Celebrating 17 years

A Report on the Life of Edmund Burke

His Role in the American Revolution,
His Impact on Ireland
And his Discord with the French Revolution.

Introduction

Since his death in 1797, a score of biographies have been written about Edmund Burke, the British politician and political philosopher. Another ten to twenty books have compared and contrasted him with other great thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Henry Bolingbroke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Winston Churchill. Several more books and journal articles have been written detailing aspects of Burke's life such as Edmund Burke and Ireland, or Edmund Burke in the Age of the American Revolution.

This essay will examine the life of Edmund Burke and in particular his role in the American Revolution, his impact on his native-land of Ireland and his discord with the French Revolutionary movement. Specifically, I hope to show how Burke is perceived by biographers as being either a friend or foe of the American Revolutionaries, the French Revolutionaries and the steps he took to help alleviate conditions in Ireland. It will require a thorough look at Burkes' writings, his political attempts to influence the British Parliament and a review of selected biographical and comparative literature.

Edmund Burke

In order to form an opinion of Mr. Burke; I have started with my own short biography of Burke's life. I have highlighted his revolutionary and Irish material and tried to minimize his other extraneous activities. I feel this is important to establish a guideline when later; historians will disagree on the meaning of Burke's ideas and actions. My original interest in this material was prompted as a means to understand Edmund Burke's influence on his native country. I could have concentrated my efforts on just that aspect of Burke's political and literary life but I felt that a biographical assessment was important in understanding why Burke acted the way that he did.

Edmund Burke, A Short History (1729-1769)

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland on January 12, 1729.[1] His father was an Anglican solicitor. His mother was Roman Catholic. Burke was educated and trained in the classical tradition at Trinity College. He read and recommended, "Virgil, Juvenal, Sallust, Cicero, Homer, Lucien and Xenophon." to his friend Richard Shackelford.[2] In college, Edmund became politically active, writing letters to the editors of Dublin newspapers. He opposed the corruption in Irish politics and condemned the placemen and other entrenched bureaucracy of the Protestant Ascendancy.[3] In 1750, Burke went to England to study law at the Middle Temple. Burke's father wanted Edmund to pass the Bar exam and return to Ireland to practice law.

While studying in England, Burke read Jean Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality along with the collected works of Henry Bolingbroke that were first published in 1754.[4] After reading these authors, Burke decided to write a satire in which he imitates Henry Bolingbroke's writing style. A Vindication of Natural Society was published in 1756 and brought the young author acclaim from several quarters.[5] Later the same year, Edmund published another book, this time on aesthetics, The Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, which was largely taken from work done in his years at Trinity College.[6]

In England, Burke came under the care of an Irish Catholic physician, Dr. Christopher Nugent. He spent time convalescing in Dr. Nugent's home. He met and started courting Dr. Nugent's daughter, Jane. A few years later on March 12, 1757, with Dr. Nugent's permission, Edmund Burke married Jane Nugent.[7] Two sons, Richard and Christopher, were thereafter born to the young couple.

As a career in law disinterested Burke and his budding literary talents emerged, Edmund founded a periodical, the Annual Register in 1758 with a partner Robert Dodsley that became a great success.[8] For many years, Burke acted as editor and contributed articles and reviews to the periodical. He became friends with leading cultural and literary figures such as Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, the painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the economist, Adam Smith and the famous actor, Garrick. He bought an estate, the Gregories, twenty-four miles from London, in the parish of Beaconsfield in Bucks County.

In 1761, Burke accepted a position as a private secretary to the British chief secretary for Ireland, William Hamilton. He demonstrated an aptitude for political service in his native land. Hamilton acquired for Burke a pension of three hundred pounds a year from the Irish Treasury.[9] Although appreciative, Burke asked that not all of his time be spent working for his patron. (Burke was in the middle of writing a History of England, of which only a fragment remains today.) Hamilton insisted on the whole of his time and Burke reluctantly gave up his pension and returned to England to pursue a literary career.

