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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund



Edmund Burke (1729–1797), British statesman and political writer, was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, an attorney of some former prominence, may possibly have descended from gentry but enjoyed only modest wealth by the time Burke was born. Perhaps it was a yearning for lost status that motivated one aspect of Burke’s character, his lifelong desire for a high social station.

Another natural outgrowth of Burke’s background was religious tolerance: he, like his father, was an Anglican, but his mother and sister were Roman Catholics, and his schoolmaster and closest childhood friend were Quakers. He possessed a generous nature, a lofty sense of moral obligation, and unusual devotion to family and friends.

Burke received a thorough secondary school education and was enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin. Then, in 1750, at the age of 21, he left for London to study law. But although he completed his legal studies, he was more interested in debating clubs and a literary career than he was in the law. It was his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), a work on the relation between aesthetics and emotions, that established his reputation. In 1759 he agreed to edit the Annual Register, a new encyclopedic review of politics and literature. During these early years Burke became a charter member of Samuel Johnson’s “Club,” and he always retained the close association with the literary world that his own prose mastery so clearly merited.

Burke’s political career began in 1759, when he became private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a member of Parliament. When the two men quarreled in 1765, Burke obtained a similar position with the marquis of Rockingham, leader of an important group of Whigs in Commons and, at the time, head of the government ministry. The following year friends provided Burke with a seat in Parliament, where he was immediately acclaimed for his informed, incisive, and polished analyses of political problems.

The Rockingham ministry fell in 1766, and it was Burke, the new Whig theoretician, who converted the Rockingham clique into an opposition party committed to distinctive political principles. In 1774 he was elected to sit for Bristol, a major commercial center, but he lost the seat in 1780. From then on he sat for one of Rockingham’s pocket boroughs.

By 1782 Burke had made numerous enemies, and he held only minor office during Rockingham’s short-lived second administration. When the marquis’s death, later in the year, removed the protection of that powerful patron, Burke’s influence in the House of Commons waned further. Then, as a new generation moved in, his decline accelerated.

Burke had always had a quick temper, and constant personal attacks led him to an increasingly uncritical defense of his emotional commitments. His intense personal and family affections developed into a blind refusal to believe that his kinsmen and friends could be guilty of the irregularities which others knew they had committed. His aspiration for high status had led him to buy a landed estate that he could not afford. Under continued criticism for financial embarrassment, and longing for the security of a peerage, he became a more intense apologist for aristocracy than the aristocrats themselves.

It was Burke’s uncompromising condemnation of the French Revolution that precipitated his break with the Whig party. In 1791, climaxing a dramatic scene in Parliament, he severed his ties with Charles James Fox, Rockingham’s young successor. Although after 1792 public opinion tended to support his position, Burke felt obliged to resign his parliamentary seat, delaying his resignation only until the end of the trial he had initiated against Warren Hastings, the former governor of India. The tragic death of his only surviving son in 1794 not only robbed him of the most cherished object of his love but also ended his hopes for a hereditary peerage, so that in one blow the two most important personal devotions of his life were destroyed. He lived only a short while longer.

Approach to politics. Burke’s theories synthesize the Whig aspirations of the eighteenth century as Locke’s do those of the seventeenth. During the seventeenth century English constitutional traditions turned brittle from the refusal of Cavaliers and Tories to temper the “divine right of kings.” Blocked from access to the power centers that interpreted those traditions, Roundheads and Whigs who sought the extension of political consent and freedom had to abandon argument from national custom and rest their case instead on the abstract principles summed up in the Lockean theory of “natural rights,” a “social contract,” and the legislative sovereignty of a representative Parliament. By Burke’s time, however, the successful Whig revolution had made the commitment to freedom an integral part of a reformulated national tradition. It was now the unreconciled Tory, like Bolingbroke, and the more radical, democratic Lockean, like Paine, who argued from abstraction. Whig theory therefore had to be restated in terms of the new tradition without being made vulnerable to attack from the right or the left, and Whig theorists had to use the new formulation to redefine the collective interests of a society that was rapidly raising its level of secular expectations. Burke provided the theoretical basis for this new orientation.

A distaste for speculative argument permeated all of Burke’s writings and speeches. Politics and morality, he was always ready to point out, are matters of prudence and practicability. If we insist on imposing the simple perfection of a logical ideal on an imperfect, complex reality, we shall only succeed in destroying both the amount of good that already exists and the limited improvements that are feasible. Moral principles must be adjusted to the feelings and emotions of a people, to their conflicting interests, their interrelated institutions, and the complicated realities of circumstance. The integration of all these strands requires an element of political artistry, an act of creation that is something more than a moral arithmetic. It is destructive, therefore, to criticize on the basis of an abstract ideal, unless something better can actually be put into effect.

Social order. With this prudential approach to politics Burke offered a new theoretical synthesis of the Whig principle of freedom and the Tory principle of order. There were important occasions when Burke spoke of order in instrumental terms as the condition of freedom and prosperity. On these occasions he was prepared to urge that the existing order be redefined to make it more compatible with freedom. But order, especially social order, was also an intrinsic good, to be defined and valued in its own terms, as it was in Tory theory. Four principles recur and are elaborated in Burke’s theory of order:

(1) Social order is a part of the natural order that God has created in the universe, and it exists prior to the individuals who are born into it. Obedience and tranquillity in society rest ultimately on man’s reverence for God, on the religious obligation to restrain his selfish desires and passions, on the faith that gives “dignity to life and consolation in death.” Social order must hence be built on a religious establishment, because it is in itself divinely ordained, quite apart from the human advances and benefits it makes possible.

(2) Man is a social animal. Therefore, the family, not the individual, is the proper unit of social order. Families are organized into classes that reflect social functions and into regional communities that reflect geographic conditions. The pre-eminently effective community is the nation; the nation is the vehicle that expresses the unique character of a people in history, that integrates classes and localities in space and links them in time to generations both past and unborn.

(3) A nation must have rules of behavior to bring unity of purpose out of the mutual adaptation of conflicting interests and emotions. In time these unifying rules become prescriptive traditions that assign rights and privileges and transmit them to the next generation through the principle of family inheritance. The more ancient the tradition, the more profound the respect it evokes, because it embraces the accumulated collective wisdom of the ages. Such ancient traditions must therefore be examined only with great caution and veneration.

(4) Inequality is inescapable in society. But social leadership is most properly founded on the natural sense of dependence, subordination, and affection, which respond to ability, virtue, age, and graciousness. These qualities of leadership are best institutionalized in a hereditary aristocracy, because aristocracy combines training in expert knowledge and self-discipline with a gracious, humane code of social behavior and with the ancient, hallowed institution of nobility. Since aristocracy offers its members the highest social honors for public service, the aristocrat develops the strong sensitivity to reputation and personal honor that leads him to identify the public interest with his own.

Burke’s emphasis on the emotional responses that social order evokes and his view of the nation as a unit of historical time were original ideas. But established religion, hereditary aristocracy, reverence for ancient traditions, and a familistic basis for social organization were conceptions of social order that derived from old Tory principles and, beyond them, from medieval social theory.

