Front Page Titles (by Subject) Burgh: the Ambivalent Lockean Radical - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Burgh: the Ambivalent Lockean Radical - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Burgh: the Ambivalent Lockean Radical
“The Making of a Radical: The Case of James Burgh.” Journal of British Studies 18(Spring 1979): 90–117.
James Burgh (1711–1775) is best known as one of England’s foremost publicists for advocating radical political reform, Lockean human rights, and virtual universal manhood franchise. His magnum opus, Political Disquisitions, climaxed fifty years of political agitation by British Commonwealthmen (champions of the republican ideals of the seventeenth century English Revolution), and served as an influential reference work and inspiration for eighteenth and nineteenth century reformers in England and America. Yet although Burgh was a spokesman for radical reform and popular participation in political decision-making, he disavowed radical goals and revolutionary methods. This paradox in his behavior—revealing the ambivalences within eighteenth-century British radicalism—flowed from Burgh’s religious conservatism which encouraged deference to authority and social stability.
The son of a Church of Scotland minister, the moralistic Burgh’s early political philosophy was a mixture of Common-wealthman radicalism and Lord Boling-broke’s social conservatism. Gradually Burgh came to deemphasize both Bolingbroke’s notions of an aristocratic social hierarchy and the hope that George III would be the “patriot king” who would lead the masses to greater political participation. He imbibed the revolutionary ideals of the Glorious Revolution and the radical implications in the writings of James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf. Particularly influential in his radicalization was Locke’s contract theory of government with its defense of individual liberties, popular sovereignty, and the revolutionary implications for changing government through popular agitation, petition, and initiatives.
Burgh’s initial radicalization occurred after the failure in 1754 of his “Grand Association,” which hoped to achieve popular representation by naively enlisting the leadership of the English social elite. Burgh moved in radical political circles and was an intimate of Richard Price, the salon of Catherine Macaulay, and the “Honest Whigs,” whose members included Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin. In 1764 he published An Account of the Cessares, a utopian reform proposal urging limited monarchy and the end of political corruption. In 1767, in response to the American Stamp Act crisis, Burgh wrote Crito, which defended the Lockean concept of the “inalienable right of a free people to call their governors to account” and urged popular political associations and petitioning. In 1768–1770, he reached a wide audience through newspaper articles on such topics as annual parliaments, adequate popular representation in Parliament, and the unconstitutional denial of a parliamentary seat to the popular spokesman, John Wilkes. Stressing the consistent application of constitutional liberty, Burgh saw the interdependence of American colonial and domestic English grievances. He thus evenhandedly supported the petition movement to seat Wilkes in parliament as well as the attempt to repeal the Townshend tax duties on the American colonies.
Ambivalence undercut some of Burgh’s radicalism. Although he wished to extend the vote to the industrious poor and form popular associations to pressure government to reform, Burgh would have excluded from the vote able bodied men who refused to labor and would punish them by transporting them to the plantations. In the same ambivalent vein, Burgh was not an egalitarian and did not rest his defense of virtual universal manhood franchise on any theory of the natural political rights of all men (or women) but rather on the traditional principle that property confers special political and social rights. Agreeing with Locke that the people had the right to alter their government, Burgh’s social conservatism and fear of revolutionary instability induced him to seek leadership from men of property and status.