I’ve been re-reading a lot of Harry Jaffa, spurred by his recent death. He was a superb scholar who left behind two of the best books ever written on Lincoln. His erudition was immense. His prose, though invariably challenging, suffered from none of the characteristic obscurity of his Straussian comrades.
Churchill’s indelible rendering of Statesmanship was Harry Jaffa’s favorite passage from the great Englishman’s voluminous writings. Curiously, though not much of a Burkean himself, the emphasis on this quotation, in various key portions of his writings, evidences a strong pull toward the wisdom of the great Irishman, in this recently deceased great American.
The passage appears in Churchill’s collection Thoughts and Adventures, a reissue of which book I reviewed long ago. In Jaffa’s summary, Churchill is defending Burke, who “had once attacked the British Court and defended the American Revolution, then later had defended the French monarchy and attacked the French Revolution.”
Now the commonality in scholarship hostile to Burke is disparagement of his consistency; among the uncommonly vitriolic, the supposed inconsistency is insinuated as manifesting an undercurrent of venality. He championed the American cause out of a desire for American lucre; he assailed Warren Hastings and the East India Company to propitiate Charles James Fox; he denounced the Jacobins to ingratiate himself to William Pitt’s Parliamentary majority. He was, in fine, a mere trimmer.
That respected students of history, in solemn lectures and orotund discourses, managed to advance and nearly establish these absurdities, only demonstrates how little history one need read, in order to successfully style oneself a student of history. The briefest perusal of the relevant Parliamentary History, in the momentous spring of 1791, when disputation over the French Revolution effected a breach between the longtime allies Burke and Fox that would never close, should dispel any crackpot notion that the former was some calculating snob who rose against French revolutionaries to advance his own political career. Indeed, the date alone should be sufficient: The early months of 1791 had witnessed few massacres, the king and queen were not yet prisoners of the Paris mob, the French revolutionary state still maintained a veneer of order and security. Meanwhile, across the Channel, Parliament echoed with encomia to the new French constitution, to the wisdom of the National Assembly; and with sneers at any prophecies of doom. The lull of 1790-91 was the unfittest time of all for a trimmer to break with the French revolutionary spirit.
When everyone else thought the deplorable but necessary bloodletting was all but over, with true republican liberty seated in the former throne of Gallic despotism, Burke wrote with savage sarcasm all the more potent for its prescience that “they will assassinate the king when his name will no longer be necessary to their designs” and “they keep their sovereign alive for the purpose of exhibiting him, like some wild beast at a fair.” Likewise, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in late 1790, Burke had also set down an extraordinary prediction of revolution degenerating into military despotism: he never lived to see Bonapartism, but he already knew what it would look like, a decade before it appeared.
In the teeth of such solid facts as these, preeminent scholars managed to maintain that Burke did it all for sordid reasons of expedience. The exaggerated inconsistency became their truncheon: maddeningly effective one.
Churchill would have none of this, and this belabored sketch of the historiography behind his contrary judgment may properly situate his famed quotation on Statesmanship:
A Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.
One can select from Burke’s own writings ample support for this view, none pithier than this: “The situation of man is the preceptor of his duty.”
Burke’s dominating purpose was to oppose arbitrary and abusive power -- in America, in India, in Ireland, and in France. His genius arises from his extraordinarily penetrating estimate of “the situation of man” in his time; but his fortitude, his independence of mind, his perseverance gave force to the discharge of his duty. Few men have ever equaled his Statesmanship. Thus we even find a much more radical-minded scholar like Jaffa, whose political teaching was not Burkean, yet continually recurring to the Burkean theme, so ably articulated by another great Statesman of the British Isles.