To build his Whig superstructure Burke modified the old Tory principles of order with liberal attitudes more appropriate to his own age: (1) religious establishment should respect the conscience of the dissenter; (2) aristocracy should leave some limited room for the upward mobility of new talent; (3) tradition must be adjusted, however cautiously, to the new circumstances and problems for which there is no solution in precedent; (4) an imperial nation can maintain order only by respecting the distinctive character and traditions of its colonies.

Economic theory. On questions other than that of social order Burke’s viewpoint diverged more radically from Tory principles. This was especially true of his economic theory, which was almost identical with the advanced position held by Adam Smith. In economics Burke was prepared to define order entirely in terms of individual freedom: free trade, free competition, and reward for individual work and thrift. Given a system of competitive capitalism, God and nature lead men, “whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success” (1800, p. 11). If nobility was the “soul” of the social order, freedom was the “vital spring” of economic energy and the key to national prosperity.

Political principles. The task of good government was to combine both principles, to provide “liberty, connected with order,” as Burke described the English system. He spoke of political authority in general terms as an accountable trust, granted by the community to its leaders for the purpose of pursuing the common good. But more specifically, this meant (1) fulfilling and expanding the traditional interests of the nation; (2) adhering to the rule of law, with respect for the prescriptive rights of the citizens, and cautiously expanding political liberties; (3) balancing landed and commercial political interests under aristocratic leadership; and (4) developing a “mixed government” consisting of a representative legislature and a hereditary monarchy.

Monarchy was the central institution of political order because it was, to Burke, the “natural” object of political obedience and reverence, the symbol of national continuity. Although these characteristics made monarchy a primary condition of good government, the ultimate significance of monarchy lay in its potential for developing into mixed and balanced government. The principle of continuity by inheritance guaranteed peaceful succession to the throne. But the same principle became, for Burke, the guarantee of the inherited rights of the citizens. When these rights were violated, an oppressed community could, by political revolution, withdraw its grant of trust. The conditions for such withdrawal of trust were prolonged and great abuse, with no prospect for improvement, under pressure so heavy that no delay was possible, and the absence of any clearly better alternative to revolution.

Needless to say, Burke found his political principles best expressed in the English constitutional tradition, last clarified by the Whig revolution of 1688–1689. Burke proceeded further to clarify this tradition for the late eighteenth century. The traditional rights of Englishmen, he insisted, applied to all citizens—rights such as habeas corpus, private property, and some elements of a free press and of religious conscience. But the right to vote or to hold office was based primarily on property qualifications, he argued, not only because property expresses the economic element in the national interest but also because it instills in its possessors both respect for order and an attitude of independence. These property interests were represented in the House of Commons. The nobility in the House of Lords represented the nation’s interest in social order and rank. At both levels of government the aristocratic sense of honor stood as a kind of collateral to guarantee performance of the public trust with which government is endowed. Parliament thus represented social rank and economic interests, not individuals. It was the uniquely English class ties between landed aristocracy and urban commerce, as Burke realized, that generated the unifying force of English politics and made possible the integration as well as the balance of prescriptively protected interests.

Although the king retained control over executive appointments, Burke explained, Parliament held legislative sovereignty as the representative body through which the public spoke. Therefore, it could properly reject a ministry by refusing to allocate funds to it. Similarly, the public itself could reject parliamentary representatives by refusing to re-elect them. But just as the legislature should not try to administer, so the public should not try to legislate. It is important that popular grievances be voiced, but only the government can provide the necessary remedies, and it cannot dispense with independent judgment.

Critique of government policy. In this synthesis of Whig and Tory political principles, Burke was articulating views widely held at the time. It was in his application of these principles to the new problems of the day that he departed from the majority, for he charged the king’s government with major failures of national policy and systematic perversion of the English constitution.

Since it was Burke’s position that one social group should never benefit at the expense of the traditional interests of another, a progressive national policy was one that meant a general increase of benefits for the whole society and the individuals in it. In his analysis, such progress could best be achieved by (1) commercial expansion through freer trade and economic competition, and (2) imperial unity maintained by careful attention to the character, traditions, and interests of the colonies.

It was essential, Burke reasoned, that the government hold the affections of the American colonies and preserve the commercial relations which made England the imperial manufacturing center. But the administration had stubbornly insisted on imposing unprecedented taxes upon Americans, ignoring those elements in the American character which would lead them to resist in the name of freedom. The resort to coercive acts would not only violate the colonists’ rights as Englishmen but would also produce such intense resentment that imperial order and the whole commercial system would be endangered, no matter how successfully disturbances might be repressed (1775a; 1775b).

In Ireland also, the government had enforced harmful trade restrictions and violated civil rights far too long, Burke charged. The systematic oppression of the Catholic majority left it without either sympathetic representation or protection against the small minority that ruled in its own interests. Irish policy too would one day end in disaster, he warned.

Burke argued that these dangers to the common interest were the consequences of a constitutional imbalance which had illicitly given unchecked control of the government to King George III and his court faction. This faction had used political patronage as an instrument for the systematic control and corruption of the electorate, which in turn meant control of Parliament. Civil rights had been violated and “natural” leaders ignored. The entire English constitution had been turned upside down by making electoral consent and legislative criticism objects of irresponsible and secretive executive manipulation, instead of effective instruments of popular control.

Burke neglected to point out that it was originally the Whigs themselves who, under Walpole, had created this perversion of their doctrine. George in had merely taken over the system by reasserting his royal prerogatives. Only after they were out of power had the Whigs become sensitive to this problem. But Burke did provide the theoretical remedies for the constitutional imbalance that were to pass into English tradition.

First, he supported wider political rights, such as publication of parliamentary debates, less government discretion in political libel cases, more exact voter lists, and effective protest against the seating of a minority candidate by Commons (as in the Wilkes election of 1769). Second, he called for permanent disciplined parties, organized within the House of Commons, to provide a continuous channel of responsibility to the political public. Party government, he insisted, is not subversive of order, and it is essential to freedom. A party, however, needs more than personal loyalties and common economic or social interests. It needs common political principles consistently expressed in a clear doctrine on which national policy can be based. With this kind of doctrinal party unity, he concluded, it becomes possible for the party in power to have responsible administration and for the opposition to produce responsible criticism (1770). Reapportionment and more frequent elections appeared to Burke to be irrelevant to the task of enforcing political responsibility. He did admit that party government would not in itself eliminate executive control of elections, and in 1782 he provided a third remedy—a program of “economical reform” to reorganize government finance and reduce the whole system of electoral patronage, though it was Pitt who later made financial reform effective.

Burke, in effect, formulated the principles for reversing the whole flow of power to the executive: financial reorganization to give Parliament more effective control of the executive, broader political rights to enlarge public information, and a redefinition of the national interest around freer trade and less coercive imperial unity. Above all, organized, disciplined parties with clear programs were to provide the active public with an instrument of control over both the legislature and the executive, linking them together in an effective system of responsible government. He may have refused to take the final step of pushing toward the universal franchise, and most of his arguments against democracy may seem unconvincing to our age, but he supported his position forcefully when he pointed out that the English people were simply not interested in democracy at the time.

