Thursday, February 18, 2016

EDMUND BURKE - Father of Modern Conservative politics

By Arthur Russell

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is widely considered to be the moving force that initiated and gave structure to modern Conservative political thinking in the western World. He served as Member of Parliament (MP) in the English House of Commons during the latter half of the 18th century.

He was a scion of the Anglo-Norman Burke family who trace their ancestry to the first deBurgo (deBurgh) knight who came to Ireland in the aftermath of King Henry II’s 1171/72 visit after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.

Birth and background
Edmund was born in Dublin, Ireland on 12th January 1729. His mother was Mary Nagle, daughter of a Catholic family from County Cork, while his solicitor father Richard, was a practicing member of the Church of Ireland who lived and worked in Dublin. (There is some evidence to suggest Richard had as a young man converted from Catholicism in order to progress his professional legal career which would have suffered if he remained Catholic during that era of Irish history). As happened in many such families in Ireland of those times, Edmund was brought up as an Anglican (Church of Ireland) while his younger sister Juliana was brought up in the faith of her mother. By maintaining dual religious adherences, families were thus able to protect family fortunes which could be lost due to the impositions of the Penal Code that had been passed by the Dublin Parliament in the aftermath of the Williamite wars at the end of the previous century. This pernicious Code impacted on Catholic, and to a lesser extent, Dissenter populations of Britain and Ireland. It effectively destroyed the old Irish and Anglo-Irish (mainly Catholic) aristocracy who had supported the Stuart cause. The Legal along with other key professions, was effectively closed to Catholics who constituted a huge majority of the population of the island.

Burke’s Catholic background was used on occasion by his political rivals to challenge his right to be an MP. It was alleged by some that he received his education in the Jesuit college in St Omer, near Calais, France, though there is no evidence that he ever even visited St Omer in course of his two visits to Paris as a mature man.
As told by an acquaintance, Frances Crewe
“Mr. Burke's enemies often endeavoured to convince the world that he had been bred up in the Catholic Faith, and that his family were of it, and that he himself had been educated at St. Omer, but this was false, as his father was a regular practitioner of the Law at Dublin, which he could not be unless of the Established Church: and it so happened that though Mr. Burke was twice at Paris, he never happened to go through the Town of St Omer”.
All MPs serving in the House of Commons were required to take the Oath of Allegiance and abjuration, the Oath of Supremacy, and to declare against transubstantiation before they were allowed to take their seats. It is a matter of record that no Catholic MP from Ireland took these oaths during the eighteenth century.

Burke’s earliest education was in the Quaker school in the small town of Ballytore, County Kildare where he met with Mary Leadbeater (nee Shackleton), the daughter of the school’s owner and granddaughter of Burke’s teacher Abraham Shackleton, with whom he conducted a lifelong correspondence.  He spent many boyhood holiday months in the Blackwater valley in Cork in his mother’s family home, away from the dubious smells and pestilences of his Dublin city home.

In 1744 he entered Trinity College, Dublin where as an undergraduate, he established the Edmund Burke Club, a debating society which in due course merged into the Historic and Literary Society, which has the distinction of being the oldest undergraduate debating society in the world. After graduation in 1758, his father encouraged him to enter Middle Temple in London to study for a legal career, but he left this, instead travelling in Europe with the intention of embarking on a writing career.

Early Publications
In 1757 he had already published “A Vindication of Natural Society: A view of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind” which satirized the work of Lord Bolingbroke’s “Letters on the Study and Use of History” published in 1752. Burke’s book earned critical acclaim and universal praise for the quality of his writing, though some reviewers failed to recognize its satirical purpose. This prompted Burke to amend the preface of the second edition of the opus which did emphasise its satirical nature.

In that year he was contracted to write a History of England from the time of Julius Caesar to the end of the reign of Queen Anne by Richard Dodsley, to be completed by the end of 1758. In the event he managed to complete the writing up to 1216 and stopped because Hume had published his history earlier that year. The foreshortened history was not published until after Burke’s death as part of of a posthumous collection of his work.

