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A portrait of Edmund Burke

There is no question that Edmund Burke is a figure that is almost universally revered today, over two centuries removed from his death. The more interesting question is how can such a wide range of people along the political spectrum claim Edmund Burke as their inspiration? Their forefather, if you will. Popular history has pigeonholed Burke as ‘the Father of Modern English conservatism,” and though that may be fairly accurate in one sense, we can get a better idea of the subtext by looking at the life of Edmund Burke and why he did the things that he did.

Edmund Burke was born on 12 January 1729 into a fairly prosperous Dublin family. His father was an attorney, and a Protestant at that in heavily Catholic Ireland. The British penal laws were very much in place, so Burke’s first education took place in a ruined castle. Fortunately for him and for history, he moved on to a Quaker school in County Kildare where he grew to love history and poetry. By age 15 he had been accepted at Trinity College in Dublin, and by 20 he had begun studying law in London. Before long, Burke decided that the law was not for him, and he set out to make a living as a writer.

The year 1756 saw Burke’s first published works, A Vindication of Natural Society and Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. These first books demonstrated Burke’s penchant for quality writing and alerted many to the existence of a brilliant young writer and thinker. The following year, 1757, Burke married Jane Mary Nugent. Gradually, Burke began to enter the political arena. After several different stints as the private secretary for various politicians, Burke became the private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquess of Rockingham, a man who happened to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Edmund_Burke_portrait

The portrait of Edmund Burke that currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

By the end of 1765, Burke had entered Parliament, a body he would continue to participate in for the next 30 years. He made an immediate impression on the more seasoned PMs. After Burke’s maiden speech, William Pitt the Elder is said to have remarked that he had “spoken in such a manner as to stop the mouths of all Europe.” With such an introduction to Parliament, it is simply impractical to attempt even a cursory overview of his accomplishments here. Many others have done so with far greater depth of examination. Rather, Burke’s career as a politician can be seen as a series of causes for which he argued and fought; and, it is likely, that many of those causes stemmed from his Irish heritage.

It is no historical secret that for a large part of Ireland’s history, the British occupation was overbearing (at least) and oppressive (at worst). Burke, being Irish, must have had an innate distaste for the way in which his countrymen were treated. Indeed, over his 30 years in Parliament, Edmund Burke denounced the British oppression of Ireland. In a letter to his son Burke wrote:

I can never persuade myself that anything in our Thirty-nine articles, which differs from their articles, is worth making three millions of people slaves, to secure its teaching at the public expense; and I think he must be a strange man, or a strange Christian, and a strange Englishman, who would not rather see Ireland a free, flourishing, happy Catholic country, though not one Protestant existed in it, than an enslaved, beggared, insulted, degraded Catholic country, as it is, with some Protestants here and there scattered through it, for the purpose, not of instructing people, but of making them miserable.

Edmund Burke is remembered most of all for his support of the American colonies during the period that saw them gain independence from Britain. He is remembered for his condemnation of British imperialism’s excesses in India, including the ‘corrupt’ East India Company, as he called it. He is remembered for his opposition to the excessive power of the crown in England, especially as related to the American colonies, again. He is remembered for his warnings about the French Revolution, around which centered his most well-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. 

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A statue of Edmund Burke that stands outside his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin.

But, before all of the speeches and writings that served to make him famous, that served to establish him as a paragon of ‘conservatism’ in 18th century Britain, Edmund Burke was a man. Many of his contemporaries realized that Burke was, in the end, a utilitarian. Throughout his career Burke endured the ire of those who accused him of political inconsistency. At times his own political party struggled to accept him on account of his defense of Catholics in Ireland.  Though his actions may have seemed inconsistent to some, let us close with the view of one historian who disagreed with the claim that Burke was inconsistent, Sir Winston Churchill.

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.