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 on Edmund Burke

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 Biography 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.