Edmund Burke (1729–1797)

Edmund Burke, British statesman and political philosopher, and the ‘‘father’’ of modern conservatism, was born in Dublin on January 29, 1729. He was the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Roman Catholic mother. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, Burke entered the Middle Temple in London to study law in 1750. He, however, soon abandoned the law for literature. Burke started his political career in 1765 when he became the private secretary for the Marquis of Rockingham. He served in Parliament from 1765 to 1794, almost always in the minority, where he gained fame, power, and influence far beyond most of his compatriots. It is a measure of Burke’s genius and force of personality that he managed to achieve political success in a tremendously hierarchical society that viewed the Irish as somewhat less than human and Catholics as little more than idolaters.

Burke’s family connections to Catholicism (in addition to having a Catholic mother and sister, he married the daughter of a Catholic doctor) allowed him to witness firsthand the tremendous oppression Catholics labored under in eighteenth-century Britain. This undoubtedly was one of the driving forces of his interest in toleration for minorities, especially in terms of religion.

Until the 1790s, one of Burke’s main concerns was liberty. Burke’s concept of liberty, however, was not the individualist type celebrated in twenty-firstcentury America. It was an organic form, closely related to responsibility. For Burke, rights, liberties, and indeed political significance itself, was not found in individuals, but in their collective identities. Humans, according to Burke, were qualified for liberty in proportion to control of their baser instincts, such as selfishness and licentiousness. It was society’s task to provide a stabilizing hand when a sense of justice and control were missing in a people. The expansion of liberty should only be done gradually and cautiously, according to Burke.

When Burke entered Parliament, the crisis that would develop into the American Revolution was already at a critical stage. Throughout that crisis, Burke continually attacked the British government’s attempt to assert what he considered arbitrary power over the colonists. Through his speeches and writings Burke laid out his case that only by respecting the rights and liberties of the American Colonies could the British hope to win back their loyalty. He contended that even if the political argument for the arbitrary use of power were strong, prudence and justice would overawe it. For Burke, the revolutionaries were not the Americans, but the British ministry.

Burke’s title as the father of modern conservatism is due in large part to his most famous writing—Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Appalled by the excesses of that revolution, Burke delineated his philosophy on reform and revolution. While accepting the desire (even necessity) for change, he cautioned that any reform was to be approached cautiously and with an eye toward the lessons of history and tradition. By the 1790s, justice and order were the key concepts of government for Burke.


References and Further Reading

  • Burke, Edmund. Burke’s Political Writings. Edited by John Buchan. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, n.d. 
  • ———. Speeches and Letters on American Affairs. Edited by Hugh Law. New York: Dutton, 1961. 
  • ———. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edited by J. G.A. Pocock. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987. 
  • Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997.


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