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reluctant but respected member of Parliament; author
Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, on January 12, 1729, the son of a prosperous attorney. He received his early education at home, before moving to a Quaker boarding school. In 1744 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. It was at Trinity where he developed his oratical technique, and the debating society he founded there (now known as the College Historical Society) is the oldest undergraduate society in the world. He and some friends also founded a periodical in which they commented on the economic and literary life of Ireland. In 1750 he entered Middle Temple, London, to study law, but abandoned that pursuit in favor of literary work. In 1756 he married Jane Nugent, with whom he had two sons (one of whom died in infancy).
Burke's first known work was A Vindication of Natural Society, an essay published in 1756. The purpose of this work was to expose the futility of demanding a reason for moral and social institutions. Although the essay reveals much about Burke's early development as a writer and thinker, it is otherwise of minor importance.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, emphasized the activity of the mind in making ideas, and influence of those ideas on one's conduct. The work impressed some of the day's best-known philosophers, including Immanuel Kant and G.E. Lessing, and gave Burke a contemporary literary reputation.
In 1757, Burke and his cousin, William Burke, published An Account of the European Settlements, which emphasized that the coming Europeans to the New World brought with it a civilizing of savages through the agency of institutionalized Christianity. That same year, Burke began, but never finished, An Abridgement of English History, which was supposed to a continuous account running from the Roman landings to the signing of the Magna Carta.
The most important of Burke's early work as a writer was the founding of Dodsley's Annual Register, a yearly digest of politics, history, and the arts. Although he never publicly admitted to being the editor of the magazine, he most likely wrote all the original parts of it until at least 1765. Evidence suggests that he continued to contribute articles until at least 1788.
Burke had hoped to make a career in literature, but his early writings earned him little money. In 1759, with a wife and family to support, he accepted employment as private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a minor politician. When Hamilton became Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and spent the winters of 1761 and 1763 in Dublin, Burke accompanied him and had his first experience in Irish politics. In 1765, Burke and Hamilton had a violent disagreement and broke off all relations. Burke suddenly found himself with no regular income save a small stipend for his work on the Annual Register.
Fortunately for Burke, a new opportunity quickly arose for him, albeit one which he really did not want. Soon after his split with Hamilton, Burke was offered a position as private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, who in July became First Lord of the Treasury (equivalent to today's Prime Minister). Although Burke needed the job, he knew the position would virtually commit him to a career in politics, a field in which he really had little interest. He did take the job, and by the end of 1765 he had been elected as a Whig to the House of Commons. Despite his initial reservations against a career in politics, he would go on to serve in Parliament until 1794.
Burke quickly became recognized as one of the leading figures in the House of Commons. Always ready to speak his mind concerning the major issues of the day, he unfortunately lacked the oratorical skills of most of his colleagues. Not only did he lack the tact and flexibility of a great orator, he also tended to be rather longwinded, with some of his speeches lasting up to eight hours. He did, however, possess vast information, a readiness to debate, skill in organizing complicated masses of material, and considerable talent for amusing his colleagues. These qualities often overshadowed his less than stellar oratorical skill, and made him one of the most frequently heard members of the House.
The Whigs lost power in July 1766, but Rockingham remained the leader of the opposition, with Burke right beside him. In addition to his many speeches, Burke also served his party by bringing out some of his more important speeches in printed form. One of the first was Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), in which he expressed outrage at King George III's attempt to take control of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom by dismissing Prime Ministers at will until he found one he felt he could work with.
The first two of Burke's speeches to be printed in full dealt with Britain's problems with her American colonies -- American Taxation (1774) and Conciliation with America (1775). In these speeches, Burke avoided the issues of "right to tax" and colonial representation, preferring instead to focus on how best to hold on to the colonies. England, he argued, gained immensely by her commerce with America, and would still gain if she never received a shilling of tax payment from them. Although his colleagues did not, for the most part, embrace his philosophy at the time, as the American Revolution wore on his ideas began to make more and more sense to them.
Paymaster of the Forces
The Rockingham Whigs regained power in 1782, and Burke was named Paymaster of the Forces. Although he lost the position after just a few months due to the death of Rockingham, he managed to pass two acts that greatly reduced the power of the office. Prior to Burke, the Paymaster could draw on money from the Treasury at his discretion, with little oversight as to how that money was spent. After Burke, that money had to be put into the Bank of England, from which it could only be withdrawn for specific purposes. The Treasury then received monthly statements of the Paymaster's balance at the Bank, as well as an accounting of where the money had been spent. Burke also oversaw passage of the Civil List and Secret Service Money Act, which abolished 134 offices in the royal household and civil administration, and regulated pensions. After another brief term as Paymaster in 1783, he never held another government office outside of Parliament.
Burke's principal activity in the late 1780's was a prolonged investigation into the affairs of the East India Company, which he believed was grossly mismanaging Britain's colonies on the Indian subcontinent. That investigation resulted in the impeachment and seven years trial of the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, 1786-1795. Although Hastings was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, the trial brought the moral problems of imperial government before the national conscience, and forced Britain to make changes in the way it governed India.
Burke was one of the first statesmen in Europe to sense the sweeping importance of the French Revolution. In November 1790, when British opinion was generally sympathetic to the revolutionaries, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, a pamphlet of almost four hundred pages in which he denounced the main political assumptions on which the Revolution was proceeding. The chief danger he sensed in the revolutionary faith was its blind reliance on theory: its preference for abstract rights over inherited institutions and habits, and its contempt for experience.
Reflections was an immediate best-seller, going through ten printings and selling 17,500 copies within a year after its publication. It launched a controversy in which scores of replies and counter-defenses were written -- including Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.
Six months after Reflections was published Burke broke with the Whig majority over the French Revolution. In 1791 he published An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he defended the consistency of his stand with traditional Whig principles. Although the progress of events ultimately justified his stand and brought party leaders and public opinion to his side, he continued to bombard the public and the ministry with urgent appeals for even more determined action against the revolutionaries.
Burke retired from Parliament in 1794, but his pen and oratory remained active. He was publicly unhappy with the final acquittal of Warren Hastings in 1795, and was much concerned at events unfolding in Ireland. In 1792 he had published a Letter to Sir Hercules Lngrishe, in which he argued for the necessity of representation for Irish Catholics, and even after retirement from active politics he continued to argue that only large concessions to Ireland's Roman Catholic majority could avert a revolution. And, as it had done before, history eventually proved Burke right.
In 1795, a young member of the House of Lords made some very unfriendly comments concerning a pension granted to Burke. Burke's reply, A Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), in which he defended himself against the insult, literally crushed the brief controversy and is now considered one of his best works.
Burke's last major work was written as a response to proponents of a negotiated peace with post-revolutionary France. Burke saw all the French leaders as "robbers and murderers," and felt strongly that to negotiate with such men was nothing short of shameful and potentially disastrous. Late in 1795, he began the first of what became his Letters on a Regicide Peace, in which he urged Britain to defend the established order in Europe.
Burke's last Letter was still incomplete when he died at his estate in Beaconsfield on July 8, 1797.
This page was last updated on January 12, 2017.