Edmund Burke Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)