Edmund Burke

Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1774

12 January 1729 in Dublin, Ireland
9 July 1797 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England

  • A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757
  • Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

Edmund Burk, British statesman and political writer, was born on 12 January 1729 in Dublin, Ireland. There have been many more important statesmen, for he was never tried in a position of supreme responsibility. There have been many more effective orators, for lack of imaginative suppleness prevented him from penetrating to the inner mind of his hearers; defects in delivery weakened the intrinsic persuasiveness of his reasoning; and he had not that commanding authority of character and personality which has so often been the secret of triumphant eloquence. There have been many subtler, more original, and more systematic thinkers about the conditions of the social union. But no one used the general ideas of the thinker more successfully to judge the particular problems of the statesman. No one has ever come so close to the details of practical politics and at the same time remembered that these can only be understood and only dealt with by the aid of the broad conceptions of political philosophy. And what is more than all for perpetuity of fame, he was one of the great masters of the high and difficult art of elaborate composition.

Early Years in Dublin

Of his family we know little more than that his father was a Protestant attorney, practicing in Dublin, and that his mother was a Catholic, a member of the family of Nagle. He had at least one sister, from whom descended the only existing representatives of Burke’s family; and he had at least two brothers, Garret Burke — who was older, and Richard Burke — who was younger. His sister, afterwards Mrs. French, was brought up and remained throughout life in the religious faith of her mother; Edmund and his brothers followed that of their father.

In 1741 the three brothers were sent to school at Ballitore in the county of Kildare, kept by Abraham Shackleton, an Englishman and a member of the Society of Friends. He appears to have been an excellent teacher and a good and pious man. Burke always looked back on his own connection with the school at Ballitore as among the most fortunate circumstances of his life. Between himself and a son of his instructor there sprang up a close and affectionate friendship. Richard Shackleton was endowed with a grave, pure, and tranquil nature, constant and austere, yet not without those gentle elements that often redeem the drier qualities of his religious persuasion. When Burke had become one of the most famous men in Europe, no visitor to his house was more welcome than the friend with whom long years before he had tried poetic flights and exchanged all the sanguine confidences of boyhood.

In 1743 Burke became a student at Trinity College, Dublin, where Oliver Goldsmith was a student at the same time. Like Goldsmith, Burke achieved no academic distinction. His character was not of the academic cast. The minor accuracies, the limitation of range, the treading and re-treading of the same small patch of ground, the concentration of interest in success before a board of examiners, were all uncongenial to a nature of exuberant intellectual curiosity and of strenuous and self-reliant originality. His knowledge of Greek and Latin was never thorough, nor had he any turn for critical niceties. He could quote Homer and Pindar; he had read Aristotle. Like others who have gone through the conventional course of instruction, he kept a place in his memory for the various charms of Virgil and Horace, of Tacitus and Ovid; but the master he turned with devout hand, was the copious, energetic, flexible, diversified and brilliant genius of the declamations for Archias the poet and for Milo, against Catiline and against Antony, the author of the disputations at Tusculum and the orations against Verres. Cicero was ever to him the mightiest of the ancient names. In English literature Milton seems to have been more familiar to him than Shakespeare, and Spenser was perhaps more of a favorite with him than either. He left Trinity in 1748, with no great stock of well-ordered knowledge. He neither derived the benefits nor suffered the drawbacks of systematic intellectual discipline.

After taking his degree at Dublin he went to London to keep terms at the Temple (1750). The 10 years that followed were passed in obscure industry. Like a great many other youths with an eminent destiny before them, Burke conceived a strong distaste for the profession of the law. His father, who was an attorney of substance, had a distaste still stronger for so vagrant a profession as being a man of letters. He withdrew the annual allowance, and Burke set to work to win for himself by indefatigable industry and capability in the public interest that position of power or pre-eminence which his detractors acquired either by accident of birth and connection or else by the vile arts of political intrigue. He began at the bottom of the ladder, mixing with the Bohemian society that haunted the Temple, practicing oratory in the free and easy debating societies of Covent Garden and the Strand, and writing for the booksellers.

