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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund

WORKS BY BURKE

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.]

WORKS BY BURKE

(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.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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."
—EDMUND BURKE

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Bibliography

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.

Influence

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.

Bibliography

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.

Bibliography

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

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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

BURKE, EDMUND

British statesman and author whose writings are a main source of modern Anglo-Saxon political thought; b. Dublin, probably Jan. 12, 1729, N.S.; d. Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, July 8, 1797. As children of a Protestant attorney father and a Catholic mother, Edmund and his brothers were raised as Anglicans, their sister as a Catholic. Jane Nugent, whom Burke married in 1756, may have been a Catholic like her father; she conformed to the Church of England on marrying Burke.

Burke attended Trinity College, Dublin, from 1744 to 1750. He began to study law at the Middle Temple in London in 1750, but soon abandoned it to follow a literary career. In 1756 he published two works that attracted attention: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful expressed a rather crudely sensistic psychology, but had an influence on aesthetic theory in England and on the Continent; A Vindication of Natural Society was a parody of Bolingbroke satirizing the individualistic rationalism that Burke was to combat all his life. In 1757 he became editor of Dodsley's Annual Register, a review of the outstanding events of each year.

In 1765 the Marquis of Rockingham, who had become first lord of the treasury, made Burke his private secretary. In the same year Burke got a seat in the Commons from Lord Verney's pocket borough of Wendover. For almost 30 years he sat in Parliament, almost always in opposition after 1766, since the Rockingham Whigs were not in favor with George III. He was elected from Bristol in 1774, an occasion he used in his Speech to the Electors at Bristol to expound a theory of representation that has become classic. Feeling that an attempt at reelection in 1780 was useless, he withdrew and was then made member for Rockingham's nomination borough of Malton. He held that seat until his retirement in 1794.

Position in British politics. Burke was the philosopher and spokesman for the Whig aristocracy. His

Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) exposed what the Whigs regarded as a dangerous increase in the royal power. His administrative reform plan, which he introduced in 1780, was designed to reduce crown influence in Parliament by eliminating part of the royal patronage. The East India Bill of 1783, of which Burke was at least part author, had the same object among its purposes. At the same time, Burke opposed reform of the representation in the House of Commons. Centuries of failure to reapportion representation had produced a system that allowed decayed villages to continue sending two members to Parliament while thriving new towns had none. Burke saw any change as a threat to his ideal of a constitution that maintained a careful balance among the crown, the great landowners, and a random sample of the gentry and merchants. The natural-rights ideology in terms of which parliamentary reform was usually advocated did nothing to commend reform to him, as can be seen in his Speech on the Reform of the Representation in the House of Commons (1782).

Generally, however, Burke was a moderate reformer who advocated criminal law reform, relaxation of the penal laws against Catholics and debtors, and the gradual abolition of the slave trade. He never favored the dissolution of the British Empire. Rather, he sought to bind the American colonies and the Kingdom of Ireland to Britain by ties of fair treatment and mutual interest. In his great speeches on American Taxation (1774) and Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) he upheld Britain's right to tax the colonies but denounced the attempt to exercise that right as folly. Burke's policy in regard to India was influenced by considerations of party politics and by the financial interests of his relatives. But a genuine moral indignation grew in him as he delved more deeply into Indian affairs. The impeachment of the governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, with Burke as chief prosecutor, failed. But Burke's flaming oratory inspired the British public's concern for the fate of colonial peoples in the 19th century.

Opposition to the French Revolution. Burke showed his philosophical position most fully in his attack on the french revolution, which he distrusted almost from its beginning. His masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France, appeared in February 1790. That work and the subsequent Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) contain the heart of Burke's philosophy. Together with Thoughts on French Affairs (1791), Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793), and Letters on a Regicide Peace (179697), they made him a leader not only of British but also of European public opinion against the Revolution. Burke saw the Revolution less as a revolt against intolerable conditions than as the overthrow of the social and political order by the doctrinaire devotees of an abstract theory of the rights of man. But for all his denunciations of "theory" and "metaphysics" in politics, Burke had a social and political theory and it implied a metaphysic.

Political philosophy. His conception of a divinely founded universal order, of which the state is a part, sprang from a basically Catholic philosophy. He received the medieval doctrine of natural law through the Anglican tradition. But he insisted that although principles are necessary, they are not enough; they must be applied by prudence. Here Burke's thought is strikingly similar to the Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine of practical reason.

He was also keenly aware of history. A good constitution cannot be struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man. According to Burke, "it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time" ["Speech on the Reform of the Representation ," Works (London 1812) 10.97]. This idea is said to have influenced the historical school in Germany and to have made Burke a forerunner of G. W. F. hegel.

Burke saw human nature as realizing itself through an evolving and organic social order (a concept with which his laissez-faire economic theory seems inconsistent). Society, government, law, and rights satisfy natural human needs. But in themselves they are products of convention, framed not according to a blueprint furnished by an abstract law of nature but by practical reasoning and long experience. Once established, however, they have a prescriptive force and may not be abolished by appealing to a radically individualistic theory of popular sovereignty. Reform, therefore, must be accomplished by the gradual adjustment of a complex social organism to new situations, not by social revolution and only in extreme cases by political revolution.

Burke's writings are magnificent examples of the great period of British political rhetoric. Sir Philip Magnus has called them "the finest school of statecraft which exists." The frequency with which they are still quoted today is evidence both of Burke's wisdom and of his style.

