Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish-born statesman and writer who served in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party from 1765 to 1780. The main cause of Burke’s renown in America and undoubtedly the reason that Melville mentions him in Moby-Dick is a speech he made to British Parliament in March 1775, “On Moving his Resolution for Conciliation with the Colonies.” Often known today as “Conciliation with the Colonies” this speech earned Burke the reputation in the then American colonies as a supporter of the cause of Independence, which of course would commence in earnest the following year.
Burke was certainly not, however, a de facto advocate of democratic revolution. He famously came out in opposition of the French Revolution by the end of 1790 with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which set off a now famous public debate in England about the legitimacy of the overthrow of the French aristocracy. Among the responses elicited by Burke’s Reflections: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Thomas Paine’s the Rights of Man (1791). Previously to “Conciliation with the Colonies” Burke had established a reputation for pro-American sensibilities: in the early 1770s he lobbied for reductions to the power of the King, and in April of 1774 he spoke to Parliament in favor of repealing the tea-duty on the colonies. Still, he was a staunch skeptic about the virtues of representative democracy.Even in the famous “Conciliation with the Colonies” Burke makes plain that his opposition to Britain tightening its grasp on the American colonies had mainly to do with the fact that he saw the exercise of military force as the least effective means of keeping America, an “object worth fighting for, […] in a profitable and subordinate connexion with [Britain].” At least where Melville was concerned, his praise of Burke had less to do with the statesman’s views on America’s political future than it did with his remarks on one industry in which America had undeniably distinguished itself as a world leader: whaling.
As to the wealth which the Colonies have drawn from the sea by their fisheries, you had all that matter fully opened at your bar. You surely thought those acquisitions of value, for they seemed even to excite your envy; and yet the spirit by which that enterprising employment has been exercised, ought rather, in my opinion, to have raised your esteem and admiration. And pray, Sir, what in the world is equal to it? Pass by the other parts, and look at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the Whale Fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Streights, whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes, and engaged under the frozen Serpent of the south. Falkland Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry. Nor is the equinoctial heat more discouraging to them, than the accumulated winter of both the poles. We know that whilst some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others run the longitude, and pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprize, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people; a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood. When I contemplate these things; when I know that the Colonies in general owe little or nothing to any care of ours, and that they are not squeezed into this happy form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government, but that, through a wise and salutary neglect, a generous nature has been suffered to take her own way to perfection; when I reflect upon these effects, when I see how profitable they have been to us, I feel all the pride of power sink, and all presumption in the wisdom of human contrivances melt and die away within me. My rigour relents. I pardon something to the spirit of liberty.
I am sensible, Sir, that all which I have asserted in my detail, is admitted in the gross; but that quite a different conclusion is drawn from it. America, Gentlemen say, is a noble object. It is an object well worth fighting for. Certainly it is, if fighting a people be the best way of gaining them. Gentlemen in this respect will be led to their choice of means by their complexions and their habits. Those who understand the military art, will of course have some predilection for it. Those who wield the thunder of the state, may have more confidence in the efficacy of arms. But I confess, possibly for want of this knowledge, my opinion is much more in favour of prudent management, than of force; considering force not as an odious, but a feeble instrument, for preserving a people so numerous, so active, so growing, so spirited as this, in a profitable and subordinate connexion with us.
Burke’s praise of the New England Whale Fishery goes beyond extoling the wealth generated by this “enterprising employment,” which, he notes, had recently excited the envy of Parliament. Whaling has taken American sailors to the far reaches of the world—“No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils.”—to places at and beyond the margins of maps. He names several exotic locales that the New England whaleships have gone in search of their quarry; the most extreme place of the world is “but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry.” This “glowing eulogy” of the New England Whale Fishery, as Melville characterizes it in Moby-Dick, grants such powers to the New England whalemen that they appear ubiquitous (like the rumored powers of Moby Dick): “whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes.”
Burke’s ultimate concern here is not, however, simply to register his “esteem and admiration” for the New England Whale Fishery but also to acknowledge a wound to his sense of “pride,” a shame or a disappointment. The shame or disappointment does not consist in the fact that the “hardy industry” of the New England Whale Fishery appears guided by a manly and virtuous spirit; although Burke does register an “envy” (not on his part perhaps but on the part of some parties in Parliament), of “this recent people […] who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.” Nor does the shame or disappointment consist in the fact that the New England whalers appear to be so virtuously guided despite the lack of any “constraints of watchful and suspicious government,” for the “neglect” shown by the Colonies by Britain is “wise” and “salutary.” Rather the shame or disappointment has to do with the profit Britain has reaped without cultivating anything. That they have profited from this “generous nature,” who “has been suffered to take her own way to perfection,” profited from it without having cultivated it, means for Burke that there is a debt: “I pardon something to the spirit of liberty.” One might consider Melville’s entire Postscript to Chapter 24’s “The Advocate” as a crass exclamation point on precisely such an admission: “Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff.”
The facts, however, are the facts. Edmund Burke sung the praises of the New England Whale Fishery in Parliament, citing its special “spirit of liberty,” precisely, one year prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Melville, while triumphant, is also profoundly indebted to Burke’s remarks in his argument for the democratic spirit of the American whaling industry in “The Advocate” as well, perhaps, in his characterization of the Nantucket whalemen in Chapter 14. The exchange is perhaps best summed up by Melville’s generous selection from Burke’s “Conciliation with the Colonies” included in his front matter of “Extracts”: “‘And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?’ Edmund Burke’s reference in Parliament to the Nantucket Whale-Fishery.”