Early Publications

In 1756 Burke published the Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, a narrow performance in many respects, yet marked by an independent use of the writer’s mind, and not without fertile suggestion. It attracted the attention of the rising aesthetic school in Germany. Lessing set about the translation and annotation of it, and Moses Mendelssohn borrowed from Burke’s speculation at least one of the most fruitful and important ideas of his own influential theories on the sentiments. In England the Inquiry had considerable vogue, but it has left no permanent trace in the development of aesthetic thought.

He began a series of Hints on the Drama. He wrote a portion of an Abridgment of the History of England, and brought it down as far as the reign of John. It included, as was natural enough in a warm admirer of Montesquieu, a fragment on law, of which he justly said that it ought to be the leading science in every well-ordered commonwealth. Burke’s early interest in America was shown by an Account of the European Settlements on that continent. Such works were evidently a sign that his mind was turning away from abstract speculation to the great political and economic fields, and to the more visible conditions of social stability and the growth of nations.

This interest in the concrete phenomena of society inspired him with the idea of the Annual Register (1759), in which he designed to present a broad grouping of the chief movements of each year. The execution was as excellent as the conception, and if we reflect that it was begun in the midst of the Seven Years’ War — which raised England to her climax of territorial greatness — we may easily realize how the task of describing these portentous and far-reaching events would be likely to strengthen Burke’s habits of wide and laborious observation, as well as to give him firmness and confidence in the exercise of his own judgment.

He received £100 for each annual volume, and the sum was welcome enough, for towards the end of 1756 Burke had married. His wife was Jane Mary Nugent, whose father was a physician at Bath. She is always spoken of by his friends as a mild, reasonable, and obliging person, whose amiability and gentle sense did much to soothe the too nervous and excitable temperament of her husband. She had been brought up, there is good reason to believe, as a Catholic, and she was probably a member of that communion at the time of her marriage. Dr. Nugent eventually took up residence with his son-in-law in London and became a popular member of that famous group of men of letters and artists whom James Boswell made so familiar.

Introduction to Politics

Burke, however, had no intention of being dependent. His consciousness of his own powers animated him with a most justifiable ambition to play a part in the conduct of national affairs. Friends shared this ambition on his behalf. One of these was Lord Charlemont. He introduced Burke to William Gerard Hamilton (1759). By no means devoid of sense and acuteness, Hamilton was nevertheless one of the most despicable men then alive. There is not a word too many nor too strong in the description of him by one of Burke’s friends, as a sullen, vain, proud, selfish, cankered-hearted, envious reptile. The reptile’s connection, however, was for a time of considerable use to Burke. When he was made Irish Secretary, Burke accompanied him to Dublin, and there learned the eternal lesson that awaits all who penetrate behind the scenes of government, with how little wisdom the world is governed.

When Hamilton retired from his post, Burke accompanied him back to London, with a pension of £300 a year on the Irish Establishment. This modest allowance he hardly enjoyed for more than a single year. His patron having discovered the value of so laborious and powerful a subaltern, wished to bind Burke permanently to his service. Burke declined to sell himself into final bondage of this kind. And when Hamilton continued to press his odious pretensions, they quarreled and Burke gave up his pension (1765).

He soon received a more important piece of preferment than any which he could ever have procured through Hamilton.

Accession of King George III

The accession of George III to the throne in 1760 had been followed by the disgrace of Secretary of State William Pitt, the dismissal of Prime Minister Newcastle, and the rise of Secretary of State Bute. These events marked the resolution of the court to change the political system which had been created by the Revolution of 1688. That system placed the government of the country in the hands of a territorial oligarchy, composed of a few families of large possessions, fairly enlightened principles, and shrewd political sense.