On 12 March 1757, Burke married Jane Mary Nugent (1734–1812), daughter of Dr Christopher Nugent, a Catholic physician who had provided him with medical treatment him at Bath. Their first child, a boy named Christopher died in infancy. A second son Richard was born on 9th February 1758. The Burkes also helped raise Edmund Nagle (later Admiral Sir Edmund Nagle), the son of a maternal cousin orphaned in 1763.

Burke was asked to be private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton when Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. He held this position for 3 years, until in 1765 he became private secretary to the liberal Whig Prime Minister Charles, Marquess of Rockingham. Burke and Rockingham became and remained firm friends.

Member of Parliament
In December 1765, Burke entered the House of Commons as member for Wendover, which was then a pocket borough of Lord Fermanagh. He made an immediate positive impression with his maiden speech to the house. William Pitt the Elder is reported to have remarked that Burke had “spoken in such a manner as to stop the mouths of all Europe” adding that “the Commons should congratulate itself on acquiring such a member”.

In London society, he joined the Samuel Johnson club which included such notables as David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds among others. Another member Edward Gibbon jokingly described Burke to be “the most eloquent and rational madman I ever knew”. Johnson was not particularly partial to politicians (could any of them be trusted?), but admired Burke’s debating and writing ability.

Major political issues – 1) Burke’s views on North America
The big topic of Burke’s early days in the Commons was the situation of the North American colonies. Possibly due to his Irish experience and background (Ireland was the first colony of the Empire where colonial practices, both bad and good; were first tested before being extended to North America, India, Africa etc as the Empire grew); Burke was inclined to be on the side of colonists who objected, among other things, to a distant parliament deciding on the imposition of levies and taxes without any consultation with them. In vain, Burke advised a much more collaborative approach towards what he considered trans-Atlantic countrymen who shared British values for government, which should be ultimately accountable to the citizens they govern, whether they live in London, Dublin or New York. In due course, the American situation and the government’s inept and unsympathetic handling of it, inevitably developed into a struggle for total separation of the lucrative North American colonies from the growing British Empire, then on its way to achieving the zenith of its power and influence in the world.

On April 19th 1774, he made a landmark speech on American taxation policy in which he argued against the retention of many taxes including the vexatious tea duty
“Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Do not burthen them with taxes. But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation either to his feelings or to his understandings”   

On 22 March 1775, in the House of Commons, Burke delivered a speech on reconciliation with the colonists. He argued that peace was preferable to “civil war” which he feared was inevitable if the present course was maintained. He warned that British roots and heritage of colonists would never guarantee against their resistance to military coercion, if such was considered.
The people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants, a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government; they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation; the cement is gone, the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution. As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia. But, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you”.

Burke prized peace with America above all else, “The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war, not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations, not peace to arise out of universal discord. It is simple peace, sought in its natural course and in its ordinary haunts. It is peace sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles purely pacific”.

Burke proposed six resolutions to settle the conflict (delivered a month before the confrontations at Concord and Lexington which gave the struggle its irrevocable separatist momentum):
1   American colonists elect their own representatives, thereby settling the issue of taxation without representation;
2   Acknowledge mistakes made by the London government and apologise for grievances caused;
3   Establish an effective process for choosing delegates to represent colonist interests;
4   Set up a General Assembly in America itself, with powers to regulate taxes
5   Stop gathering taxes by legal imposition, and only as and when needed (eg time of war or crisis)
6   Grant needed aid to the colonies.

2) Bourbon France
The political situation of France also caused Burke to publish in 1769 his “Observations on a Late State of the Nation” where he made a prophetic prediction of “some extraordinary convulsion in that whole system”. Within two decades of this publication, the seismic history changing events of the French Revolution broke on an unsuspecting Europe.  

3) Catholic Emancipation and Irish Trade
He advocated Catholic Emancipation which had greatest implications for his native Ireland where the vast majority of the population were effectively debarred from participation in the political system as well as a range of professions. This of course drew the accusation from his political enemies of being a closet Catholic, thereby unfit to take his place in the House of Commons.

