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Edmund Burke – the Father of Conservatism

A brief yet detailed biography of Edmund Burke

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Edmund Burke (12th January 1729 – 9th July 1797) is arguably the most important political figure in the history of the British and American right, not to mention the namesake of our own beloved website.

A politician, author, orator and philosopher, his life and work straddled both the liberal rationalism of the Enlightenment era and the more traditionalist conservatism of the Romantic period that would follow soon after him.

Edmund Burke tends to attract a lot of attention from both liberals and conservatives, and as a historian and philosopher-in-training myself, he is someone to whom I have dedicated quite a considerable amount of study, and have referred back to on multiple occasions.

Today Edmund Burke has been called the ‘father of conservatism’ on account of his masterwork Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a 95,000-word exposition on the French Revolution, the ideas of which had caused Burke great disgust, particularly their influence on many intellectuals of his day.

Edmund Burke is an important figure to study, not merely because a whole philosophical school of conservatism: Burkean conservatism, has been named after him, but because he lived much of his life fully in tune with many of the liberal and progressive principles of his age. He was a lifelong supporter of the Whig faction in parliament, but upon the publication of Reflections, one of Parliament’s most respected MPs became something of a pariah among many of his former colleagues.

Edmund Burke remains the epitome of the freethinking, principled politician who has inspired many others, but in order to understand him and his ideas in anything other than a superficial way, his background and the context of his times must also be understood.

The Early Years of Edmund Burke

Born in Dublin to a Catholic mother and Anglican father, Edmund Burke was exposed to the possibility of religious cooperation between the historically rival religions from an early age. Indeed, he would be a supporter of Catholic emancipation later in his political life, though he often referred to himself as “an Englishman”, and remained a practising Anglican his entire life. [1]

On the advice of his father, after taking a degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1748, where he founded a debating society which would eventually become the prestigious Trinity College Historical Society, he moved to London, entering the Middle Temple to pursue a career as a barrister.

It was at this point that Edmund Burke became acquainted with the great political debates which were shaking Britain at the time, particularly from the writings of Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a philosopher whose works openly criticised religion. It was by learning about these writers that Edmund Burke’s conservatism first began to develop, and before long he left Middle Temple to pursue a writing career.

Edmund Burke’s first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) satirically attacked the works of Bolingbroke by applying his anti-religious theories to almost every aspect of society in an attempt at sustained reductio ad absurdum. However, so well-written was the satire that many anarchists believed it to be a sincere attempt at defending their position, and the work went on to influence prominent leftist-anarchist philosophers such as William Godwin, who effectively recapped Edmund Burke’s ideas in a more serious manner in his 1795 work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Edmund Burke later added a preface to the book explaining that it was satirical in a 1757 edition, and in the same year he published another work which established him as a philosophical author: An Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful.

This book, which argued that even the most terrifying phenomena could be beautiful when viewed at a safe distance through art or physical distance, went on to influence many different artists and philosophers, particularly the German Romantic school in the work of Kant, Goethe, and later thinkers such as Schopenhauer.

The Sublime and Beautiful earned Edmund Burke a national reputation in literary and artistic circles, and he claimed to have written it when he was only 19, having revised it and published it later. [2]

It was because of this reputation that Edmund Burke met the Whig politician and patron of Enlightenment thought, the Marquess of Rockingham, and through his new friend Burke was introduced to the highball circles of contemporary British literature, mixing with such famous figures as Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. [3]

Edmund Burke Entering Politics

In 1765, Edmund Burke first entered the House of Commons for the Wendover constituency with Rockingham’s support. Almost immediately he spoke critically about the government’s policies towards the American colonies, which were being taxed heavily with no governmental representation.

Through a series of speeches over the next ten years, Edmund Burke argued strongly in favour of the supremacy of Parliament over the monarch, free markets and free trade, remaining allied with the prominent liberal politician, Charles James Fox.

In 1774, he published his Address to the Electors of Bristol, which passionately defended the first-past-the-post voting system and described British parliamentary democracy as a system which represented the interests of the people, rather than delegating their opinions to Parliament.

