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Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

What has been said of the Roman empire, is at least as true of the British constitution—“Octingentorum annorum fortuna, disciplinaque, compages haec coaluit; quae convelli sine convellentium exitio non potest. ”1 This British constitution has not been struck out at an heat by a set of presumptuous men, like the assembly of pettifoggers run mad in Paris.

’Tis not the hasty product of a day,

But the well-ripen’d fruit of wise delay.2

It is the result of the thoughts of many minds, in many ages. It is no simple, no superficial thing, nor to be estimated by superficial understandings. An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill. The British constitution may have its advantages pointed out to wise and reflecting minds; but it is of too high an order of excellence to be adapted to those which are common. It takes in too many views, it makes too many combinations, to be so much as comprehended by shallow and superficial understandings. Profound thinkers will know it in its reason and spirit. The less enquiring will recognize it in their feelings and their experience. They will thank God they have a standard, which, in the most essential point of this great concern, will put them on a par with the most wise and knowing.

From An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs August 1791 – Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the French Revolution [1790].


1. “This mighty structure has come together thanks to eight hundred years of good fortune and discipline, which cannot be uprooted without destroying the uprooters.” Tacitus, Histories 4.74 (altered)

2. John Dryden, Astraea Redux, ll. 169–170]

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