James Burgh

James Burgh (1714-1775)

I. Biographical and Historical Information.

A. Born and raised in Madderty, Scotland. Father was a minister of the parish Church of Scotland. Burgh was raised a Presbyterian, which strongly contributed to his fight for moral issues. Attended St. Andrews University, but never graduated.

B. He attended St. Andrews University with the intention of studying for the ministry. An illness prevented him from completing his degree and he entered the linen trade. Failure at that sent him to England in the early 1740s. For a short time he was a printer's helper and then in 1746 he became an assistant master in an academy just north of London. The next year, he became master of his own academy in Stoke Newington. In 1750, he moved to Newington Green.

C. In 1754, The Dignity of Human Nature was published. This is Burgh's fist major publication, and one that bears a striking resemblance to Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. In 1761, Burgh wrote The Art of Speaking, an educational book focusing o n oratory. In 1766, He wrote the first volume of Crito, a collection of essays on religious toleration, contemporary politics, and educational theories. The second volume followed a year later. This is his first work that included a strong emphas is on politics. Burgh became involved in the early 1760s with a group called the Honest Whigs, a club that met on alternate Thursday evenings in a coffeehouse in London. Other members of the group involved Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Benjam in Franklin, James Boswell and others. D. In 1774, Burgh wrote his most popular work, Political Disquisitions. The three volume work was intended by Burgh to be longer, more like six volumes, but his deteriorating health caused him to stop after the third volume. Burgh died a year late r in 1776.

II. Major Relevant Works.

A. Political Disquisitions

1. Three Volumes, the third is the most widely used. The book was inspired by the radical reform movement of the time.

2. Includes many of Burgh's feelings on social, religious, political and educational reforms. Burgh also includes many other authors in the book, with the strongest influence being that of John Locke.

3. Chapter IX - Of the Liberty of Speech and Writing on Political Subjects. a. Public vs. Private Liberty: "That all history shows the necessity, in order to the preservation of liberty, of every subjects having a watchful eye on the conduct of Kings, Ministers, and Parliament, and of every subjects being not only secured, but encouraged in alarming his fellow subjects on occasion of every attempt upon public liberty."

b. Consequences of libel: "Punishing libels public or private is foolish, because it does not answer the end, and because the end is a bad one, if it could be answered."

c. Burgh thought libel was acceptable as long as the accusation was aimed only at the political conduct. Private matters were not to be slandered. He reasoned this by saying that "we are to take care of the public safety at all adve ntures." Public libel was not a crime to Burgh, it was "the unavoidable inconvenience attendant upon a high station, which he who dislikes must avoid, and keep himself private."

d. Freedom of speech with limitations: "No man ought to be hindered saying or writing what he pleases on the conduct of those who undertake the management of national affairs, in which all are concerned, and therefore have the right to inquire, and to publish their suspicions concerning them. For if you punish the slanderer, you deter the fair inquirer."

III. Contribution to Free Speech Theory.

Burgh's major contribution to free speech theory is this Political Disquisitions. Many of his other writings contributed in other areas such as educational and reform movements, but Political Disquisitions was widely recognized as required reading. Thom as Jefferson included the work with other writings in a course of recommended reading for James Madison and James Monroe. And in 1803, while Jefferson was President, he "urged" the work on Congress. The book was popular among American colonists and beca me a source of inspiration for American Revolutionists. Many critics claim his work is nothing more than a collection of other writer's ideas and propositions. True, he does draw extensively from outside theorists and authors, but his ideas on Parliamen tary reform, free speech, and equal opportunity are novel.

IV. Bibliography

Burgh, James. Political Disquisitions. Volume III. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Burgh, James. The Art of Speaking. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by R Aitken, bookseller, 1775.

Hay, Carla H. James Burgh, Spokesman for Reform in Hanoverian England. Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.

Kramnick, Isaac. "Republicanism Revisited: The Case of James Burgh". Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Volume 102, Part 1. Worcester, Massachusetts: Published by the Society, 1992.


Information by Jeff Wheatley