It had been preserved by the existence of a Pretender. The two first kings of the house of Hanover could only keep the crown on their own heads by conciliating the Revolution families and accepting Revolution principles. But by 1760 all peril to the dynasty was at an end. King George III, or those about him, insisted on substituting for the aristocratic division of political power a substantial concentration of it in the hands of the sovereign. The ministers were no longer to be the members of a great party, acting together in pursuance of a common policy accepted by them all as a united body; they were to become nominees of the court, each holding himself answerable not to his colleagues but to the King — separately, individually and by department. George III had before him the example of the government of his cousin the Frederick the Great. But not everyone can bend the bow of Ulysses. Apart from difference of personal capacity and historic tradition, he forgot that a territorial and commercial aristocracy cannot be dealt with in the spirit of the barrack and the drill-ground. But he made the attempt — entering Parliament in 1765 — and resistance to that attempt supplies the keynote to the first 25 years of Burke’s political life.

In 1769, Burke bought an estate at Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckingham. It was about 600 acres in extent, was worth some £500 a year, and cost £22,000. How could a man of Burke’s income afford such a place? He had inherited a small property from his elder brother, and in addition, Lord Rockingham advanced him £6000. The remainder, amounting to no less than two-thirds of the purchase-money, was raised on mortgage, and was never paid off during Burke’s lifetime. Burke made some of income out of his 600 acres and he was for a short time agent for New York with a salary of £700. And he continued to edit the Annual Register down to 1788. But, when all is told, he never made as much as he spent; and despite considerable assistance from Lord Rockingham — totaling to as much as £30,000 — Burke got every year deeper into debt.

Though assiduous and orderly, without any of the vices of profusion, Burke nonetheless had that quality which Aristotle places high among the virtues — the noble mean of magnificence, standing midway between the two extremes of vulgar ostentation and narrow pettiness. He was indifferent to luxury, and sought to make life, not commodious nor soft, but high and dignified in a refined way. He loved art, filled his house with statues and pictures, and extended a generous patronage to the painters. He was a collector of books and a helpful friend to their writers. Guests were ever welcome at his board; the opulence of his mind and the fervid copiousness of his talk naturally made the guests of such a man very numerous. Non invideo equidem, miror magis was Samuel Johnson’s good-natured remark — I do not envy, rather I marvel — when he was taken over to his friend’s fine house and pleasant gardens. There was no corruption in Burke’s outlay. The most we can say is that Burke was too deeply absorbed in beneficent service in the affairs of his country to have for his own affairs the solicitude that would have been prudent.

In the midst of intense political preoccupations, Burke always found time to keep up his intimacy with the brilliant group of his earlier friends. He was one of the commanding figures at the club at the Turk’s Head, along with Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. The old sage who held that the first Whig was the Devil, was yet compelled to forgive Burke’s politics for the sake of his magnificent gifts. I would not talk to him of the Rockingham party, he used to say, but I love his knowledge, his genius, his diffusion and affluence of conversation. And Johnson gave this vivid account:

Burke, Sir, is such a man that if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner that when you parted you would say, This is an extraordinary man.

They all grieved that public business should draw to party what was meant for mankind. They deplored that the nice and difficult test of answering Berkeley had not been undertaken, — as was once intended — by Burke, and sighed to think what an admirable display of subtlety and brilliance such a contention would have afforded them, had not politics turned him from active philosophy aside.

There was no jealousy in this. They did not grudge Burke being the first man in the House of Commons, for they admitted that he would have been the first man anywhere.

Burke’s Prose Style

Burke showed that books are a better preparation for statesmanship than early training in the subordinate posts and among the permanent officials of a public department. The influence of literature on Burke lay partly in the direction of emancipation from the mechanical formulae of practical politics; partly in the association which it engendered, in a powerful understanding like his, between politics and the moral forces of the world, and between political maxims and the old and great sentences of morals; partly in drawing him, even when resting his case on prudence and expediency, to appeal to the widest and highest sympathies; partly, and more than all, in opening his thoughts to the many conditions, possibilities and varieties of untried being, in human character and situation, and so giving an incomparable flexibility to his methods of political approach.

