Last modified on December 16, 2023, at 01:48

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke2 c.jpg

Edmund Burke (born January 12, 1729, in Dublin; died July 9, 1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, an orator, and an early leading conservative political theorist. He first coined the phrase "salutary neglect" to describe how Britain should be dealing with the American colonies, a policy that King George III famously abandoned in a way that led to the American Revolution. In 1775 he urged fellow Brits to conciliate with the colonists, admiring how Americans "augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."[1] Burke was politically prophetic about both the American and French Revolutions, and Burke was an early opponent of slavery. Burke was perhaps the first movement conservative.

Burke rallied Britain against the radicalism of the French Revolution. In the process he became one of the first to develop a coherent conservative political philosophy; his ideas continue to influence conservatives. Burke argued that a nation's institutions, customs and values were the long-term product of its experiences over the centuries, as small adjustments were made to fit changing needs and the cumulative effect was the current society. Writing before the Industrial Revolution had shown much impact, he thought change was always incremental and slow. Indeed, he argued that current observers were unlikely to fully appreciate the hidden gems of wisdom of the "ancient constitution"; efforts to impose radical changes based on visions rather than experience, such as the French Revolution, were therefore doomed to failure. Keenly concerned with the fairness of the British Empire, Burke opposed royal efforts to suppress the American Revolution; he called for more liberties for the people of India and his native Ireland.

His most famous work is his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” which he published in 1790 to prophetically explain why the French Revolution was headed for disaster. In it he wrote about the harmless and lovely Marie Antoinette, who became Queen of France at age 19 but was ultimately executed by guillotine:

Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men. ... I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.[2]

Burke is also credited with coining the term "deliberative assembly" to describe a proper parliamentary gathering, in a speech to the electorate at Bristol in 1774; this concept became the basis for Robert's Rules of Order.


Burke's Irish Identities, cover.

He was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother. He was educated in classics at a Quaker boarding school and at Trinity College Dublin, he remained a committed Anglican the rest of his life. He considered a national established church a requirement for sound government. In 1750 he went to London to study law but soon left his course. In 1756 he published his first book anonymously A Vindication of Natural Society, a satirical account of the rise of civilization and how it produces unhappiness and distress; it attacked the political rationalism and religious skepticism of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. In 1757 he anonymously published the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, his most philosophical work; it is a founding manifesto of Romanticism, which came to dominate European thought and sensibility after 1800.[3] He founded the The Annual Register, a record of contemporary political events. He was a member of the intellectual circle around Samuel Johnson.

After serving as private secretary to several senior parliamentarians, Burke was given a seat in Parliament in 1765 and remained in Parliament for over thirty years. His success as an orator, political writer and party member for the Whigs was extensive although he was never given a particularly high office by his party when it took government, possibly because of his independent streak.

Burke is buried at St. Mary & All Saints Church in Beaconsfield, U.K.

Political goals

During his political career he campaigned constantly, but unsuccessfully in the short term. He advocated administrative reform of the royal household and to increase the power of the crown so as to reward its supporters; He supported the elimination of anti-Catholic laws in Ireland and the controls on trade with that island; He was in favor of generous treatment to the American Colonists, and supported reconciliation from the outbreak of hostilities with the American Revolution; He favored strong state support for the established Anglican Church and for the landed gentry;


He fought for restrictions on the powers of the East India Company in its administration of India; in particular he used stunningly brilliant speeches to lead the greatest impeachment trial in the history of the British Empire, that of the first governor-general of India for the East India Company, Warren Hastings 1732–1818. He was alleged to have committed "high crimes and misdemeanours" during his governorship of India, 1772–1785. Hastings was charges with financial corruption, use of political power for extorting bribes from native rulers of India, abuse of judicial authority, despotism, and arbitrary rule; he was being tried specifically for illegally occupying territory in India by launching aggressive offensive and criminal wars against native rulers, treaty violations, and for open violence against native rulers and the people of India.

