Edmund Burke

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

The Right Honourable Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729July 9, 1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, author, orator and political philosopher, who served for many years in the British House of Commons as a member of the Whig party. He is chiefly remembered for his support of the American colonies in the struggle against King George III that led to the American Revolution, as well as for his strong opposition to the French Revolution. The latter made Burke one of the leading figures within the conservative faction of the Whig party (which he dubbed the "Old Whigs"), in opposition to the pro-revolutionary "New Whigs," led by Charles James Fox. Burke also published philosophical work on aesthetics and founded the Annual Register, a political review. In his day he was considered one of the finest parliamentary orators in Britain.



Born in Dublin, Ireland, Burke was the son of a Protestant solicitor and a Catholic mother, whose maiden name was Nagle. Burke was raised in his father's faith and would remain throughout his life a practicing Anglican. He received his early education at a Quaker school in Ballitore and in 1744 he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin. In 1747, he set up a Debating Club, known as Edmund Burke's Club, which in 1770 merged with the Historical Club to form the College Historical Society. The minutes of the meetings of Burke's club remain in the collection of the Historical Society. He graduated in 1748. Burke's father wished him to study for the law, and with this object he went to London in 1750 and entered the Middle Temple, but soon thereafter he gave up his legal studies in order to travel in Continental Europe.

Burke's first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society, appeared in 1756. It was a satire on the views of Bolingbroke, but so close was the imitation to the writer's style, and so grave the irony, that its point as a satire was largely missed. 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 and Immanuel Kant. The following year, with Robert Dodsley, he created the influential Annual Register, a publication in which various authors evaluated the international political events of the previous year. In London, Burke became closely connected with many of the leading intellectuals and artists, including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joshua Reynolds.

At about this same time, Burke was introduced to William Gerard Hamilton (known as "Single-speech Hamilton"). When Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Burke accompanied him to Dublin as his private secretary, a position he maintained for three years. In 1765 Burke became private secretary to liberal Whig statesman Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquess of Rockingham, at the time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who remained Burke's close friend and associate until his death.

Political career

In 1765 Burke entered the British Parliament as a member of the House of Commons for Wendover, a Whig, and Rockingham's protégé. Thus began his distinguished career as an orator and philosophic statesman. Burke took a leading role in the debate over the constitutional limits to the executive authority of the King. He argued strongly against unrestrained royal power and for the role of political parties in maintaining a principled opposition capable of preventing abuses by the monarch or by specific factions within the government. His most important publication in this regard was his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents of 1770. Later he was noted for his defense of representative democracy against the notion that elected officials should act narrowly as advocates for the interests of their constituents; (a particularly famous instance being his address to the electors of Bristol, which was then England's 'second city,' in 1774). He summed up his thoughts by formulating the delegate and trustee models of representation.

Always concerned with enforcing constitutional constraints on royal power, Burke expressed his support for the grievances of the American colonies under the government of King George III and his appointed representatives. He also campaigned against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland and denounced the abuses and corruption of the East India Company. In 1769 he published, in reply to George Grenville, his pamphlet on The Present State of the Nation. In the same year he purchased the small estate of Gregories near Beaconsfield. His speeches and writings had now made him famous, and among other effects had brought about the suggestion that he was the author of the Letters of Junius. In 1774 he was elected member for Bristol, and continued so until 1780, when differences with his constituency on the questions of Irish trade and Catholic emancipation led to his resignation, after which he sat for Malton until his final retirement from public life.

Under the Tory administration of Lord North (1770-1782) the American war went on from bad to worse, and it was in part owing to the splendid oratorical efforts of Burke that it was at last brought to an end. To this period belong two of his most brilliant performances, his speech on Conciliation with America (1775), and his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777). The fall of North led to Rockingham being recalled to power. Burke became Paymaster of the Forces and Privy Councillor, but Rockingham's unexpected death in July of 1782 put an end to his administration after only a few months.

Burke then supported fellow Whig Charles James Fox in his coalition with Lord North, a decision that many came to regard later as his greatest political error. Under that short-lived coalition he continued to hold the office of Paymaster and he distinguished himself in connection with Fox's India Bill. The coalition fell in 1783, and was succeeded by the long Tory administration of William Pitt the Younger, which lasted until 1801. Burke was accordingly in opposition for the remainder of his political life. In 1785 he made his great speech on The Nabob of Arcot's Debts, and in the next year (1786) he moved for papers in regard to the Indian government of Warren Hastings, the consequence of which was the impeachment of that statesman, which, beginning in 1787, lasted until 1794, and of which Burke was the leading promoter.

Response to the French Revolution

Given his record as a strong supporter of American independence and as a campaigner against royal prerogative, many were surprised when Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. With it, Burke became one of the earliest and fiercest British critics of the French Revolution, which he saw not as movement towards a representative, constitutional democracy but rather as a violent rebellion against tradition and proper authority and as an experiment disconnected from the complex realities of human society, which would end in disaster. Former admirers of Burke, such as Thomas Jefferson and fellow Whig politician Charles James Fox, proceeded to denounce Burke as a reactionary and an enemy of democracy. Thomas Paine penned The Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke. However, other pro-democratic politicians, such as the American John Adams, agreed with Burke's assessment of the French situation. Many of Burke's dire predictions for the outcome of the French Revolution were later borne out by the execution of King Louis XVI, the subsequent Reign of Terror, and the eventual rise of Napoleon's autocratic regime.

