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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Thomas West On Edmund Burke

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HH: It’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. It’s our weekly expedition into something that is actually significant and important beyond the week. The Hillsdale Dialogues began more than two years ago with Homer, and we have now made our way all the way forward to Burke. All of those dialogues are collected at And you can find all of the Hillsdale online courses at We’re pleased to have back with us today the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn, my friend and my teacher. And he is joined today by another returning guest, Dr. Thomas West, who is the Paul Ermine Potter and Dawn Tibbetts Potter professor in politics at Hillsdale College. He’s been up there for five years now. I think he spent most of his previous career down in Texas, and got out of Texas, escaped the University of Dallas up to the north part so he could be one with the cold. But I learned today, Dr. West, that you got your B.A. from Cornell in 1967. Wasn’t Cornell like a crazy place in 1967?

TW: No, it was a crazy place in 1968, right after I left and my good influence had vanished.

HH: You know, you did get out of Dodge just in time, right? It was…

TW: Absolutely, yeah. ’68, then, you had armed blacks taking over the student union, and the president caving in on every possible topic. Yeah, I missed all of that. I’m so sorry.

HH: So you went from there to Vietnam.

TW: Yeah, via Claremont.

HH: (laughing) So which was worse…

TW: Frying pan fire, I guess.

HH: I guess. Well, welcome back. Dr. Arnn, welcome back to you. Before we turn to Edmund Burke, you have just returned from Burke’s land. You’re just back from England. I believe the memorial services for Sir Martin Gilbert, the great historian, Englishman and Israeli. I think he had dual citizenship, didn’t he?

LA: No.

HH: Oh, he didn’t?

LA: No. He lived in Israel a fair, well, he went to Israel a fair amount. He owned some property there. But I don’t think he was an Israeli citizen. I guess I can’t say. You know, Martin Gilbert was such a stickler for what you know and for the truth, and for always having a document. So let me revise my answer in honor of him to I don’t know (laughing).

HH: (laughing) Wonderfully put, and a great honor to him to say it that way. Tell us about Martin Gilbert for the unwashed. And not just the unwashed, the people who have just joined. Paducah, Kentucky joined last week my network of affiliates, so no one’s ever heard of the Hillsdale hour. They don’t know Arnn, they don’t know Dr. West, they don’t know who Sir Martin Gilbert is. Maybe they do in Paducah, but tell them and everybody else about Sir Martin Gilbert.

LA: He was the official biographer of Winston Churchill, who was a great man who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Martin Gilbert is one of the greatest historians in history, and certainly one of the greatest modern ones. He wrote 88 serious academic books. He was educated in Oxford, undergraduate degree only. He was appointed the official biographer of Winston Churchill in 1968. It’s the largest biography ever written. I used to work for him in ’77-’80. I met my wife working in his house. Martin Gilbert’s methods, he wrote in chronological order. He played the careful, most careful attention to getting the facts right. He believed that the original documents, that is to say ones written at the time, were the golden source of history. And they and all secondary sources, which include interviews of eyewitnesses, had to be checked against each other and against the whole. He wrote a beautiful thing which helped tie him to a teacher Tom West and I share in common, Harry Jaffa. On his website, you can go to and you can look, he writes that he grew up, he decided, and by the way, this is odd, because his way of writing history is different from most people, most modern scholars, and it’s extremely important that he got appointed to write the biography of this great man for whom the record is richest of all the statesmen who ever lived, because he did it so carefully, and he did it seeking the truth. And he wrote that he believed that the past was unalterable, and the truth of it could be found, although never perfect, and at huge labor. And that is something that reminds me of something that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas wrote that Harry Jaffa loved to quote. This alone is denied even to God to make what has been not to have been. So if you read a book, or read one of his many historical atlases that he published, a sort of genre that he partially invented and took to a new state of elevation, you can rely that what he writes is likely to be true so far as human ingenuity can make it so.

