Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish-born British politician, philosopher, and political theorist.
January 12, 1729
July 9, 1797
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.
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.