Bibliography: Works, 12 v. (Boston 1901); Speeches of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 4 v. (London 1816); The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. t. w. copeland et al., 10 v. (Chicago 1958), 5 v. pub. to date. a. p. i. samuels, The Early Life, Correspondence and Writings of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (Cambridge, Eng. 1924). Literature. d. bryant, Edmund Burke and His Literary Friends (St. Louis 1939). f. p. canavan, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (Durham, N.C. 1960). c. b. cone, Burke and the Nature of Politics, 2 v. (Lexington, Ky. 195764). t. w. copeland, Our Eminent Friend Edmund Burke (New Haven 1949). r. j. s. hoffmann, Edmund Burke, New York Agent (Philadelphia 1956). j. maccunn, The Political Philosophy of Edmund Burke (London 1913). t. h. d. mahoney, Edmund Burke and Ireland (Cambridge, Mass. 1960). j. morley, Burke (New York 1879; repr. 1928). p. j. stanlis, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (Ann Arbor 1958). The best source of complete and recent bibliographical information is The Burke Newsletter (Detroit 1959). h. c. mansfield, Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (Chicago 1965).

[f. p. canavan]

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Burke, Edmund

Edmund Burke

Born January 12, 1729
Dublin, Ireland
Died July 9, 1797
Beaconsfield Estate, Buckinghamshire, England

Politician, political thinker, writer, public speaker

Edmund Burke was the most widely respected British political thinker and speech writer of his time. As a politician and speaker, however, he lacked the ability to lead or bring men together. His ideas continue to find favor today, especially with conservatives who wish to preserve society's existing institutions. He is widely admired for his defense of those who are too weak to defend themselves.

Edmund Burke was born into a middle-class family in Dublin, Ireland, on January 12, 1729. He had a difficult relationship with his father, a Protestant attorney, but was close to his Roman Catholic mother who, he once reported, suffered from "a cruel nervous disorder."

Burke was a sickly child. In 1735, when he was six, his parents sent him away from the big city to live with his mother's brother, Patrick Nagle, in Ballyduff, Ireland. For the sake of his health, he lived there for five years and attended the local school. In 1741, at age twelve, he went to boarding school in County Kildare, Ireland.

Burke entered Dublin's famed Trinity College in 1744. He did well at his studies and founded a debating club there. Burke went to England in 1750 to study law. But his heart was not in becoming a lawyer and he made little progress in his legal studies. Not much is known about his activities during the first nine years he spent in England following his graduation from college. It is known that he remained undecided about what to do with his life.

Early books praised

In 1756, when Burke was in his mid-twenties, he published two books on topics in philosophy. In the first, A Vindication of Natural Society, he declared that it was a mistake for rationalists to demand a logical justification for why moral and social institutions, such as rule by kings, should exist in society. Rationalists are people who accept reason as the only authority in determining one's opinions or actions. This is as opposed to people who accept other sources as authoritative, for example, the word of God in the Bible. Burke argued that the king and other authorities ruled in a society because it was the will of God.

Burke's second work was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In this book, Burke wrote about his views on the theory of fine arts and peoples' responses to them.

Historical works

Burke followed in 1757 with a history he wrote with his friend William Burke (no relation) titled An Account of European Settlement in America. That same year he thought seriously about moving to America, but his father objected so strongly that Burke dropped the idea.

Parts of The Early Abridgement of the History of England also appeared in 1757. The book, though not published until after Burke's death, was his account of the early history of England. In the late 1750s Burke also began writing the first of a series of yearly articles on political events in England for a publication he founded and edited called the Annual Register. According to historian Mark M. Boatner III, "Few Englishmen had so profound a knowledge of colonial affairs [in America] as did Burke. His Annual Register articles were … [very] observant, and warmly sympathetic" to America. They were so well respected that many writers on American politics and history borrowed from them shamelessly.

Burke's early works gained him recognition among London's writers and thinkers. He was invited to become a member of "The Club," an organization that included a number of prominent Englishmen of the time and was founded by famed English writer and critic Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Marries, moves to Ireland

Burke, who had not experienced family unity as a boy, made it a vital part of his adult life. In 1757 he married Irish Catholic Jane Nugent, the daughter of his personal physician. He settled into a comfortable family life with his new in-laws, his brother, and his friend William Burke. This core of people provided a sense of family harmony that he had never before experienced. Burke's son, Richard, was born in early 1745. His second son, Christopher, was born in 1758 and died in infancy.

In 1759 Burke became an assistant to William Gerard Hamilton, a well-known Member of Parliament (the British lawmaking body). He went to Ireland as Hamilton's private secretary, serving from 1761 until 1764.

During 1761 Burke worked on a paper about how Catholics in Ireland were discriminated against because of their religion. At that time, they were not fully protected by the laws, as Protestants were, and they could not hold public office. The piece was never completed or printed, but it showed Burke's deep concern with the issue and his determination to do what he could to change matters through his involvement with politics.

Early political career

Burke's political career began in 1765 when he became the private secretary of Charles Watson Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham, who was then serving a brief term as Great Britain's prime minister. Burke kept his position with Rockingham until 1782. Burke had inherited little from his family and suffered from financial problems, so he had to find other ways to make money. In December 1765, he entered Parliament as a representative of Buckinghamshire.

Burke was by nature an extremely emotional and sometimes unbalanced man. For the next sixteen years, his political career was bound up with that of Rockingham and his supporters, who served as the opposition party. The opposition is the minority political party in Great Britain. It has fewer numbers than the majority party and serves as a check on the majority party's power. Burke's alliance with Rockingham provided him with stability, independence, and a secure income.

Historians say that if Burke had been willing to abandon Rockingham, he might have had a much more successful political career. But loyalty to Rockingham was an important principle to him. Burke once said, "I believe [that] in any body of men in England I [would] have been in the minority. I have always been in the minority."

In 1770 Burke produced Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, a pamphlet in which he sharply criticized what he saw as corruption within the British government. He also criticized England's King George III see entry for ignoring his formal government advisers; instead, the king ruled through private advisers and servants.

Discontents was Burke's major discussion of the role of political parties. He defined a political party as "a body of men united in public principle, which could act as a constitutional link between king and parliament, providing consistency and strength in administration, or principled criticism in opposition." His views have influenced how political parties function in Great Britain, the United States, and other countries.