These events, and the disagreements which arose regarding them within the Whig part, led to its breakup and to the rupture of Burke's friendship with Fox. In 1791 Burke published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he renewed his criticism of the radical revolutionary programs inspired by the French Revolution and attacked the Whigs who supported them. Eventually most of the Whigs sided with Burke and voted their support for the conservative government of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, which declared war on the revolutionary government of France in 1793.

In 1794 a terrible blow fell upon Burke in the loss of his son Richard, to whom he was tenderly attached, and in whom he saw signs of promise, which were not patent to others, and which in fact appear to have been non-existent. In the same year the Hastings trial came to an end. Burke felt that his work was done and indeed that he was worn out; and he took leave of Parliament. The King, whose favour he had gained by his attitude on the French Revolution, wished to make him Lord Beaconsfield, but the death of his son had deprived such an honour of all its attractions, and the only reward he would accept was a pension of £2,500. Even this modest reward was attacked by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, to whom Burke made a crushing reply in the Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). His last publication were the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), called forth by negotiations for peace with France.

Burke died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire in 1797.

Influence and reputation

The Liberalism Series
Part of the Politics series
Classical liberalism
American liberalism
Liberalism in Europe
Economic liberalism
Social liberalism
Contributions to liberal theory
Free market & Mixed economy
Individual rights & Civil rights
Negative liberty & Positive liberty
Liberal democracy
Open society
Liberalism worldwide
Liberal International
ELDR - ALDE / CALD / ALN / Relial
Politics Portal - Edit this box

Part of the Politics series


Christian Democracy
Liberal conservatism
Social conservatism


American Conservatism
Canadian Conservatism


Christian Democrats Conservative parties


Natural order


William F. Buckley, Jr.
Edmund Burke
Barry Goldwater
John Howard
Joseph de Maistre
Prince Metternich
Leo Strauss


Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was extremely controversial at the time of its publication. Its intemperate language and factual inaccuracies even convinced many readers that Burke had lost his judgment. But as the subsequent violence and chaos in France vindicated much of Burke's assessment, it grew to become his best-known and most influential work. In the English-speaking world, Burke is often regarded as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, and his thinking has exerted considerable influence over the political philosophy of such classical liberals as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. Burke's 'liberal' conservatism, which opposes the implementation of grand theoretical plans of radical political change but recognizes the necessity of gradual reform, must not be confused with the autocratic conservatism of such anti-revolutionary Continental figures as Joseph de Maistre.

Two contrasting assessments of Burke were offered long after his death by Karl Marx and Winston Churchill. According to the former's Das Kapital:

The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.

According to Churchill's "Consistency in Politics":

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

Though still controversial, Burke is today widely regarded as one of the major political thinkers of the English-speaking world. His writings, like his speeches, are characterised by the welding together of knowledge, thought, and feeling. Unlike most orators, he is more successful as a writer than he was as a speaker. He often rose too far above the heads of his audience, which the continued splendour of his declamation, his inordinate copiousness, and his excessive vehemence, often passing into fury, at length wearied, and even disgusted. But in his writings are found some of the grandest examples of a fervid and richly elaborated eloquence. Though he was never admitted to the Cabinet, he guided and influenced largely the policy of his party. His efforts in the direction of economy and order in administration at home, and on behalf of a more just government in America, India, and Ireland, as well as his contributions to political philosophy, constitute his most significant legacy.


Burke made several famous speeches while serving in the British House of Commons.

  • On Conciliation with the Colonies : "The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord fomented, from principle, in all parts of the Empire, not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace; sought in its natural course, and in its ordinary haunts. It is peace sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles purely pacific . . ."


Notable quotations

  • "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation."
  • "They defend their errors as if they were defending their inheritance."
  • "Custom reconciles us to everything."
  • [On whether America should belong to Britain] "If we have equity, wisdom, and justice, it will belong to this country; if we have it not, it will not belong to this country."
  • "The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded."
  • "In my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."
  • "Make the Revolution a parent of settlement, and not a nursery of future revolutions."
  • "Neither the few nor the many have a right to act merely by their will, in any matter connected with duty, trust, engagement, or obligation."
  • "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."
  • "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
  • "Jacobinism is the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property."
  • "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts."
  • "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

It was Burke who first referred to the "great unwashed masses of humanity".

The quotation most often attributed to Burke ("The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing", along with its many variants) is not from his writings. See [1] and [2].


Preceded by:
Richard Rigby
Paymaster of the Forces
Succeeded by:
Isaac Barré
Preceded by:
Isaac Barré
Paymaster of the Forces
Succeeded by:
William Wyndham Grenville

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Wikisource has original works written by or about:


Personal tools