After 1782 Burke’s criticisms grew steadily more bitter and emotional in tone, and his facts were more apt to be exaggerated or otherwise distorted. But he still had vital messages to deliver. During the rest of the decade he became increasingly absorbed in the problems of India, specifically in the prosecution of Warren Hastings. He accused the Hastings regime and the East India Company of plundering India for private profits without giving anything to India in return. Not satisfied with destroying the country’s social order, they had depressed its economy, despoiled the private property of its citizens, and returned with their loot to corrupt English politics, further undermining the authority of the Parliament whose instructions they had repeatedly ignored. Although the personal charges against Hastings were finally dismissed in 1795, Burke had created for Britain’s Indian policy a national conscience that it was never to shake off.

French Revolution. It was the French Revolution that drew Burke’s heaviest and most sustained fire. This was the catalyst that forced Burke to crystallize his whole theory of social order. With a passion matched only by his eloquence, he charged the revolutionaries with every social and political crime in his catalogue. In terrible contrast to the cautious political rebellion with which the English Whigs had regained their freedom, France had unleashed total chaos. From pure abstractions, he thundered, and with total indifference to their own national traditions, these inferior, factious Frenchmen of the middle class were launching a Continental social revolution. They were destroying the spirit of chivalry and nobility; they were under-mining religion and the established church; they were subverting property and the family; they had already murdered a legitimate monarch and loosened the bonds of political allegiance. And having disintegrated the base on which responsible freedom is built, Burke warned, French individualism would be forced to turn to a new despot to save it from total anarchy; moreover, the new despotism would soon overflow with barbaric savagery into all of Europe (1790). Before long he had issued his call for a crusade against revolutionary France and for the repression of French ideas in Great Britain.

There is no doubt that Burke’s theoretical framework enabled him to see more clearly than many others the explosive consequences of a total social revolution, as distinguished from a limited political rebellion. The events that culminated in the rise of Napoleon seemed the fulfillment of his prophecy. But in his frenzy to fasten all the blame on the revolutionaries he failed to understand the extent to which revolutionaries are molded by the system against which they revolt, and he made statements very difficult to reconcile with those he had made during the American and Irish controversies.

Burke had begun with an important generalization about his country—that the edifice of British freedom stood on a foundation of social order which preserved selected elements from its medieval past. But the traditional order had changed, as he well knew. In the United States it had changed still further; the American constitution abolished monarchy, nobility, and an established national church. Yet Burke raised no public objections to these experiments that redefined order for the sake of expanding freedom: Implicitly, and often explicitly, he held that continuity was preserved because of a traditional Anglo-Saxon readiness to alter the older order when it conflicted with the extension of freedom, and usually to do this before the conflict became explosive.

Burke seemed unable, however, to understand the corollary to this analysis: that the moderate principles of Anglo-Saxon development might be inapplicable in a tradition-oriented social order which repressed any strong internal or external movement toward individual freedom; he was quite incapable of shedding British standards when dealing with totally alien conditions. In spite of the many years he devoted to studying India, he always tended to equate Indian institutions with European counterparts that were, in fact, only remotely similar, and he was therefore able to indulge in the comforting illusion that the British could stay in India indefinitely without radically altering the country’s traditions. For all his insistence that allowance be made for differences in national character, Burke’s indictment of the French Revolution adds up to blaming France for not being Britain.

The many difficulties Burke had in defending his position led him to attribute the profound upheavals in India and France to personal conspiracies, but he simply refused to believe that his own friends and those he admired merited as large a share of “blame” as his enemies. Parliament knew this when it dismissed his charges against Hastings. Many contemporaries knew it when they contrasted his generous sympathy for the fate of French royalists with his seeming indifference to the plight of less privileged Frenchmen. Out-matched though Tom Paine was in his debate with Burke over the French Revolution, he hit the mark when he noted the ease with which Burke “pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird.”

Influence on later thought. Burke was not one of the really great political theorists of Western civilization. His theories were fruitfully tailored to eighteenth-century Britain and British imperial problems, but his insights were not systematic and his formulations not universal. In the early nineteenth century his influence was largely confined on the Continent to the defenders of the medieval ancien régime against the liberalism of the French Revolution and in Great Britain to some of the literary figures of the early romantic movement. The democratic movement of the later century made the antidemocratic Burke seem irrelevant to the new problems facing Great Britain, and his ambiguous party affiliations did not endear him to the political spokesmen of the period.

By the twentieth century, partisan reaction to Burke was being superseded by a willingness to draw piecemeal on his many insights without any necessary commitment to his particular conclusions. The list of social and political theorists in twentieth-century Britain and America who have referred approvingly to particular of Burke’s formulations includes such diverse political thinkers as Harold Laski, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr. Walter Lippmann, Hannah Arendt, and Ernest Barker. In the 1950s there appeared in America a number of books whose authors, such as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Clinton Rossiter, affirmed intellectual descent from Burke.

There are few contemporary works on political parties or on the nature of political representation that do not refer to Burke’s analyses of these subjects, and his discussions of prudential considerations in political policy are probably of even more lasting significance. Certainly, there is much in Burke that is indispensable for an understanding of the long-term dynamics of British political development. Beyond the purely political, scholars will continue to find fruitful insights in his appreciation, however overdrawn and unqualified, of the more intangible elements of social order.

M. Morton Auerbach

[For the historical context of Burke’s work, seeConsensus; Conservatism; Parliamentary government; Representation, article onrepresentational behavior; Revolution; and the biographies ofLocke; Paine; Smith, Adam.]


(1744–1782) 1958–1963 The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. 4 vols. Univ. of Chicago Press; Cambridge Univ. Press. → Four volumes of a projected ten-volume work.

(1757) 1958 A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(1769–1796) 1949 Burke’s Politics: Selected Writings and Speeches on Reform, Revolution, and War. Edited by Ross J. S. Hoffman and Paul Levack. New York: Knopf.

1770 Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents. London: Dodsley.

1775a Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq., on American Taxation, April 19, 1774. London: Dodsley.

1775b Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq., on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation With the Colonies, March 22, 1775. London: Dodsley; New York: Rivington.

(1790) 1960 Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. New York: Dutton; London: Dent.

1800 Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. London: Rivington. → Originally presented to William Pitt in 1795 and first published in 1800.

1803–1827 The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 16 vols. London: Rivington.


Barker, Ernest 1931 Burke and Bristol: A Study of the Relations Between Burke and His Constituency During the Years 1774–1780. Bristol (England): Arrowsmith.

Canavan, Francis P. 1960 The Political Reason of Edmund Burke. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Cobban, Alfred (1929) 1960 Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth Century: A Study of the Political and Social Thinking of Burke, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. 2d ed. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Barnes & Noble.