Calls for compromise with colonists

In 1774 Burke became a Member of Parliament from Bristol, a more politically important district than his former district, Wendover. This position was a big step forward in his career and he served in it for six years.

Burke believed that changes in society and government should take place in an orderly manner. In his 1774 paper On American Taxation, Burke called on Great Britain to compromise with the American rebels, who were protesting taxes the British had imposed on the colonies to help pay off war debts. According to historian Russell Kirk, Burke believed that the tax on tea, which Americans especially hated, had to be repealed by England for the sake of restoring tolerable relations with the colonists. Burke thought that taxation should only be imposed by force if the colonists refused to contribute money that was needed to defend the British Empire.

Still, Burke believed that it was the right of the British Parliament to retain rule over the colonies. When the disagreements between Great Britain and the colonies came to blows with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), Burke had a difficult time dealing with it. He did not support American independence, but neither did he look forward to the prospect of a British victory. In August 1776 he wrote, "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. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression, and absurdity.… No good cancome of any event in this war to any virtuous interest."

Burke's qualities

As a politician, Burke's strongest tendency was to engage in argument. But he also displayed persistence, courage, energy, and concentration. Possessing "many of the qualities of leadership, he lacked the sensitivity to gauge and respect the feelings and opinions of others," writers in the Encyclopedia of World Biography noted. "Hence his political life was a series of negative crusades—against the [Revolutionary War] … [and] the French Revolution—and his reputation as a statesman rests on his wisdom in opposition, not on his achievements in office." In other words, it was the intelligence of his ideas and the skillful way he expressed them in Parliament as a member of the minority party, rather than any actions on his part, that gained him great respect.

Though Burke held strong opinions, and he had a vast knowledge of political matters and a great gift for written expression of his thoughts, his delivery of speeches was awkward. Some of them ran longer than eight hours, causing listeners gradually to flee.

Defends Irish Catholics

Burke's homeland of Ireland was part of the British Empire. Although Ireland had its own Protestant parliament, the body had limited powers; its lawmaking activities

required the approval of a British Protestant council. He sympathized with the Roman Catholics, who were being persecuted there by Protestants (the religion of those in power). According to biographer Stanley Ayling, as a result of laws that were passed in the early eighteenth century, "at least three Irishmen in every four had as Catholics been excluded from trades and professions, from public office and from juries, and had been barred from buying freehold land," or land that could be held through life with the right to pass it on through inheritance.

Burke said he regretted that the Irish Catholics were "reduced to beasts of burden" by Irish and English Protestants. He pointed out that all subjects of the king should be able to expect justice. He spoke out for the need for fairness in Britain's policies, specifically with the Irish Catholics. He also pointed out that it would be better for England to deal with the issue of starving people in Ireland than to spend a lot of time debating about the situation.

In the spring of 1778, Burke helped to bring about the first measures in Parliament to ease up on criminal penalties against Irish Catholics. But this position was unpopular, as was his support for relaxing restriction on trade between Ireland and Great Britain, and his stand may well have cost him the election to Parliament in 1780.

Opinions on American colonies, India

While serving in Parliament, Burke had written a series of brilliant papers protesting against government efforts to force the American colonists to obey its will, particularly in regard to matters of taxing them. But the British government was determined to show the colonies who was boss, and Burke could not convince it otherwise.

In 1781 Burke became a leading member of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs and a champion for the rights of the people of India (part of the British Empire). In that position, he helped to pass a bill asserting rights for citizens of India. His concerns about the Indian people would continue for many years.

In 1782 Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister of England and he appointed Burke paymaster general, responsible for paying wages to government employees. But Burke's good fortune quickly ended. Rockingham died after being in office for only three months. Burke had already begun to experience mental imbalance, and his condition was aggravated by the loss of his longtime patron.

In the late 1780s Burke gave a series of unpopular speeches that shocked his associates in Parliament. Burke spoke out in favor of punishing corrupt British officials in India who were mistreating the Indian people and using their official positions to enrich themselves. He felt that making an example of them might prevent others from committing similar abuses. In one instance he mounted an extreme attack against Warren Hastings, the governor general of Bengal, India. Burke portrayed Hastings as a monster. But his language was so violent that his comrades were convinced that he had become a political liability and that associating with him would damage their own careers.

Views on revolution

During the last part of the eighteenth century, Burke was one of the first to recognize the significance of the French Revolution (1789–99). A year after the revolution broke out he published Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London, in which he lamented the end of the French monarchy (the French royal family and people with connections to them were murdered [see Louis XVI entry]) and warned of the spread of revolutionary ideas in England. The book was read widely throughout Europe. It caused American patriot Thomas Paine see entry to write Rights of Man, a vigorous defense of the right of people to construct whatever kind of government they choose.

Achieves distinction in retirement

In 1794 Burke began to represent the district of Malton in Parliament. He planned to retire later in the year and hoped that his son Richard would be named his successor. Burke's plan was not to be. Richard Burke died in 1794 from a lung ailment, leaving his parents grief-stricken.

Edmund Burke enjoyed a unique international status during the last five years of his life. Although he held no official position, European royalty corresponded with him, and Catholics in Ireland honored him as their champion. To recognize his status, King George III offered to make Burke a member of the nobility. But Burke was depressed from the death of his beloved son and said that he much preferred simply to receive money.

Burke spent most of his retirement at his Beaconsfield estate. He tended to his farm, interested himself in the lives of his poor neighbors, and did some writing. His final project was to establish a school for the refugee sons of dead French royalists who had supported the King of France. On the last day of his life, Burke again spoke of his hatred for the revolutionary spirit in France. He believed that for the good of humanity England should declare war against France to put down the French Revolution. Burke died from a stomach ailment on July 9, 1797, with his wife at his side. He was buried at his local parish church.

