Edmund Burke – Biography

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) political philosopher, orator

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, to Richard Burke, an attorney, and Mary Nagle Burke. At the age of six, the sickly Burke was sent by his parents to live in Ballyduff with his maternal uncle, Patrick Nagle. In 1741, Burke was enrolled in a boarding school in Ballintore, where he excelled. He passed entrance exams to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1744.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797)

Burke had a distinguished career at the university, where he founded a debating class and a small miscellany publication, the Reformer. He graduated in 1749 with a degree in law. Burke went to London in 1750 to read for the bar, but soon abandoned his legal studies in favor of a career in literature.

In 1756 Burke published A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind and, a year later, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). A Vindication, because of its attack on the established political order, was published anonymously (and indeed was ascribed to another author for years after its publication). In it, Burke writes that “society [is] founded in natural appetites and instincts, and not in any positive institution.” To Burke, history is an endless record of deceit and bloodshed, and “political society is justly charged with much the greater part of this destruction.”

In A Philosophical Enquiry, Burke develops a somewhat complex aesthetic theory. He essentially places different objects, from concrete physical features to more abstract concepts such as courage, into the categories of the beautiful and the sublime. Burke claims that “all works of great labor, expense, and magnificence are sublime,” while “beauty is a name I shall apply to all such qualities in things as induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness.” Both essays were successful in literary and artistic circles of London, and Burke was encouraged by his publisher to write historical works; however, he concentrated almost solely on political writings.

By the early 1760s, Burke had entered the English political scene. In 1759 he became an assistant to William Gerard Hamilton, a well-known parliamentarian. By 1761, Hamilton achieved the important post of chief secretary for Ireland, and Burke accompanied him as a private secretary. Burke remained in Ireland for the duration of Hamilton’s tenure, from 1761 to 1764.

Although the job of a private secretary seems insignificant today, Burke seems to have played an important role in Irish politics, particularly during the sessions of the Irish Parliament between 1761 and 1762. Burke attempted to improve significantly the position of the Irish Catholics, against whom the English and Irish Protestants established numerous laws that restricted their political, economic, and social rights. The degree of success and influence of Burke during this period is still debated by historians.

In 1765, Burke’s position within the English government rose considerably when he was appointed a private secretary to the marquis of Rockingham, the leader of the Whig, or liberal, party, and elected to Parliament for the borough of Wendover. Burke’s great rhetorical skills won him considerable influence among the Whigs, and he gained particular prominence during the parliamentary debate over the political fate of the American colonies. In 1766, Burke adamantly argued for the repeal of the Stamp Act. He showed strong support, however, for the Declaratory Act that affirmed Britain’s constitutional right to tax the American colonists without parliamentary representation of the colonists. In his famous later speeches on taxation and on political reconciliation with the colonies, Burke did not abandon that position; instead, he illuminated the imprudence of exercising such theoretical rights.

In 1770, Burke published an influential pamphlet, Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, in which he examined the growing political discontent in the American colonies. In this work, Burke was the first political philosopher to argue for the value of political parties in the maintenance of political and social order. Although this idea does not seem revolutionary today, most people in the 18th century believed that political parties were symptoms of dangerous factionalism in the government of the country. Furthermore, Burke publicly called for limitation of crown patronage, an institution that promoted people in the government based on their social standing rather than on merit. As postmaster general in the second administration (1782–83) of Rockingham, he was able to enact some of his proposed reforms.

Although Burke seemingly advocated liberal reforms as a politician and writer, in his later writings he became increasingly conservative. Unlike his position in A Vindication, he came to believe that political, social, and religious institutions formed over the centuries represented some kind of natural progression and the best form of government possible. Therefore, he never proposed any political reforms beyond restraints on the powers of the monarch. Indeed, his seminal work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), rhapsodically represented the reactionary views of many European conservatives, fearful of democratic and parliamentary reforms:

Good order is the foundation of all good things. . . . [The common people] must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice.

As the scholar C. P. Courtney notes, “Burke’s reactions to the French Revolution are not quite like those of anyone else in England at that time. He sees it not simply as one of those political upheavals of which history affords so many examples, but as something new and unprecedented.” Indeed, Burke describes the revolution as a “monster,” “spectre,” and “moral earthquake.” He views it as a perversion of nature and natural order that flew, as Courtney observes, “in the face of the laws of God.”

Burke’s words found vocal opposition not only among the works of liberal thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Mary WOLLSTONECRAFT, but also among the ranks of his own party. Burke’s pamphlet Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) clearly demonstrated that he favored the conservative Tory positions on most major political issues. Burke had no choice but to break with the Whigs in 1791 after many years of collaboration.

Many literary critics and historians today refer to Edmund Burke as the father of modern conservatism. Although this label is deserved in some respects, Burke instituted many long-lasting political reforms. His views had a tremendous influence on the formation of political thought and institutions in England, France, and the United States years after his death. Himself an Irish Protestant, Burke never failed to criticize the brutal policies of the English administration toward Irish Catholics. Still, as the historian Will Durant observes, “Burke took on the French Revolution as his personal enemy, and in the course of this . . . campaign made a major contribution to political philosophy. . . . In his writings on the French revolution Burke gave a classical expression to a conservative philosophy.”

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