Cone, Carl B. 1957–1964 Burke and the Nature of Politics. 2 vols. Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press. → Vol. 1: Age of the American Revolution. Vol. 2: Age of the French Revolution.

Copeland, Thomas W. 1949 Our Eminent Friend Edmund Burke. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Graubard, Stephen R. 1961 Burke, Disraeli and Churchill: The Politics of Perseverance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hoffman, Ross J. S. 1956 Edmund Burke: New York Agent; With His Letters to the New York Assembly and Intimate Correspondence With Charles O’Hara, 1761–1776. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

MacCunn, John 1913 The Political Philosophy of Burke. London: Arnold.

Magnus, Philip M. 1939 Edmund Burke: A Life. London: Murray.

Mahoney, Thomash. d. 1960 Edmund Burke and Ireland. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Morley, John M. 1867 Edmund Burke: A Historical Study. London: Macmillan.

Morley, John M. 1879 Burke. London: Macmillan; New York: Harper.

Osborn, Annie M. 1940 Rousseau and Burke: A Study of the Idea of Liberty in Eighteenth-century Political Thought. Oxford Univ. Press.

Parkin, Charles 1956 The Moral Basis of Burke’s Political Thought. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Stanlis, Peter J. 1958 Edmund Burke and the Natural Law. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

The British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a noted political theorist and philosophical writer. He was born in Ireland, spent most of his active life in English politics, and died the political oracle of conservative Europe.

Edmund Burke's view of society was hierarchical and authoritarian, yet one of his noblest characteristics was his repeated defense of those who were too weak to defend themselves. Outstanding in 18th-century British politics for intellect, oratory, and drive, he lacked the ability either to lead or to conciliate men and never exerted an influence commensurate with his capabilities. His career as a practical politician was a failure; his political theories found favor only with posterity.

Burke was born on Jan. 12, 1729, in Dublin of middleclass parents. His mother suffered from what Burke called "a cruel nervous disorder," and his relations with his authoritarian father, a Dublin attorney, were unhappy. After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Burke in 1750 crossed to England to study law at the Middle Temple. But he unconsciously resisted his father's plans for him and made little progress in the law. Indecision marked his life at this time: he described himself as "a runaway son" and his "manner of life" as "chequered with various designs." In 1755 he considered applying for a post in the Colonies but dropped the idea when his father objected.

In 1756 Burke published two philosophical treatises, A Vindication of Natural Society and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In the Vindication Burke exposed the futility of demanding a reason for moral and social institutions and, with the foresight which was one of the most remarkable of his gifts, distinguished the coming attack of rationalistic criticism on the established order. The Enquiry, which he had begun when only 19, was considered by Samuel Johnson to be "an example of true criticism." These works were followed in 1757 by An Account of the European Settlement in America, to which Burke, although he denied authorship, clearly contributed a great deal. The early sheets of The Abridgement of the History of England were also printed in 1757, although the book itself was not published until after Burke's death. These works introduced Burke's name into London literary circles and seemed to open up a reputable career.

Family unity, which he had never known as a boy, became an article of Burke's adult philosophy. In 1757 he married the daughter of his physician and settled into family life with his father-in-law, his brother Richard, and his so-called cousin William. With them he found a domestic harmony he had never known in his father's home.

Early Political Career

Financial security, however, was elusive, and Burke was forced to take a minor secretarial post in the government establishment in Ireland. But contact with the depressed and persecuted Irish Catholics unsettled him, and early in 1765 he resigned his position. Necessity now led Burke into politics. In July 1765, when the Whig administration of Lord Rockingham was being formed, he was recommended to Rockingham, who took him on as his private secretary. In December, Burke entered Parliament as member for the Buckinghamshire constituency of Wendover.

Burke's subsequent political career was bound inextricably to the fortunes of the Rockingham group. Emotional and hysterical by nature, without a profession or a secure income, he found stability and independence through his attachment to the Whig aristocrats. When Rockingham lost the premiership in 1766, Burke, though offered employment under the new administration, followed him into opposition. "I believe in any body of men in England I should have been in the minority," he later said. "I have always been in the minority." Certainly the dominant characteristic of his political career was an overwhelming impulse to argue and oppose; to that was added enormous persistence, courage, concentration, and energy. Endowed with many of the qualities of leadership, he lacked the sensitivity to gauge and respect the feelings and opinions of others. Hence his political life was a series of negative crusades—against the American war, Warren Hastings, and the French Revolution—and his reputation as a statesman rests on his wisdom in opposition, not on his achievements in office.

Burke's theory of government was essentially conservative. He profoundly distrusted the people and believed in the divine right of the aristocracy to govern. "All direction of public humour and opinion must originate in a few," he wrote in 1775. "God and nature never meant [the people] to think or act without guidance or direction." Yet all Burke's writings, despite their rather narrow propaganda purpose, include valuable generalizations on human conduct.

Views on America and Ireland

Burke found difficulty in applying his political philosophy to practical issues. He was one of the first to realize the implications of Britain's problems with colonial America. He saw the British Empire as a family, with the parent exercising a benevolent authority over the children. Perhaps influenced by his own upbringing, he believed the British government to have been harsh and tyrannical when it should have been lenient. "When any community is subordinately connected with another," he wrote, "the great danger of the connexion is the extreme pride and self-complacency of the superior."

In 1774 Burke argued against retaining the tea duty on the Colonies in his celebrated Speech on American Taxation, and twice in 1775 he proposed conciliation with the Colonies. His conception of the British Empire as an "aggregate of many states under one common head" came as near as was possible in the 18th century to reconciling British authority with colonial autonomy. Yet at the same time he repeatedly declared his belief in the legislative supremacy of the British Parliament. Thus the American war split Burke in two. He could face neither American independence nor the prospect of a British victory. "I do not know," he wrote in August 1776, "how to wish success to those whose victory is to separate us from a large and noble part of our empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression, and absurdity … No good can come of any event in this war to any virtuous interest."

In Ireland, Burke's sympathies were with the persecuted Roman Catholics, who were "reduced to beasts of burden" and asked only for that elementary justice all subjects had a right to expect from their government. He preferred their cause to that of the Protestant Anglo-Irish, who were striving to throw off the authority of the British Parliament. With Irish nationalism and its constitutional grievances he had little sympathy. "I am sure the people ought to eat whether they have septennial Parliaments or not," he wrote in 1766. As on the American problem, Burke always counseled moderation in Ireland. "I believe," he said only 2 months before his death, "there are very few cases which will justify a revolt against the established government of a country, let its constitution be what it will."

Hastings Incident

On the formation of the short-lived Rockingham ministry in March 1782, Burke was appointed paymaster general. But now, when he seemed on the threshold of political achievement, everything seemed to go wrong for Burke. In particular, his conduct at this time showed signs of mental disturbance, a tendency aggravated by the death of Rockingham in July 1782. James Boswell told Samuel Johnson in 1783 that Burke had been represented as "actually mad"; to which Johnson replied, "If a man will appear extravagant as he does, and cry, can he wonder that he is represented as mad?" A series of intemperate speeches in the Commons branded Burke as politically unreliable, an impression confirmed by his conduct in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the governor general of Bengal, in 1790.

