Authors: Edmund Burke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish-born British politician, philosopher, and political theorist.

January 12, 1729

Dublin, Ireland

July 9, 1797

Beaconsfield, England

Biography

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin on January 12, 1729, the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He was schooled by Abraham Shackleton, a Quaker, who became his lifelong friend. Burke spent five years as a mediocre student at Trinity College, Dublin, before going to London in 1750 to study law. He never passed the bar, and after his allowance was cut off, he did hack writing for a living; his Vindication of Natural Society (1756), a satire on Lord Bolingbroke, shows the cast of his political thought in this early period. In 1756, he married a daughter of Dr. Nugent of Bath; his father-in-law settled with Burke in London and introduced him to “single-speech” W. G. Hamilton, a member of Parliament who became Irish secretary and took Burke with him to Dublin, thus beginning the young man’s public career.

Edmund Burke.

By studio of Joshua Reynolds, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1758 Burke founded the Annual Register, a reference work of political and economic matters, with which he was associated until 1788. In 1765, he entered the House of Commons, where he remained for twenty-nine years, never becoming a minister and always opposing the ministries of George III. He fought for such causes as the abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation in Ireland, and the prosecution of the corrupt exploiters of India, especially Warren Hastings. He was particularly embittered when the fourteen-year-long trial of the latter ended in acquittal.

Burke's Speech . . . on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, both delivered and published in 1775, is perhaps the most widely admired of his works. Burke sympathized with the colonists, not out of love for the ideals of the Enlightenment, but because he believed that colonists were merely defending their rights stemming from the English constitution.

Burke, however, had a much different view of the French Revolution. After it broke out, Burke wrote his now-famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), partly in reaction against the Reverend Richard Price, a nonconformist minister who had dared to compare the political events in France with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Burke, incensed because the leaders of the French Revolution were mercurial and arrogant, was such a profound believer in firm, stable, and responsible government that he could not fathom the depth of the French reaction against the thoroughly corrupt ancien régime.

Burke’s convictions were always passionate yet carefully reasoned; he distrusted a priori theorists of the political left and right, and he believed that government was an organic evolution of centuries-long traditions and institutions, not to be tampered with or repaired like a machine. Though he was a poor orator (it is said that whenever he rose, the members of the House went out to dinner), his speeches were widely read, admired, and discussed for their vigorous prose and political philosophy. When he died at Beaconsfield on July 9, 1797, three years after his son succeeded him in Parliament, his most implacable foe, Charles James Fox, urged a public funeral in Westminster Abbey, but Burke’s wish was to be buried privately on his estate at Beaconsfield. His life and work have become inextricably woven into the major strands of British political theory and history.

