Introduction | Life | Work | Books
(Detail from an oil painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771)
Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797) was an Anglo-Irish philosopher, statesman and political theorist of the Age of Enlightenment.
He served for many years in the British House of Commons, and was one of the leading figures within the Conservative faction of the Whig party. He was a strong supporter of the American colonies, and a staunch opponent of the French Revolution. He is often regarded as the philosophical founder of Anglo-American Conservatism.
Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland on January 12, 1729. His father, Richard Burke, was a prosperous, professional solicitor, who had converted to the Church of Ireland from the Roman Catholicism of his Munster lineage. His mother, Mary (née Nagle), came from a genteel Roman Catholic family of County Cork. He was raised in the Church of Ireland (although his sister, Juliana, was brought up as and remained a Roman Catholic) and would remain throughout his life a practicing Anglican, although his political enemies would later repeatedly accuse him of harbouring secret Catholic sympathies at a time when membership in the Catholic church would have disqualified him from public office.
His early education was at a Quaker school in Ballitore just south of Dublin, and he remained in correspondence with his schoolmate Mary Leadbeater, the daughter of the school's owner, throughout his life. In 1744, he continued his education at Trinity College, Dublin, where he set up a debating club, known as Edmund Burke's Club, and graduated in 1748. In 1750, he went to London to study law at the Middle Temple, but he soon gave up his legal studies in order to travel in Europe, and attempted to earn his livelihood through writing.
During his time in London, Burke published his first work, "A Vindication of Natural Society" (a defense of Anarchism) and a treatise on Aesthetics, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful". He founded the influential political publication, the "Annual Register", in 1858, and became closely connected with many of the leading intellectuals and artists of the time, including Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), David Garrick (1717 - 1779), Oliver Goldsmith (1730 -1774) and Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792).
In 1757, Burke married Jane Mary Nugent, and they had a son, Richard, in 1758 (another son, Christopher, died in infancy). From 1758 to 1761, they moved to Dublin, where Burke was private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton (1729 - 1796), who had been appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. In 1765, he became private secretary to the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the liberal Whig Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham (1730 - 1782) and, in the same year, began his political career proper as Member of Parliament for Wendover.
He took a leading role in the debate over the constitutional limits to the executive authority of the King, and directly opposed King George III's policy of severe sovereignty in relation to the American colonists. He campaigned against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland and denounced the abuses and corruption of the East India Company. His speeches and writings soon made him famous, and in 1774 he was elected MP for Bristol, then England's "second city", although his support for free trade with Ireland and his advocacy of Catholic emancipation were unpopular and he lost his seat in 1780. For the remainder of his parliamentary career, Burke sat as the member for Malton, a pocket borough of his benefactor, the Marquess of Rockingham. After Rockingham's return to power, Burke became Paymaster of the Forces and Privy Councillor, although these ceased when Rockingham died unexpectedly in 1782.
With the beginning of the long Tory administration of William Pitt the Younger (1759 - 1806) in 1783, the remainder of Burke's political life was in opposition, but he distinguished himself in the impeachment of the Indian governor Warren Hastings (1732 - 1818), and he vociferously condemned the French Revolution, which he predicted would end in disaster.
His strong views on the French Revolution received conflicting responses. Former admirers, such as Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826), Thomas Paine (1739 - 1809), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 - 1816) and Charles James Fox (1749 - 1806), denounced Burke as a reactionary and an enemy of the French and their ground-breaking aspirations; other former supporters of the American Revolution, such as John Adams (1735 - 1826), George Washington (1732 - 1799) and Alexander Hamilton (1755 - 1804), however, agreed with Burke's assessment of the French situation.
In 1794, his son Richard died and the Hastings trial came to an end, and Burke, feeling that his work was done and that he was worn out, retired from Parliament. Although he had regained the favor of King George III by his attitude on the French Revolution, he declined the title of Lord Beaconsfield, accepting only a generous pension instead. After a prolonged illness, Burke died on 9 July 1797 at Beaconsfield.
Burke's first published work, "A Vindication of Natural Society" (subtitled "A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind"), appeared in 1756. It was perhaps the first serious defense of Anarchism (although Burke later, with a government appointment at stake, characterized it as a satire), and was taken quite seriously by later anarchists such as William Godwin (1756 - 1836).
In 1757, he published a treatise on Aesthetics, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful", which attracted the attention of prominent Continental thinkers such as Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) and Immanuel Kant.
In his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" of 1790, Burke described the French Revolution as a violent rebellion against tradition and proper authority, and as an experiment disconnected from the complex realities of human society. He vehemently disagreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of the "Popular Will", believing instead that most men in a nation are not qualified to govern it. He believed the country should look to men of finer upbringing and higher Christian education, or risk a move away from personal merit and distinction and towards an unprincipled, enervating mediocrity. The intemperate language and factual inaccuracies of the "Reflections" convinced many readers that Burke had lost his judgment but, after his death, when his predictions were proven largely correct, it grew to become his best-known and most influential work.
In economics, he was a strong supporter of the free market system (believing that trade should be fair and benefit both parties, but that governments should not interfere any more than necessary), but was wary of industrialization. The pioneering economist, Adam Smith, was a strong supporter of his ground-breaking views; the socialist Karl Marx was a radical opponent of them. Over time, Burke has come to be regarded as one of the fathers of modern Conservatism in the English-speaking world, and his thinking has exerted considerable influence over the political philosophy of modern classical Liberals.
A very common quotation mistakenly attributed to Burke is: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" (or several similar variations). There is no definite source for the quotation, but it may be a paraphrasing of Burke's "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle".
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