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Edmund Burke

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Edmund Burke
Era 18th century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Old Whig, Liberal conservatism
Main interests Social and political philosophy

Edmund Burke ( 12 January, 1729 – 9 July, 1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher who served for many years in the British House of Commons as a member of the Whig party. He is mainly remembered for his support of the American colonies in the dispute with King George III and Britain that led to the American Revolution and 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-French-Revolution "New Whigs", led by Charles James Fox. Burke also published a philosophical work where he attempted to define emotions and passions, and how they are triggered in a person. Burke worked on aesthetics and founded the Annual Register, a political review. He is often regarded by conservatives as the philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism.


Burke, who was of Munster Roman Catholic lineage, was born in Dublin to a prosperous, professional solicitor father (Richard; d. 1761) who had converted to the Church of Ireland. His mother Mary (c. 1702–1770), whose maiden name was Nagle, belonged to the Roman Catholic Church and came from an impoverished but genteel County Cork family. Burke was raised in his father's faith and would remain throughout his life a practising Anglican, but 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 (see Penal Laws in Ireland). His sister Juliana was brought up as and remained a Roman Catholic.

As a child he sometimes spent time away from the unhealthy air of Dublin with his mother's family in the Blackwater Valley. He received his early education at a Quaker school in Ballitore, some 30 miles (48 km) from Dublin, and remained in correspondence with his schoolmate Mary Leadbeater, the daughter of the school's owner, throughout his life.

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, now the oldest undergraduate society in the world. 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. After giving up law, he attempted to earn his livelihood through writing.

Burke's first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind, appeared in 1756 and was fraudulently attributed to Lord Bolingbroke. It was originally taken as a serious treatise on anarchism. Years later, with a government appointment at stake, Burke, as a defender of the established order, claimed that it had been intended as a satire. Many modern scholars consider it to be satire, but others take Vindication as a serious defence of anarchism (an interpretation notably espoused by Murray Rothbard). Whether satire or not, it was the first anarchist essay, and taken seriously by later anarchists such as William Godwin. In 1757 Burke 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.

Edmund Burke - statesman
A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds - 1781. The painting shows the friends of Reynolds - many of whom were members of "The Club" - use cursor to identify.

In London, Burke became closely connected with many of the leading intellectuals and artists, including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joshua Reynolds. Edward Gibbon described him as, 'the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew.'

On March 12, 1757 he married Jane Mary Nugent (1734–1812), daughter of a Catholic physician who had treated him at Bath. His son Richard was born in February 9, 1758. Another son, Christopher, died in infancy.

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 Great Britain, who remained Burke's close friend and associate until his premature death in 1782.

Political career

Statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol. The inscription reads: Burke 1774-1780. "I wish to be a member of parliament to have my share of doing good and resisting evil". Speech at Bristol 1780.

In 1765 Burke entered the British Parliament as a member of the House of Commons for Wendover, a pocket borough in the control of Lord Fermanagh, later 2nd Earl Verney, a close political ally of Rockingham. 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. In it, Burke expressed his opposition to the influence of the court and he was also an advocate for the people's interests.

Burke expressed his support for the grievances of the American colonies under the government of King George III and his appointed representatives. Burke opposed the attitude of severe sovereignty in relation to the colonists. Instead, he advocated doing whatever was advantageous instead of what is legally just and right. He also campaigned against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland and denounced the abuses and corruption of the East India Company.

In 1769 Burke 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. The 600-acre (2.4 km2) estate was purchased with mostly borrowed money, and though it contained an art collection that included works by Titian, Gregories nevertheless would prove to be a heavy financial burden on the MP in the following decades. Burke was never able to fully pay for the estate. 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, at the time "England's second city" and a large constituency with a genuine electoral contest. His address to the electors of Bristol was noted for its defence of the principles of representative democracy against the notion that elected officials should act narrowly as advocates for the interests of their constituents. Burke's arguments in this matter helped to formulate the delegate and trustee models of political representation. His support for free trade with Ireland and his advocacy of Catholic emancipation were unpopular with his constituents and caused him to lose his seat in 1780. For the remainder of his parliamentary career, Burke sat for Malton, another pocket borough controlled by Rockingham.

In Cincinnatus in Retirement (1782), James Gillray caricatured Burke's support of rights for Catholics.

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 oratorical efforts of Burke that it was brought to an end. To this period belong two of his most famous 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 against 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 trial of that politician. The trial, of which Burke was the leading promoter, lasted from 1788 until Hastings's eventual acquittal in 1795. Burke's indictment, fuelled by emotional indignation, called Hastings the 'captain-general of iniquity'; who never dined without 'creating a famine'; his heart was 'gangrened to the core' and he resembled both a 'spider of Hell' and a 'ravenous vulture devouring the carcases of the dead' . The indictment was such a philippic that, whereas it had previously seemed that Hastings would be found guilty, it actually provoked public sympathy; however, although Hastings was acquitted, the trial served to establish the principle that the Empire was a moral undertaking rather than a wholesale looting by either the East India Company or its servants.

Response to the events in France

Although Burke had supported the American War for Independence, which he saw as an appropriate response to the situation regarding the American colonists, he condemned the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France in November 1790. With it, Burke became one of the earliest and fiercest critics in Britain of the French Revolution. He saw it, 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. Burke argued that the new doctrines of France were simple and abstract, that since they did not recognize the nature and orders of people, it could never replace the present ones. As such, he predicted, it would end in disaster. Burke vehemently disagreed with Rousseau's theory of the "Popular Will" believing that most men in a nation are not qualified to govern it and should look to men of finer upbringing and higher Christian education (the law of natural Aristocracy or the Landed Gentry) who are by their position, naturally responsible to them and the nation as a whole. He professed that a civilized people could not naturally be made up of people with the same distinctions, positions and interests. An attempt by the multitude of a country to govern each other's affairs would inevitably move the country away from personal merit and distinction towards an unprincipled, enervating mediocrity. Moreover, he asserted that the French doctrines fundamentally worked against the interests of the people and endangered their most prized and cherished treasures themselves.

