Edmund Burke and American Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on February 1, 2022

“The reason the Constitution’s language was so readily understandable to the founding generation but is obscure to the modern American public is that we lack much of the knowledge they possessed. Involved members of the founding generation knew, or could readily learn about, then-prevailing political practices. They were broadly aware of recent developments in America and Europe, and of the historical background of those events. They were one of the most legally sophisticated generations ever, as Edmund Burke observed in a famous parliamentary speech. Moreover, every boy (and some girls) with educational aspirations studied the Greco-Roman classics from an early age. They were imbued with classical literature, poetry, history, philosophy, fable, and myth.”[1]

This quote from a constitutional scholar calls attention to an event in the history of American education that is rarely discussed: British statesman Edmund Burke’s 1775 parliamentary speech advocating “conciliation with the colonies,” meaning the American colonies, then in a state of rebellion.[2] While it obviously occurred prior to America’s official existence, and his remarks apply mainly to the “elite” adult males who made up the revolutionary/founding generation, it is fascinating piece of history that speaks to some of the early influences on American education.

Acute, Inquisitive, Dexterous

Why did Burke think of the founding generation as “one of the most legally sophisticated generations ever,” and what was the significance of this?

To use Burke’s own words, he was speaking of a “circumstance” in the American colonies that he believed contributed significantly to the development of a rebellious spirit among colonists. That circumstance was “their education.” Burke continued:

“In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavour to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on the law exported to the plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England. General Gage [then the military governor of Massachusetts]…states, that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law; and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitutions.”[3]

Burke went on to say that the study of the law, or at least of English law, “renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence [sic], full of resources.” Burke did not believe that learning the law encouraged people to respect and obey it, or the authorities that enforced it. In fact, he believed that it encouraged just the opposite: “[W]hen great honours and great emoluments do not win over this knowledge to the service of the state, it is a formidable adversary to government.” If the state did not secure the loyalty of such people by rewarding their knowledge and ambition, their spirits became “stubborn and litigious.”

From Burke’s remarks, we can gather that as of 1775, the government had failed to secure the loyalty of the Boston lawyers (or “smatterers in law”), and that these men were causing trouble in a city that had already proven quite troublesome for British colonial officials. Burke evoked the nature of their struggles: “In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”[4]

It also mattered that “unlike an English lawyer, a lawyer in America could not specialize, but [had to] study common and civil law, natural law, and admiralty law and must act as proctor, advocate, solicitor, barrister, attorney, conveyancer, and special pleader.”[5] This produced well-rounded local lawyers with broad social connections and knowledge of diverse community transactions. Studying the law remained a popular method of self-education, and common profession for politicians, throughout the nineteenth century.[6]


We all know what happened in 1776.

Burke’s remarks to Parliament on the Massachusetts situation, its unprecedented and shocking nature, and the threat such developments pose to the status quo, are particularly interesting. As we will see, the American penchant for bottom-up self-organization and Emersonian self-reliance, always particularly strong in Massachusetts, was evident early on and viewed as a stunning development. Burke evidently saw a connection between the large number of legally-educated men in Boston and this “unheard-of situation” that threatened to overturn all the assumptions essential to British rule:

“Until very lately, all authority in America seemed to be nothing but an emanation from [England],” he noted, which meant the initial response to rebellious colonial activity was to insist that only “obedient” (loyal) officials should be allowed to govern. It was previously believed that the colonists could do nothing more than disturb the existing authority, but now, they had actually managed to replace the existing authority with their own, with locals quietly transferring their loyalty to leaders outside the “system.” As Burke said, British authorities knew how difficult it was to set up a new government, and had “never dreamt” that several American “provinces” might try the experiment and succeed at it. [7]

“They have formed a government sufficient for its purposes, without the bustle of a revolution, or the troublesome formality of an election. Evident necessity, and tacit consent, have done the business in an instant. So well they have done it…. that the new institution is infinitely better obeyed than the ancient government ever was in its most fortunate periods.”[8]

Burke emphasized that, in Massachusetts, “this new government has originated directly from the people,” which posed a serious problem: now that colonists had discovered that “the advantages of order” could be maintained “in the midst of a struggle for liberty,” people in America and elsewhere would no longer be so fearful of rebelling. Presumably to refute this impression, Burke described how, in response, the British had doubled down on the “same plan” of punishment: “the denial of the exercise of government.”[9]

“...we wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling, if not the very prospect of anarchy, would instantly enforce a complete submission.”[10]

But when the “experiment” was tried, strange and unexpected things began to happen. Massachusetts seemed strangely “tolerant” of anarchy, maintaining a fairly high quality of life for nearly a year in the absence of an official government.[11]

“How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture? Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent. I am much against any further experiments, which tend to put to the proof any more of these allowed opinions, which contribute so much to the public tranquility.”[12]

There are interesting parallels between Burke’s observations and the Massachusetts Puritan establishment’s approach to education, which had been put into practice in the century prior to the Revolutionary excitement. There is likely some overlap between Massachusetts’ legal prowess and its history as a place where everyone was expected to be able to read and reason about the meaning of Biblical passages. The close textual analysis skills that were especially strong among prominent Bostonians have been seen as fundamental to the development of American self-governance.