In 1765, a change of ministry took place in Great Britain. The King dismissed George Grenville and asked Charles Wentworth, the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, to be his Prime Minister and Secretary of the Treasury. Lord Rockingham asked Burke to be his private secretary. When the old Duke of Newcastle heard of Burke's appointment, he went to the new premier, and told him that, "the appointment would never do: that the new secretary (Burke) was not only an Irish adventurer, but that he was an Irish papist, that he was a Jesuit, that he was a spy from Saint Omer's, and that his real name was O'Bourke."[10] Lord Rockingham sent for Burke and repeated to him what he had heard. Burke hotly denounced the truthlessness of the Duke's tale. Rockingham refused to accept Burke's resignation and for the next seventeen years, in and out of office, Rockingham and Burke remained on the best of terms.

On December 26, 1765, largely through the influence of another patron, Lord Verney, Burke was elected as a Whig to Parliament from Wendover.[11] His eloquence and writing ability gained him a high position in the Whig party. In Parliament, Burke sought the repeal of the Stamp Act, which was passed by the prior Grenville administration. Although Burke remained a Member of Parliament, the Rockingham administration only lasted a year and twenty days. They were successful in repealing the colonial Stamp Act. In a pamphlet, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1769), Burke replied pervasively to a pamphlet written by George Grenville who accused his successors of ruining the country.[12] In this pamphlet, Burke also wrote about the Wilkes controversy; he argued for a stronger executive and he justifies the use of political parties. Burke was one of the first to see the advantages of political parties: "a body of men united on public principle, which could act as a constitutional link between king and parliament, providing consistency and strength in administration, or principled criticism in opposition"[13] Indeed, Burke would spend many years in opposition.

Burke's Role in the American Revolution

In 1770, the New York assembly unanimously elected Burke as its colonial agent in London. Burke's job was to meet with various agencies and boards, presenting petitions, promoting trade, working to settle land grants and boundary disputes. He needed to keep appraised of various Indian, military, financial and political affairs of New York. Burke received 500 pounds a year for his services to New York and another 140 pounds for incidental expenses, which he used largely for secretarial help.[14] When things grew worse with the colonies in 1773, Burke's vulnerability to attack became worrisome. Despite criticism from enemies, Burke continued on as colonial agent until the outbreak of war unseated the New York assembly.

In the fall months of 1773, a quarrel developed with Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts. Committees of Correspondence were forming throughout the colonies. Resentment was caused by the passage of the Tea Act. In January, accounts came filtering back to London of the Boston Tea Party. According to Burke, London remained apathetic. Rockingham stayed on in Yorkshire; encouraged by Burke to believe that his presence was not required when "any remarkable highway robbery at Hounslow-heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances of America."[15] In March 1774, the North ministry gave its first specific proposal, the Boston Port Bill.

In Parliament, on April 19, 1774, Burke delivered a speech, American Taxation, in an effort to soften the blow on the colonies. Many American scholars such Bernard Bailyn and others have come to the conclusion that the causes of the American Revolution were ideological. Bailyn writes that the Americans were concerned "not with the need to recast the social order nor with the problems of economic inequality and the injustices of a stratified society but with the need to purify a corrupt constitution and fight off the apparent growth of prerogative power."[16] If Bailyn is correct, then Burke as the lead spokesman for the Rockingham Whigs (the party in opposition) may have been the one person in Parliament who understood the grievances the Americans suffered. In his speech Burke writes,

Again, and again, revert to your old principles -seek peace and ensure it -leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. Be content to bind America by laws of trade. Do not burden them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. Nobody will be argued into slavery — if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made packhorses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery will be no compensation either to his feelings or his understanding.[17]

Isaac Kramnick wrote in his biography of Edmund Burke that. " Burke's was one of the stronger voices, along with Chatham, heard in Parliament pleading for understanding of and compromise with the American colonies. Burke's defense of the colonists stood by no means as a contradiction with his later attacks on the French. The Americans were not innovators, or zealous ideologues, in his opinion; they were simply calling for a return to original rights, which they considered revoked by recent British innovations."[18]

Another biographer Russell Kirk wrote in 1997 in his book Edmund Burke, A Genius Reconsidered, "An erroneous popular impression long persisted in America that somehow Burke was "in favor" of the American revolutionary cause. In truth, Burke never smiled upon any revolution-with the exception of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which, he said, was a revolution not made, but prevented, and therefore no revolution at all. He did, true enough; sympathize with some of the complaints of the more moderate American opponents of George III's rigorous colonial policies. But revolution, and separation from the Empire, he believed to be great evils; by timely concession and compromise, these might yet be averted."[19]

Kirk is one of the latest biographers of Burke. His opinion of Burke has him as an arch-conservative who frowned on any and all revolutionary uprisings except of course, the British revolution who's King accepted Parliament as an equal partner. Kirk is implying that Burke pulled the wool over the colonist's eyes. Not all historians see Burke in this light.

