- Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire
It can be said without too much qualification that Edmund Burke’s stance against the French Revolution is the one by which posterity defines him. Perhaps Burke would not be surprised by this, but it certainly goes against his estimation of the work he most valued and felt was his greatest contribution to the service of humanity and the British Empire. The cause of Burke’s choice was, of course, British misrule in India. The history of Burke’s involvement in Indian affairs takes in some thirteen years—from 1781, when he was appointed to the select committee investigating the East India Company, to 1794, when the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings was concluded. The complexity of the subject is daunting. One who would wrestle with it must study the political, social, and religious life of eighteenth-century India then go with Burke through the complex and sometimes unreliable material that informed his writings and speeches upon the subject. Our ideal researcher must cast an impartial eye upon Warren Hastings himself and his tenure as governor-general of India as well as sort through the convictions, the ideals, the apparent and the subconscious motives of both Burke and Hastings. Finally, such a scholar must then reconstruct the whole in an intelligible fashion. Frederick Whelan has gone this distance, and he has done his work very well. What is more important, Whelan adds a much needed dimension to this study of Burke and India by using the historical moment of Warren Hastings’s impeachment trial to delineate the specific features of Burke’s political theory. This is his significant contribution to Burkean scholarship as well as to studies on eighteenth-century perceptions of empire.
Coming as they did, toward the end of Burke’s parliamentary career, Indian issues are particularly suited to this focus. As Whelan notes, in the thirteen years that Burke was involved with India he analyzed and reflected on several significant topics: “the nature and purposes of empire; the history, culture, and society of India; the workings of corruption and corrupt political organizations; the pernicious influence of imperial power and wealth on British domestic politics and the constitution; the nature of despotic or arbitrary methods of rule; and the claim that the government in Asia was traditionally and inescapably despotic” (1–2). In several ways, British misrule in India brought together the significant elements of Burke’s political theory.
When he began the prosecution of Hastings in 1786, Burke presented twenty-two “Articles of Charge,” but, for various reasons, these were reduced to four of the strongest. Whelan groups these central charges under two headings: “Corruption” and “Despotism,” then extrapolates the significant features of each. The corruption charge centered on Hastings’s acceptance of what he called “presents” (and Burke called “bribes”) and the fraudulent way he awarded contracts. Hastings was a political realist who defended his actions by arguing precedence, tradition, and necessity: the practice of accepting presents was common among Company officials and was not perceived as bribery; as for the second issue—awarding contracts to favored individuals—Hastings allowed that he had broken the letter of the law but pleaded extenuating circumstances.
The despotism charge essentially accused Hastings of using his power as a government official in ways that were detrimental to his subjects. To this, Hastings appealed to the concept of raison d’état, or political necessity, which held that public officials are free to utilize the most effective means to achieve their public ends. He also mounted the defense that the political climate of India was, in theory and in practice, despotic. In essence Hastings argued that he had been entrusted with the power and authority to advance most effectively state and public interests. At times, these larger goals necessitated actions that may have been morally questionable, but, Hastings asserted, his use of such methods was appropriate to the political culture of India. As Whelan points out, Hastings’s defenses had precedence and a certain theoretical sanction. For one thing...