The Rage of Edmund Burke

In his study of Edmund Burke, Isaac Kramnick offers a new and radical theory about one of the eighteenth century’s most profound political thinkers. But prior to investigating Kramnick’s methods and intentions—and furnishing an evaluation of both—perhaps it would be useful to look at the more commonly understood Edmund Burke and the manner in which the man and his achievements are generally perceived. Such an overview is necessary if this Edmund Burke is to be reconciled with the Edmund Burke Kramnick identifies and discusses.

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin on January 12, 1729, to a Roman Catholic mother and a Protestant father. As a youngster, Burke was removed from the Dublin home to his mother’s family estate in the south of Ireland. Indeed, most of his formative years were spent away from his immediate family. After completing several years of study at a Quaker boarding school, Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin, completed his undergraduate degree, and then left for London to study law. But instead of pursuing a legal career, Burke began to publish a series of remarkable essays on a variety of subjects. In 1756 he published Vindication of Natural Society, a prose satire which supported Christianity and conventional theories about organized society. A year later Burke turned his attention to aesthetics and wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, an essay which attracted wide attention in England and Europe. In 1759 he assumed editorial responsibilities for the Annual Register and contributed a number of essays devoted primarily to political and economic matters. Within a relatively short time, Burke had made his presence known in London and was being courted by many of the city’s influential citizens. When Dr. Samuel Johnson proposed the founding of the Club, where a select group of English men of letters could freely exchange ideas, Burke was one of the first men invited to join.

In 1766 Burke entered public life when elected to Parliament as representative for Bristol. He remained a Member of Parliament for twenty-nine years, in perpetual opposition to the ruling Tory party, and took pride in being a member of the Minority. Some governmental policies he attacked directly, voicing his objections to slavery and demanding its abolition. From 1774 to 1777 he made a number of eloquent speeches recommending that England reexamine its policies regarding the American colonies. He proposed that the Americans be given the right to represent their own interests (Burke himself was representative agent for the Colony of New York) and maintained that such measures would strengthen the ties between America and the British Empire. And he prophesied that if England did not alter its policies there would be war, a war England would have difficulty winning. In another colonial matter, Burke called for the arrest and conviction of Warren Hastings, Governor general of the East India Company, on the grounds that Hastings’ administration was repressive, corrupt, and inconsistent with humanitarian ideals. Burke prosecuted the matter for fourteen years and considered his labors on behalf of the misgoverned natives in India among his most useful endeavors.

Burke was also the champion of several Irish causes, chief among them the question of Catholic emancipation. He attempted to convince the government that the Irish Catholics should be granted freedoms enjoyed by their Anglo-Irish counterparts. The hostility which existed between England and Ireland was, Burke contended, due largely to England’s refusal to grant basic religious freedoms to the Irish. And he predicted violence if the British refused concessions to the Roman Catholics. The Insurrection of 1798 followed this prediction, and it paved the way for a series of reforms which England was forced to initiate.

When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Burke wrote and published his best-known piece of political commentary, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), wherein he concluded that the consequences of this event could permanently...

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Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 251.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2055.

Nation Review. XXIX, September 30, 1977, p. 1122.

New York Review of Books. XXIV, September 29, 1977, p. 3.

New York Times Book Review. October 23, 1977, p. 18.