Ever since Rockingham had taken office, the punishment of those accused of corruption in India had been uppermost in Burke's mind. His strong aggressive instincts, sharpened by public and private disappointments, needed an enemy against which they could concentrate. Always inclined to favor the unfortunate, he became convinced that Hastings was the principal source of misrule in India and that one striking example of retribution would deter other potential offenders. In Burke's disordered mind, Hastings appeared as a monster of iniquity; he listened uncritically to any complaint against him; and the vehemence with which he prosecuted the impeachment indicates the depth of his emotions. His violent language and intemperate charges alienated independent men and convinced his own party that he was a political liability.

Last Years

Disappointment and nostalgia colored Burke's later years. He was the first to appreciate the significance of the French Revolution and to apply it to English conditions. In February 1790 he warned the Commons: "In France a cruel, blind, and ferocious democracy had carried all before them; their conduct, marked with the most savage and unfeeling barbarity, had manifested no other system than a determination to destroy all order, subvert all arrangement, and reduce every rank and description of men to one common level."

Burke had England and his own disappointments in mind when he published Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London in 1790. "You seem in everything to have strayed out of the high road of nature," he wrote. "The property of France does not govern it"; and in the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796) he defined Jacobinism as "the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property." If England, following the French example, was not to be governed by property, what would become of Burke's most cherished principles? In part the Reflections is also Burke's apologia for his devotion to Rockingham. For Rockingham's cause Burke had sacrificed his material interests through 16 long years of profitless opposition, and when his party at last came to power he failed to obtain any lasting advantage for himself or his family. In the famous passage on Marie Antoinette in the Reflections, Burke, lamenting the passing of the "age of chivalry," perhaps unconsciously described his own relations with the Whig aristocrats: "Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom."

For the last 5 years of his life Burke occupied a unique position. "He is," remarked a contemporary, "a sort of power in Europe, though totally without any of those means … which give or maintain power in other men." He corresponded with Louis XVIII and the French royalists and counseled Stanislaus of Poland to pursue a liberal policy. The Irish Catholics regarded him as their champion. As each succeeding act of revolution became more bloody, his foresight was praised more widely. He urged the necessity of war with France, and the declaration of hostilities further increased his prestige. On the last day of his life he spoke of his hatred for the revolutionary spirit in France and of his belief that the war was for the good of humanity. He died on July 9, 1797, and in accordance with his wishes was buried in the parish church of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.

Further Reading

There are many editions of Burke's writings. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, edited by Thomas W. Copeland and others (8 vols., 1958-1969), is the definitive edition of Burke's letters. Of the smaller collections, Speeches and Letters on American Affairs, with an introduction by Peter McKevitt (1961), is of particular interest. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by J. T. Boulton (1958), and Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by William B. Todd (1965), are definitive editions of two major works. See also Walter J. Bate, ed., Selected Works (1960).

Thomas E. Utley, Edmund Burke (1957), is the most useful modern biography. Studies of Burke's political philosophy include Charles W. Parkin, The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought: An Essay (1956); Francis P. Canavan, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (1960); Peter J. Stanlis, ed., The Relevance of Edmund Burke (1964) and his own Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958); Gerald W. Chapman, Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination (1967); and Burleigh T. Wilkins, The Problem of Burke's Political Philosophy (1967). Of the many works setting Burke in the context of the 18th century, the most useful are Carl B. Cone, Burke and the Nature of Politics (2 vols., 1957-1964); Alfred Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the 18th Century (2d ed. 1960); and R. R. Fennessy, Burke, Paine and the Rights of Man (1963).

Additional Sources

Ayling, Stanley Edward, Edmund Burke: his life and opinions, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Kirk, Russell, Edmund Burke: a genius reconsidered, Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988.

Kramnick, Isaac, comp., Edmund Burke, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Macpherson, C. B. (Crawford Brough), Burke, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Miller, Alice P., Edmund Burke: a biography, New York: Allwyn Press, 1976.

Miller, Alice P., Edmund Burke and his world, Old Greenwich, Conn.: Devin-Adair Co., 1979.

Morley, John, Edmund Burke, Belfast: Athol Books, 1993. □

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Burke, Edmund


Edmund Burke was an orator, philosophical writer, political theorist, and member of Parliament who helped shape political thought in England and the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Burke was born January 12, 1729, in Dublin, Ireland, to a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother. His father, a prosperous Dublin attorney, was cold and authoritarian, and the two did not enjoy a close relationship. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1750, Burke traveled to England to study law in accord with his father's wishes. However, he did not progress in his legal studies, and he eventually abandoned the law in favor of a literary career.

In 1756 Burke published two philosophical treatises, A Vindication of Natural Society and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. These and other works launched Burke's career as a critic of social and political issues. Burke became a member of the literary circle headed by Samuel Johnson, the English author, scholar, and critic. In 1759, Burke founded the Annual Register, a yearly survey of world affairs to which he contributed until 1788.

Realizing that the literary life would not pay enough to support a family, Burke entered politics. In 1765, he was appointed private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, England's prime minister and a member of the whig party, marking the beginning of a lifelong alliance between Burke and Rockingham and the Whigs. Burke was also elected to Parliament in 1765. In 1766, Rockingham lost the premiership. Burke was offered employment with the new administration, but chose to remain with the Whig opposition. "I believe in any body of men in England I should have been in the minority," he said. "I have always been in the minority."

"All government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter."

Burke believed strongly in opposition politics. Having a party that acts as a watchdog for the incumbent party is the best way, he felt, to avoid corruption and abuse of power. As a member of the opposition, Burke could do what he did best: criticize the government for what he considered unjust or unwise policies. He disagreed with England's policies in North America and urged the government to abolish the tea

duty imposed on the colonies. "All government—indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter," he said in 1775, in his Speech on Conciliation with America. However, despite his dissatisfaction with English policy, he did not support the American revolutionaries. Although he believed that the British had been overly harsh and tyrannical, he also believed in the legislative superiority of the British Parliament over the colonies. In August, 1776, he expressed his despair over the conflict between England and its North American colonies: "I do not know how to wish success to those whose victory is to separate us from a large and noble part of our empire," he wrote. "Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression, and absurdity…. No good can come of any event in this war to any virtuous interest."

Burke vociferously criticized the British government's policies in Ireland as well, and decried the poverty and persecution of Catholics there. Yet, although his sympathies were clearly with the oppressed and powerless in Ireland, he again opposed revolution and urged moderation on both sides. "I believe there are very few cases which will justify a revolt against the established government of a country, let its constitution be what it will, " he said.