Former admirers of Burke, such as Thomas Jefferson, Sheridan, and fellow Whig politician Charles James Fox, proceeded to denounce Burke as a reactionary and an enemy of the French and their ground-breaking aspirations. Thomas Paine penned The Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke. However, other former supporters of the American revolution such as John Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton agreed with Burke's assessment of the French situation.

These events, and the disagreements which arose regarding them within the Whig party, 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 programmes 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. 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; he soon 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. This pension was attacked by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, to whom Burke replied in the Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). His last publications were the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), called forth by negotiations for peace with France. He spent his final years in a strong support of the war against France.

After a prolonged illness Burke died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire on July 9, five days before the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and the official start of the Revolution he so long predicted and fought against. 1797 He was buried there, in Beaconsfield alongside his son and brother. His wife survived him by nearly fifteen years.

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 judgement. But after his death, 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 claimed to oppose the implementation of governing based on abstract ideas and supported 'organic' reform, can be contrasted with the autocratic conservatism of such Continental figures as Joseph de Maistre.

Even though Burke did not invest a great deal of his career in an Economical pursuit he had a strong influence on economic thought of the time. He was a strong supporter of the free market system but was wary of industrialization. He believed that economical study was an extension of progress from the nation's order. He believed trade should be fair, benefitting both parties but the government should not interfere anymore than prudent routine. Burke lays out many of his economic thoughts in his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. He is not recognized as any sort of leader in economic study because he did not believe it was the role of the government to regulate it. Many maintain the modern sentiment that Burke did not live in the age when Government interference for the public good in its commonwealth was necessary. They feel that Burke lived in a time that was simpler and did not have the complexity or beg for the attention as modern first world economies do. Burke, however, believed that the principles for which he stood were always applicable and would consistently generate prosperity for any country that adhered to them, regardless of time and circumstance. Adam Smith remarked that "Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do without any previous communication having passed between us". The Liberal historian Lord Acton considered Burke as one of the three greatest liberals, along with William Ewart Gladstone and Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Two contrasting assessments of Burke were offered long after his death by Karl Marx and Winston Churchill.

Karl Marx was a radical opponent of Burke's thought. In Das Kapital, he wrote::

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 Winston 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.

The historian Piers Brendon asserts that Burke laid the moral foundations for the British Empire, epitomised in the trial of Warren Hastings, that was ultimately to be its undoing: when Burke stated that, 'The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other' , this was '[...] an idealogical bacillus that would prove fatal. This was Edmund Burke's paternalistic doctrine that colonial government was a trust. It was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright - freedom.' . As a consequence of this opinion, Burke objected to the opium trade, which he called a 'smuggling adventure' and condemned as 'the great Disgrace of the British character in India.'

Burke is also the namesake of a variety of prominent associations and societies across the world.


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

  • On American Taxation (1774): "Whether you were right or wrong in establishing the Colonies on the principles of commercial monopoly, rather than on that of revenue, is at this day a problem of mere speculation. You cannot have both by the same authority. To join together the restraints of an universal internal and external monopoly, with an universal internal and external taxation, is an unnatural union; perfect uncompensated slavery."
  • On Conciliation with America (1775): "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..."

Also famous is his speech to the Electors of Bristol during the 1774 election, on the duties of a Member of Parliament.

  • Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774): " ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. ."


  • 1920 (1775). "Conciliation with the Colonies". Allyn and Bacon: The Academy Classics. [Edited by Cornelius Beach Bradley, Professor of Rhetoric, University of California]. This 74 page speech was delivered to the House of Commons on March 22, 1775. A random selection of quotations (eleven in all) taken from this speech is presented in the preface and is as relevant today (2007) as it was when published (after the "Great" War) in the present form in 1920. Of the eleven quotations, most striking is the following: "The use of force alone is but temporary. Conciliation failing, force remains; but force failing, no further hope of conciliation is left."
  • 1982 (1756). A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind. Liberty Fund. ISBN 0-86597-009-2. Also in Burke (1999). This article, outlining radical political theory, was first published anonymously and, when Burke was revealed as its author, he explained that it was a satire. The academic consensus is that Burke's explanation was not disingenuous. Murray Rothbard dissented, arguing that Burke wrote the Vindication in earnest and later disavowed it out of expediency.
  • 1998 (1757). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283580-7. Also in Burke (1999). Begun when the author was 19 and published when he was 27.
  • 1999a (1790). Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283978-0. Burke's criticisms of the French Revolution and its connection to Rousseau's philosophy, made before the revolution was radicalised, predicted that it would fall into terror, tyranny, and misrule. Burke, who had supported the American Revolution, wrote the Reflections in response to a young correspondent who mistakenly assumed that he would support the French Revolution as well.
  • 1999 (Isaac Kramnick, ed.) The Portable Edmund Burke. Penguin Books. A 573pp anthology of his essays, speeches, and letters.


  • "Manners are of more importance than laws. .. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in."
  • "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together."
  • "There is a sort of enthusiasm in all projectors, absolutely necessary for their affairs, which makes them proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults; and, what is severer than all, the presumptuous judgment of the ignorant upon their designs."
  • The quotation "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing" is often attributed to Burke but does not occur in his works or recorded speeches and does not appear to be his. It first appeared in the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1968), which incorrectly sourced it to a private letter that Burke wrote. The letter did not in fact contain the quote.
  • "But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever."
  • "Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind." (


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