Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions, the latest in Stanley Ayling’s series of biographies of eighteenth century figures, reflects the author’s extensive knowledge of British history. Having completed biographies of King George III (1972), William Pitt the Elder (1976), and Burke’s contemporary Whig ally Richard B. Sheridan (1985), among others, Ayling places Burke securely within the cultural, political, and historical milieus of his own time.
In the United States, Burke has long enjoyed the status of political prophet and philosopher of conservatism, a view somewhat in contrast with his reputation in Britain, largely represented by Ayling. To Britons, Burke is a more complex individual with a checkered career. Like many British heroes, Winston Churchill included, Burke had more failures than successes, yet his successes were sufficiently impressive to assure for him a place in history. A flamboyant rhetorician, highly emotional and passionately involved in causes, Burke delivered and later published some of the greatest orations of his era. At times he became so emotionally involved with his subject that, unable to continue, he had to abandon the podium; at other times, he pressed his points to boring and distracting extremes; at still others, he resorted to theatrics. While he had numerous triumphs as a speaker, his vehement rhetoric occasionally shocked even his political allies. His fellow Whigs did not consider him “steady,” and, as a result, he never held real power within the government.
In America, Burke has been held in high esteem and even awe, initially for his sympathy with the colonists during the American Revolution. Hardly anyone else in Parliament spoke on their behalf and no one spoke with his eloquence. Burke argued that Americans, like other Englishmen, held sacrosanct the principle of no taxation without representation. While he granted Parliament the right to tax the Colonies, he opposed the government’s policy as impractical, since its consequences would prove too costly. Although he did not prevail, he became a revered figure in American history for his stand against oppression and for his eloquent championing of conservative political thought.
In England, despite his talent and intellectual power, Burke’s rise to prominence was slow. Born and educated in Ireland, the son of an English attorney, he came to London to study law at the Middle Temple and determined to make his mark in the political structure dominated by the Whig Party. Commenting on the difficulties he encountered, he wrote of his experience, “At every step of my progress in life and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport.” Having little enthusiasm for law, he turned to literature and produced a memorable essay on the aesthetics of the sublime. He later became editor of the Annual Register, a volume containing reviews of the year’s important events. He contemplated writing a comprehensive history of Britain but abandoned the project because of the success of his Scottish contemporary David Hume.
Burke’s understanding of history, however, exerted a marked influence upon his parliamentary career, which lasted nearly three decades. The nation was ruled by a powerful Whig oligarchy that gained ascendancy during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a situation that seemed natural and desirable to Burke. As long as a Jacobite pretender remained to threaten revolution, the Hanoverian monarchs felt constrained to accept their ascendancy and to offer patronage to Whig families in local positions of power. When the threat of a Jacobite rebellion receded, George III, an advocate of the “new Toryism,” saw no reason to continue the practice and sought a more direct royal influence on public affairs. As a Whig member of Parliament, Burke resisted the king’s growing influence, believing it a disruption of the status quo.
In his opposition, Burke focused his parliamentary attack on the king’s ministers, charging influence peddling and corruption. As Ayling points out, the charges were exaggerated, if one considers the accepted standards of the time. Moreover, Burke himself, as well as his family and friends, clearly derived benefit from the system he opposed. Later, he seriously misjudged the political situation after the king’s mental instability raised the question of establishing a regency headed by the Prince of Wales. Burke pressed his attack against the king, throwing his full...
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