This flexibility is not to be found in his manner of composition. That derives its immense power from other sources — from passion, intensity, imagination, size, truth, cogency of logical reason. Those who insist on charm, on winningness in style, on subtle harmonies and fine exquisiteness of suggestion, are disappointed in Burke; they even find him stiff and over-colored. And there are blemishes of this kind. His banter is nearly always ungainly, his wit blunt (as Johnson said) and often unseasonable. As is usual with a man who has not true humor, Burke is also without true pathos. The thought of wrong or misery moved him less to pity for the victim than to anger against the cause. Again, there are some gratuitous and unredeemed vulgarities; some images that make us shudder. But only a literary fop can be detained by specks like these.

In all its varieties Burke’s style is noble, earnest, deep-flowing, because his sentiment was lofty and fervid, and went with sincerity and ardent disciplined travail of judgment. He had the style of his subjects; the amplitude, the weightiness, the laboriousness, the sense, the high flight, the grandeur, proper to a man dealing with imperial themes, with the fortunes of great societies, with the sacredness of law, the freedom of nations, the justice of rulers. Burke will always be read with delight and edification, because in discussions on the local and the accidental, he scatters apothegms that take us into the regions of lasting wisdom. In the middle of the torrent of his most strenuous and passionate deliverances, he suddenly rises aloof from his immediate subject, and in all tranquility reminds us of some permanent relation of things, some enduring truth of human life or human society. Burke is among the greatest of those who have wrought marvels in the prose of our English tongue.

On the American Revolution

In the events which ended in the emancipation of the American colonies from the monarchy, Burke’s political genius shone. And it is instructive to compare the foundation of all his pleas for the colonists with that on which they erected their own theoretic Declaration of Independence. The American leaders were impregnated with the metaphysical ideas of rights which had come to them from the rising revolutionary school in France. Burke no more adopted the doctrines of Jefferson in 1776 than he adopted the doctrines of Robespierre in 1793. He says nothing about men being born free and equal, and on the other hand he never denies the position of the court and the country at large, that the home legislature, being sovereign, had the right to tax the colonies. What he does say is that the exercise of such a right was not practicable; that if it were practicable, it was inexpedient; and that, even if this had not been inexpedient, yet, after the colonies had taken to arms, to crush their resistance by military force would not be more disastrous to them than it would be unfortunate for the ancient liberties of Great Britain.

Into abstract discussion he would not enter. Show the thing you contend for to be reason; show it to be common sense; show it to be the means of attaining some useful end. The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy. There is no difference in social spirit and doctrine between his protests against the maxims of the English common people as to the colonists, and his protests against the maxims of the French common people as to the court and the nobles; and it is impossible to find a single principle either asserted or implied in the speeches on the American Revolution which was afterwards repudiated in the writings on the revolution in France.

It is one of the signs of Burke’s singular and varied eminence that hardly any two people agree precisely which of his works to mark as the masterpiece. Every speech or tract that he composed on a great subject becomes, as we read it, the rival of every other. But the Speech on Conciliation (1775) has, perhaps, been more universally admired than any of his other productions, partly because its maxims are of a simpler and less disputable kind than those which adorn the pieces on France, and partly because it is most strongly characterized by that deep ethical quality which is the prime secret of Burke’s great style and literary mastery. In this speech, moreover, and in the only less powerful one of the preceding year upon American taxation, we see the all-important truth conspicuously illustrated that half of his eloquence always comes of the thoroughness with which he gets up his case. No eminent man has ever done more than Burke to justify the definition of genius as the consummation of the faculty of taking pains. His writing is magnificent because he knew so much, thought so comprehensively, and felt so strongly.