HH: Now I have just a couple of quick questions about him. First of all, people would like to know about a man with such epic talent what his work habits were. And I didn’t ask you this when I was up at Hillsdale, and I meant to. I saw those, what do you call them, witches, those things that he put together of…

LA: Wodges.

HH: Wodges.

LA: Wodges, yeah, yeah.

HH: These huge document clutches that he had… but what were his work habits?

LA: Well, of course, I know those in detail. He, on a writing day, which was most every day, he got up in the morning and he was sitting at his desk at 9:00 and he began to write. There had been an enormous effort to get ready for that that was ongoing all through is life. Documents were collected, and they were cut to the right size, A4, which is the British equivalent of letter size, a little bigger. And if they were too big, they had to be cut down. And if they were too small, they had to be pasted on an A4 page. That was my first job. I started with cutting, and I graduated to pasting.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And then they were placed in strict chronological order. And then he would get the ones down that he needed, and within each wodge, and they were held together in the upper left corner by a black bulldog clip, which we just called black clips, the biggest ones you could get. And within each wodge, that’s, they were in chronological order, and the wodges were in chronological order. And he had a desk over 30 feet long. And there was a pile three feet high all along that desk in two rows.

HH: Wow.

LA: So there were tens of thousands of them. And they were, and the ones that he needed were nearest him. But you could go to the wodges, and you had to have the memory to remember when something happened in order to find it. And sometimes, your memory would fail, and you’d have to look it up somehow. And of course, we didn’t have Google back then, and so that was, it was a lot of work.

HH: That is prodigious amount of…

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: Dr. West, you are no mean scholar yourself, and you’ve produced a lot of work. I don’t know if you met Sir Martin, but what do you make of that description of method?

TW: Well, I certainly couldn’t do it that way, but no, it’s incredibly impressive. Look, I’m not a historian. I rely on historians in my work. They’re the guys that do the really detailed, factual work on what happened. I’m trying to explain to the historians what it all means. And that’s…

HH: You know what’s interesting, because now we meet at Burke, who is a historical figure, and I always have found biographies of Burke to be very fascinating, because he led such a colorful and public arena life at the same time while writing at such an elevated level. But after you hear something like Martin Gilbert’s labor over Winston Churchill, all those biographies kind of pale, don’t they, Larry Arnn?

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, his, it’s the longest biography ever written in history, and it is a massive achievement to have written it. Of course, he would be, he would bridle at Tom’s description of the division of labor between historians and political thinkers, as would every historian. But there’s something to it, too, because Martin Gilbert’s purpose was to tell the story first, what he did and what he said about why he did it, and how he reacted with others. That’s what that story is made of, and it’s of course, you have to remember about Churchill that he lived, you know, from 1874 until 1965, and that’s 90 years, and that’s the most turbulent and traumatic and changing 90 years in human history. And Churchill was in the middle of all that. So it’s a huge story.

HH: Until the next 90. The next 90 may match it. We’ll see.

LA: Yeah, we may, and God help us. God knows what’s going to happen.

HH: God help us that we need a Churchill. But I have to say my sympathies to you, Larry, Arnn. You’ve lost both of your intellectual fathers. And your own father was your intellectual father. But Harry Jaffa and Martin Gilbert have both passed away within a month, and you’ve had to go to two funerals, wakes, shivas, whatever, and that’s a grieving time. So my condolences to you and everyone who counted him as a friend. Dr. West, to Burke. He was born in 1729, he dies in 1797. We’ve got about a minute to the break, and then we come back and start talking about his theory. What’s the most striking thing about Edmund Burke to you as an American conservative at the dawn of the 21st Century?

TW: I think of Burke as a great example of what prudence means in politics. He’s a man who cared deeply about justice, about what’s right, and fought night and day for it. But at the same time, he was constantly aware of the limitations of politics as to how little, in a way, one could really do in politics, and was always sensible about don’t aim beyond what can actually be done. Otherwise, you’re going to have a disaster on your hands.