In 1929, Alfred Cobban wrote in his biography Edmund Burke that, "At least five separate rebellions against authority can be cited as meeting with Burke's specific approval-the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American War of Independence, the struggle of the Corsicans for freedom, the attempt of the Poles to preserve their national independence, and the various revolts in India against Warren Hastings (and the East India Company.)[20]

Cobban's reasons for including four more rebellions are based on an understanding of a book Burke wrote in 1790 condemning the French Revolution. Cobban writes in defense of his citation of five rebellions, "The rising of practically the whole community under the leadership of its governing classes in defense of what were claimed to be ancient liberties against violent innovation."[21] This last sentence is an excellent paraphrase of Burke's from his Reflections on the French Revolution.

If we are to apply it to Cobbans' list of five revolutions, it can be argued in different ways. Was it not an innovation to have a Dutch King (William) replace an English King (James)? In the American war, was it really a majority of the population that wanted independence from Great Britain? Recent historical studies label the rebel population at around 40%. Perhaps, the various revolts in India may suit Cobban's list when even Burke wrote, "The subjects of this unfortunate prince (referring to the case of Cheit Sing and his war with the East India Company) did what we should have done; what all who love their country, who love their liberty, who love their laws, who love their property, who love their sovereign, would have done on such an occasion.... The whole country rose up in rebellion, and surely in justifiable rebellion."[22]

In America, the passage of the Boston Port Bill and other measures aimed at the Massachusetts legislature caused much consternation in the colonies. A Continental Congress was called to meet in Philadelphia. Most Americans did not actively want separation from Great Britain at this time. Burke's role in the beginning phase was seen for what it is that of a friend and conciliator for the colonies.

In the fall of 1774, Burke was told that Lord Verney intended to sell his seat in Parliament from Wendover and Burke would have to either pay or find another vacancy.[23]

Burke decided to stand for election from the city of Bristol. At the time, Bristol was the second most prosperous city in England. Most of the residents of the city had occupations tied to overseas trade and Burke easily won for his support for the American colonies.

Four months after his election, Burke made another moving three hour speech in Parliament entitled, Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies:

One fact is clear and indisputable: the public and avowed origin of this quarrel was on taxation. I only wish you to recognize, for the theory, the ancient constitutional policy of this kingdom with regard to representation, as that policy has been declared in acts of Parliament-and as to the practice, to return to that mode which a uniform experience has marked out to you as best, and in which you walked with security, advantage, and honor until the year 1763.

My resolutions, therefore, mean to establish the equity and justice of a taxation of America by grant, and not by imposition; to mark the legal competency of the colony assemblies for the support of their government in peace, and for public aids in time of war; to acknowledge that this legal competency has had a dutiful and beneficial exercise, and that experience has shown the benefit of their grants, and the futility of parliamentary taxation, as a method of supply.[24]

During the summer of 1775, fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord and at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In August, Burke wrote to a friend, Charles O'Hara, "If we are beat, America is gone irrecoverably," and "Our victories can only complete our ruin."[25]

After the Declaration of Independence, Burke's enemies in Parliament and elsewhere started referring to him as Pro-American, especially several merchants in Bristol. Months before the British defeat at Saratoga and the intervention of the French, Burke tried one last time to address his critics and his constituents in A Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol on the Affairs of America (1777):

I am charged with being an American. If warm affection towards those over whom I claim any share of authority be a crime, I am guilty of this charge. But I do assure you (and they who know me publicly and privately will bear witness to me) that if ever one man lived more zealous than another for the supremacy of Parliament and the rights of this imperial crown, it was myself.