The succession of failures in America, culminating in Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown (19 October 1781), wearied the nation, and at length the persistent and powerful attacks of the opposition began to tell. At this time, wrote Burke thirteen years afterwards, having a momentary lead (1780—82), so aided and so encouraged, and as a feeble instrument in a mighty hand — I do not say I saved my country — I am sure I did my country important service. There were few indeed at that time that did not acknowledge it. It was but one voice, that no man in the kingdom better deserved an honorable provision should be made for him.

In the spring of 1782 Prime Minister Lord North resigned. It seemed as if the court system which Burke had been denouncing for a dozen years was now finally broken, and as if the party which he had been the chief instrument in instructing, directing, and keeping together must now inevitably possess power for many years to come. Yet in a few months the whole fabric had fallen, and the Whigs were thrown into opposition for the rest of the century.

For the remainder of his parliamentary life, until 1794, Burke sat for Malton, a pocket borough first of Lord Rockingham’s, then of Lord Fitzwilliam’s.

French Revolution and Reflections

Burke was more than 60 years old when the Estates-General met at Versailles in the spring of 1789. He had taken a prominent part on the side of freedom in the revolution which stripped England of her empire in the West. He had taken a prominent part on the side of justice, humanity, and order in dealing with the revolution, which had brought to England a new empire in the East. The same vehement passion for freedom, justice, humanity, and order was roused in him at a very early stage of the third great revolution in his history — the revolution which overthrew the old monarchy in France.

From the first, Burke looked on the events of 1789 with doubt and misgivings. He had been in France in 1773, where he had not only the famous vision of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor and joy, but had also supped and discussed with some of the encyclopedists — the sophisters, economists and calculators. His first speech (17 March 1773) on his return to England was a warning that the props of good government were beginning to fail under the systematic attacks of unbelievers, and that principles were being propagated that would not leave to civil society any stability. The apprehension never died out in his mind; and when he knew that the principles and abstractions of his former acquaintances were predominant in the National Assembly, his suspicion that the movement would end in disastrous miscarriage became for him a certainty.

The scene grew still more sinister in his eyes after the march of the mob from Paris to Versailles in October 1789, and the violent transport of the King and Queen from Versailles to Paris. And this anger and disgust were exasperated by the dread with which certain proceedings in England had inspired him, that the aims, principles, methods, and language which he so misdoubted or abhorred in France were likely to infect the people of Great Britain.

In November 1790, London, which had long been eagerly expecting a manifesto from Burke’s pen, was electrified by the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event. The book was seized as the expression of that new current of opinion in Europe which the more recent events of the Revolution had slowly set flowing. Its vogue was instant and enormous. Eleven editions were exhausted in little more than a year, and there is probably not much exaggeration in the estimate that 30,000 copies were sold before Burke’s death seven years later. George III was delighted; Stanislaus of Poland sent Burke words of thanks and high glorification and a gold medal. Catherine of Russia, the friend of Voltaire and the benefactress of Diderot, sent her congratulations to the man who denounced French philosophes as miscreants and wretches.

To discuss Burke’s writings on the Revolution would be to write first a volume upon the abstract theory of society, and then a second volume on the history of France. But here we may make one or two remarks.

Burke’s conservatism was the result partly of strong imaginative associations clustering round the more imposing symbols of social continuity, partly of a sort of corresponding conviction in his reason that there are certain permanent elements of human nature out of which the European order had risen and which that order satisfied, and of whose immense merits, as of its mighty strength, the revolutionary party in France were most fatally ignorant. One of the most common charges against Burke was that he allowed his imagination and pity to be touched only by the sorrows of kings and queens — and forgot the thousands of oppressed and famine-stricken toilers of the land.