As media scholar Neil Postman suggested, “the rise of a more or less stable representative democracy in the United States was inextricably linked to the fact that the country’s late colonial and early republican periods were characterized, when compared to other previous societies, by an unusually wide and dense textual culture.” As “a nation of obsessive readers”—I have previously mentioned the high literacy rates in early America, and especially in New England—we were “unusually well-equipped to visualize the many abstract ideas that one must assimilate to act responsibly and intelligently within a citizen-driven polity.”[13] This allowed early Bostonians to find an alternative to “governance by edict,” which then became the basis of America’s republican form of government.[14]

One is also tempted to draw a connection to the development of pragmatism among Boston philosophers, and its adaptation to American education by John Dewey. Pragmatism emphasizes learning by doing, or by direct experience, and the possibility of spontaneous evolution to a new state of social organization.[15]

1. Robert G. Natelson, “Why Constitutional Lawyers Need to Know Latin,” Federalist Society Review, Volume 19, June 29, 2018, https://fedsoc.org/commentary/publications/why-constitutional-lawyers-need-to-know-latin. (Emphases added; internal citations omitted). Natelson’s remarks apply largely to the “elite” class of that time, and he continues: “Despite its importance for understanding our nation’s founding and Constitution, none of this knowledge—of eighteenth century practices and law or of Latin and classical studies—is prevalent among the voting public now. It is also rare among the lawyers, law professors, and judges who interpret the Constitution for the rest of us….Note that this essay focuses on the value of the language to constitutional interpretation; it does not enter the long-standing debate over the extent of Latin’s pedagogical benefits.” (Emphases added).

2. Wikipedia contributors, "Edmund Burke," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edmund_Burke&oldid=1067764610 (“On 22 March 1775, Burke delivered in the House of Common a speech (published during May 1775) on reconciliation with America. Burke appealed for peace as preferable to civil war and reminded the House of Commons of America's growing population, its industry and its wealth. He warned against the notion that the Americans would back down in the face of force…”)

3. Edmund Burke, “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies,” March 22, 1775, available at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch1s2.html. The General Gage spoke of was Thomas Gage See Wikipedia contributors, "Thomas Gage," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_Gage&oldid=1067909051 (“From 1763 to 1775 he served as commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, overseeing the British response to the 1763 Pontiac's Rebellion. In 1774 he was also appointed the military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with instructions to implement the Intolerable Acts, punishing Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. His attempts to seize military stores of Patriot militias in April 1775 sparked the Battles of Lexington and Concord, beginning the American Revolutionary War. After the Pyrrhic victory in the June Battle of Bunker Hill, he was replaced by General William Howe in October 1775, and returned to Great Britain.”) (Emphases added).

4. Burke, “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.” His explanation for the uniquely “mercurial” nation of Americans seems to be explained by another part of the speech: “The Church of England…was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.” He also claimed that the institution of slavery created a “haughty” attitude in the southern colonies.

5. Charles R. McManis, ”The History of First Century American Legal Education: A Revisionist Perspective,“ 59 WASH. U. L. Q. 597, 1981, https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_lawreview/vol59/iss3/2. (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)

