Key thinker: Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland. Burke studied law at Trinity College, Dublin before moving to England in 1750 to study at the Middle Temple and qualify for the Bar (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman). However, Burke soon lost interest in his legal studies and decided to instead devote himself to a literary and political career (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/burke_edmund.shtml). In the following years, Burke published A Vindication of Natural Society, a critique of revealed religion and Romantic ideas about a ‘return to nature’, and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which gained him a reputation in Europe and was read widely by prominent thinkers like Immanuel Kant (see Chapter 29 on Immanuel Kant), G.E. Lessing, and Denis Diderot. In 1758, Burke was appointed as the editor of the Annual Register, a collection of writing on major political events interspersed with poetry, essays, and sensational news stories (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman).
But while his talents had secured him a place among London’s literary and philosophical elite, Burke had political ambitions that required the support of powerful patrons. In 1765, Burke secured a position as private secretary to the Whig politician Marquis of Rockingham (see Key Concept: The Whigs), who had recently become the First Lord of the Treasury. That same year, Burke was elected to the House of Commons, where he remained, with a brief intermission in 1780, until 1794 (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/burke/). Burke became famous for his speeches in the Commons, some of which were published as American Taxation (1774), Conciliation with America (1775), and Fox’s East India Bill (1783). He was a strong advocate for restraining monarchical power and argued for a conciliatory approach to the American War of independence (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/burke_edmund.shtml).
Burke’s position on the French Revolution of 1789 and his advocacy for a change in colonial policy in India often put him at odds with Parliamentary colleagues. In the 1780s, Burke was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to impeach Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of Bengal (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v36/n16/ferdinand-mount/no-theatricks). In the final years of his life, Burke became increasingly embittered and withdrew himself from politics. He nonetheless continued to write and defend himself from critics (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/burke_edmund.shtml). Edmund Burke died on 9 July 1797. He was 68 years old.
Burke is considered one of the founders of the British conservative tradition. Scholars have long tried to reconcile Burke’s liberal ideas with his conservative social outlook, or his early support for the American Revolution with his later opposition to the French Revolution (see 17.1. Introduction). Early commentators like Mary Wollstonecraft (see Chapter 21 on Marx Wollstonecraft), Thomas Paine (see Key Thinker: Thomas Paine), or Catharine Macaulay (see 17.2. Catherine Macaulay) already noted such contradictions in Burke’s thought. There is still some debate as to whether Burke should be considered a conservative thinker or a polemicist whose thought had no strong foundations (see 17.3. Edmund Burke). But while Burke was not a particularly systematic thinker, his writing and speeches do point towards a more conservative political outlook (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/burke/).
In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), one of Burke’s most famous conservative texts, he argued that existing practices, however imperfect, were preferable to radical or revolutionary change of the kind that was happening across the Channel (see 17.3. Edmund Burke Key Points). Burke was a convinced reformist, who believed that gradual changes could ultimately remedy defects in existing governments. Burke argues that a society’s traditions and institutions incorporate and preserve centuries worth of experience and knowledge. Therefore, we should not be too rash in tampering with them or calling for their abolition. Burke’s twin principles of ‘conservation’ and ‘correction’ (see 17.3.1. Conservation and Correction) posit that institutions can be regenerated while preserving their constitutive parts.
Whereas the American Revolution had been an internal correction of liberty and stability within a civilization, the French Revolution had decided to do away with it altogether. For Burke, who had predicted its violent effects, the French Revolution represented an irreversible destruction of tradition and civilization (see 17.3. Edmund Burke Key Points). Unlike John Locke (see Chapter 7 on John Locke), who asserted an ultimate right for people to dispose of unsatisfactory regimes, Burke argued that the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 (see Key Concept: The Glorious Revolution) had not established a ‘right to rebel’. He argued that the ‘Revolution’, as Burke and Macaulay referred to it at the time, was not a revolution at all; rather, it was part of an ongoing process of institutional formation and reform that has no ideal end-state. Burke opposed both democracy and absolute monarchy, arguing that they risked lapsing into tyranny and anarchy (see 7.4.2. Does Burke have Sufficient Safeguards Against the Abuse of Power?). He instead argued that steady political reform should be overseen by the gentry and nobility, thereby positioning himself firmly on the side of the aristocracy.
The ambiguities in Burke’s thought extend to his position on colonialism and Empire (see 17.4. Criticisms and Relevance Key Points). Burke was a vocal opponent of the transatlantic slave trade and argued that slavery was incompatible with the principle of liberty. Moreover, some scholars have argued that Burke’s arguments about the value of preserving distinct cultural institutions and traditions provide a normative defence of Indian self-government, for example, casting him as an unwitting critic of British imperialism (Mehta, 1999). But recent evidence suggests that Burke and his brother profited from the ‘forced labour of enslaved men, women and children in the British colonies and beyond’ (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/08/24/anti-slavery-mp-edmund-burke-put-transatlantic-slave-trade-register/). Burke believed that sugar plantations in the West Indies were fundamental to Britain’s ability to compete with larger rival nations, and he argued for an expansion in the volume of the African slave trade to maintain the colony’s productivity (Marshall, 2019: 19). Considering his personal entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade, it would be incorrect to champion Burke as an abolitionist hero.
Burke, Edmund (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macaulay, Catharine (2020). The Correspondence of Catharine Macaulay. Ed. Karen Green, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bourke, Richard (2015). Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
P. J. Marshall, Edmund Burke and the British Empire in the West Indies: Wealth, Power, and Slavery, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019.
Mehta, Uday Singh (1999). Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.