These were the considerations, Gentlemen, which led me early to think that, in the comprehensive dominion which the Divine Providence had put into our hands, instead of troubling our understandings with speculations concerning the unity of empire and the identity or distinction of legislative powers, and inflaming our passions with the heat and pride of controversy, it was our duty, in all soberness, to conform our government to the character and circumstances of the several people who composed this mighty and strangely diversified mass.[26]

Karl Marx once described Burke as "the celebrated sophist and sycophant in the pay of the English oligarchy, (who) 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 played the liberal against the British oligarchy."[27]

IRELAND

During the latter part of Lord North's long administration (1770-1782), Burke turned his attention away from the troubled colonies towards his native Ireland. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Ireland was a conquered country. Penal laws had been passed as a means of economic discrimination and religious intolerance. Stanley Ayling writes in his chapter entitled Bristol, Irish Trade and the Catholics that "By these penal laws, most of them enacted between 1702 and 1715, at least three Irishmen in every four had as Catholics been excluded from trades and professions, from public office and from juries, and been barred from buying freehold land. A Catholic eldest son could inherit his father's estate entire only if he turned Protestant; otherwise it was to be broken up between the family. Thus the Catholic squires remaining loyal to their religion were chopped into poverty and insignificance, and by 1780 about 4000 of them had been coerced into conforming to the established Church of Ireland. No Catholic might sit in the Dublin parliament or (after 1727) vote for it; neither could he legally attend school, keep a school, or send his children to be educated abroad.[28]

John Morley is quoted as saying about this period, "After the suppression of the great rebellion of Tyreconnel by William of Orange, nearly the whole of the land was confiscated, the peasants were made beggars and outlaws, the Penal laws against the Catholics were enacted and enforced, and the grand reign of the Protestant Ascendancy began in all its vileness and completeness. The Protestants and landlords were supreme; the peasants and Catholics were prostrate in despair."[29]

Most men of the Enlightenment knew the direction in which Irish improvement should move. The removal of all commercial restrictions and the gradual emancipation of the Catholics were foremost in Burke's mind. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations that empathized the importance of free trade. Edmund Burke could no longer do anything for the American colonies now in rebellion. He naturally turned his attention to where he could be of some support to his native kinsmen. Burke once said in Parliament that "Nothing gave him so much satisfaction, when he was first honored with a seat in that House, as that it might be in his power, some way or other, to be of service to the country that gave him birth; and he had always said to himself . . . (that if ever he were to deserve a great reward he would say or) . . . do something for Ireland; do something for my country and I am over rewarded".[30]

After the American victory at Saratoga and the intervention of the French, Dutch and Spanish, the Irish situation had transformed itself. The British needed Irish support if they were to continue the war. Two bills in 1778 proposed wide ranging concessions to Irish trade and rights of export. Bristol of course would be one of the towns severely affected by any concessions to the Irish. In the midst of these bills in Parliament, debates were started over Catholic emancipation and other reforms in Ireland.

A grass roots political backlash came about in England when members in county after county formed into Protestant Associations under the leadership of the fanatical and eccentric Lord George Gordon. In June 1780, Catholic chapels in London and the houses of suspected Catholic sympathizers were burned and ransacked. Burke's estate in Beaconsfield was protected by a company of soldiers and escaped destruction. Burke and his wife stayed at General Burgoyne's estate near his home. The Gordon Riots as they became known have recently been shown to have been led by a small group of men but for many years have been viewed as a mini-rebellion of England's own during this long revolutionary era.

A general election was held in the autumn of 1780. Burke faced criticism and hostility from his Bristol constituents. Burke tried to justify his six-year record in Parliament in a speech in Bristol's Guildhall. In one of the best speeches of his career, Burke justified his stance on the American war for independence, the Irish trade question and his support of Catholic emancipation and education. Burke makes an analogy in this speech that the English government in India does not discriminate or try to legislate for the Hindu religion but turns around and has no qualms for doing so for Catholics in Ireland. Unfortunately, Burke lost his seat from Bristol but he obtained another seat from the pocket borough of Malton from his patron, Lord Rockingham.

Later historians have called Burke's sincerity over his Irish sympathies into question. "Lord Acton thought that Burke stopped short of conceding ever a full right of revolution, because of its necessary application to Ireland, to admit which would have ruined his career in English politics. He could not speak out, for the system in Ireland was worse than the system in America." [31] Burke did refrain from stirring up insurrection in Ireland but he can hardly to be blamed for not recommending a dubious revolution on a divided population, even if it sacrifices his theoretical consistency.