Burke charged that the corrupt state of Indian government could be remedied only if it were taken from both the crown and the company. He proposed that India be governed by a board of independent commissioners in London.

Hastings was acquitted in 1795 after an 8-year trial, thanks to defense spokesmen opposing Burke who articulated a vision of empire based on ideas of power, conquest, and subjugation of the colonized in pursuit of the exclusive national interests of the colonizer. Burke had a different vision, calling for a deterritorialized supranational juridical sovereignty based on a recognition of the a priori rights of the colonized. These two opposing discourses and visions, as they came to be articulated in the trial, had decisive implications for both the nature and evolution of the British empire and its imperial institutions and of Indian legal and political discourse and institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries.[4] In the early 20th centuries, a series of imperial historians like Fitzjames Stephen, John Strachey, Sophia Weitzman, Lucy S. Sutherland, and Keith Feiling dismissed Burke's accusations that Hastings had been personally corrupt and argued that his arbitrariness was justified by the necessities of maintaining empire in the east, a view that Hastings himself articulated in the trial.[5]

French Revolution

Burke supported military intervention against the French Revolution and for tighter controls of civil Liberties in Britain, so as to prevent such an occurrence happening there. Rejecting Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) and the philosophies, Burke said the popular will does not really exist, but that the ancient constitution did, and it should be upheld.

His great book Reflections On the Revolution in France (1790) was ignored at the time, but in the long run helped reduce revolutionary sentiments among British thinkers and had a significant impact on Italian and French conservatives.

The book, for example, has ten pages on the monasteries of France that deplores not only the confiscation of their property but also the destruction of the institutions themselves, which are defended for their contribution to learning, beauty, and agriculture and for their general social role. Their "superstition" is vindicated as preferable to that of the radical philosophies. Burke maintains that they could and should have been reformed rather than suppressed.[6]

By contrast with the French fiasco, he praised the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain, saying, "The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty." The English were not creating a new regime, merely restoring the old one that had been distorted by the Catholic James II.[7]

Role of religion

Burke in particular saw the established church (the Church of England) and the aristocracy, whose power was based on landed property, as the true carriers of tradition. Burke's Christian faith, broad, undogmatic and ecumenical, was a basic element in his beliefs and prevented any sympathy, acceptance or compromise with the anti-religious aims of the French Revolution.

For Burke, the great struggle was that between religion and atheism, and he sought to develop a union of all Christian religious sects, denominations, and traditions to combat those who opposed Christianity. For years he supported the rights of Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics in England. He believed that religion, established churches, and confessional states added important dimensions of depth and wisdom to society.

Later life

Both a British and an Irish patriot, Burke believed that only the British Parliament could implement Irish reforms and sought a union between the two countries based on mutual respect. Most of Burke's causes were effectively lost, but Burke's ceaseless politics of principle made them burning issues and subsequently made him famous. He died disappointed three years after his retirement and the death of his son, which caused him much grief.


The "New Conservative" interpretation of Burke's philosophy with its concentration upon the Natural Law has dominated Burke studies since the 1940s, especially in America, where it continues to influence conservative thinking. It began with Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953), and Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (1953). This American interpretation has not been widely accepted in England.


He wrote:

  • Vindication of Natural Society
  • A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (defending the American colonies and examining how people interpret what they see).
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France, (warning that the French Revolution was evil because a few would gain control and abuse their power).


