Edmund Burke Research Paper

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Edmund Burke was an Irish Protestant author and member of the British House of Commons. Burke’s legacy rests on his profundity as a political thinker, while his relevance to the social sciences lies in his antirevolutionary tract of 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France, for which he is considered the founder of conservatism.

Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Burke was raised as an Anglican and received his education at a Quaker school and Trinity College. Rejecting a career in law, Burke wrote a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), and edited the political review Annual Register. Burke’s talents as an intellectual attracted the attention of a politically powerful patron, the marquis of Rockingham, for whom Burke worked as private secretary and to whom Burke owed his entry into Parliament.

As a member of Parliament from 1765 to 1794, Burke employed his oratorical skills and propensity to connect legislative policy to political philosophy in the interests of the Whig party. Foremost among his causes was the mitigation of harsh penal laws in Ireland. Although a steadfast member of the Anglican Church, Burke’s experience in Ireland and his Catholic connections made him deplore the discrimination against Irish Catholics. Burke also urged reconciliation with American colonists, opposing the Stamp Act of 1765 as bad policy even as he defended the theoretical right of Parliament to tax. Throughout his career Burke condemned the East India Company’s mismanagement, calling after 1782 for parliamentary control of that body and for the impeachment of Bengal’s governor-general, Warren Hastings. In addition, Burke’s position in the opposition led to repeated cries for “economical reform,” or a diminution in the power of the Crown by limiting the number of government employees who sat in Parliament. Finally, Burke contributed to British constitutional theory in important ways: He defended the formation of political parties, defined as “bod[ies] of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest” (Ayling 1988, p. 48); and he insisted that in Parliament he represented the common good rather than simply the interests of his Bristol electors.

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France offered a conservative interpretation of Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 and a condemnation of France’s revolution in 1789. For Burke, the Whig-led Glorious Revolution merely protected civil liberties and Protestantism by overthrowing the tyrannical and popish James II; it did not usher in an era of natural rights, democratic politics, and the separation of church and state. As such, 1688 constituted a restoration of British liberties under the protection of strong institutions, notably the Church of England and a constitution balanced between a hereditary monarchy and a governing class of landed aristocrats.

Burke excoriated the French Revolution for its radical destruction of the past. Considering society a complex historical development—“a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (Burke 1987, p. 85)—he rejected contemporary theories of the social contract. Convinced of the limitations of human reason, he mocked the revolutionaries’ reconstruction of the polity on abstract philosophical principles as a chimerical “new conquering empire of light and reason.” Viewing rights and liberties as historical patrimony (for example, English liberties founded in the Magna Carta), he recoiled at the notion of universal human rights enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Reckoning “the restraints upon men” to be among their rights, Burke found such restraints in religion and the establishment of a state church that sanctified the social and political order. Unmoved by paeans to equality, he insisted that “the natural order of things” entitled men of ability and property to govern. In sum, Burke saw the French Revolution as a rejection of the handiwork of God as expressed in the slow development of institutions in history.

Standing at the threshold of a new age of democratic politics, Burke exclaimed: “I put my foot in the tracks of our forefathers, where I can neither wander nor stumble” (Burke 1889). Although such reverence for the past might justifiably merit Burke the title “founder of conservatism,” several points are in order. First, conservative is not synonymous with reactionary; Burke was no arch-conservative enslaved by the status quo, as evidenced by his advocacy of issues ranging from Catholic relief to the abolition of the slave trade. His guiding principle was conservation and correction, by which he meant that reform was necessary to preserve institutions. Second, Burke’s conservatism was British (or “Anglo-American”); in rejecting the French Revolution, he sought to conserve what he considered the liberal and modern order in eighteenth-century Britain. Subsequent thinkers have employed Burke’s suspicion of reason; his respect for the past; his insistence on religion and property as the foundations of society; and his antipathy to democracy in order to defend absolute monarchy, a hereditary nobility, and religious discrimination—but their doing so only serves as a reminder of the differences between what and why Burke wrote and how he was read.

Bibliography:

  1. Ayling, Stanley. 1988. Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions. New York: St. Martin’s.
  2. Burke, Edmund. [1775] 1889. Speech on Conciliation with America. The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 9th ed., 12 vols. Boston: Little, Brown.
  3. Burke, Edmund. [1790] 1987. Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.
  4. O’Brien, Conor Cruise. 1992. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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