Burke's support for established order, even where it meant support for inequalities, was most evident in his harsh criticism of the French Revolution. "[T]he age of chivalry is gone," he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France. "That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is gone forever." According to Burke, the French revolutionaries' only purpose was to destroy all traditional authority and property rights. The result, he predicted, would be anarchy and the emergence of an autocratic ruler whose reign would be worse than any the revolutionaries had seen before. Burke's prediction proved accurate: the revolution in France led to the Reign of Terror and the regime of Napoleon.

In his condemnation of the French Revolution, Burke presaged American thought on the importance of private property to the preservation of societal harmony. Stephen B. Presser, associate dean and professor at Northwestern University School of Law, wrote that

Burke's attacks on the French, and his spirited defense of private property as a guarantee of order, stability, and prosperity have echoed through the arguments of American judges and statesmen.

Burke's strongest criticism of British policy came in the 1780s when he instigated impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, governor-general of India. Burke attacked the

British East India Company as unjust and oppressive in its treatment of the Indian people. In his Speech on Opening the Articles of Impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788), Burke asserted his belief that the exercise of arbitrary political power is never justified. "My Lords … the King has no arbitrary power to give him [Hastings], your Lordships have not, nor the commons, nor the whole Legislature. We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing, which neither any man can hold nor any man can give." Burke's view that political power is held in trust for the benefit of the people is reflected in the basic tenets of U.S. democracy and is at the core of the United States' republican form of government.

Burke has been claimed as a champion of both liberals and conservatives. His denunciation of oppression in India, Ireland, and North America and his staunch opposition to the exercise of arbitrary power endeared him to libertarians and proponents of individual rights. However, his strong faith in established political, religious, and social institutions, and his fear of reform beyond limitations on sovereign power, reverberate in contemporary conservatism. Likewise, his support for civil rights was tempered with a strong belief in the necessity of individual responsibility. In 1791, he wrote, in A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Burke was firmly opposed to the substitution of government assistance for individual initiative. In Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), he cautioned against "attempts to feed the people out of the hands of the magistrates." He seemed to predict the modern quagmire of welfare dependency when he wrote, "and having looked to government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them. To avoid that evil, government will redouble the causes of it; and then it will become inveterate and incurable."

The last few years of Burke's life were marred by the death of his only son, Richard Burke, in 1794. With his wife, Jane Nugent Burke, whom he had married in 1757, Burke had established the harmonious family life he had never known as a child. The premature loss of his son, and the concomitant demise of Burke's dreams and plans for the young man's future, left Burke disconsolate. Although he continued his activities in politics, particularly in the formation of the Irish government, his personal life was clouded with disappointment and bitterness. Burke died three years after his son, on July 9, 1797; yet two hundred years after his death, his philosophies continued to resonate on both sides of the Atlantic.

further readings

Crowe, Ian, ed. 1997. Edmund Burke: His Life and Legacy Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press.

Kirk, Russell. 1987. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. Chicago: Regnery Books.

——. 1967. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House.

Kramnick, Isaac, ed. 1974. Edmund Burke. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lambert, Elizabeth R. 2003. Edmund Burke of Beaconsfield. Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press.

O'Brien, Conor C. 1992. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Burke, Edmund (1729–1797)

BURKE, EDMUND (17291797)

BURKE, EDMUND (17291797), British statesman and orator. Born in Arran Quay, Dublin, Edmund Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and studied law briefly at the Inns of Court in London. He published two early books, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757; expanded 1759), which caught the eye of David Hume, Samuel Johnson, and other illustrious contemporaries and established him as an author. Burke had shown from the first a strong interest in politics, informed by copious knowledge, and this led to his appointment in 1759 as private secretary to a member of Parliament, William Gerard Hamilton. He found a new position in 1765 as secretary to the marquess of Rockingham, the leader of a group of Whigs then pressing the House of Commons to assert its independence from the king. Given a seat in Parliament as the representative from Wendover, Burke distinguished himself as a strategist for the Rockingham administration of 17651766 and substantially assisted in its major achievement, the repeal of the stamp tax on the American colonies.

In the late 1760s an attempt by the king's ministers to prevent John Wilkes from taking his seat in Parliament led Burke and his party to concert a policy against the aggrandizement of the crown. Burke's reading of the constitution at this crisis emerged in his first major political work, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), a full-scale defense of the idea of a political party. An organized opposition, says Burke, is an indispensable bulwark of liberty, and the reasons for forming such a party are plain: "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Whatever might change in his stance, Burke would continue to speak for political association against the privilege of court favorites or the unchecked power of the people. He once said that he believed the principles of politics were only the principles of morality enlarged. Accordingly, Burke was skeptical of theories of the social contract that codified the rights of citizens. In the 1770s and 1780s, most of his energy was given to enlarging the liberty of the people by increasing the protections against monarchical abuse of power, and yet he was never a believer in popular government: statesmanship always carried for him a sense of the dignity and ceremony that should accompany great enterprises. Elected in 1774 as a member of Parliament from Bristol, Burke soon pleaded for a sympathetic reception of the American protests against taxation. His speech on conciliation with the American colonies (1775) urged a policy of concession to the point of disclaiming any further intention to tax the colonists. The three-hour speech has been considered from that day to this one of the greatest orations in the language. "An Englishman," Burke told his listeners, "is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery." The right use of the American colonists, he asserted, was to cherish them as equal partners in trade and as allies in time of war. "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together." He concluded that anything the colonists gave beyond their friendship should be freely given.

During his Bristol years, from 1774 to 1780, Burke stood out as a defender of free trade with Ireland, liberalization of the laws controlling imprisonment for debt, and the repeal of Catholic disabilitiesall unpopular positions in a Protestant and mercantile city. When threatened with loss of his constituency in 1780, he gave an unswerving defense of his actions in his speech at Bristol guildhall: "I did not obey your instructions. No. I conformed to the instructions of truth and Nature, and maintained your interest, against your opinions, with a constancy that became me." Before reentering the House of Commons as the representative from Malton, he found the cause that would occupy the rest of his career: exposure of the injustices of the East India Company ("a government in the disguise of a merchant") and impeachment of the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings.

Burke's own practical proposal, ventured in his speech on Fox's East India Bill (1783), was to reorganize the company and place its officers under the direct control of Parliament. Rejection of this plan by the House of Commons precipitated the fall of the Fox-North coalition, with whose prospects Burke's own political fortunes were bound up. Nevertheless, he chose to pursue Hastings as a manager of his impeachment by the House of Commons in proceedings that lasted from 1788 to 1795. The process ended in acquittal. Yet Burke looked on his efforts to reform British India as his major accomplishment, "my monument."

A securer fame in his lifetime would come from his criticism of the French Revolution in a series of pamphlets of the 1790s, above all Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke warned against a great change in the spirit of society, from aristocratic to democratic manners and from the authority of an ancient landed nobility to that of a mobile commercial class. He speaks as a believer in precedent and prescription and a defender of natural feelings such as reverence for an established church and a hereditary nobility. Against the promise of a society based on contract, he offers his vision of a society based on trust"a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." The onset of democracy, Burke supposed, would destroy that partnership. A democracy would be unable to correct the errors that a crowd in power would commit on a new and terrifying scale.