American patriot Thomas Paine summed up Burke's life by remarking, "As he rose like a rocket, he fell like a stick." But the famed English poet William Wordsworth called Burke "by far the greatest man of his age."

For More Information

Ayling, Stanley. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula K. Byers, eds. "Burke, Edmund." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 138-41.

Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1967.

Web Sites

"Edmund Burke." Bjorn's Guide to Philosophy. [Online] Available http://www.knuten.liu.se/~bjoch509/philosophers/bur.html (accessed on 9/23/99).

"Edmund Burke." The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. [Online] Available http://www.pagesz.net/~stevek/intellect/burke.html (accessed on 9/23/99).

"Edmund Burke." Mallow Famous People. Copyright Aardvark 1997 [Online] Available http://www.mallow.ie/tourist/e-b.html (accessed on 9/23/99).

Smeenge, J.H. "A Biography of Edmund Burke (1729-1797.)" The American Revolution-an .HTML project. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/eburke/burke.htm (accessed on 9/23/99).

Burke's Views on Conservatism

Many people have the strong desire to keep things the way they are in order to maintain an orderly and stable society. Edmund Burke was one of the first political writers to outline the principles of this way of thinking, which is called conservatism.

The term conservatism was first introduced during the French Revolution (1789-99), which rejected not only rule by royalty but also the very traditions and institutions that had existed throughout Europe for centuries. Widespread violence accompanied this rejection, causing thinkers like Edmund Burke to call for the return of traditional ways and values.

Burke called society "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." Conservatism represented the continuation of tradition within society. Burke supported keeping the democratic traditions of Great Britain. He claimed this would be accomplished by upholding such British institutions as king, nobility, church, and parliament. Burke argued that within this stable framework, gradual change could take place for the benefit of all citizens.

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Burke, Edmund

Edmund Burke

"On Conciliation"

First published on March 22, 1775;
excerpted from The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 1995

"An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery…. "

Edmund Burke, from "On Conciliation"

Although King George III (1738–1820) seemed to have surrounded himself with advisers who went along with his vengeful feelings toward the colonies, one member of Parliament stood apart as a champion of colonial rights. He was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), born in Dublin, Ireland. From 1765 to 1782, Burke was private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the marquis of Rockingham (1730–1782), author of the Declaratory Act of 1766. The Declaratory Act affirmed the right of Parliament to make laws (including tax laws) that would bind the colonists "in all cases whatsoever."

Burke was elected to Parliament in 1766, so he observed firsthand all the talk about the troubles with the American colonies. In early 1775, he gave a famous speech on the topic in Parliament. Afterwards called "On Conciliation," the speech described Burke's views on what ought to be the relationship between England and America. At the time, the Revolutionary War had not yet broken out, but tensions were high. British troops were stationed in Boston, Massachusetts, trying to enforce what Bostonians angrily called the Intolerable Acts. The Intolerable Acts were passed in 1774 to punish Boston for its resistance to paying British-imposed taxes.

Burke believed that Parliament did have a legal right to tax the colonies. But Burke also believed that sometimes it was necessary to consider other issues in addition to what was legal. His argument is sometimes described as an argument in favor of obeying the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Past efforts by the British to tax the colonies—from the Stamp Act of 1765 (which taxed various types of printed material, legal documents, and dice and playing cards) through the tea taxes of 1767 and 1773—had all led to violence and discontent. Concerning the quarrel with the colonies, Burke said that what was legal (the right to tax) did not matter as much as human nature. He thought Parliament should exercise its authority while respecting the people who were subject to that authority.

In the following excerpt, Burke described to Parliament the nature of the colonists: free people with the rights of Englishmen. He also pointed out the practical difficulties of waging a war in a country so far away, with an entire ocean separating the warring nations: "You cannot pump this [ocean] dry," he said. The excerpt includes some of Burke's thoughts on how the British Empire (England and all its colonies) became great, by recognizing the rights of its subjects and gaining peace and loyalty through respect, not by trying to enslave people or take their wealth by force.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "On Conciliation":

  • Edmund Burke was not a typical politician of his time, or he would have tried to get ahead in politics by pleasing King George instead of arguing against the king's colonial policies. In fact, Burke was more of a philosopher than a politician; he was interested in the pursuit of wisdom rather than achieving wealth or high office.
  • Burke had a deep sympathy for oppressed (unjustly treated) people, and he believed England was oppressing the colonies. He lamented that he lived in a time when powerful people in government were not governing wisely. Burke was a man who thought deeply about issues, and he was probably the most knowledgeable man in England about colonial matters. Of the few voices that spoke in Parliament in favor of reconciling with the colonies, his was the most eloquent.
  • At the time Burke gave his "On Conciliation" speech in March 1775, the First Continental Congress had already met and sent several documents to King George asking for peace but also making various demands (described in the next chapter). King George was angry; he had not responded to the colonists but wrote to Prime Minister Sir Frederick North (1732–1792) in November 1774: "[T]he New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows [fighting] must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent."

Excerpt from "On Conciliation"

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….

In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent [affection] is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive and unretractable whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth….

The temper and character which prevail in our colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery….

Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together. If we are conscious of our situation and glow with zeal to fill our place as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate all our public proceedings on America with the old warning of the church,Sursum corda! We ought to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us. By adverting to the dignity of this high calling, our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire; and have made the most extensive, and the only honourable conquests, not by destroying but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. Let us get anAmerican revenue as we have got an American empire. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges will make it all it can be. (Commager and Morris, pp. 233–34, 236, 238)

What happened next …

Edmund Burke's opponents were too powerful, and his proposal that England reconcile with America was voted down, 271 to 78. But among ordinary Englishmen and women there were widespread feelings of sympathy for the American cause. There are many reasons for this. Americans were English, too. They were fighting for freedom. America made the British Empire stronger and to lose the colonies would be a devastating loss. War is expensive. And the king and his advisers were simply being stubborn, in the opinion of many. Over the next several months, the king received many petitions from his subjects pleading the cause of America.

