The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

REFERENCE DESK
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Burke, Edmund
Peter J. Stanlis - 06/30/11
Lifespan: (1729–1797)

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1729 and died in 1797 at his home in Beaconsfield, England, where he is buried. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he went to London to study law but soon became active in literature and politics. In 1758 Burke contracted with the publisher Robert Dodsley to “write, collect, and compile” an Annual Register, reviewing the political and cultural events of Europe during the previous year. Burke wrote and edited the Annual Register from its first appearance in May 1759 until at least 1765–66, after which he retained supervisory control over it for about thirty years. This highly successful journal, which has continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a valuable vehicle through which Burke was able to reach the British and American public with his views on political and cultural events.

On July 10, 1765, the Marquis of Rockingham became prime minister; the next day he appointed Burke as his private secretary. Burke’s identification with the Rockingham Whigs was the most important personal political decision he ever made. It led directly to his election to the House of Commons in December 1765 and to a career in Parliament for twenty-nine years. For seventeen years, until Rockingham’s death in 1782, Burke was the party whip and a major figure in British politics. Yet he never attained ministerial rank.

In the House of Commons Burke’s great literary and political talents found expression on the broad stage of national and world politics, including the affairs of Britain’s American colonies, Ireland, English domestic affairs, India, and France. Most of his political career was spent in opposition to the ministries of King George III on behalf of unpopular causes that almost always—at least at the time—went down to defeat. Through Burke the Rockingham Whigs were distinguished from all other political groups as the advocates of party government. Political parties in any modern sense did not exist in Burke’s time, but in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) he may be said to have originated the idea of “his majesty’s loyal opposition.”

Burke’s electrifying maiden speech in Parliament, which was given in January 1766 and urged repeal of the Stamp Act, catapulted him to national fame and established him as an expert on the American colonies. From May 1771 until military hostilities began, Burke was the agent in Parliament for the New York Colonial Assembly, a position that gave him valuable knowledge and understanding of the colonies. From beginning to end, Burke’s main purpose regarding Britain’s colonies was to preserve and harmonize American liberty and British sovereignty.

He was convinced that the conflict between Britain and America resulted from imprudent actions by the British government, including taxing the colonies without their consent and passing a series of repressive laws, which the colonists resisted through petitions of grievances, boycotts, and other means, and finally through military action that led ultimately to independence. Burke’s Speech on American Taxation (1774), Speech on Conciliation (1775), and A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777) were all unsuccessful attempts to persuade the king, his ministers, the majority in Parliament, and the British public of the folly of England’s policy toward the colonies and the great danger in attempting to coerce the Americans into obedience.

Burke never believed that the colonies sought independence on speculative or ideological theories of abstract “rights,” but rather that they rebelled as disaffected subjects of Britain who wished to preserve their constitutional rights. Burke never referred to the conflict as the American Revolution, but as the American war, a civil war within the British Empire, in which America “was purely on the defensive.” As the war of rebellion continued, Burke became convinced that the colonies were lost to Britain, and he was among the first to willingly grant independence to the colonies.

Burke’s devotion to the cause of constitutional liberty for America and his inveterate enmity against the French Revolution have commanded so much attention by historians that his lifelong concern with Irish affairs has been unduly neglected. Yet the first political work of his public life was his Tract Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland (1765), and his last published work was also on Ireland.

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