Letter To The Sheriffs Of Bristol "Liberty Must Be Limited In Order To Be Possessed"

Edmund Burke

"Liberty Must Be Limited In Order To Be Possessed"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Edmund Burke wrote to the sheriffs of Bristol, as their representative in the House of Commons, to relate to them some recent acts of the British Parliament and his reasons for not supporting those acts. Burke was a conservative, but he was also a man who thought that human beings come before abstract principles. He earnestly believed that the British government was, for reasons which could not be defended, mistreating the American colonists. He points out in this letter that the colonists want a free government according to their definition. Burke states, in discussing civil freedom, that liberty "is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation." He goes on to give his opinion that liberty, like all else in life, is unlike a proposition in geometry or metaphysics; that in life we find not simply right and wrong, but many degrees and shades of events. He continues to comment specifically on the nature of liberty and how it can be enjoyed:

. . . The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere. Because extremes, as we all know, in every point which relates either to our duties or satisfactions in life are destructive both to virtue and enjoyment. Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed. The degree of restraint it is impossible in any case to settle precisely. But it ought to be the constant aim of every wise public council to find out by cautious experiments and rational cool endeavours with how little, not how much, of this restraint the community can subsist. For liberty is a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened. It is not only a private blessing of the first order, but the vital spring and energy of the state itself, which has just so much life and vigour as there is liberty in it. . . .