When the American War of Independence finally broke out, he lent his support to the revolutionaries: “the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen…. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles.”[4]

He viewed the war as a civil one, and believed that the American colonists, who were almost entirely of British descent, were maintaining a spirit of British national character in the face of the home government’s authoritarianism.

In 1786, after years of political work, Edmund Burke succeeded in bringing the corrupt governor of the British East India Company, Warren Hastings, to trial, after Hastings had abused his position for the unjust oppression and exploitation of the native Indian kingdoms.

Edmund Burke’s parliamentary promise to the Indian rulers that Britain would not make war on them [5] would eventually be distilled into the ideology behind the British Raj system and the complete dissolution of the East India Company later in the 19th century.

Edmund Burke came to greatly admire “the Hindoo [sic] religion” of India, and it only served to reinforce his opinion that organised religion could have a positive impact on the conduct and progression of civilisations across the world.

He remained an important literary figure, acting as founder and editor of the Annual Register until 1789 (an annual publication detailing the history of the past year which still exists to this day), and working on a history of England from Julius Caesar to his own time, though he ceased work on the history after reaching the year 1216, and what he did write was not published until almost 20 years after his death.

The French Revolution

The most bitter and strenuous political battle of Edmund Burke’s life came towards the end of it, and would remain unresolved by his death in 1797.

The French Revolution came in July 1789 with the storming of the Bastille by an angry Paris mob, and Edmund Burke, like many other classically liberal intellectuals, welcomed it “gazing at the French struggle for liberty…the spirit is impossible not to admire.” [6] But this admiration was not to last, and upon the deposition of the French king, Edmund Burke’s hatred of the revolution began to grow.

The exploitation of radical demagogues offering varying platforms for a French republic worried Burke, since unlike the American Revolution, he could not see a single unified set of values in the French revolutionary leaders. Writing to a French intellectual on the 4th November, he declared: “you [revolutionaries] have subverted monarchy, but not recovered freedom.”

When Edmund Burke’s long-time political ally, Charles Fox, began to lend his support to the revolutionaries, Burke hit back with a scathing speech in parliament:

“The French have shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that have hitherto existed in the world. In this very short space of time they have completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures” [7]

 It was when the clergyman and radical author Richard Price published his Discourse on the Love of our Country, urging citizens of Britain to see themselves “more as citizens of the world than members of any particular community” that Edmund Burke first began work on what he eventually published as Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. By the end of the year it had sold nearly 20,000 copies.

Edmund Burke defended the national tradition of England dating back to the Magna Carta and argued that events such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when a Catholic king was removed in favour of a Protestant one, were brought about to preserve the inalienable rights of citizens, rather than replace them.

He extolled the authority of tradition and the moral direction offered by religion, arguing that it was not the place of demagogues, no matter how angry the people were, to remove those rights. To this day, Burkean conservatism is defined by a belief in the authority of tradition, the organic nature of society (that is to say, gradual rather than violent or radical political change), order, the Christian religion and private property.

Later Life, and Death

Edmund Burke’s actions split the Whigs in Parliament. Conservative Whigs and Tories rallied to Burke, including the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, while other former friends of Burke abandoned him for the radical revolutionaries.

During a debate in Parliament in May 1791, Charles James Fox criticised Burke’s Reflections, but praised him as an intelligent colleague, hoping that there was “no loss of friendship” between the two. In an act of principled defiance, Burke replied “I regret to say there is…I have done my duty, though I have lost my friend.” With that, he crossed to the other side of the Commons chamber to sit with the Tories, leaving Fox in tears. [8]

Edmund Burke never made up with Fox, and in his last publications before his death, To a Noble Lord and On a Regicide Peace, he remained staunchly conservative, defending the right to hereditary peerage and urging the British government not to make peace with Revolutionary France.

His very last work, Thoughts on Scarcity, was not published until after his death, but more or less concisely recapped the great philosopher Adam Smith’s economic theories.

