Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, the son of a prosperous lawyer who had converted to the Church of Ireland. His mother, though, was a Catholic. This family background gives a clue to Burke’s future political career. Even when he was following an “orthodox” line, there remained something of the social outsider about him, and this was not just because he was not of aristocratic birth at a time when this was a key qualification for high office.
After studying at Trinity College in Dublin Burke moved to England in 1750 where he qualified as a lawyer. However, he soon abandoned this career in order to devote himself to literature. After writing two philosophical treatises that attracted attention, in 1758 he was recruited as editor of the Annual Register, an account of major political events interspersed with poetry, essays and “sensational” news stories like murders. He befriended many of the famous literary figures of the day, including Samuel Johnson and the actor David Garrick.
Although his talents had secured him a place in literary London, Burke had political ambitions and he needed powerful patrons. His first post was as private secretary to William Hamilton, who was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1761. Four years later Burke quarrelled with Hamilton and was dismissed; but he soon secured even more powerful patronage, when he became secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham, who was about to become Prime Minister. In this post Burke became something like the Whig Party’s official “spin-doctor,” although he always took care to attribute his party’s decisions to high principle. Rockingham soon found him a parliamentary seat in a “pocket borough” under the control of a political ally.
At this time, Burke was an advocate of restraints on monarchical power, and in 1774 he won the constituency of Bristol which, by the standards of the time, had a large electorate. During the American War of Independence he argued in vain for a conciliatory policy. While this stand was welcome to his constituents, his support for improved rights for Catholics was not, and in 1780 he lost his seat. However, he was not out of parliament for long, being returned for a constituency controlled by Rockingham. He served in two short-lived governments, and in 1782 was made a Privy Councillor. But much of his energy in the 1780s was devoted to an unsuccessful attempt to impeach Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of Bengal.
At the end of that decade, the French Revolution split the Whig party. From the outset, Burke could see nothing of merit in the case for revolutionary change in France (as opposed to gradual reform). Having quarrelled with his political friends Burke became increasingly embittered; it was scant consolation that he was awarded a pension by the Tory government, because that just lent spurious support to the charge that he had changed sides for dubious reasons. His last years were clouded by personal bitterness and political disappointment.
Burke’s greatest production—indeed, one of the greatest political tracts in the English language—is his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This was more than a fairly accurate prediction of the future course of events across the English Channel; it can also be regarded as the first and finest exposition of modern British conservatism. In magnificent prose, Burke spelled out his reasons for preferring existing practices, even if imperfect, over radical proposals which (in his view) were based on a false reading of human nature (for discussion, see page 102, Chapter 5). Unfortunately for Burke, it was easy for his critics to present him as a mere apologist for abuses of the monarchical system, whereas his true preference was always for the reform of perceived defects in existing governments. His principles certainly marked a departure from those of John Locke who had asserted an ultimate right for the people to dispose of unsatisfactory regimes. Yet Burke could retort that the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–89 had not established a “right to rebel”; in his view, the deposition of James II had been inspired by necessity rather than choice.
Burke is also notable for his advocacy of a system of political representatives, as opposed to delegates. In his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774 he argued that MPs should be trusted to exercise their personal judgements, for which they will be held to account at the next election (for analysis see pages 186, Chapter 9). At a time when individual characters usually meant more than party allegiance, this theory made good sense. But since Burke’s day the voting records of MPs are overshadowed by general impressions of parties and leaders; so his position now seems idealistic. Burke himself was a strong advocate of political parties, which makes it all the more ironic that he should end his life in political isolation.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody. A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, University of Chicago Press, 1994.