven Years War “did not in the least impair the consumption.” See Writings and Speeches, 2:141. See also Burke's Third Letter on a Regicide Peace, in Writings and Speeches, 9:362–68.

147 Burke writes in Sketch that eliminating the slave trade, and slavery in general, would conform to the “principles of true religion and morality.” See Writings and Speeches, 3:563. He later wrote in notes for a speech that slavery is “contrary to Nature.” See Lock, Edmund Burke, 2:321. According to contemporary reports of a speech he gave in the House of Commons in 1778, Burke “rather rejoiced at its downfall; for it was a trade of the most inhuman nature, a traffic for human bodies.” See Writings and Speeches, 3:563n1. In this same speech he also indicates support for free commerce years before Thoughts and Details: Burke “argued that the interference of Government in affairs of traffic was seldom of any good. The commerce that does not support itself can never be held up by the artificial supply of any Government.”

148 See Mahoney, Edmund Burke and Ireland, 136–51. The amended measures were approved by the British Parliament and the Irish Parliament, but they ended up being withdrawn (Writings and Speeches, 9:593).

149 See Burke, Writings and Speeches, 9:585–93.

150 Morley John, Burke (London: Macmillan, 1885), 126 .

151 See Mahoney, Edmund Burke and Ireland, 149–50; Morley, Burke, 125–27; and Bourke, Empire and Revolution, 404–6.

152 Semmel Bernard, “The Hume-Tucker Debate and Pitt's Trade Proposals,” Economic Journal 75 (1965): 765–66.

153 Semmel, “Hume-Tucker Debate,” 763–64.

154 See Burke's Ninth Report of Select Committee, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 5, India: Madras and Bengal, 1774–1785, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), in particular 243–306; and Burke's impeachment speech on February 15, 1788, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 6, India: The Launching of The Hastings Impeachment, 1786–1788, ed. Langford Paul (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), in particular 280–94. These criticisms were part of Burke's broader condemnation of Warren Hastings's oppressive rule in India.

155 Burke and Smith held some differences on other matters relating to political economy, such as the merit of primogeniture and entail.

156 Conniff James, The Useful Cobbler: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Progress (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 116 .

I would like to thank Paul Carrese, David L. Schaefer, Luigi Bradizza, Catherine Zuckert, and the anonymous reviewers of the Review of Politics for their thoughtful comments on my paper, a version of which was presented at the 112th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.

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