Nearing death, his health deteriorating from a particularly horrid case of stomach cancer, Edmund Burke refused one last attempt by Charles Fox to see him before he died: his wife wrote to Fox: “his principles continue the same; and that in whatever of life may yet remain to him, he conceives that he must live for others and not for himself.” [9]

Edmund Burke died on the 9th July 1797 aged 68.

Edmund Burke’s Legacy

Edmund Burke’s views are open to a great deal of interpretation, though it is undeniable that his status today is as an epitome of conservative principles. In his own time, Burke held an eclectic mix of classical liberal and traditionalist conservative views.

As the modern political distinction between liberal and conservative began to blur, and rather than liberals and conservatives facing off against each other, they began to unite, as Edmund Burke hoped they would, against what he called “radicalism”, which evolved into what we today call “socialism” or “leftism”.

Edmund Burke tends to be respected across political divides, he is adored by traditionalists and moderates from both the centre-right and centre-left, though he tends to be universally despised by the radical left to this day.

The main problem with interpreting Burke’s ideas in the present day comes down to how his gradualist views about society should be applied. Those of a more centrist view believe that, given Edmund Burke’s liberal views on economics and freedom, but conservative opinions on revolution, he ought to be interpreted as a defender of order but a friend to “gradual” attempts at legally bringing about egalitarianism.

Those more firmly on the right believe that Edmund Burke’s defence of traditions such as aristocracy, religion and monarchy must be remembered, however liberal he may have been in other areas, and finding ways of maintaining the traditional heritage of a nation are more important than abstract notions of “egalitarianism”.

Edmund Burke is therefore the father of modern conservatism, both of its centrist and traditionalist variants. As a traditionalist myself, I do not think that the odd liberal opinion that Burke had can be used to justify socially liberal or more radically-derived policies which are more acceptable in the modern day.

Traditionalists can make a firm claim to Burke, so long as they agree with him that liberty, whilst important, can only be maintained in the context of Western, particularly British national heritage and tradition. Edmund Burke was mostly a liberal in economic terms, like many modern conservatives, but otherwise he remained a lifelong social conservative. This however, is only one interpretation of Edmund Burke, and the reader may find his/her own reading of him to be quite different once the plethora of his works is discovered.

To that end, I finish this lengthy post with a reference to some recommended further reading. Besides the work of certain scholars and of Edmund Burke himself referenced in this article, some other books are worth looking at for the budding Burkean: Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: The Visionary who Invented Modern Politics is a wonderful book for those first delving into conservatism of any kind.

A book released this year by Emily Jones, Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism is also a wonderful read, though it is not for the faint-hearted, being much more academically-focussed.

Ultimately, the best way to learn about Edmund Burke is to read his own writing. Reflections on the Revolution in France is an absolute must-read for any conservative, though it is very heavy-going, and may take several readings to fully understand.

Penguin Great Ideas has published an abridged version, The Evils of Revolution which is somewhat easier to manage, numbering some 100 pages rather than 400.

The Burke Society at the University of Virginia also holds some further information, as well as wonderful publications and journals from a conservative perspective. Whether you come to love Edmund Burke as I do, or hate him as many others do, it is impossible to deny that anyone with an interest in political philosophy ought to respect the man of principle and honesty that he was.

[1] J. C. D. Clark, Burke’s “Reflections”: a Critical Edition, Stanford, 2001

[2] J. Prior, The Life of Edmund Burke, London, 1854

[3] A meeting of Johnson’s literary dining club is depicted in an engraving by James Doyle, Joshua Reynold’s Party, published 1851, in which Burke is shown as being present.

[4] E. Burke, First Speech on Conciliation with America, 1775

[5] Appointed Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on East Indian Affairs in 1781, Burke was able to investigate Hastings’ actions, and was in frequent contact with Indian princes in private correspondence.

[6] Burke in a letter to a friend dated 9th August 1789

[7] Historic Hansard, 9th February 1790

[8] J. Prior, The Life of Edmund Burke, London, 1854

[9] A letter from Mrs Jane Burke to Mr Charles James Fox, July 1797

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