Alfred Cobban writes, "But far from disregarding the wrongs of his native land, his Catholic affiliations, together with the Whig doctrines of toleration and the welfare of the people, (Burke) joined the yet embryonic sentiment of national independence to make the emancipation of his Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen of Ireland one of the causes dearest to (his) heart."[32]

Burke obviously felt that it was to the interest of the British Government to take advantage of favorable circumstances while they lasted and solve the Irish problem by granting moderate concessions. To Burke it was the willful obstinacy of George III and the high Tories that frustrated the last hope of a peaceful settlement.

In 1781, facing defeat in America and the prospect of having to accept a new ministry of Rockingham Whigs, George III is said to have contemplated abdication in favor of his son and heir.[33] Lord North resigned in 1782 and the King had no choice but to accept another ministry of Lord Rockingham with his two demands (independence for America and the acceptance of Burke's Civil List, which eliminated 134 royal and civil officeholders.)[34] Burke was appointed to the post of Paymaster General of the Armed Forces, a non-cabinet level position that paid him 4000 pounds a year. [35] It may seem contradictory of Burke here to work so hard in opposition to eliminate placemen and other emoluments and jobbery, only to accept a well paid post once his side came to power. To Burke's credit, prior Paymaster's could lend balance-money from its purse at 4% interest, Burke's Civil List and Economical Reform ended this practice and he was the first Paymaster to receive a fixed salary.

Unfortunately, for Burke and his fellow Whigs, Lord Rockingham died on July 1, 1782. Burke resigned his position on ideological grounds, although Rockingham's successor, Lord Shelbourne would have allowed him to stay. Lord Portland succeeded Shelbourne and Burke returned to his post as Paymaster but Portland's administration too did not last long. In all, Burke spent less than two years in office but his parliamentary career stretched from 1765 to 1794.

In the 1780's, Burke took a deep interest in India and advocated a reversal of the British policy that allowed the East India Company to exploit the population of that country. In 1788, he opened the trial of Warren Hastings (a Governor-General with the East India Company accused of corruption) with another speech that ranks among his finest. Burke also took an active part in the Regency crisis when George III came down with a debilitating mental breakdown. Burke was in favor of handing power over to George's son, the Regent, only to be humiliated when the King recovered.

The French Revolution

In John Morley's biography, Edmund Burke, the author writes, "We have now come to the second of the two momentous changes in the world's affairs, in which Burke played an imposing and historic part. His attitude in the first of them, the struggle for American independence, commands almost without alloy the admiration and reverence of posterity. His attitude in the second of them, the great revolution in France, has raised controversies which can only be compared in heat and duration to the master controversies of theology."

In 1789, with the storming of the Bastille and the taking of the King and Queen of France from Versailles to Paris, the French Revolution was just beginning its first of many phases. A young Frenchman, Charles de Pont, wrote to Edmund Burke asking his opinion of their new revolution.[36] As Burke was drafting a reply to de Pont, the Rev. Richard Price gave an address before a meeting of the Revolution Society in London in praise of the new French National Assembly. Immediately after reading a copy of Price's speech, Edmund Burke set about drafting, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Reflections is considered a classic in English conservative thought. It is highly critical of the new government in France. Ruth A. Bevan writes in the introduction to her book, Marx and Burke, A Revisionist's View, "Ever since his condemnation of the French revolutionaries of 1789, Edmund Burke, the dynamic English Whig parliamentarian, has been depicted as the archetypal conservative. The fact that revolution has become the shibboleth of our day induced many who could not condone the revolutionary perspective to search for a spokesman of and guide in conservatism. This search culminated in the revival of Burke's ideas and the subsequent development of twentieth century Burkean partisans. Burkeans and Marxists consider each other mortal ideological enemies, their values, motives and approaches bearing no harmonious points."[37]

In Reflections, Burke satirically compares congratulating France to congratulating "a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights?"