Though this is a very terse way of putting a crucial objection to Burke’s whole view of French affairs in 1789, his answer was tolerably simple. The Revolution, though it had made an end of the Bastille, did not bring the only real practical liberty — the liberty which comes with settled courts of justice, administering settled laws, undisturbed by popular fury, independent of everything but law, and with a clear law for their direction. The people, he contended, were no worse off under the old monarchy than they will be in the long run under assemblies that are bound by the necessity of feeding one part of the community at the grievous charge of other parts., as necessitous as those who are so fed; that are obliged to flatter those who have their lives at their disposal by tolerating acts of doubtful influence on commerce and agriculture, and for the sake of precarious relief to sow the seeds of lasting want; that will be driven to be the instruments of the violence of others from a sense of their own weakness, and, by want of authority to assess equal and proportioned charges upon all, will be compelled to lay a strong hand upon the possessions of a part. As against the moderate section of the Constituent Assembly this was just.

One secret of Burke’s views of the Revolution was the contempt which he had conceived for the popular leaders in the earlier stages of the movement. Despite much excellence of intention, much heroism, much energy, it is hardly to be denied that the leaders whom that movement brought to the surface were almost without exception men of the poorest political capacity. Danton, no doubt, was abler than most of the others, yet the timidity or temerity with which he allowed himself to be vanquished by Robespierre showed that even he was not a man of commanding quality. The spectacle of men so rash, and so incapable of controlling the forces which they seemed to have presumptuously summoned, excited in Burke both indignation and contempt. And the leaders of the Constituent who came first on the stage and hoped to make a revolution with rose water, and hardly realized any more than Burke did how rotten was the structure which they had undertaken to build up, almost deserved his contempt, even if, as is certainly true, they did not deserve his indignation.

It was only by revolutionary methods, which are in their essence and for a time as arbitrary as despotic methods, that the knot could be cut. Burke’s vital error was his inability to see that a root and branch revolution was, under the conditions, inevitable. His cardinal position, from which he deduced so many important conclusions, namely, that, the parts and organs of the old constitution of France were sound, and only needed moderate invigoration, is absolutely mistaken and untenable. There was not a single chamber in the old fabric that was not crumbling and tottering. The court was frivolous, vacillating, stone-deaf and stone-blind; the gentry were amiable, but distinctly bent to the very last on holding to their privileges, and they were wholly devoid both of the political experience that only comes of practical responsibility for public affairs, and of the political sagacity that only comes of political experience. The parliaments or tribunals were nests of faction and of the deepest social incompetence. The very sword of the state broke short in the King’s hand.

Granted that the Revolution was inevitable and indispensable, how was the British nation and surrounding nations to make the best of it? This was the true point of view. But Burke never placed himself at such a point. He never conceded the postulate, because, though he knew France better than nearly everyone in England, he did not know its condition well enough. Alas! he said, they little know how many a weary step is to be taken before they can form themselves into a mass which has a true political personality.

Last Years

In the summer of 1794 Burke received a blow from which he never recovered. His whole being had been wrapped up in his only son, Richard age 36, of whose abilities he had the most extravagant estimate and hope. In 1794 Richard Burke was elected in his father’s place at Malton. Meanwhile the King was bent on making the champion of the old order of Europe a peer. His title was to be Lord Beaconsfield, and the design was to annex to the title an income for three lives. The patent was being made ready, when all was stopped by the sudden death of his son. The old man’s grief was agonizing and inconsolable.

The storm has gone over me, and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honors; I am torn up by the roots and lie prostrate on the earth.... I am alone. I have none to meet my enemies in the gate.... I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me have gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.

A pension of £2,500 was all that Burke could now be persuaded to accept.

Three years later Burke died on 9 July 1797. Some proposed that there should be a public funeral and that the body should lie among the illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey. Burke, however, had left strict injunctions that his burial should be private; and he was laid in the little church at Beaconsfield.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.


The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Willson Peale’s exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of the mastodon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth in his celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized exhumation in American history. Peale’s discovery electrified the country and put the word mammoth on everybody’s lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of mammoth bread. In Washington a mammoth eater ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes. And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a mammoth cheese, six feet in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)