HH: And does that, is that why we call him the conservative from whom all other conservatives derive, because he was that cautious?

TW: I think his reputation, the reputation that he has gotten, is actually quite different from what he was, and we’ll have to talk about that after the break.

HH: Right after the break. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – – —

HH: So I’m just going to go right into Burke. Dr. West, you said at the end of the last segment that his reputation is different than it ought to be. Can you explain what the reputation is and why you think it is wrongfully attributed to him?

TW: Well, Burke got the reputation in the, early in the 19th Century as being a man who believed that any appeal to abstract principles is going to be destructive of decent politics. And he got that reputation from his book on the French Revolution that you mentioned earlier, the Reflections on the Revolution in France. What Burke was actually saying, however, about the French Revolution, was that you can’t take principles like the idea of a natural law, the right to acquire property or natural right to defend your life, you can’t take those principles and plug them into an existing political situation without thinking about what the limitations are of where you are and the country you’re in. And so you know, here’s a man who always understood that, in fact, here’s a quote from him. He says, “I never govern myself, and no rational man ever did govern himself by abstractions and universals. And yet, I do not put abstract ideas out of the question, because I well know that if I did that, I should dismiss principles, and that without the guide and light of sound, well-understood principles, all reasonings in politics, and everything else, would only be a confused jumble of particular facts and details.”

HH: That is drawn from emotion. He brings emotion for leave to bring a bill to repeal and alter certain acts respecting religious opinion. You sent that to me.

TW: Right.

HH: So he’s a legislator who is actually doing the business of governing when he says he’s both for but not, what, totally attached to abstractions and universals?

TW: What he’s saying is you’ve got to where you’re going. You can’t be prudent unless you know what the goal of prudence is. You can’t decide on what a good policy is unless you know what the purpose of politics is, which is to protect the lives and properties of the people. And he understood that in a way that was very similar to the American founders. He was not being British, and in the British context, he didn’t like talking all the time about abstract rights, but he would do it on occasion when he thought it was necessary, when there was some great difficulty. For example, the East India Company running roughshod over the rights and lives of Indians, he would appeal to the idea of natural law and natural rights in those occasions, because he knew you’ve got to have a standard. You can’t just say well, it’s in the British law for them to be able to run the place. He said no, that’s not right.

HH: What I appreciate about what you sent me as well is that it’s rather specific as to his talents as a political man. In fact, in that same passage, he says it is the direct office of wisdom to look to the consequences of the acts we do. If it not be this, it is worth nothing. It is out of place and a function and a downright fool as is capable of government is Charles Fox. Now you didn’t highlight that, but that’s what jumped out at me. He was making a slashing attack on Charles Fox when he said this.

TW: Right, right.

LA: Burke, let me add something about Warren Hastings. So Burke was an extremely eloquent man, and a beautiful writer, and there are many memorable expressions from him. But what Tom said about his sense of justice, Warren Hastings was a man who got rich in India, as many did, running the East India Company, and became governor of Bengal and then the governor general of India in general. And he thought that Warren Hastings profited at the expense of the Indian people. And that’s, so now we’ve got this powerful man, and there are many others like him. And whatever wrong he did, he did thousands of miles away, not under color of law, but the British East India Company was governing India for a long time. And Burke prosecuted that man for 12 years. And he was acquitted, finally, but that was a shining moment, and it helped to lead to the reforms that gave the British government, and therefore the constraints of the British Constitution, control of the British influence in India.

HH: I’m ambivalent about this prosecution. You call it a shining moment. But 12 years of pursuit of an individual reminds me that the government can pursue anyone into the grave, Larry Arnn. I’m always worried about things like that, but you think it was a shining moment.

LA: Well, I do, because this guy was a rich guy, and he used everything, every trick he could to prolong the trial. And so yeah, I’m like you about that, by the way. The way the legal, we talked about this the other day on Hillsdale when you were here. The legal process in America has been changed to the place now where to be prosecuted is to endure the punishment on the way to your conviction.