4) Irish trade with the Empire
Burke consistently urged the lifting of trading restrictions between Ireland and the Empire. Just as in North America, Irish trade was subjected to a series of tariffs and restrictions which prevented the country achieving full benefit of its association with the growing British empire. At the time he represented the city of Bristol, then the second city of England which benefitted greatly from the operation of restrictions on Irish trade. His stand on this and other contentious issues resulted in the loss of his Parliamentary seat in 1780. He was invited to take the Rockingham seat at Malton, a seat he held for the remainder of his life. This, along with his open support for Catholic Emancipation is indication that Burke was always quite prepared to support worthy causes, even when they had potential to hurt him politically.

5) Other issues
Among issues he spoke of, he was against capital punishment which he described as “the butchery we call Justice”. He articulated extreme uneasiness about the way the East India Company was growing its commitment and reach in that sub-continent with profit and exploitation as its principal driving force instead of human development of the local population and country. India was soon to become an important part of the British Empire where colonial practice had its good and bad features (as happened in North America)

In relation to his advocacy of unpopular causes, he wrote "If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their (the electorate’s) suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong".  

Again in his speech to the electors of Bristol he defended his independent minded approach“---- his (Member of Parliament) unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”
Try to imagine a present day election candidate being so forthright and unapologetic towards his electorate!!

He had a strong preference for the party system as it evolved in England during that century, and took the view that Party divisions “whether operating for good or evil, are things inseparable from free government”. He also argued against unrestrained Royal power, holding that strong political parties had a huge role to play in maintaining principled opposition which should prevent abuse by either monarch or factions within the power structures of the nation. Burke alluded to “secret influences” of groups he labelled as “King’s friends” whose modus operandi “comprehending the exterior and interior administrations, is commonly called in the technical language of the court – Double Cabinet”.
He advocated open government free from such influences by proposing among other things, free publication of Parliamentary debates.

During the Gordon Riots in 1780, which were a backlash in England to a combination of issues among which – Catholic relief measures being passed into law, economic decline due to the impact of the American war coupled with fear of an imminent French invasion; Burke was identified as a particular target for hostility and his home had to be placed under armed guard.

Reflections on the French Revolution
Burke was deeply disturbed by the violence unleashed by
the French Revolution 
Arising from the chaos he observed following in the wake of the French Revolution he developed a rather jaundiced view of purest democracy, due to the need for ordinary people (the governed) to inform themselves and to gain a proper understanding of political realities and their capacity to balance self interest with what was good for society in general. He tended to the view that an enlightened elite (aristocracy) who were guided by strong moral principles and wisdom (that being the rub!!), had a better chance to rule better than a badly run dysfunctional representative government. His ideas are expounded in his much quoted “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, which is possibly his most famous publication. The document prompted Thomas Paine to write his “Rights of Man”. Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Man”, while James Mackintosh wrote Vindiciae Gallicae”. This last writer subsequently changed his views and said of Burke "Burke was one of the first thinkers as well as one of the greatest orators of his time. He is without parallel in any age, excepting perhaps Lord Bacon and Cicero; and his works contain an ampler store of political and moral wisdom than can be found in any other writer whatever"  

Burke’s thoughts on the French Revolutionary Government contained in his “Letters on a Regicide Peace” in the years before he died, are regarded by some to include a near perfect description of the concept of the modern totalitarian state (examples of which sadly came to pass as never before, during the last century, with some still ruling in a few countries across the globe):
"Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The State has dominion and conquest for its sole objects - dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms”

Burke’s Legacy
It is interesting to speculate that if Burke’s advice on many issues had been heeded in time; how different would subsequent British, American, French, European and World history have been? He is credited by many for accurately predicting the outcome of events in many countries that were happening during his own lifetime. In many ways Edmund Burke was a man of his time but ahead of his time. Much of his philosophy and thinking still have profound influence on Western politicians for whom his works are essential reading and worthy of study.

Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland (1314), by the Scottish army under the leadership of Edward deBruce, who history considers to be the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history.
‘Morgallion’ has been awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.
More information available on website -


  1. Burke is endlessly fascinating. It's funny to think that his ideas seem like such commonsense nowadays, but were pretty revolutionary for their time. Great post:)

  2. I agree. Very fascinating, a remarkable post :-)

  3. Prescient quote from Burke, especially when we consider the power of technology to further this process today: "Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all." Enjoyed the article!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.