Author Works Nonfiction: A Vindication of Natural Society; or, A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind from Every Species of Artificial Society, 1756 An Account of the European Settlements in America, 1757 (2 volumes; with William Burke) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757 An Essay towards an Abridgement of the English History, wr. ca. 1757–62 (unfinished) Observations on a Late State of the Nation, 1769 Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770 Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. on American Taxation, April 19, 1774, 1775 (book) Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775, 1775 A Letter from Edmund Burke, Esq., One of the Representatives in Parliament for the City of Bristol, to John Farr and John Harris, Esqrs., Sheriffs of That City, on the Affairs of America, 1777 Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq., Member of Parliament for the City of Bristol, on Presenting to the House of Commons (on the 11th of February, 1780) a Plan for the Better Security of the Independence of Parliament, and the Oeconomical Reformation of the Civil and Other Establishments, 1780 A Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. at the Guildhall, in Bristol, Previous to the Late Election in That City, upon Certain Points Relative to His Parliamentary Conduct, 1780 Mr. Burke’s Speech, on the 1st of December 1783, upon the Question for the Speaker’s Leaving the Chair, in Order for the House to Resolve Itself into a Committee on Mr. Fox’s East India Bill, 1784 Mr. Burke’s Speech, on the Motion Made for Papers Relative to the Directions for Charging the Nabob of Arcot’s Private Debts to the Europeans, on the Revenues of the Carnatic, February 28th, 1785, 1785 Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event, 1790 An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in Consequence of Some Late Discussions in Parliament, Relative to the Reflections on the French Revolution, 1791 A Letter from Mr. Burke, to a Member of the National Assembly, in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs, 1791 A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, MP, in the Kingdom of Great Britain, to Sir Hercules Langrishe, Bart. MP, on the Subject of Roman Catholics in Ireland, and the Propriety of Admitting Them to the Elective Franchise, Consistently with the Principles of the Constitution as Established at the Revolution, 1792 The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 1792–1827 (8 volumes) A Letter from the Right Honourable Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord, on the Attacks Made upon Him and His Pension, in the House of Lords, by the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, Early in the Present Sessions of Parliament, 1796 Two Letters Addressed to a Member of the Present Parliament, on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France, 1796 Three Memorials on French Affairs: Written in the Years 1791, 1792 and 1793, 1797 The Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund burke on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings, to Which Is Added a Selection of Burke's Epistolary Correspondence, 1857 (2 volumes; also known as Burke's Speeches and Correspondence and Speeches in the Impeachment of Warren Hastings) Burke: Select Works, 1874–78 (4 volumes; E. J. Payne, editor) Letters, Speeches and Tracts on Irish Affairs, 1881 (Matthew Arnold, editor) Letters of Edmund Burke: A Selection, 1922 (Harold J. Laski, editor) Selected Prose, 1948 (Philip Magnus, editor) Burke's Politics: Selected Writings and Speeches on Reform, Revolution and War, 1949 (Ross J. S. Hoffman and Paul Levack, editors) The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, 1958–78 (10 volumes) The Philosophy of Edmund Burke: A Selection from His Speeches and Writings, 1960 (Louis I. Bredvold and Ralph G. Ross, editors) Selected Works, 1960 (W. J. Bate, editor) Selected Writings and Speeches, 1963 (Peter J. Stanlis, editor) Selected Writings and Speeches on America, 1964 (Thomas H. D. Mahoney, editor) Edmund Burke on Revolution, 1968 (Robert A. Smith, editor) Edmund Burke on Indian Economy, 1969 (Sunil Kumar Sen, editor) Edmund Burke on Government, Politics, and Society, 1975 (B. W. Hill, editor) On Conciliation with the Colonies, and Other Papers on the American Revolution, 1975 (Peter J. Stanlis, editor) Selected Letters of Edmund Burke, 1984 (Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., editor) Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1992 (Daniel E. Ritchie, editor) Pre-Revolutionary Writings, 1993 (Ian Harris, editor) Empire and Community: Edmund Burke’s Writings and Speeches on International Relations, 1999 (David P. Fidler and Jennifer M. Welsh, editors) The Portable Edmund Burke, 1999 (Isaac Kramnick, editor) On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters, 2000 (David Bromwich, editor) Edmund Burke on Irish Affairs, 2002 (Regina Janes, editor) Edited Text: The Annual Register, 1758–88 Bibliography Ayling, Stanley. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A comprehensive account of Burke’s life and career. Blakemore, Steven, editor. Burke and the French Revolution: Bicentennial Essays. U of Georgia P, 1992. Six essays written for the bicentennial. Cowie, Leonard W. Edmund Burke, 1729–1797: A Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1994. A bibliography of Burke’s life and career. Includes a biographical essay and chronology. Provides a complete list of his writings, as well as books and articles about him. Kirk, Russell. Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Rev. and updated ed., Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1997. An introduction to the life and politics of Burke. More of a political biography than a general biography. Very readable. Lock, F. P. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Allen & Unwin, 1985. In addition to offering authoritative commentary, carefully explains the sequence of events that led up to Burke’s response. Mitchell, L. G. Introduction. Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke, edited by Mitchell, Oxford UP, 1993, pp. vii–xix. A concise and informative introduction to one of the most readily available paperback editions of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. O’Brien, Conor Cruise. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. U of Chicago P, 1992. A nontraditional profile that is a mixture of personal biography, intellectual biography, and annotated anthology.

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