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Article abstract: A parliamentary politician, Burke criticized the abuse of royal power by King George III and his ministers, but he was also critical of theories of radical democracy, which he thought threatened the stability of the social order. He opposed the use of force in dealing with the American...

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Article abstract: A parliamentary politician, Burke criticized the abuse of royal power by King George III and his ministers, but he was also critical of theories of radical democracy, which he thought threatened the stability of the social order. He opposed the use of force in dealing with the American Colonies and was an eloquent advocate of responsibility and humanity in dealing with subject peoples. In later life, he supported the Crown and other historic institutions of Great Britain when they were challenged by the power and ideology of revolutionary France.

Early Life

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He was reared a Protestant, but he worked to obtain equal treatment for Catholics. Burke studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1750 he went to London to pursue a career as a writer. His Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, was hailed as an important piece of aesthetic criticism, and he became a friend of Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and other leading literary figures. In 1757, Burke also was married, to Jane Nugent, a doctor’s daughter.

In 1758, Burke became the first editor of The Annual Register, a volume which contained a survey of the events of the year, including international affairs, domestic politics, economic and social developments, important scholarly or literary contributions, and a wealth of statistical information. Bound and indexed, The Annual Register became an important reference work, and it continues to be a useful source for historians. As a politician, Burke was noted for his industry and wide knowledge, attributes fostered by his long association with The Annual Register. He was also employed as secretary to William Hamilton, a member of the House of Commons, where he obtained firsthand experience of parliamentary politics.

Burke’s political career began in 1765, when he became “man of business” to Lord Rockingham and entered Parliament for a borough controlled by Rockingham. In that year Rockingham formed a ministry determined to restore the importance of the Whig aristocracy, which was thought to be threatened by the assertiveness of the young king, George III. Burke was intensely loyal to Rockingham, who throughout their long association treated Burke with kindness and respect. The main achievement of the Rockingham ministry was repeal of the Stamp Act, a conciliatory measure intended to restore obedience in the American Colonies. Thereafter Burke held the view that government of Englishmen overseas must be based, not on the legal powers of the Crown and Parliament, but on statesmanlike recognition of the colonists’ experience in managing their own affairs. The next year the Rockingham ministry was cut short by intrigues at court. The dismissal of the Rockingham ministry colored Burke’s view of politics, for he viewed “the influence of the Crown” as an insidious force corrupting the political process.

Life’s Work

The major part of Burke’s political career was spent in opposition or in preparing plans of reform. Philosophically he was a conservative, whose principal concern was to preserve the “mixed and balanced constitution” established in the revolution of 1688-1689. As a practical politician his views placed him in opposition to King George III, for Burke believed that the principal danger to the British constitution came from the Crown and the influence it could exert in Parliament. From 1766 to 1782, the Rockingham group was in opposition, held together by the firmness of Lord Rockingham and the energy of Edmund Burke. Burke had enormous respect for the aristocratic members of his party, whom he regarded as the natural leaders of England. He became a prominent spokesman for Rockingham’s views in the House of Commons, and he conducted an extensive correspondence to keep the party together in spirit and in parliamentary votes. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) he expressed the view that early in the reign of George III a plan had been formed to use “the influence of the Crown” to make Parliament subservient to the king and his ministers. In an age when political parties were criticized as selfish or unpatriotic, Burke defended partisanship when it was devoted to achieving the public good.

The major issue which faced Great Britain in the 1770’s was the unity of the British Empire. King George III and the ministry of Lord North (1770-1782) were determined to enforce the authority of the Crown, which was challenged by the American colonists. In The Speech on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies (1775), Burke urged the North ministry to abandon the use of force and preserve harmony within the Empire by accepting the reality that the Americans were determined to realize self-government. The war which broke out at Lexington and Concord in 1775 became a general maritime war with the entry of France (1778), Spain (1779), and the Netherlands (1780) into the conflict. As the war expanded, Burke and the Rockingham party were criticized for their support of the American cause, especially when Rockingham accepted the idea of American independence. The American Revolution led to resistance to British rule in Ireland. Burke supported the Irish, urging Parliament not to make the mistakes it had made with the American colonists. He also supported efforts to extend religious toleration to Catholics.

In 1774, Burke had been elected Member of Parliament for Bristol. In his Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774), he stated that a representative should be attentive to the needs and views of his constituents but that in legislative matters he should rely on his own judgment. Burke paid a price for adherence to this principle. In the election of 1780 he was not reelected, for his Bristol constituents objected to his views on the American war, political concessions to Ireland, and toleration of Catholics. Thereafter, Burke’s seat in Parliament was provided by Lord Rockingham and his heir.