Did you know …

  • Edmund Burke looked upon the British Empire as a family. The parent (England) was supposed to rule with kindness over its children (the colonies). He believed that in the case of the American colonies, England had been harsh when it should have been lenient. Burke himself was raised in an unhappy family headed by an overly demanding father, and this may have influenced his thinking.
  • Burke was not a believer in democracy. He did not think ordinary people should have a say in how they were governed. Rather, he thought that the right to govern belonged to the aristocracy, the privileged class that was born to rule.
  • Burke was thoroughly upset over the American Revolution and did not know which side to take. He wrote in August 1776: "I do not know how to wish success to those [the rebellious Americans] 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 [government policies]…. No good can come of any event in this warto any virtuous interest."

Where to Learn More

Burke, Edmund. The Portable Edmund Burke. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 1999.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York, Da Capo Press, 1995.

"Edmund Burke" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Edited by Mark M. Boatner III. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Edmund Burke, British Supporter of the Colonies

Edmund Burke was a brilliant writer as well as a speaker. He is best remembered for his Annual Register, which he proposed in 1758 and edited from 1759 to 1797. His articles in the Annual Register described relations between England and America. Because there were no copyright laws in Burke's day, countless American writers wrote about the American Revolution by borrowing freely from Burke's works; Burke was not credited, leaving the impression that other writers' works were original. This deception was exposed in the twentieth century by historian Orin G. Libby, who was doing a study of all the histories of the American Revolution.

Edmund Burke tried repeatedly to get Parliament to see that the British Empire was growing more dependent economically on the colonies. He pointed out that "at the beginning of the century some of these Colonies imported corn from the Mother Country," but for "some time past, the Old World has been fed from the New."

Burke's native country, Ireland, was (and still is) part of the British Empire. His mother was a Roman Catholic; members of that church were persecuted by Protestant Irish and British authorities. Burke felt great sympathy for Catholics, saying they had been reduced to "beasts of burden" by their persecutors.

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund

The statesman and writer Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was born in Dublin on 12 January 1729 and died at Beaconsfield in England on 9 July 1797. In his writings and career Burke sought to understand and exemplify the virtues of the emerging British empire. He sought to explain how the distinctive virtues of English constitutional and social traditions were capacious enough to absorb new populations, such as that of Ireland, and to expand to new territories, especially North America. While never a systematic philosopher, he laid the basis for a distinctive brand of conservative liberalism that exists to this day.

Burke's father, Richard, was a Protestant attorney at the Court of Exchequer, while his mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic with connections in Munster. Burke's vision of an inclusive model of empire was therefore generated from his family background. His early education was in the Quaker school at Ballitore in Kildare, and he attended Trinity College from 1743 to 1748 (B.A. 1748). There he was a founding member of the Historical Society. He left Ireland in 1750 but maintained Irish interests particularly as private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, second marquis of Rockingham, leader of the parliamentary Whigs. Burke argued for Catholic Emancipation and was paymaster of the forces in the Rockingham administration that repealed Poynings' Law and granted legislative independence to Ireland in 1782. Burke spoke on Irish affairs as a British MP for Wendover from 1766 to 1794. He was a correspondent of the Catholic Committee, and his son was its agent in London until 1790. His Irish interests often hindered his English career, notably by costing him his Bristol seat.

Catholic Emancipation of Ireland was only one of his five great causes, which also included parliamentary reform, conciliation with America, reform of the Indian administration, and opposition to the French Revolution. None of these was achieved in his lifetime. His writings, notably A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777), and Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) were of more long-term importance than his political career.

SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union

Bibliography

Langford, Paul, et al., eds. Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. 7 vols. 1981–.

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

James Livesey

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Burke, Edmund

BURKE, EDMUND

early life and writings
political career
the french revolution
bibliography

BURKE, EDMUND (1729–1797), British statesman and writer.

One of Western civilization's masters of the art of rhetoric and in British history among the finest writers ever to have served in Parliament, Edmund Burke has come to be best remembered as the principal spokesman of English conservatism in the late eighteenth century. Yet he was neither a native Englishman nor politically conservative with regard to any of the causes he championed, until his sixties when the outbreak of the French Revolution prompted him to assess its sources and threats in terms that thereafter would come to lie at the heart of the conservative reaction to the excesses, both philosophical and political, of the age of Enlightenment. Thanks to Burke and his followers the perfect union of true knowledge with actual government that in the ancient world had been advocated by Plato, and in the eighteenth century came to be termed "enlightened despotism," would thereafter be associated less with philosophical kingship than with doctrines of revolutionary change, the creation of a new world in the light of first principles, and the leveling of an old order's traditional bonds of community. No one who denied that political life should be steered by abstract ideas has exercised a greater influence on modern conservatism's mistrust of political theory as a guide to the practice of politics. Interpreters of communism have often portrayed its social upheavals as analogous to the achievements of the French revolutionaries decried by Burke, and postmodernist critics of Enlightenment philosophy, seldom conservatives themselves, frequently object in similar terms to its pretensions and the political hazards of implementing its ideals.

early life and writings

Born in 1729 in Dublin, the son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, and educated first at a Quaker boarding school and then at Trinity College Dublin, Burke arrived in London in 1750 to study law and prepare for a career at the bar, a profession to which he soon felt scant attraction and many of whose most prominent practitioners he would later condemn for their dogmatic zeal and personal ambition. That England had no written constitution but instead a collection of inherited practices and conventions lent political stability to its civic institutions, he thought, in ways that the late eighteenth century's new republics in America and France could not hope to acquire at a stroke through constitutional blueprints couched in purist and specious language that tied the legitimacy of a government to a people's express consent. After abandoning the study of law, he turned his attention, in his chief publications of the late 1750s, to other subjects that had become fashionable in the eighteenth century through the influence of John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume. In his Vindication of Natural Society, published anonymously in 1756, he presented what he later portrayed as a satire of the rationalist critique of revealed religions offered by the first Viscount Bolingbroke, although some modern commentators have suggested that the work should instead be read as a libertarian tract against the manufactured powers of the state. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), he developed an epistemology of aesthetic wonder, horror, and delight that sought to explain such passions with reference to the diverse objects that excited them.