In 1794 Burke was awarded a pension by William Pitt and George III and retired to his estate in Beaconsfield. His final writings, the Letters on a Regicide Peace (17961797), were a sustained attempt to persuade England to fight a counterrevolutionary war against France. He died in 1797, ending as he began, in isolation. Burke's greatest political legacy may be the example of a statesman who uses his freedom of conscience to extend the public debate of public matters. In literature his influence has been deeper, though harder to trace. He was a historian and a prophet of the powers of sympathy and imagination by which people can be awakened to generous action.

See also British Colonies: India ; British Colonies: North America ; Constitutionalism ; Hastings, Warren ; Monarchy ; Parliament ; Political Parties in England ; Political Philosophy ; Rhetoric ; Sublime, Idea of the ; Taxation.


Primary Sources

Burke, Edmund. The Works of Edmund Burke. 9 vols. Boston, 1839.

. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. 9 vols. Oxford and New York, 1981.

Secondary Sources

Blakemore, Steven. Burke and the Fall of Language. Hanover, N.H., 1988.

Cobban, Alfred. Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century: A Study of the Political and Social Thinking of Burke, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. London, 1929.

Cone, Carl B. Burke and the Nature of Politics. 2 vols. Lexington, Ky., 19571964.

Lock, F. P. Edmund Burke. Oxford and New York, 1998.

O'Brien, Conor Cruise. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. Chicago, 1992.

Parkin, Charles W. The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought, an Essay. Cambridge, U.K., 1956.

David Bromwich

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund 1729-1797


Edmund Burke was an Irish Protestant author and member of the British House of Commons. Burkes legacy rests on his profundity as a political thinker, while his relevance to the social sciences lies in his antirevolutionary tract of 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France, for which he is considered the founder of conservatism.

Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Burke was raised as an Anglican and received his education at a Quaker school and Trinity College. Rejecting a career in law, Burke wrote a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), and edited the political review Annual Register. Burkes talents as an intellectual attracted the attention of a politically powerful patron, the marquis of Rockingham, for whom Burke worked as private secretary and to whom Burke owed his entry into Parliament.

As a member of Parliament from 1765 to 1794, Burke employed his oratorical skills and propensity to connect legislative policy to political philosophy in the interests of the Whig party. Foremost among his causes was the mitigation of harsh penal laws in Ireland. Although a steadfast member of the Anglican Church, Burkes experience in Ireland and his Catholic connections made him deplore the discrimination against Irish Catholics. Burke also urged reconciliation with American colonists, opposing the Stamp Act of 1765 as bad policy even as he defended the theoretical right of Parliament to tax. Throughout his career Burke condemned the East India Companys mismanagement, calling after 1782 for parliamentary control of that body and for the impeachment of Bengals governor-general, Warren Hastings. In addition, Burkes position in the opposition led to repeated cries for economical reform, or a diminution in the power of the Crown by limiting the number of government employees who sat in Parliament. Finally, Burke contributed to British constitutional theory in important ways: He defended the formation of political parties, defined as bod[ies] of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest (Ayling 1988, p. 48); and he insisted that in Parliament he represented the common good rather than simply the interests of his Bristol electors.

Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France offered a conservative interpretation of Britains Glorious Revolution in 1688 and a condemnation of Frances revolution in 1789. For Burke, the Whig-led Glorious Revolution merely protected civil liberties and Protestantism by overthrowing the tyrannical and popish James II; it did not usher in an era of natural rights, democratic politics, and the separation of church and state. As such, 1688 constituted a restoration of British liberties under the protection of strong institutions, notably the Church of England and a constitution balanced between a hereditary monarchy and a governing class of landed aristocrats.

Burke excoriated the French Revolution for its radical destruction of the past. Considering society a complex historical developmenta partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born (Burke 1987, p. 85)he rejected contemporary theories of the social contract. Convinced of the limitations of human reason, he mocked the revolutionaries reconstruction of the polity on abstract philosophical principles as a chimerical new conquering empire of light and reason. Viewing rights and liberties as historical patrimony (for example, English liberties founded in the Magna Carta), he recoiled at the notion of universal human rights enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Reckoning the restraints upon men to be among their rights, Burke found such restraints in religion and the establishment of a state church that sanctified the social and political order. Unmoved by paeans to equality, he insisted that the natural order of things entitled men of ability and property to govern. In sum, Burke saw the French Revolution as a rejection of the handiwork of God as expressed in the slow development of institutions in history.

Standing at the threshold of a new age of democratic politics, Burke exclaimed: I put my foot in the tracks of our forefathers, where I can neither wander nor stumble (Burke 1889). Although such reverence for the past might justifiably merit Burke the title founder of conservatism, several points are in order. First, conservative is not synonymous with reactionary; Burke was no arch-conservative enslaved by the status quo, as evidenced by his advocacy of issues ranging from Catholic relief to the abolition of the slave trade. His guiding principle was conservation and correction, by which he meant that reform was necessary to preserve institutions. Second, Burkes conservatism was British (or Anglo-American); in rejecting the French Revolution, he sought to conserve what he considered the liberal and modern order in eighteenth-century Britain. Subsequent thinkers have employed Burkes suspicion of reason; his respect for the past; his insistence on religion and property as the foundations of society; and his antipathy to democracy in order to defend absolute monarchy, a hereditary nobility, and religious discriminationbut their doing so only serves as a reminder of the differences between what and why Burke wrote and how he was read.

SEE ALSO Aesthetics; American Revolution; Church and State; Conservatism; Democracy; Freedom; French Revolution; Liberty; Natural Rights; Parliament, United Kingdom; Political Theory; Revolution


Ayling, Stanley. 1988. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. New York: St. Martins.

Burke, Edmund. [1775] 1889. Speech on Conciliation with America. The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 9th ed., 12 vols. Boston: Little, Brown.

Burke, Edmund. [1790] 1987. Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

OBrien, Conor Cruise. 1992. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anthony Crubaugh

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund (1729–97). Whig politician and conservative political philosopher. Burke was born in Ireland to a catholic mother and protestant father. Brought up as a protestant, he was sent to a quaker school and then to Trinity College, Dublin. He studied law in London, but quickly turned his attention to writing. However, Burke's first love was politics and he became a member of Parliament in 1766. He remained an MP for virtually the rest of his life, and became a towering figure in the House of Commons, captivating his audience with spellbinding oratory. Burke had an unrivalled gift for portraying the wider significance of the issues of the day in terms of general principles, and as a result many of his speeches contain disquisitions on political philosophy. Indeed this was the way in which Burke understood the activity of political philosophy—as reflection on the principles which lay behind current political practice. He rejected the radical and utopian thinking of 18th-cent. writers such as Rousseau, who allowed their imaginations to run away with them, regarding them as little less than sacrilegious; for him the political traditions of a mature society were embodiments of the divine will. Moreover, for Burke, politics is the art of the possible; all social arrangements fall short of the ideal, but we should not reject them for that reason, since they may well be the best that are practicable in the circumstances.