Edmund Burke's famous quotes include:

  • "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."[8]
  • "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation."[9]
  • "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts."[10]
  • "The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion."[11]
  • "Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government."[12]
  • "It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare."[13]
  • "That the greatest security of the people, against the encroachments and usurpations of their superiors, is to keep the Spirit of Liberty constantly awake, is an undeniable truth."[14]

Burke's "A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly," (1791) included the following:

"What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?
It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and
madness, without restraint.
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their
disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in
proportion as they are disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise
and good in preference to the flattery of knaves.
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and
appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the
more there must be without.
It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of
intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."
  • "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right."[15]

Edmund Burke Foundation

Founded in January 2019 and located in Washington, D.C., the Edmund Burke Foundation has "the aim of strengthening the principles of national conservatism in Western and other democratic countries. The Foundation will pursue research, educational and publishing ventures directed toward this end."[16]


  • Cone, Carl B. Burke and the Nature of Politics (2 vols, 1957, 1964), a detailed modern biography of Burke; somewhat uncritical and sometimes superficial regarding politics
  • Courtenay, C.P. Montesquieu and Burke (1963), good introduction
  • Crowe, Ian, ed. The Enduring Edmund Burke: Bicentennial Essays (1997) essays by American conservatives online edition
  • Crowe, Ian, ed. An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke. (2005). 247 pp. essays by scholars
  • Gibbons, Luke. Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime. (2003). 304 pp.
  • Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1997) by a leader of American conservatism online edition
  • Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (1953), put Burke in the mainstream of American conservatism online edition
  • Kramnick, Isaac. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (1977) online edition
  • Lock, F. P. Edmund Burke (2 vol 1998, 2007), the standard scholarly biography vol 1 online
  • Lucas, Paul. "On Edmund Burke's Doctrine of Prescription; Or, An Appeal from the New to the Old Lawyers," Historical Journal, 11 (1968) opens the way towards an effective synthesis of Burke's ideas of History, Change and Prescription.
  • Magnus, Philip. Edmund Burke: A Life (1939), older biography
  • Marshall, P. J. The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (1965), the standard history of the trial and Burke's role
  • O'Gorman, Frank. Edmund Burke: Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy (2004) 153pp online edition
  • Parkin, Charles. The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought (1956)
  • Pocock, J.G.A. "Burke and the Ancient Constitution", Historical Journal, 3 (1960), 125–43; shows Burke's debt to the Common Law tradition of the 17th century in JSTOR
  • Raeder, Linda C. "Edmund Burke: Old Whig." Political Science Reviewer 2006 35: 115–131. Issn: 0091-3715 Fulltext: Ebsco, argues Burke's ideas closely resemble those of conservative philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992).
  • Stanlis, Peter. Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958)
  • Taylor, Quentin P. "On Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society," Modern Age Volume 43, Number 3; Summer 2001 online edition
  • Whelan, Frederick G. Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire (1996)

Primary Sources

External links


  3. Byrne, William F. Byrne, "Burke's higher romanticism: politics and the sublime," Humanitas (2006) online
  4. Mithi Mukherjee, "Justice, War, and the Imperium: India and Britain in Edmund Burke's Prosecutorial Speeches in the Impeachment Trial of Warren Hastings." Law and History Review 2005 23(3): 589-630. Issn: 0738-2480 Fulltext: History Cooperative
  5. Lucy S. Sutherland, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); Keith Grahame Feiling, Warren Hastings (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1954).
  6. Derek Beales, "Edmund Burke and the Monasteries of France." Historical Journal 2005 48(2): 415-436. Issn: 0018-246x
  7. J.G.A. Pocock, "Burke and the Ancient Constitution", Historical Journal, 3 (1960), 125-43
  8. Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) Volume i, p. 526; this expression is often cited as a likely origin of other more famous assertions such as "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" which are commonly attributed to Burke. [1]
  9. Quotes, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
  10. Edmund Burke (2016). “Delphi Complete Works of Edmund Burke (Illustrated)”, p. 3631, Delphi Classics
  11. Speech at a County Meeting of Buckinghamshire (1784)
  12. Edmund Burke (1912). “Reflections on the French Revolution”, p.235, CUP Archive
  13. 'Observations on...the Present State of the Nation' (1769)
  14. The Early Life Correspondence and Writings of The Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke
  15. Edmund Burke (1963). “Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches”, p.398, Transaction Publishers

External links