Both texts display a grasp of the complexities of the human mind and of the social situations in which persons find themselves, as well as a subtle appreciation of religious sentiment, that were to distinguish Burke's later writings from the doctrines of many of his more theologically skeptical contemporaries. These themes can be traced in some measure to his background as an Irishman destined to lead his life abroad and to his Anglican schooling in a predominantly Catholic world, with mixed religious roots but also anxieties about the political influence of clerics and the papacy. "Man is by his constitution a religious animal," he would come to claim in his commentary on the French Revolution. His perception of France's Civil Constitution of the Clergy and of the destruction of monasteries and confiscation of church lands in 1789 were to underpin his charge against what he took to be the French revolutionaries' atheism, which had proceeded hand in hand with their relish of equality. But by contrast with the views of other thinkers of his age who judged all religions to be superstitious idolatry, there was nothing sectarian about Burke's sense of the social cohesion afforded by Christianity.

political career

By the late 1750s he had formed friendships with Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, and other luminaries of London society, introduced to such circles in part by his physician's daughter, Jane Nugent, whom he married in 1757. In the following year he began to edit the Annual Register, chronicling the most notable cultural achievements of Britain's capital. In 1759 he became the assistant of William Gerard Hamilton, who was two years later appointed to chief secretary of Ireland. This political apprenticeship prepared Burke well for similar service in 1765 to the Marquess of Rockingham, when he became prime minister. Elected to Parliament himself in December 1765, Burke was for the next two decades much concerned with Britain's need to free its governments of royal patronage and, abroad, with the American colonists' mounting opposition to British rule. One of the most eloquent of the Rockingham Whigs, the Liberal Party's progenitors, he was throughout this period an advocate of liberal ideals, proclaiming in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) the need for party governments to be formed from shared convictions rather than at the behest of the king, and in his "Conciliation with the Colonies" (1775) the duty of the crown to respect the civil rights and privileges of British subjects in America. The latter, a speech delivered in Parliament, may be regarded as a manifesto of the associated rights and obligations of a free people subject to the rule of law, while his "Speech to the Electors of Bristol" of the previous year is perhaps the foremost statement of a political representative's obligation to his constituents to form independent judgments. Having in 1773 lost his original seat, in Wendover, Burke won the election in Bristol in 1774 but was subsequently defeated when he stood again in 1780. Thereafter he continued his political career, until 1794, as the designated member of Parliament (MP) for the pocket borough of Malton.

One of the reasons for Burke's unpopularity in England in this period was his advocacy of the interests of the Catholic population of Ireland, a cause that in the early 1760s had prompted the composition of his Tracts on the Popery Laws and for which he continued to campaign at least until 1783, when penal restrictions against Catholics were eased by Ireland's temporarily independent parliament established by Henry Grattan (1746–1820). Throughout the 1770s and 1780s he was vexed even more by the affairs of the East India Company and the abuse of the rights of that subcontinent's inhabitants under the administration of Warren Hastings, India's first governor-general. In 1788 Burke orchestrated the ultimately failed impeachment of Hastings by the House of Commons. It was because Burke had so enthusiastically embraced such principles that his readers could not initially comprehend his hostility to the events that informed his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he drafted in the winter and spring of 1790. How could an admirer of England's Glorious Revolution and its Declaration of Right of the previous century fail to welcome the French people's subjection of their own king to the rule of law, likewise hallowed and sanctioned by their Declaration of the Rights of Man?

the french revolution

Burke set himself the task of distinguishing the French Revolution, "the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world," he contended, not only from its alleged English precedent but also from all the other movements he had championed. The revolutionists of France did not seek the restoration of their traditional rights such as had been regained by Englishmen, he claimed, through both the monarchy's and Parliament's reaffirmation of a Protestant succession. They sought instead to realize the whole of mankind's abstract rights in general in defiance of the particular customs of their nation. Those metaphysical rights, invented, he believed, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and other philosophers of the age of Enlightenment, and implemented not by French statesmen or bishops but by the republic of letters' hack journalists, petty lawyers, dissident priests, and an associated "monied interest," had brought down rather than reformed the French state. Their authors and promoters had attempted to create a new order by destroying all that should have been nurtured and preserved. They had failed to recognize that a society's true contract is an entailed inheritance that binds the living to the dead and the yet to be born. Instead of valuing the real wealth of France's soil they had placed their faith in paper currency, as specious as their arguments. Their speculations of ideas and in the stock market had together bankrupted the nation. They had not grasped that populations are held together by deep convictions, prejudice, and "untaught feelings" rather than by philosophical abstractions. Following the advent of the Jacobin Terror in the autumn of 1793 many commentators came to agree with Burke's assessment, which by then struck them as all the more powerful for having apparently predicted the French Revolution's trajectory. After pursuing themes similar to those of his Reflections in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), he completed the last of his Letters on a Regicide Peace in 1797 and died soon afterward, on 9 July of that year, in Beacons-field, bequeathing his lament for an age of chivalry whose "decent drapery of life" had been rudely stripped away to post–French Revolutionary Europe and modern conservatism.

See alsoConservatism; French Revolution.

bibliography

Primary Sources

Burke, Edmund. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Edited by Paul Langford et al. 9 vols. Oxford, U.K., 1981–2000.

Secondary Sources

Freeman, Michael. Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism. Oxford, U.K., 1980.