HH: Yes.

LA: That’s actually a phrase I heard first from Tom West, I think. And civil litigation has become so expensive now that it’s bankrupting. So there’s something to what you say. But what Burke thought was the injustices were continuing, and they had to be fought.

HH: What did you think of the prosecution of Hastings, Professor West?

TW: I don’t, I’m not, look, I don’t know that part of history very well, but I can tell just from the, just the surface facts about it, is people were going over to India and getting rich.

HH: Yeah, the Naybobs.

TW: And they were being given monopoly control over the Indian economy, in effect. And Burke correctly says about that, and I agree with him, the founders would agree with him, that’s a violation of natural right.

HH: But it was good for India.

LA: Well…

HH: What would Burke say about that argument, because without the British and the East India Company, and it wasn’t chartered for a long time. It was an accident. The Indians would have continued to be divided and conquered by various small people.

LA: India…so that’s a big question. Burke was not in favor of Indian independence. He was in favor of faithful and honest administration of India in line with the freedom and eventual self-government of the Indians. So that’s what Churchill was for, too, by the way. And so you can say all you want to about how British rule in India was evil, and you know, there’s some respects in which, by the way, it was. But what the reason I call it a shining moment is this was a statement that you can’t steal from the Indian people if you’re an official any more than you can steal from the British people. And the British Constitution is meant to protect them.

HH: Or it’s a statement that you can only steal if you don’t have an Edmund Burke on your rear end.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And so justice, I am very ambivalent about this, and I always have been, because I thought the East India Company did a fine thing. When we come back from break, we’ve got to talk about his role in the French Revolution, and his role in the American Revolution, because Thomas West, a minute to the break, he lived these revolutionary periods from the perspective of an Irishman in the English Parliament, it’s really quite a perch from which to proclaim. And he did so by leave of a great lord, didn’t he?

TW: He did, and he’s, he had that unique perspective you’re talking about. And I think it gave him a perch from which he was able to point out to the English this is not in our interest, and it’s unjust for us to go after the Americans in this way.

HH: There’s a great biography of him by Conor Cruise O’Brien, I believe, that spends a lot of time talking about what it means to be an Irishman in the English Parliament. And Larry, have you had a chance to read that?

LA: No, I haven’t read that biography. I know something about what Burke said about that.

HH: What do you think?

LA: Well, you know, Ireland is another troubled question, and that bill you read from is Burke trying to get Catholic emancipation for full participation in British society, and the Irish suffered from the exclusions there.

HH: And when we come back from break, we’ll talk about why he was a great champion of religious freedom as well of the American Revolution.

— – – –

HH: We’re talking about Edmund Burke, and I thought we should take the two revolutions in which he was a part in their order of occurrence, and mix in his quest for religious liberty as well. Thomas West, the American Revolution comes first. Can you talk about what Burke though of the American Revolution from the position he held in Parliament and what he argued for?

TW: Right, Burke did not take the side of the American founders in terms of justifying independence. He focused on something he thought that people in the government in Britain would listen to, and that’s not an appeal to abstract rights the way the Americans were talking. What he talked about was this is just an incredibly bad idea for us to try to crush these people over here. The Americans, he says, are the most liberty-loving people in the world, they’re passionate about the fact they run their own affairs over there for the most part. And he said, and they have a religion that is so pro-liberty that they are the Protestantism of all Protestants, meaning the most ones, that they dissent from Protestantism, they’re so feisty and independent-minded. So his point was it’s just incredibly imprudent of the British government to be picking a fight with these people, given what they are, and given the interests of the English empire. So he tried to avoid any kind of appeal to the abstract principle, the principles that the Americans were talking about, because he was trying to be effective. He was trying to create a harmonious relationship between England and essentially what he hoped for would be largely independent colonies.

HH: And Larry Arnn, deaf ears, correct? Deaf ears.

