Thoughts On The Cause Of The Present Discontents "The Wisdom Of Our Ancestors"

Edmund Burke

"The Wisdom Of Our Ancestors"

Context: As an important Whig member of Parliament Burke was ever concerned with popular response to government action. In 1770 there was considerable discontent: royal policy was in public disfavor, riots were breaking out in London, the Colonies in America were restive, and there was extensive public doubt concerning foreign policy. Burke, who was usually a speaker rather than an essayist, produced this pamphlet in an attempt to explain the general unrest which was directed toward the government. At one point in the tract he discusses the enormous size to which the government has grown, the huge sums of money considered in national finances, and the resulting temptations and opportunities for corruption. The people are doubtful of such issues, he says, and history offers no precedent for them:

. . . The power of discretionary disqualification by one law of Parliament, and the necessity of paying every debt of the civil list by another law of Parliament, if suffered to pass unnoticed, must establish such a fund of rewards and terrors as will make Parliament the best appendage and support of arbitrary power that ever was invented by the wit of man. This is felt. The quarrel is begun between the representatives and the people. . . .
In such a strait the wisest may well be perplexed, and the boldest staggered. The circumstances are in a great measure new. We have hardly any landmarks from the wisdom of our ancestors, to guide us. At best we can only follow the spirit of their proceeding in other cases. I know the diligence with which my observations on our public disorders have been made; I am very sure of the integrity of the motives on which they are published: I cannot be equally confident in any plan for the absolute cure of those disorders, or for their certain future prevention.