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Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729July 9, 1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, author, and philosopher, who served for many years in the British House of Commons as a member of the Whig Party. He is chiefly remembered for his support of the American colonies in the struggle against King George III that led to the American Revolution, as well as for his strong opposition to the French Revolution. The latter made Burke one of the leading figures within the conservative faction of the Whig Party (which he dubbed the "Old Whigs"), in opposition to the pro-revolutionary "New Whigs," led by Charles James Fox. Burke also published philosophical work on aesthetics and founded the Annual Register, a political review. In his day he was considered one of the finest parliamentary orators in Britain.



Born in Dublin, Ireland, Burke was the son of a Protestant solicitor and a Catholic mother. He was brought up as a Protestant and entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1744. In 1750 he began training in the law at London's Middle Temple, but soon thereafter he gave up his legal studies in order to travel across Continental Europe. In 1757 he published a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful , which attracted the attention of prominent Continental intellectual such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant. The following year, with Robert Dodsley, he created the influential Annual Register, a publication in which various authors evaluated the international political events of the previous year. Burke became closely connected with many of the leading British intellectuals of his day, including Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith.

Political career

In 1765 Burke entered the British Parliament as a member of the House of Commons and a protegé of the Marquess of Rockingham, a major figure within the Whig Party. Burke took a leading role in the debate over the constitutional limits to the executive authority of the King. He argued strongly against unrestrained royal power and for the role of political parties in maintaining a principled opposition capable of preventing abuses by the monarch or by specific factions within the government. His most important publication in this regard was his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents of 1770. Later he was noted for his defense of representative democracy against the notion that elected officials should act narrowly as advocates for the interests of their constituents; (a particularly famous instance being in 1774, in an address to the electors of Bristol, which was then the English 'second city'). He summed up his thoughts by formulating the delegate and trustee models of representation. Always concerned with imposing constitutional constraints on royal power, Burke expressed his support for the grievances of the American colonies under the government of King George III and his appointed representatives. He also campaigned against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland, denounced the East India Company and had Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal, impeached for abusing his authority.

Response to the French Revolution

Given his record as a campaigner against royal prerogative, many were surprised when Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. With it, Burke became one of the earliest and fiercest British critics of the French Revolution, which he saw not as movement towards a representative, constitutional democracy but rather as a violent rebellion against tradition and proper authority and as an experiment disconnected from the complex realities of human society, which would end in disaster. Former admirers of Burke, such as Thomas Jefferson and fellow Whig politician Charles James Fox, proceeded to denounce Burke as a reactionary and an enemy of democracy. Thomas Paine penned The Rights of Man in 1791 as a response to Burke. However, other pro-democratic politicians, such as the American John Adams, agreed with Burke's assessment of the French situation. Many of Burke's dire predictions for the outcome of the French Revolution were later borne out by the execution of King Louis XVI, the subsequent Reign of Terror, and the eventual rise of Napoleon's autocratic regime.

In 1791 Burke published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs , in which he renewed his criticism of the radical revolutionary programs inspired by the French Revolution and attacked the Whigs who supported them. Eventually most of the Whigs sided with Burke and voted their support for the conservative government of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794 and died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire in 1797.

Influence and reputation

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was extremely controversial at the time of its publication. Its intemperate language and factual inaccuracies even convinced many readers that Burke had lost his judgment. But as the subsequent violence and chaos in France vindicated much of Burke's assessment, it grew to become his best-known and most influential work. In the English-speaking world, Burke is often regarded as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, and his thinking has exerted considerable influence over the political philosophy of figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. Burke's democratic conservatism, which opposes the implementation of grand theoretical plans of radical political change but recognizes the necessity of gradual reform, must not be confused with the autocratic conservatism of such anti-revolutionary Continental figures as Joseph de Maistre.

Two contrasting assessments of Burke were offered long after his death by Karl Marx and Winston Churchill. According to the former's Das Kapital:

The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.

According to Churchill's "Consistency in Politics":

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, at defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.


Burke made several famous speeches while serving in the British House of Commons.

  • On Conciliation with the Colonies : "The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord fomented, from principle, in all parts of the Empire, not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace; sought in its natural course, and in its ordinary haunts. It is peace sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles purely pacific . . ."


  • 1756 (Liberty Fund, 1982) ISBN 0865970092. This article, outlining radical political theory, was first published anonymously and, when Burke was revealed as its author, he explained that it was a satire. The consensus of historians is that this is correct. An alternate theory, proposed by Murray Rothbard, argues that Burke wrote the Vindication in earnest but later wished to disavow it for political reasons.
  • A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful 1757, begun when he was 19 and published when he was 27. (Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0192835807
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790 (Oxford University Press, 1999) ISBN 0192839780

Notable quotes

  • "Custom reconciles us to everything."
  • "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
  • "The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded."
  • "In my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."

It was Burke who first referred to the "great unwashed masses of humanity".

The quotation most often attributed to Burke ("The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing", along with its many variants) is not from his writings. See [1] and [2].

|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
Isaac Barré | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Paymaster of the Forces
1783–1784 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
William Wyndham Grenville

See also

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