LA: Well, those, you know, those guys, the untold story of the American Revolution, you might say, is there was a bunch of very wise people in America, and there was a bunch of fools running Britain. And they just didn’t understand, right? I mean, Ben Franklin’s sent over there, right, and they think he can negotiate with anybody. And he’s there three or four days, and he writes back and says there’s going to be a war, because I can’t get through to these guys. So it was just incredibly foolish what they did. And they misestimated, misunderestimated the force it would require to actually get the job done, because they won battles for a long time. But gosh, how are you going to conquer a people like that spread over so much ground?

HH: Did Franklin ever engage Burke, to either of your knowledge, when he when he was trying to make peace before war began?

LA: I don’t know.

HH: And so when Burke starts his lonely, it’s not completely lonely, but its very lonely attempt to reason to the British government, does he suffer slings and arrows of cries of treason and unpatriotic and that sort of thing, Thomas West?

TW: I don’t think so. This was, this was considered, you know, this is Parliament. It’s a place where people debate. No, his position was not the government, but there were people who thought, who agreed with him, others, sort of prominent people.

LA: Yeah, Pitt, some important people. And by the way, I’ll revise that. Of course, he was charged with all those things. That’s what they did in Parliament.

TW: Well, that’s true. That’s a good point. Right.

HH: So when does he begin his campaign for religious toleration? And why does he do so, either of you?

LA: When, I don’t know. I know the why. First of all, Burke was a Protestant, and a Catholic mother, I think, and he just thought, you know, people have a right to their opinions about that stuff. And the way it functioned in England was that there were high stations that were closed to people of real ability unless they signed, they gave an oath to the act of supremacy and repudiated transubstantiation. And Burke thought that, it’s sort of like the tone, some of the things he wrote about that Tom mentioned, and Burke thought that was incredibly foolish, because your civil relations with each other don’t hang on that, those things, even if the salvation of our soul does, as some people believe.

HH: And did he prevail?

LA: Eventually, yeah. They got full religious freedom as, by the way, they got full government by consent well after the United States did.

TW: Yeah.

HH: Yeah, I think it was in the next century, so I think he was continually battering against doors that would not open to him. And so it’s sort of a lonely and long life as a legislator. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about what role he played uniquely vis-à-vis the French Revolution, and the book for which he is best remembered, Reflections on the Revolution in France, one that almost every college freshman reads, or hopefully some of it in high school at least, and what American conservatives think about him and why it is either correct or not correct when we return to the Hillsdale Dialogues.

— – —

HH: Dr. West, if you could talk to us a little bit about this book, which is in pretty much every library of anyone who studies political theory, Reflections on the Revolution in France. What was Burke trying to do? Did he get it done?

TW: Well, what he was trying to do was to point out to people that the whole premise of the French Revolution was erroneous, and that is that basically, what the people who made the French Revolution believed was that all you had to do was to list the rights of man, and to talk about government by consent of the governed, and then to say, and then that that would all automatically follow. And so if you look at the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the first thing that’s mentioned is that all you have to do, that all difficult, what does he say, ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man are the only causes of public misfortunes.

HH: What’s that mean?

TW: That’s impossible, in other words, all you have to do is enlighten people about the rights of man, and all of a sudden you’re going to have utopia on Earth – perfect government, perfect freedom. And what Burke was pointing out was you don’t get it. That’s not what France is like. France has a long tradition of aristocracy, of monarchy, of all kinds of strange, intermediary institutions, many of which actually, in practice, had a positive effect on the lives and liberties of Frenchmen. So the idea of throwing all that out, blowing it all up and starting from nothing, as if it’s a creation of a new world, he though was the height of imprudence. And so he attacked the idea that abstract principles could be a direct guide to political life on the basis of those observations, and he was right about that. He was right.

HH: Now you are both students of a student of Leo Strauss, who wrote about Burke in Natural Rights and History. And Tom West, you wrote me that that’s full of wonderful insights, but in some respects, it’s profoundly misleading. I did not read the chapter. I don’t remember it. How is it misleading?