John Morley, a later socialist Member of Parliament wrote a biography of Burke in 1887. Morley writes ironically, "The man who dreaded fanatics, hated atheists, despised political theorizers, and was driven wild at the notion of applying metaphysical rights and abstract doctrines to public affairs, suddenly beheld a whole kingdom given finally up to fanatics, atheists, and theorizers, who talked of nothing but the rights of man, and deliberately set as wide a gulf as ruin and bloodshed could make between themselves and every incident or institution in the history of their land."[38]

Edmund Burke condemned the French Revolution almost from its very beginning. The book went through eleven editions in its first year. It was translated into French and later German. Marie Antoinette is said to have read a smuggled copy. In Parliament, his critique of the French at first had little effect. His own close friend and fellow leader of the Whigs, Charles James Fox, thought of the French upheaval as a triumph of progress and liberty.

Russel Kirk writes that "Most of the Tories, some of the Portland Whigs and a great many people who ordinarily took little active part in English politics began to perceive the dread danger of revolution, and shifted towards that course of action which, in the long run, would crush Napoleon. Fox's Whigs on the contrary, cried down Burke as an apostate." [39]

Burke's popularity before the book was published was at its lowest ebb. His book suddenly raised him high in the opinion of a strong majority of the country. The King liked the book and said that Reflections was "a good book, a very good book; and every gentleman ought to read it."[40]

A flood of pamphlets came out in answer to Burke's book. Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense (which was very influential in the American Revolution) wrote a book length critique of Burke, The Rights of Man. Paine said that Burke "pitied the plumage but forgot the dying bird."[41] Paine was referring to the famous passage in Reflections about an emotional appeal for Marie Antoinette:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, and surely never lighted on this orb, a more delightful vision. Oh! What a revolution! And what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall. Little did I dream that she should ever be obliged to carry the sham antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. 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.[42]

Paine in his remarks about the plumage and the dying bird is calling Burke's bluff. Paine's symbolism of plumage, nobility, royalty and chivalry is contrasted to a dying bird, the people of France, the peasants, the birds that are plucked.

Burke, in the end, was right. He appears as a kind of prophet who predicts the ghastly events of the Terror and the Guillotine. Even Paine had a narrow escape from the guillotine. Lord Percy of Newcastle writes, "Burke was the chief formulator of the modern Christian understanding of true civil freedom: yet he has been until quite recently, almost persistently misunderstood. His party pamphlets have been taken as sound history, while his anti-revolutionary philosophy has been dismissed as a crotchet of old age and declining powers. This is almost the exact reverse of the truth.[43]

Burke was to write three more important works before his death, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Thoughts on French Affairs, and Letters on a Regicide Peace, which all dealt with the French Revolution. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794. He died July 9, 1797, and was buried in a little church at Beaconsfield.

Conclusion

Edmund Burke was a young Irishman who came to London, the metropolis, to seek his fortune. In the tradition of Swift, Pope and others, he made his mark early as a man of letters. He entered the political arena, working for William Hamilton in Ireland and then Lord Rockingham for seventeen years in Britain. The Rockingham Whigs with Burke as its spokesman were the one party in England that could have averted the American war for independence. Burke is one of the foremost political thinkers of 18th century England. He is said to have been a superb parliamentary orator. He played a prominent part in all major political issues for 30 years after 1765, and remained an important figure in the history of political theory.

Burke had vast knowledge of political affairs, a glowing imagination, passionate sympathies, and an inexhaustible wealth of powerful and cultured expression. Some of his speeches were in excess of eight hours.

Years before the French Revolution, he was critical of abstract speculation and insistent on the need for prudential and practical statesmanship. Yet, Burke appeared as the champion of the feudal order in Europe, with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The book, which was read throughout Europe, encouraged European rulers in their hostility to the French Revolution. Burke became more and more vehement in his denunciation of the French Revolution as time went on. His opposition to the French Revolution cost him the support of his fellow Whigs, notably that of Fox, who would go on to lead the British government.

Most historians are of the opinion that Burke, as a stalwart British politician, would have disapproved of the Americans gaining their independence. But taken as a crucible, the American war for independence may have changed Burke's mind. Indeed, the Rockingham Whigs again came to power after the important and crucial Battle of Yorktown.

