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Edmund Burke’s Negro Code

Though all his life Burke fought against injustice, cruelty and oppression, his attitude towards the slave-trade was at times ambiguous. Yet, writes Robert W. Smith, the great writer was the first statesman in Britain or Ireland to produce a plan for ending it.

Among the writings of Edmund Burke is a ‘Sketch of a Negro Code’ that had a strange history. It was a detailed plan for the regulation of both the African slave-trade and of West Indian slavery. It was never introduced- in Parliament, was seen by few during Burke’s lifetime, and not published until fifteen years after his death. Burke’s attitude toward slavery is a puzzle.

What led him so early as 1780 to construct a detailed plan of regulation when the subject had not yet come under Parliamentary discussion? Why did he then set the project aside? When the campaign to end the slave-trade began in 1788, Burke spoke strongly in favour of immediately ending the trade. By 1792, however, he appeared to be co-operating with Henry Dundas who successfully side-tracked abolition that year.

Some have doubted that Burke any longer supported the cause, a suspicion that is encouraged when it is noted that after Burke’s death both his philosophical legatee, William Windham, and his literary executor, French Laurence, spoke against abolition, citing Burke’s code as their precept. Nor was Burke’s attitude before 1780 consistently anti-slavery. For these reasons, Burke is not generally recognized as the first British statesman to plan to put an end both to the slave-trade and to slavery in the empire.

Burke’s attitude toward New World slavery can be traced back to An Account of the European Settlements in America, a joint work of Edmund and his cousin William Burke in 1757. What parts Edmund supplied is not known, but Edmund later told Boswell that he had both contributed to and revised the Account. There is every reason to believe that the chapters severely critical of British West Indian slavery represent Edmund Burke’s views when he was twenty-eight years old.

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