A Blupete Biography Page

Edmund Burke

Burke was the son of a Dublin attorney.1 In 1750, he entered the Middle Temple, London, but Burke soon abandoned law for literary work. In 1756 he published, anonymously, A Vindication of Natural Society. In 1765 he became the private secretary to Marquis of Rockingham, who at that time, but only for a year thereafter, was premier. Burke soon entered parliament, as a Whig,2 through a pocket borough, Wendover. During most of his years as a parliamentarian, Burke was to sit in the opposition benches as a critic to the ruling Tories. These were times of great historical importance, marked by the unsuccessful coercion of the American colonies. The event, which was to unfold over a number of years, was, accompanied by corruption, extravagance, and reaction. Against this, Burke and his Whig friends could only raise a strong protest. "The best of Burke's writings and speeches belong to this period, and may be described as a defence of sound constitutional statesmanship against prevailing abuse and misgovernment."3 After the British colonies were lost, still yet in opposition, Burke turned his great talents in the support of the Irish cause, viz., to eliminate trade restrictions and the laws which then existed against Catholics.

Chambers' observed that Burke "never systematized his political philosophy" and that there were "inconsistencies" in his writings and speeches.4 This maybe so, and if so, then is was because of Burke's passion and love of order. Liberty is an essential right -- and, Burke was for liberty; but, "a liberty connected with order." Tranquility was the greatest state for man, one which according to Burke was a normal state, which was to be preserved.5 Having a profound veneration for the accumulated wisdom of centuries of experience, Burke held that the bounds of liberty should be enlarged with great caution and very gradually. Burke was especially concerned with the political movements of his day: the king's party (Tory) or the people's party (Whig): the one attacking liberty; the other attacking order.

Because Burke was against hasty reform, it should be no surprise, to find out that the reformers of the early 19th century were only too happy to cut Burke up, if they could. Hazlitt, if he is to be put in a camp, was a reformer, however, Hazlitt did admire Burke; he thought him to be "an admirable reasoner and a close observer of human nature."6

"He did not agree with some writers, that mode of government is necessarily the best which is the cheapest. ... He took his idea of political society from the pattern of private life, wishing, as he himself expresses it, to incorporate the domestic charities with the orders of the state, and to blend them together. He strove to establish an analogy between the compact that binds together the community at large, and that [habit] which binds together the several families that compose it."
Hazlitt continued:
"... that it is no objection to an institution, that it is founded in prejudice, but the contrary, if that prejudice is natural and right... On this profound maxim he took his stand. Thus he [Burke] contended, that the prejudice in favour of nobility was natural and proper. ... The inequality of the different orders of society did not destroy the unity and harmony of the whole. The health and well-being of the moral world was to be promoted by the same means as the beauty of the natural world; by contrast, by change, by light and shade, by variety of parts, by order and proportion. To think of reducing all mankind to the same insipid level, seemed to him the same absurdity as to destroy the inequalities of surface in a country, for the benefit of agriculture and commerce." (Hazlitt's Political Essays.)
Hazlitt then proceeded to write that Burke's arguments were "profound and true," but they did not go far enough. Hazlitt, for example, thought that Burke misrepresented history. In his, Burke's, effort to embolden the evils of the French Revolution "represented the French priests and nobles under the old regime as excellent moral people, very charitable and very religious" -- this "in the teeth of notorious facts." To Hazlitt there were abuses in the old system, and, for that matter, there were to be abuses in a reformed system as there are in every possible system. I suppose -- as an editorial aside -- it is a matter (assuming that such can be done, or that larger forces at work should ever allow such a thing), of picking a system which contains the least disruptive abuses.

Burke knew that what was necessary was to sell his thoughts to the people (and thus to the parliamentarians), and to do so in a practical manner.7 He did not expound on the learned theories concerning human nature and of government. His thoughts on these subjects were more poetic in nature, for instance, take his idea of nation as was described by the historian, John Richard Green:

"A nation was to him a great living society, so complex in its relations, and whose institutions were so interwoven with glorious events in the past, that to touch it rudely was a sacrilege. Its constitution was no artificial scheme of government, but an exquisite balance of social forces which was itself a natural outcome of its history and development. ... To touch even an anomaly seemed to Burke to be risking the ruin of a complex structure of national order which it had cost centuries to build up."8
Burke thought that only madmen and pedants would disturb this beautiful naturally evolved society as, he conceived, existed in England during the latter half of the 18th century. Green continued to describe Burke's views:
"What statesman had to do was to take this structure as it was, and by cautious and delicate adjustment to accommodate from time to time its general shape and the relations of its various parts to the varying circumstances of their natural development."9
What was desired in society was stability and we need to do that which is necessary to achieve that goal and to avoid that which would bring on discord. In his Speech, On Conciliation with the American Colonies, he said: "I am resolved this day to have nothing to do with the right of taxation ... my consideration is narrow, and wholly limited to the policy of the question." Edmund Burke was a pragmatic and practical man. Yet, when his feelings were stirred, he would put on a splendid oratorical display, as was evidenced on the impeachment of Warren Hastings or when he furiously denounced the French Revolution. In the final analysis, though he was both excessive and inconsistent at times, there can be no question as to the place of Burke's sympathies, they had always been with those who were suffering misfortune, or injustice.


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Peter Landry
2011 (2019)