Edmund Burke 1729–97, was a British political thinker who opposed the French Revolution and developed a coherent conservatism. He believed that a nation's institutions, customs and values were the long-term product of its experiences over the centuries, as small adjustments were made to fit changing needs and the cumulative effect was the current society. Writing before the Industrial Revolution had shown much impact, he thought change was always incremental and slow. Indeed, he argued that current observers were unlikely to fully appreciate the hidden gems of wisdom of the "ancient constitution"; efforts to impose radical changes based on visions rather than experience, such as the French Revolution, were therefore doomed to failure. Keenly concerned with the fairness of the British Empire, Burke opposed royal efforts to suppress the American Revolution; he called for more liberties for the people of India and his native Ireland.
He was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother. He was educated in classics at a Quaker boarding school and at Trinity College Dublin; he remained a committed Anglican the rest of his life. He considered a national established church a requirement for sound government. In 1750 he went to London to study law but soon left his course. In 1756 he published his first book anonymously; A Vindication of Natural Society was a satirical account of the rise of civilization and how it produces unhappiness and distress; it attacked the political rationalism and religious skepticism of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. In 1757 he anonymously published the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, his most philosophical work; it is a founding manifesto of Romanticism, which came to dominate European thought and sensibility after 1800. He founded the The Annual Register, a record of contemporary political events. He was a member of the intellectual circle around Samuel Johnson.
After serving as private secretary to several senior parliamentarians, Burke was given a seat in Parliament in 1765 and remained in Parliament for over thirty years. His success as an orator, political writer and party member for the Whigs was extensive although he was never given a particularly high office by his party when it took government, possibly because of his independent streak.
During his political career he campaigned constantly, but unsuccessfully in the short term. He advocated administrative reform of the royal household and to increase the power of the crown so as to reward its supporters; He supported the elimination of anti-Catholic laws in Ireland and the controls on trade with that island; He was in favour of generous treatment to the American Colonists, and supported reconciliation from the outbreak of hostilities with the American Revolution; He favoured strong state support for the established Anglican Church and for the landed gentry;
He fought for restrictions on the powers of the East India Company in its administration of India; in particular he used stunningly brilliant speeched to lead the greatest impeachment trial in the history of the British Empire, that of the first governor-general of India for the East India Company, Warren Hastings 1732–1818. He was alleged to have committed "high crimes and misdemeanours" during his governorship of India, 1772–1785. Hastings was charged with financial corruption, use of political power for extorting bribes from native rulers of India, abuse of judicial authority, despotism, and arbitrary rule; he was being tried specifically for illegally occupying territory in India by launching aggressive offensive and criminal wars against native rulers, treaty violations, and for open violence against native rulers and the people of India.
Burke charged that the corrupt state of Indian government could be remedied only if it were taken from both the crown and the company. He proposed that India be governed by a board of independent commissioners in London.
Hastings was acquitted in 1795 after an 8-year trial, thanks to defense spokesmen opposing Burke who articulated a vision of empire based on ideas of power, conquest, and subjugation of the colonized in pursuit of the exclusive national interests of the colonizer. Burke had a different vision, calling for a deterritorialized supranational juridical sovereignty based on a recognition of the a priori rights of the colonized. These two opposing discourses and visions, as they came to be articulated in the trial, had decisive implications for both the nature and evolution of the British empire and its imperial institutions and of Indian legal and political discourse and institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early 20th centuries, a series of imperial historians like Fitzjames Stephen, John Strachey, Sophia Weitzman, Lucy S. Sutherland, and Keith Feiling dismissed Burke's accusations that Hastings had been personally corrupt and argued that his arbitrariness was justified by the necessities of maintaining empire in the east, a view that Hastings himself articulated in the trial.
Burke supported military intervention against the French Revolution and for tighter controls of civil liberties in Britain, so as to prevent such an occurrence happening there. Rejecting Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and the philosophes, Burke said the popular will does not really exist, but that the ancient constitution did, and it should be upheld.
His great book Reflections On the Revolution in France (1790) was ignored at the time but in the long run helped reduce revolutionary sentiments among British thinkers, and had a significant impact on Italian and French conservatives.
The book, for example, has ten pages on the monasteries of France that deplores not only the confiscation of their property but also the destruction of the institutions themselves, which are defended for their contribution to learning, beauty, and agriculture and for their general social role. Their "superstition" is vindicated as preferable to that of the radical philosophes. Burke maintains that they could and should have been reformed rather than suppressed.
By contrast with the French fiasco, he praised the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain, saying, "The Revolution was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty." The English were not creating a new regime, merely restoring the old one that had been distorted by the Catholic James II. Burke in particular saw the Church and the aristocracy, whose power was based on property, as the true carriers of tradition. Burke's Christian faith, though broad, undogmatic and ecumenical, was an immutable element in his beliefs and prevented any sympathy, acceptance or compromise with the anti-religious aims of the French Revolution.
For Burke, the great struggle was that between religion and atheism, and he sought to develop a union of all Christian religious sects, denominations, and traditions to combat those who opposed Christianity. For years he supported the rights of Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics in England. He believed that religion, established churches, and confessional states added important dimensions of depth and wisdom to society.
Both a British and an Irish patriot, Burke believed that only the British Parliament could implement Irish reforms and sought a union between the two countries based on mutual respect. Most of Burke's causes were effectively lost, but Burke's ceaseless politics of principle made them burning issues and subsequently made him famous. He died disappointed three years after his retirement and the death of his son, which caused him much grief.
The "New Conservative" interpretation of Burke's philosophy with its concentration upon the Natural Law has dominated Burke studies since the 1940s, especially in America, where it continues to influence American conservatism. It began with Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953), and Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (1953). This interpretation has not been accepted in England.
- Byrne, William F. Byrne, "Burke's higher romanticism: politics and the sublime," Humanitas (2006) online
- Mithi Mukherjee, "Justice, War, and the Imperium: India and Britain in Edmund Burke's Prosecutorial Speeches in the Impeachment Trial of Warren Hastings." Law and History Review 2005 23(3): 589-630. Issn: 0738-2480 Fulltext: History Cooperative
- Lucy S. Sutherland, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); Keith Grahame Feiling, Warren Hastings (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1954).
- Derek Beales, "Edmund Burke and the Monasteries of France." Historical Journal 2005 48(2): 415-436. Issn: 0018-246x
- J.G.A. Pocock, "Burke and the Ancient Constitution", Historical Journal, 3 (1960), 125-43