Russell Kirk writes, "Much read in history and much practiced in the conduct of political affairs, Burke knew that men are not naturally good, but are beings of mingled good and evil, kept in obedience to a moral law chiefly by the force of custom and habit, which the revolutionaries would discard as so much antiquated rubbish. He knew that all the advantages of society are the product of intricate human experience over many centuries, not to be amended overnight by some coffeehouse philosopher. He knew religion to be man's greatest good, and established order to be the principal necessity of civilization, and hereditary possessions to be the property of liberty and justice, and the mass of beliefs we often call "prejudices" to be the moral sense of humanity. He set his face against the revolutionaries like a man who finds himself suddenly beset by robbers."[44]

This citation from Russell Kirk so aptly describes Edmund Burke, whether from an American, an Irish, a French or an English point of view. Despite how several historians' debate whether Burke would have approved of a revolution or not or whether he flipped-flopped back and forth, I hope I have shown Burke to be consistent in his career. His assistance to America, his aid to Ireland and his controversial condemnation of the radical revolutionaries in France are all part and parcel of the man, Edmund Burke.

 

[1] Cone, Carl B. Burke and the Nature of Politics Univ. of Kentucky Press 1957 p1 Burke's birthdate

[2] Cone p6 letter to Richard Shackelton May 24, 1744

[3] Cone p11 Dr. Charles Lucas stands for the Irish Commons

[4] Cone p22 1754-Rousseau & Bolingbroke publish

[5] Burke, Edmund Vindication of Natural Society (Edmund Burke-Selected writings and Speeches) Stanlis, Peter editor Doubleday & Co. Garden City, NY 1963 ( published 1756.)

[6] Burke Sublime and Beautiful 1756 from Stanlis, Peter ed

[7] Cone p27 Marriage of Edmund and Jane

[8] Cone p34 Annual Register founded 1758.

[9] Morley, John Edmund Burke Athol Books, Belfast, Ireland p30 1993 "300 pounds a year"

[10] Morley p32 "a papist, a Jesuit and a spy"

[11] Kirk, Russel Edmund Burke, A Genius Reconsidered Arlington House, Wilmington DE 1997.

p38 "elected to Parliament"

[12] Morley p33 reply to Grenville

[13] Bradley, James E. Popular Politics and the American Revolution in England Mercer Univ. Press, Macon GA 1986. P43

[14] /////// 500 lbs. a year plus secretarial help

[15] ///// highway robbery vs disturbances in America

[16] Bailyn, Bernard The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.) 1967 p283

[17] Burke American Taxation p////

[18] Kramnick, Isaac Edmund Burke (Great Lives Observed Series) Prentice-Hall Inc. Englewood Cliffs NJ p22

[19] Kirk p42 quote on "Burke never smiled on any revolutions"

[20] Cobban, Alfred Edmund Burke John Dickens & Co. Northhampton 1962 (1929) p100 "five revolutions approved by Burke"

[21] Cobban p 100 "practically the whole community under leadership"

[22] Burke Works Vol VIII p39-40 Chiet Sing rebellion

[23] Ayling, Stanley Edmund Burke, His Life and Opinions St. Martin's Press p75 "loses seat from Wendover"

[24] Burke Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies

[25] Burke to O'Hara Aug 17, 1775 "Our victories only complete our ruin."

[26] Burke Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol

[27] Bevan, Ruth A. Marx and Burke, A Revivsionists View Open Court Publishing, La Salle, Ill. p3 quote from Marx

[28] Ayling p90 "Penal laws in Ireland"

[29] Morley p28 "Catholics were prostrate in despair."

[30] Cobban p102 "do something for Ireland"

[31] Ayling p100 Lord Acton's quote'

[32] Cobban p102 "Catholic emancipation-dearest to his heart"

[33] Ayling p108 George III-abdication"

[34] Ayling p110 134 civil jobs eliminated

[35] Ayling p111 Paymaster General-4000 lbs. a year

[36] Kirk p150 letter from Charles de Pont.

[37] Bevan pi "mortal ideological enemies"

[38] Morley p96 "fanatics, atheists and theorizers"

[39] Kirk p151-2 "Tories Portland Whigs and others"

[40] Kirk p151 "a very good book."

[41] Paine, Thomas The Rights of Man Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis 1992 (1791) p22

[42] Burke, Edmund Reflections on the Revolution in France Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis 1987 p66 "But the age of chivalry is gone"

[43] Lord Percy of Newcastle The Heresy of Democracy London 1954 p188.

[44] Kirk p148-149