Kramnick, Isaac. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative. New York, 1977.

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

Robert Wokler

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Burke, Edmund

Burke, Edmund

BURKE, EDMUND. (1729/30–1797). Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, the son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant lawyer. He received a thorough intellectual training at a Quaker school in Baltimore (Ireland) from 1741 to 1744, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he read law and graduated in 1748. In 1750 went on to the Middle Temple in London, intending to qualify for the Irish bar, but he became disenchanted with the law and began instead to write. A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) was his first widely noticed work, and his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful also commanded admiration. With his friend William Burke, he contributed to An Account of the European Settlements in America (1757). From 1758 he was the editor of the new Annual Register, for which he was paid a handsome £100 per volume. In 1759, having a wife and young son to support, he became private secretary to the new chief secretary in Ireland and, in 1765, to the new prime minister, Lord Rockingham (Charles Watson-Wentworth). At the end of the year he was elected to Parliament and took his seat on 14 January 1766.

Burke entered parliament as an adherent of the Rockingham Whigs, and shared their belief that a secret court influence was subverting Parliament. In colonial matters he repeatedly made a distinction between Britain's undoubted right to tax and the expediency of letting the colonies look after themselves and create wealth for the empire. His speeches in support of the repeal of the Stamp Act and of the Declaratory Act were intelligent and much admired. He also coordinated the lobbying of merchants and manufacturers who stood to lose from a retaliatory American embargo on imports. This experience both confirmed his belief in extra-parliamentary politics and gave him experience in its organization. In 1767, having evaded an offer of office from William Pitt, the earl of Chatham, whom he thought intellectually bankrupt, he opposed the Townshend duties and the subsequent deployment of troops in Boston.

Up to 1773 these arguments carried some weight. However, the Boston Tea Party convinced almost all British politicians that it was time to stop giving way in the face of violent American blackmail. In these circumstances, even Burke found it difficult to oppose a carefully graded incremental process of coercion. The Coercive Acts of 1774, however, were sufficiently draconian to allow Burke and Rockingham to appear as champions of a saner, more generous course of conciliation. His two key speeches, "Taxation" (1774) and "Conciliation" (1775), argued powerfully for the repeal of the Acts and the abandonment in practice of parliament's constitutional right to tax. In Burke's view, both sides should focus less on rights and more upon mutual responsibilities and cooperation. These views did not go down well in Parliament, although their published versions (1775) earned him admirers among the wider public. The promulgation of the Declaration of Independence made it even more difficult to oppose the war in the American colonies, but Burke's preferred solution, secession from parliament, was only patchily observed by his colleagues, and the justification Burke offered to his electors, published as A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, was rather lame. When he returned to parliament, Burke lashed out at the employment of German mercenaries and Native irregulars by Englishmen against Englishmen. When the war began to go badly, and men blamed it on corruption and inefficiency, he sought reform in the shape of a public accounts committee. However, the government's position under the prime ministry of Lord North was almost unassailable until the battle of Yorktown, and it did not collapse until 1782.

Burke was paymaster to the forces in Rockingham's second ministry and, later, that of the duke of Portland. His continuing zeal for hunting out injustice and corruption in imperial affairs was evident in his contributions to Henry Fox's India Bill in 1783 and to the prosecution of Warren Hastings (1785–1794) for corruption. However, he was still no revolutionary and was steadily becoming more conservative. In 1790 he published his famous denunciation, Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was aimed at English radicals advocating sweeping reforms at home. This, along with other factors, caused a final rift with Fox and the publication of his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in 1791. By 1794 Burke was equating the prosecution of Hastings with the war on Jacobinism, and when Hastings was acquitted, Burke resigned his parliamentary seat. He died on 9 July 1797.

SEE ALSO Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Stamp Act.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lock, F. P. Edmund Burke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

                              revised by John Oliphant

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Burke, Edmund (1729–1797)

BURKE, EDMUND
(17291797)

Edmund Burke, the British statesman and political philosopher, was born in Ireland to a family of modest means. His mother's family was Catholic, his father's Protestant. He was raised a Protestant and educated at a Quaker school and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took the equivalent of a first-class honors degree in classics. He went to London to read law but was never called to the bar. He devoted most of his time to authorship and literary journalism. Robert Dodsley, a leading London bookseller of the time, loyally backed him; by 1757, Dodsley had published two books by Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756), had given him employment as editor of The Annual Register, and had contracted to pay him £300 for an Abridgement of the History of England.

A Vindication of Natural Society is a satire on the views of Henry St. John Bolingbroke. It claimed to be a recently discovered work by Bolingbroke and was designed to ridicule the idea that the rise of civilized society is attended by misery and suffering. The parody was written with such conviction, however, that many assumed it was in fact the work of Bolingbroke, and even when it was known that Burke was the author, some critics still thought it was a sincere expression of his true opinion.

Burke's book On the Sublime and the Beautiful is more important; indeed, it might well be said to signalize the point at which aesthetic taste in England changed from the classical formalism of the earlier years of the eighteenth century to the romanticism of the later years. Burke attacked the rationalist, classicist notion that clarity is an essential quality in great art. He argued, on the contrary, that what is greatest and noblest is the infinite, and that the infinite, having no bounds, cannot be clear and distinct. He argued that the imagination, moreover, is most strongly affected by what is suggested or hinted at and not by what is plainly stated. Burke also maintained that fear plays a large part in our enjoyment of the sublime. Such fear is diminished by knowledge, but sharpened by veiled intimations. Obscurity, not clarity, is the property of the most powerfully moving art; and, Burke added, "It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions."

