Edmund Burke 1729–1797
British political philosopher and statesman.
The following entry provides critical discussion of Burke's writing on political theory.
A philosopher and statesman, Burke ranks as a preeminent figure in western political thought. Long regarded as the father of modern conservatism, his career as a polemicist and politician spanned years of significant political turmoil in England and the West. Writing and speaking passionately about actual and potential excesses of state authority, Burke espoused the desirability of limited, divided government. He feared the threat to liberty posed by concentrations of governmental power whether wielded autocratically by the Crown or collectively by radical reformers in democratic assemblies. Burke conceived of the state as a divinely-ordered hierarchy where an elite of property owners sitting in Parliament, mindful of tradition and owing allegiance to the past, would collectively posses the forbearance to govern wisely. While affirming the need for constitutional government to adjust to new circumstances, Burke believed that reform should be prudent, practical, and specific—not predicated on abstract theories of natural rights. Writing in the Age of Enlightenment, Burke parted rank from such philosophers as John Locke, who championed a faith in the perfectibility of humankind and effectively erased the idea of original sin. Rejecting revolutionary change predicated on a facile faith in individual will, Burke held a particular disdain for Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that all rights and liberties were inherent in individuals in a pre-social state, and that political allegiance was a voluntary exercise that could be revoked if the state no longer served the general will of the people. Although his age was one of increasing secularization and faith in individual volition, Burke's political philosophy had deep religious underpinnings as he believed that the original covenant between God and man both prefigured and predestined the nature of all social contracts. Thus, government had a positive duty to provide a moral framework for the cultivation of a virtuous society. Burke's spirited and thoughtful defense of faith, order, and historical continuity distinguish his contribution to political thought, while his eloquence and cogency continue to engage new readers in each generation. Biographical InformationBurke was born in
Dublin in 1729 to Richard Burke, a prominent attorney and a Protestant, and to Mary Nagle Burke, a staunch Roman Catholic. His Irish heritage and the influence of his mother's Catholicism played an important role in defining his political attitudes and shaping his moral sensibilities. He attended a Quaker school in Dublin before graduating from Trinity College with a degree in Classics. At his father's urging, Burke went to London in 1750 to study law, but soon became captivated by literary and philosophical pursuits. Much to his father's disappointment, Burke never joined the bar. Soon married and a father himself, Burke was unable to support his family solely by writing and editing, even though his literary talents were championed by such writers as Samuel Johnson. To increase his financial security, Burke first turned to politics in 1761, when he enlisted in the service of the Earl of Halifax. But his political future was decisively cast when he became the private Secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson Wentworth. A prominent Whig, Lord Rockingham led the conservative opposition party most favored by the Crown. Burke's alliance with the influential leader led to his securing a seat in Parliament in 1765, where he soon established a reputation as a gifted orator and thoughtful statesman. While Burke focused much of his energy on domestic politics, he was frequently preoccupied with events outside of Britain. He was especially sympathetic to the complaints of the American colonists in their grievances over the Crown's taxation policies, insisting that much of the colonists's discontent stemmed from their perception that, as the descendants of Englishmen, their rights and liberties were being infringed. Burke also took up the cause of Indian subjects under British rule. In his speeches he continually railed against Parliament for its failure to provide proper oversight to the Indian population. For seven years Burke played a major and often controversial role in the long impeachment trial of Governour Warren Hastings for alleged abuses and neglect of the basic needs of the Indian subjects under his charge. Burke insisted that governments had positive obligations to colonized people, whether that meant building roads, schools, or hospitals. Burke's attitudes were shaped in part by his status as an outsider, for his Irish ancestry had precluded full acceptance into British society. Having a lifelong interest in the plight of the Irish, Burke especially criticized the Crown's penal laws, which were harshly punitive to Catholics in limiting their ability to amass wealth. As a statesman, he believed in voting in the interest of the entire realm, and refused to be influenced by the narrow interests of any one borough; as a result, he often grew unpopular with local constituencies whose concerns were naturally parochial. Thus he was unable to permanently hold onto any single seat in Parliament, and never achieved much personal political power. Yet Burke's writings and speeches were widely read throughout the West during much of his lifetime, and, despite never achieving high office, he enjoyed widespread acknowledgment of his work, and publicly debated through pamphlets with such men as Thomas Paine. After Hastings was acquitted in his impeachment trial in 1794, Burke resigned from Parliament and retired to his rural estate in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where he kept up correspondence and writing before succumbing to stomach cancer within three years.
Burke's allegiance to the Whigs meant that he was politically allied with the minority party through almost all his tenure in Parliament. Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), Burke's first major political essay, was largely a defense of the necessity of political parties to channel oppositional thought, check the power and prerogatives of the Crown, and secure balanced legislation. In his Speech on American Taxation (1774) Burke eloquently urged his peers to reconsider retaliatory measures aimed at the colonists for their militant opposition to the Crown's tax policies. He believed the colonists had just cause in resisting a government too willing to over-reach and meddle. While he did not support the idea of colonial independence, he warned his colleagues that oppressive Parliamentary measures might result in revolution. In his Speech on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) Burke appealed to reason and circumstance by using historical data to shore up his arguments for the benefits of British-colonial trade. While defending the Crown's right to tax the colonists, Burke urged the repeal of repressive measures that would only further exacerbate strained relations. Burke's most famous essay, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event (1790) was a passionate diatribe denouncing the radical ends of French revolutionaries. Burke cautioned against radical change and held up the British constitution as a model which provided for responsible government reform. His polemic prompted Thomas Paine to reply with his Rights of Man (1791) pamphlet. In An Appeal from the New, to the Old Whigs (1791) Burke (writing anonymously) addressed critics of his anti-revolutionary tracts by reiterating his contention that all members of civil society live with an incumbent duty to constitutional fidelity, and that other moral obligations are not a matter of choice in an divinely ordered world.
Burke was generally well-received and respected by peers in Parliament who admired his eloquence and cogency even though they frequently voted against him. But when policy debates turned to Anglo-Irish affairs, Burke's ancestry led to charges that his perceptions were unbalanced, biased and shaped by emotion. His laborious persistence in the impeachment pursuit of Hastings contributed to the perception that he often became zealously single-minded. Perhaps the most painful political breach for Burke occurred when he parted ways with many of his former Whig colleagues over the French Revolution. These quarrels spilled over into ongoing discussions of English politics, exacerbating competing interpretations of the Glorious Revolution and its consequences for British constitutionalism. Placing a much heavier emphasis on tradition and historical continuity, Burke defended long-standing institutions such as the aristocracy, the Church, and the state, but these only put him at odds with the revolutionary spirit of his times. He further asserted that the sovereignty of the Crown had not been diminished with the ascension of Parliament, but only its powers circumscribed. Other Whigs held that Revolution was necessary to assert the supremacy of the people. Thus, at the end of his life, he was philosophically more aligned with the modern-day Tories. Neglected for the most part during the nineteenth-century, Burke is enjoying a significant revival in the latter half of the twentieth century, especially by neo-conservative critics. The emergence of dictatorships following political revolutions in the modern era has, according to these critics, vindicated Burke's mistrust of radical reform predicated on rational faith and utopian promises. A current theme in Burkean scholarship is the extent to which he was a disciple of Adam Smith, and the degree to which he believed government should intervene in the economy. It is a testament to the depth and breadth of Burke's political legacy that his writings remain a rich source for scholarship and that they continue to engender vigorous debate.