6. See, for example, ibid. (” Prior to the American Revolution, three principle methods for studying law existed in the colonies: (1) study in England at the Inns of Court; (2) self-education by reading one or more books on law;or (3) apprenticeship with a member of the legal profession or in the clerk's office of a court... A much less prestigious and less expensive way to "learn law" was to buy or borrow a book and begin reading for self-education. Requirements for admittance to the bar were scant enough that if one could find a copy of Coke Upon Littleton" (or, later, Blackstone), engage in a study of that single book, and learn enough to be examined thereon, one could be admitted to practice-as was Patrick Henry in 1760 after six weeks of solitary study of Coke and the Virginia statutes. Finding a book to buy or borrow sometimes proved difficult, since practically all the law books used in the colonies were imported from England, were expensive, and were constantly in use by the owners and their apprentices or other members of the bar. There were, of course, no public libraries from which books could be borrowed. It is not difficult, then, to understand the attractions of apprenticing oneself to a member of the bar, if one had the money to pay the fee, for that provided access to the master's private library...”) McManis includes another interesting paragraph: ”One remark of [Harvard President Charles W.] Eliot's is particularly revealing: In 1920 he would recall that ‘[Harvard Professor [of Law Christopher Columbus] Langdell had, I think, no acquaintance with the educational theories or practices of Froebel, Pestalozzi, Seguin and Montessori; yet his method of teaching was a direct application. . . of their methods. Eliot himself, on the other hand, had personally travelled to Europe to study in the most exhaustive possible way the educational systems of the Continent. A particular object of Eliot's study in Europe was French medical education, where Pestalozzi's idea that the aim of teaching was to develop the student's own powers and faculties rather than to impact facts had earlier gained acceptance.” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.) Eliot and Langdell were influential in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid. (Emphases added.)

9. Ibid. (Emphases added).

10. Ibid. (Emphases added).

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid. (Emphases added.)

13. Paraphrased in ”Thomas Harrington,” ”It Was All There in the EUA. Why Couldn’t They See it?,” Brownstone Institute, January 29, 2022, https://brownstone.org/articles/it-was-all-there-in-the-eua-why-couldnt-they-see-it/ (”Unfamiliar with the slow and deliberate processes of deep analytical reading and the importance of seeking information that lies beyond the frenetic and ever more highly managed jungle of delivered feeds, [journalists raised in a less deep literacy-oriented culture] find it very difficult to forge a durable, unique and cohesive critical praxis. And lacking this, they, like many of my students, latch on to the oral summaries of reality provided by those presented to them as being authoritative. That these authority figures might be directly contradicting what can be found in the most consequential thing in a society of laws—its written archive—seems never to occur to them. Or if it does occur to them, the idea is quickly suppressed.”

14. Ibid. (” We are all citizens who believe that, among other things, the ability to develop individual critical criteria through independent reading and research, and to openly challenge the powerful with the knowledge resulting from those activities, is key to achieving such an outcome.”)

15. The career of Oliver Wendell Holmes is particularly interesting in this regard, as his approach to law strikes many as paradoxical, something that seems to be explained at least in part by the fact that he remained influenced by the legal and educational traditions of 19th century Boston even while making his mark as an innovative progressive jurist in the 20th century. See Loius Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), and Michael H. Hoffheimer, Justice Holmes and the Natural Law (Taylor and Francis, Kindle Edition) (“[Holmes’s] great book The Common Law (1881) demonstrated how law evolved by means of internal organic rules that led to the law’s becoming increasingly objective and aware of its own mission...[Boston jurist] Joseph Story had referred repeatedly to law as ‘science’ a generation before Holmes...Nineteenth-century natural law writings displayed characteristic doctrines and attitudes that anticipated important, distinctive features of the mature legal philosophy of Holmes. Holmes’s failure to acknowledge the influence of transcendentalism or natural law on his legal theory poses a difficulty that is not different in kind from his failure to admit the influence of pragmatism or utilitarianism, which were powerful sources of his ideas.”) (Emphasis added). We see an interesting example of ”collective intelligence,” spontaneous self-government, or ”networked thinking” in revolutionary-era Massachusetts in the story of Paul Revere, as told by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. See Patrick T. Reardon,” Why Little Things Can Mean a Lot,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2000, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2000/03/30/why-little-things-can-mean-a-lot/3178a1ee-1707-47a8-a377-29409410b0cb/ (”In a two-hour ride over a more northerly 13-mile route, Revere was hugely successful in arousing the countryside against the imminent British march. Bells rang. Drums beat. And, hours later, colonial minutemen, out in force at Concord, defeated the Redcoats, marking the start of the American Revolution. ’Paul Revere's ride,’ writes Malcolm Gladwell, ‘is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. A piece of extraordinary news traveled a long distance in a very short time, mobilizing an entire region to arms.’ Gladwell has a thing about epidemics. Much of what is confusing about life, he argues, is more understandable once we recognize that ideas, behaviors, products and messages often act like viruses. A flu virus, for example, can hang around for a long time, infecting a small number of people, and then suddenly spread like wildfire, sickening an entire neighborhood or city. In a similar way, the urge to buy a certain brand of shoe can become contagious, seemingly all of a sudden. Or the urge to see a certain movie...Suddenly, troops of angry, determined Colonists show up at Concord to meet and beat the British: Why? And is there any way to channel this phenomenon? To use it to make society a better place? To create, say, an outbreak of healthy behavior?”

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.