Edmund Burke, Political Writer and Philosopher Dies
Richard Cavendish charts the life and work of Edmund Burke, who died on July 9th, 1797.
Edmund Burke breathed his last in Beaconsfield, at the heart of the Home Counties, a place with which one of British Conservatism's most seminal figures, Benjamin Disraeli, was later to associate his peerage. But as with Disraeli himself Burke's background and upbringing were far from stereotypical for one who has been hailed as one of the great gurus of conservative political philosophy.
Born in Dublin, to a Roman Catholic mother and a solicitor father who outwardly conformed to the Established Church but may have been Drought up as a Catholic. Burke went to a Quaker school in County Kildare and then Trinity College. Dublin, before arriving in London at the Middle Temple: not the easiest of CVs. with which to enter the highly personalised and Establishment world of Georgian politics.
His first public profiles were in fact literary: two works on aesthetics and society published in 1756-57 which elbowed him in to the editorship of the Annual Register and a secretary's job to William Hamilton, chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under the 'Ascendancy'.
By the mid-1760s Burke was immersed in mainland politics. associated with the faction of the Whigs led by the Marquess of Rockingham, who became Prime Minister in July 1766, the year in which Burke took his seat as an MP for the first time.
Burke's output as a political organiser and polemicist over the next twenty years firmly aligned him with the more radical tendencies in eighteenth-century politics - he defended the cause of John Wilkes, criticised George III's attempts to control Parliament through `king's friends', championed the cause of the American colonists until the outbreak of the War of independence, and while supporting the status ado of the Test Acts, he argued for relaxation of the penal laws against Catholics and for free trade with Ireland.
At the same time his strong advocacy of the independent, representative - as opposed to delegate - role of a Member of Parliament (summarised in his famous address to the electors of Bristol) and his experience of the power of the London mob during the Gordon Riots can be seen as key early indications of the change that produced the powerful polemic on the French Revolution for which he is perhaps best known.
Burke's own political career faltered in the 1780s - he enjoyed uneasy office as Paymaster-General in the Fox-North coalition of 1783, where he found himself in a ministry yoking opposites - and he expended wasted energy on the impeachment of Warren Hastings where he won notoriety but few friends in Parliament. By the time the French Revolution broke out. Burke, though still allied with Fox and the Whigs, was somewhat detached from the day-to-day Parliamentary process.
Perhaps it was this that enabled him to step back from the near-universal early enthusiasm with which liberal opinion in England (including Fox) greeted early events in the Revolution such as the storming of the Bastille and the setting up of the National Assembly. The remarkable thing about his great work Reflections on the Revolution in France is that it was written and published in 1790 well before the totalitarian and extremist trends that were to culminate in the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, took hold.
In the Reflections though Burke clearly foreshadows these events and sounds a clarion call against the Revolutionary proposition that a `clean sheet' in political structures and organisation would produce a Utopian society. Burke was prophetic in his understanding that the concept of the ends justifying the means could lead to a democratic and demagogic tyranny. For Burke, tradition was the democracy of the dead, the appeal to historical experience and a recognition of the role of individuals in history and a suspicion of idealist blueprints and abstract concepts of `natural rights' are all key elements that the Revolution is intent on devouring one which must be defended.
It is not surprising, therefore, that though his attack led to a final breach with Fox - he spent his last years in Parliament in support of Pitt's government - it won him an immensely-enhanced profile with enemies of the Revolution. Europe-wide. He has been considered a seminal influence on political thought ever since. For Burke himself - whose intervention n the debate on the Revolution provoked rejoinders from Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft - his concerns over the Revolution were inextricably linked with his fears for the future of Ireland and his fears that English repression would spur the growth of atheist Jacobinism and a wholesale attack on the rights of property - forebodings to be realised from his perspective) in the Rebellion of 1798.
Burke died a saddened and isolated figure: Pitt had spurned his advice, he was estranged from the Whigs with whom he had been associated for most of his political career and his only son, Richard, had died in August 1794. But he left a body of influential work and - with the Reflections - a hugely-influential if polemical codification of the doctrine of historical continuity and respect for the lessons of the past.