Both of Burke's first two works were well received, but neither set him on the road to any further achievement. The Annual Register was a success, although Burke regarded it as mere hackwork. He never finished the projected History of England. Burke's growing interest in questions of ethics and politics provided him, in time, with an escape from the frustrations of Grub Street. He entered the House of Commons at the age of thirty-seven, and this new life brought him satisfactions he had never known in his earlier career. He became an outstanding parliamentarian; what distinguished him and made him a philosopher among politicians, however, was his capacity to look beyond the matters of the day and to articulate general principles in terms of which he believed the problems of the day should be judged.

A diligent study of Burke's letters and manuscripts brings home the extent to which his approach to politics was a religious one. What is often spoken of as his "empiricism" appears in this light to be better described as Christian pessimism. As a Christian, Burke believed that the world is imperfect; he regarded his "enlightened" contemporaries' faith in the perfectibility of man as atheistical as well as erroneous. Thus, whereas the fashionable intellectuals of his time looked for the progressive betterment of the world through the beneficent influence of Reason and Nature, Burke maintained that the moral order of the universe is unchanging. The first duty of rulers and legislators, he argued, is to the present, not to the future; their energies should be devoted to the correction of real ills, not to the promotion of an ideal order that exists only in the imagination.

Burke put great faith in the inherited wisdom of tradition. He held that the moral order of the temporal world must necessarily include some evil, by reason of original sin. Men ought not to reject what is good in tradition merely because there is some admixture of evil in it. In man's confused situation, advantages may often lie in balances and compromises between good and evil, even between one evil and another. It is an important part of wisdom to know how much evil should be tolerated. To search for too great a purity is only to produce fresh corruption. Burke was especially critical of revolutionary movements with noble humanitarian ends because he believed that people are simply not at liberty to destroy the state and its institutions in the hope of some contingent improvement. On the other hand, he insisted that people have a paramount duty to prevent the world from getting worsea duty to guard and preserve their inherited liberties and privileges.

These considerations explain the so-called inconsistencies often attributed to Burke, who supported the movement for the independence of Ireland and the rebellion of the American colonists against the English government, but bitterly opposed the French Revolution. The reason for this seeming inconsistency was that Burke regarded the Irish movement and the American rebellion as actions on behalf of traditional rights and liberties that the English government had infringed on. The French Revolution was quite different, he argued, because it was designed to introduce a wholly new order based on a false rationalistic philosophy. Burke did not object to a resort to force as such; it was the aims of the French revolutionists to which he objected. Similarly, Burke approved of the English Revolution of 1688 because he saw it as designed to restore the rights of Englishmen and to secure the hereditary succession to the throne. The French Revolution, on the contrary, was intended to establish the so-called rights of man and the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity at the expense of personal property, religion, and the traditional class structure of a Christian kingdom.

In one of his most celebrated works, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke attacked those of his contemporaries who made an abstraction of liberty, and who invited people to seek liberty without any real knowledge of what they meant by it. He claimed that he himself loved "a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman in France," but he would not "stand forward and give praise" to an "object stripped of all concrete relations" and standing "in all the solitude of a metaphysical idea." As for equality, Burke insisted that it was contrary to nature and therefore impossible to achieve; its advocates, moreover, did "great social harm," for by pretending that real differences were unreal, they inspired "false hopes and vain expectations in those destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life." Burke dismissed talk of fraternity as so much "cant and gibberish"; such splendid words were simply the pretexts of the French revolutionists; the causes of the French revolution, however, were "men's vicespride, ambition, avarice, lust, sedition."

Burke's view of the ancien régime in France was in many ways a romantic one; he was certainly no less a "man of feeling" than was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he detested. But Burke was essentially a religious man living in a rationalistic age. Although he often spoke the language understood by that agethe language of calculation, expediency, utility, and political rightshe had a mind that his contemporaries, and many others, could not readily comprehend. Burke was conscious, above all things, of the reality and unavoidability of evil, and was thus led to claim that the only hope for humankind was to cling to safeguards that had stood the test of time. His hopes for bliss lay in heaven; on earth, his policy was to defend the tolerable, and sometimes the bad, against the immeasurably worse.

Until recently Burke was considered too unsystematic, too empirical, too "unphilosophical," and too much of a theorist to deserve serious attention. His conservative views were uncongenial to left-wing historians, such as Harold J. Laski and Richard Wollheim, who found him inconsistent. In 1948, however, the Sheffield Public Library (Yorkshire, England) acquired the Wentworth Woodhouse manuscripts, and the largest known collection of Burke's private papers became available to scholars for the first time since the writer's death. The study of these papers did much to enhance Burke's reputation as a political philosopher of signal importance and originality.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Bolingbroke, Henry St. John; Political Philosophy, History of; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social and Political Philosophy; Traditionalism.

Bibliography

works by burke

Works, 16 vols. Edited by F. Lawrence and W. King. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 18031827.

Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 10 vols. Edited by Thomas W. Copeland et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19581978.

The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, 12 vols. Edited by Paul Langford et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

works on burke

Cobban, A. Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century. London: Allen and Unwin, 1929. Adds new thought on the resemblances between Burke's thought and that of Rousseau.

Cone, C. B. Burke and the Nature of Politics. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957. A valuable introductory study from a modern standpoint.

Copeland, T. W. Our Eminent Friend, Edmund Burke: Six Essays. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949. Essays by a literary historian and leading Burke scholar.

Lock, F. P. Edmund Burke, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

MacCunn, J. The Political Philosophy of Burke. London: Arnold, 1913. A useful traditional reading of Burke's philosophy.

Magnus, P. Edmund Burke. London: Murray, 1939. A reliable short biography.

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

Parkin, Charles. The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956. Stresses the importance of religion in Burke's political philosophy.

Stanlis, Peter J. Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment and Revolution. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991.

Maurice Cranston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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Burke, Edmund (1729–1797)

Burke, Edmund (1729–1797)

Burke, Edmund (1729–1797), British statesman and noted political theorist and philosophical writer. Edmund Burke 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 middle—class 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...whichgiveormaintainpower 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.

EWB

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