The most dramatic years of Burke’s political career began in February, 1780, when he delivered his famous Speech on Presenting to the House of Commons the 11th of February a Plan for the Economical Reformation of the Civil and Other Establishments, followed by five bills which would make extensive reforms in British public finance. Burke believed that the public money was used to increase the political power of the Crown by offering employment, contracts, pensions, and other tangible benefits to Members of Parliament. He concentrated his attention on the Civil List, which was money provided to the king and his ministers for the royal household and civil government. Burke advocated abolition of posts which were used primarily as political rewards, a policy which he justified by need to reduce corruption in Parliament and to reduce the financial burdens of the nation. He also suggested improvements in fiscal management. The North ministry fought Burke’s plan of “economical reform” vigorously, although North conceded that improved management of the finances was highly desirable. Burke’s proposals were rejected, only to be revived two years later.

At the same time, a powerful movement arose to reform the House of Commons by abolishing many small boroughs and giving the seats to London and the populous counties. Burke opposed parliamentary reform on the grounds that the existing distribution of seats gave Great Britain a body of well-qualified leaders while representing adequately the substantial interests of the nation. Since Burke sat for a small borough, his critics charged that his views were based on self-interest. On this issue Burke revealed another facet of his conservatism: his opposition to popular democracy.

In 1782, Lord North resigned when the House of Commons turned against the American war. Lord Rockingham became prime minister and Burke took office as Paymaster of the Forces. In this office he reformed the army pay system. Parliament also passed his bill to reform the Civil List. Burke’s plans were cut short when Lord Rockingham died three months after taking office. A year later, Burke was back as Paymaster in a ministry led by Charles James Fox, heir to the mantle of Rockingham, and his former foe, Lord North. By this time Burke’s major concern was the abuse of power in India by officials of the British East India Company. He was active in preparing an India Bill which King George III used as a pretext to dismiss the Fox-North Coalition Ministry in December, 1783. Burke never held public office again.

Once more in opposition, Burke became a leader of a lengthy and acrimonious impeachment brought against Warren Hastings, former governor-general of the East India Company. Though an injustice was probably done to Hastings, who had performed well under difficult circumstances, Burke’s role in the impeachment was a public service, for he argued that Great Britain should govern with a sense of responsibility and humanity those peoples who had come under her jurisdiction.

Burke’s political career changed dramatically in 1789, when a revolution broke out in France which soon turned radical and violent. Fox was sympathetic to the revolutionaries, a point of view objectionable to Burke, who deplored the “tyranny of the people” as much as the tyranny of kings. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke sounded a note of alarm, which became more strident in his later works. In 1791, he broke politically with Fox, a step which he justified in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Burke became a staunch supporter of the king and the Tory ministry of William Pitt the Younger. He opposed reforms which might stimulate a similar outbreak in Great Britain, and he advocated an ideological crusade against France in support of the historic institutions and civilization of Europe. He was praised by King George III and rewarded with a pension. He justified his change from reformer to conservative in A Letter to a Noble Lord on the Attacks Made upon Him and His Pension in the House of Lords by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale (1796). Burke retired from the House of Commons in 1794 and died three years later, revered by those whom he had formerly opposed and alienated from those who had been his closest friends.

Summary

Edmund Burke was a hardworking parliamentary politician, who rose above the ordinary level by his ability to discern general principles of government and morality implicit in the practical concerns of politics. He was a conservative in that he supported the historic institutions of Great Britain when they appeared to be threatened by an assertive king, popular demagogues, or the ideology of the French Revolution. As a conservative, he believed that institutions must be reformed when they become corrupt, and most of his political life was devoted to reform of government and removal of abuses in Great Britain and the Empire. His definition of the role of the statesman in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol is a classic, as is his justification of the role of political parties in representative government. His opposition to the use of force against the American colonists is a model of practical statesmanship as opposed to rigid, legalistic policies out of touch with reality. His long involvement with the affairs of India showed his sympathy for subject peoples and fostered a sense of responsibility and humanity in imperial government. His attacks on the French Revolution, although marred by rhetorical excesses, have become the foundation of modern conservative political thought, for he made clear the fallacy in proposals for sweeping change and the importance of gradual political development within established institutions.

Bibliography

Burke, Edmund. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Edited by Thomas Copeland. 9 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958-1972. Magnificently edited, the correspondence gives a detailed record of Burke’s role as a practicing politician.

Burke, Edmund. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Edited by Paul Langford. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981-    . Burke’s role as a political thinker is best followed through his published works, which are available in many editions. This edition, which is still in progress, will be the best.

Chapman, Gerald. Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Good study of Burke’s thought.

Cone, Carl B. Burke and the Nature of Politics. 2 vols. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1957-1964. A competent, balanced account of Burke’s life.

Dreyer, Frederick A. Burke’s Politics: A Study in Whig Orthodoxy. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1979. Places Burke within the context of eighteenth century political thought.

Fennesey, R. R. Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963. Study of Burke as opponent of the French Revolution.

O’Gorman, Frank. Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1973. Clear, brief survey of Burke’s political thought in relation to his political career.

Reitan, E. A. “Edmund Burke and Economical Reform, 1779-83.” In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, edited by O. M. Brack, vol. 14. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Detailed study of Burke as a reformer.

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