TW: Well, what Strauss argues is that Burke, because of his attack on abstract principles, became a forerunner of 19th Century historicism. In other words, he became a forerunner of the view that there is no such thing as right and wrong in politics except in terms of what is local, particular tied to an individual community. And so Burke, according to Strauss, prepared the way for this, the modern view that you can’t even talk about right and wrong, because there’s no objective reality. And that, I don’t believe Burke did that. And maybe, I think what Strauss is right about is that the way that Burke became understood did have that effect. But that was a misunderstanding of Burke for the reasons we talked about earlier. Burke always believed in abstract principles, and even said explicitly you can’t have prudence without them.

HH: Larry Arnn, my understanding of Burke has always been he’s the great icon of conservatives because he was the apostle of caution and the protector of small institutions unrelated to the government. Is that right or is that wrong?

LA: Well, Tom’s point is right that he made at the beginning. If you select half the story, you can make that case. But you have to leave out a lot of what he said even in that half, because the fellow who liked the American Revolution and thought the people had their rights, and the fellow who thought that the Indian people were not to be exploited by anybody, that fellow is not that. And you know, Burke was, you know, I’m learning, Hugh, today that you’re what we call a Tory diehard from the 1930s about Indian imperialism.

HH: Oh, really? Yes, yes I am.

LA: …which by the way, Winston Churchill was not.

HH: I know.

LA: ….nor Edmund Burke, but they were very for the empire. And so you know, Burke was no little, the expression that comes into English politics later, a little Englander. He wanted a great country, and a great commercial country. And so that story, you know, he wrote some beautiful things, and I can paraphrase one of them that I read years ago. I couldn’t find it, and I’ve been looking for it. He said that our liberties are locked as in a mort mane. And he goes on about that, right? So…and his point is when you’ve got an old society, and it’s got virtues, then those virtues are conditions that are favorable and cannot be ignored. And he thought that about England, and he thought that about France, and he thought that about America. And if you look at the Federalist, for example, it begins with several papers that go in detail into the remarkable opportunity that’s in front of the Americans, and it’s an analysis of our condition which analysis, they say, is necessary for us to have the opportunity for free government. So they weren’t like these Frenchmen that Tom was describing who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man. All you’ve got to do is proclaim the rights and everything will be okay. And Burke was not like that, either.

HH: And did Burke foresee, Tom West, the necessary catastrophe that would follow the French Revolution, which would be a dictatorship? Did he anticipate that?

TW: Yeah, he was already writing at a time when things were going seriously wrong, and he could tell that it was just going to get worse. And so yeah, he was right on top of that. But what I wanted to add to what we just talked about was that the, one of the most seriously representations, representatives of conservative thought in the 20th Century is a man named Russell Kirk.

HH: Right.

TW: …a man for whom I have a lot of respect in many ways. But Kirk erroneously believed that if you respected Burke and accepted his way of thinking about politics, that meant you had to throw out Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, because Kirk thought that Burke was all about prudence, and Burke thought that prudence meant you can’t have universal principles. And that, I think, has misguided the conservative movement insofar as it has followed that example.

HH: How did he make that mistake? You plucked out a number of things and you sent them to me that disprove that proposition. How did Kirk get it so wrong?

TW: Well, it became, Kirk became a kind of symbol in the minds of people early in the 19th Century, people who hated the French Revolution and were desperate to find a way out of the mess that had been created by the imprudence of the French appeal to abstract rights.

HH: Wow.

TW: And he thought, and Kirk thought that he was buying into the way that Burke had come to be understood in those years.

HH: And a find corrected view provided, Dr. Thomas West, Dr. Larry Arnn, in the Hillsdale Dialogue about Burke this week. Thank you both, gentlemen. All of them are available at Make sure you go sign up for Imprimis as well, the monthly speech digest from Hillsdale College, for all things Hillsdale.

End of interview.


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