Burke has often been accused of inconsistency. His stance on the plight of catholics in Ireland—he deplored their savage treatment by the protestant ascendancy—and of Indians in Bengal—he denounced the barbarisms perpetrated by the East India Company—is contrasted with his rejection of the idea of natural rights advanced by the French revolutionaries, and his defence of customary patterns of government. Similarly, Burke's sympathy for the American colonists chafing at the imposition of taxes by the British government appears to contradict his insistence on the sovereign authority of Parliament. However, if we bear in mind the above organizing ideas of his political philosophy, we can see that there is an underlying coherence in his writing. In his defence of the Irish catholics, the Bengali Indians, and the American colonists, Burke was not arguing that they had natural rights to determine their own destiny, or that the system of imperial authority exercised over them was fundamentally illegitimate. Far from it; what Burke was asserting was that there had been abuse of legitimate (i.e. traditional) authority, and that such abuse must be corrected to prevent a backlash which could lead to the overthrow of that authority. Similarly, we can see consistency in Burke's apparently contradictory endorsement of the 1688/9 Whig revolution in England, yet denunciation of the 1789 revolution in France. In both cases he sought to defend traditional modes of political authority. The Whig revolution in England was a revolution averted, in that it preserved the established Anglican state from an unconstitutional conversion by James II into a Roman catholic polity. By contrast the French Revolution was a real revolution, perpetrated illegitimately against the wholesome foundations of a ‘noble and venerable castle’, the traditional and settled French state.

Burke's enduring reputation as a political thinker rests on the claim that he is the founder of conservative ideology. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is generally regarded as the epitome of conservatism, defending traditional political cultures. However, he recognized that some change was inevitable—indeed he held that a state without the means of change was without the means of its own conservation. He also strongly affirmed the modern principle of popular government. Although he was no democrat, Burke held that the primary organ of the British constitution was the House of Commons, and that Parliament owed its authority to the approval of the people.

As a practising politician and statesman, Burke also left his mark. His impassioned defence of the formation of political parties as a means of resisting the unconstitutional influence of the crown—he argued that when bad men combine, good men must unite—was an important step in the process of legitimizing party politics in Britain. This is not to say that Burke's endorsement of party loyalty was unconditional. On the contrary, he was himself responsible for splitting the Whig party over the issue of the French Revolution, by refusing to follow Fox's approval of the revolution, and he has been accused by historians of thereby depriving the Whigs of office for the next 40 years. Moreover, although he only held minor office (that of paymaster-general) for two short spells under Lord Rockingham, Burke exerted considerable influence on the government. His vehement condemnation of the revolution in France helped to stiffen anti-French policy in Britain. Similarly the sympathetic tone he adopted toward the American colonists contributed towards the rapprochement which was eventually reached by the British government. Finally Burke's obsessive pursuit of the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the House of Lords for his iniquitous rule as governor-general of Bengal, though it failed to secure Hastings's conviction, succeeded in creating an irresistible momentum for the subsequent reform of the East India Company.

Perhaps Burke's epitaph should be that he was an extremist in pursuit of moderation.

Tim S. Gray


Lock, F. , Edmund Burke (Oxford, 1998).

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Burke, Edmund

Edmund Burke, 1729–97, British political writer and statesman, b. Dublin, Ireland.

Early Writings

After graduating (1748) from Trinity College, Dublin, he began the study of law in London but abandoned it to devote himself to writing. His satirical Vindication of Natural Society (1756) attacked the political rationalism and religious skepticism of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was a study in aesthetics. In 1759 he founded the Annual Register, a periodical to which he contributed until 1788. Burke was a member of Samuel Johnson's intimate circle.

Political Career and Later Writings

Burke's political career began in 1765 when he became private secretary to the marquess of Rockingham, then prime minister, and formed a lifelong friendship with that leader. He also entered Parliament in 1765 and there strove for a wiser treatment of the American colonies. In 1766 he spoke in favor of the repeal of the Stamp Act, although he also supported the Declaratory Act, asserting Britain's constitutional right to tax the colonists. In his famous later speeches on American taxation (1774) and on conciliation with the colonies (1775), he did not abandon that position; rather he urged the imprudence of exercising such theoretical rights.

At a time when political allegiances were based largely on family connections and patronage and political opposition was generally regarded as factionalism, Burke, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), became the first political philosopher to argue the value of political parties. He called for a limitation of crown patronage (so-called economical reform) and as paymaster of the forces (1782–83) in the second Rockingham ministry was able to enact some of his proposals.

He was also interested in reform of the East India Company and drafted the East India Bill presented (1783) by Charles James Fox. Influenced by Sir Philip Francis, he instigated the impeachment and long trial of Warren Hastings. Hastings was acquitted, but Burke's speeches created some new awareness of the responsibilities of empire and of the injustices perpetrated in India and previously unpublicized in England.

Although he championed many liberal and reform causes, Burke believed that political, social, and religious institutions represented the wisdom of the ages; he feared political reform beyond limitations on the power of the crown. Consequently, his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) made him the spokesman of European conservatives. His stand against the French Revolution—and, by implication, against parliamentary reform—caused him to break with Fox and his Whigs in 1791. Burke's Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) shows how closely he approached the Tory position of the younger William Pitt. He withdrew from political life in 1795.


Burke left, in his many and diverse writings, a monumental construction of British political thought that had far-reaching influence in England, America, and France for many years. He held unrestricted rationalism in human affairs to be destructive. He affirmed the utility of habit and prejudice and the importance of continuity in political experience. The son of a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother and himself a Protestant, he never ceased to criticize the English administration in Ireland and the galling discrimination against Catholics.


See his correspondence (9 vol., 1958–70); selection writings ed. by W. J. Bate (1960); biographies by P. M. Magnus (1939, repr. 1973), S. Ayling (1988), and J. Norman (2013); intellectual biography by D. Bromwich (2014); studies by T. W. Copeland (1949, repr. 1970), C. Parkin (1956, repr. 1968), C. B. Cone (2 vol., 1957–64), P. J. Stanlis (1958, repr. 1986), G. W. Chapman (1967), R. Kirk (1967), B. T. Wilkins (1967), C. C. O'Brien (1992), Y. Levin (2013), and D. Maciag (2013).

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund (1729–97). British statesman and writer. His A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) was of enormous importance in creating a move from Classicism to Romanticism, and in the history of aesthetics greatly influenced German philosophers of the Enlightenment, notably Immanuel Kant. His discussion of the aesthetic categories of the Beautiful and the Sublime were especially significant.


E. Burke (1757);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

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"Burke, Edmund." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund (1729–97) British statesman and writer, b. Ireland. He played a major part in the reduction of royal influence in the House of Commons and sought better treatment for Catholics and American colonists. He was involved in the impeachment of Warren Hastings in an attempt to reform India's government in 1788. Burke deplored the excesses of the French Revolution in his most celebrated work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

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"Burke, Edmund." World Encyclopedia. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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