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Who was Edmund Burke?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Edmund Burke was a British statesman, born in Dublin in 1729, son of a lawyer. His father was a Protestant, in which faith Edmund himself was brought up, but his mother was a Roman Catholic, and this, together with the fact that he was educated at a Quaker school, perhaps gave him the foundations of the tolerance which he later applied to religious questions. In 1748 he graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and two years later came to London. In 1756 his first published works appeared: A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire on the views of Bolingbroke, and Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful. In the same year Burke married Jane Nugent. Burke's mind was now turning from abstract speculation to the solution of the political and economic problems of the time. His Abridgment of the History of England was partially printed during 1757, but was not published in full until after his death. In 1758, when the events of the Seven Years War were just beginning to turn in Britain's favour, Burke put forward the idea of the Annual Register, a publication which was to give a review of the chief events and movements of the year. The first volume of this work appeared in 1759, and Burke's active connection with the publication continued until 1788, and probably even after that date he had much to do with it.

He gradually came to be well known in society, and in 1765 he was appointed private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham, who had just been made prime minister. In 1765 he was returned to Parliament for Wendover, and the following year began his career as an active politician. He spoke on the American question and against his party when he made his maiden speech, and soon became one of the most eloquent and powerful speakers in the House. In 1766 the Rockingham ministry was overthrown, and Burke spent a short time in Ireland. On his return he was offered a post in the administration which the Earl of Chatham was forming, but declined to leave his old leader, and became during the session one of the leading members of the Opposition. In 1769 he published Observations on a late Publication on the Present State of the Nation, and made a brilliant criticism of the policy of Grenville. In 1770 appeared his famous Thoughts on the Present Discontents, in which he attacked the existing system of government, with its basis in court patronage. He criticised the policy of the House towards the printing of reports of the proceedings, and was himself bitterly attacked, being without the slightest foundation charged with the authorship of the Letters of Junius. In 1774 began the famous alliance between Burke and Charles James Fox, who, a youth of 25 at this time, had always regarded him as his political master. From 1774 until the outbreak of war in 1775 he was continually striving for conciliation with the American colonies. He was elected member for Bristol in this year, and introduced his famous resolutions for conciliation. The next few years were occupied with plans for economic reform and with pleadings for Catholic relief. His known advocacy of Catholic relief measures roused the anger of the people of London; nevertheless in 1781 he was re-elected to the Commons as MP for Malton. On the formation of the next Rockingham ministry he was not given Cabinet rank, but he became paymaster of the forces, an office which he tried to reform. In 1782 he lost his friend and leader, Rockingham. The Shelburne administration was overthrown by the unnatural coalition of Lord North and Fox, a coalition which Burke approved. He accepted again the office of paymaster of the forces under the Portland ministry and gave his attention to the question of India, being largely responsible for the drawing up of Fox's India Bill. The accession of Pitt to power threw great obstacles in his way, but he determined to bring Warren Hastings to justice for his alleged misdeeds. At first his chance of success seemed small, but the Opposition took the question up, and ultimately the impeachment moved by Fox was accepted by Pitt. In 1788 he began his famous speech on the impeachment, a speech which he concluded with a brilliant peroration; his efforts ended only with Hastings's acquittal in 1795.

In 1789, on the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke was asked his ideas on the subject. His answer was practically the Reflections on the Revolution, a book which saw nothing but evil in the outbreak of a disordered mob against the rule of law and order. The attack of the 'swinish multitude' could not be reconciled with his love of order, in which alone he saw liberty. His book created a great stir; it gave rise to at least two famous replies: The Rights of Man (Paine) and Vindiciae Gallicae (Mackintosh). It called forth the congratulations of the kingdom, of the King and of many of the sovereigns of Europe. But the French Revolution put an end to Burke's love of toleration; henceforth in projected reform he saw only revolution, and he even opposed the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts. His opinions on the Revolution, so widely different from those of his friend, Fox, led to the withdrawal of Burke from the party he had so long supported, and to a breach of his friendship with Fox. After his retirement from his party he set himself to lead the Whig thought back to the principles of 1688 and published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. He took little part in parliamentary life during the next session, and when he did, opposed toleration. During the remaining years he continued to criticise what he conceived to be the principles of the Revolution. In 1795 the impeachment of Hastings ended, and in July of that year Burke retired from Parliament. His retirement was made easier for him by the grant of a pension, but the death of his only surviving son just after his election to Parliament in succession to his father broke his heart, and he retired to Beaconsfield, a shattered man. In 1796 he began the publication of the Letters on a Regicide Peace, and he died the following year. Though his political influence was enormous in his own day, Burke is perhaps best remembered for his fine prose-writing, which has rarely been equalled.

Edmund Burke died in 1797.

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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I remember reading Burke's " Reflections on the French revolution" I'll have to go back and study him some more.The principles of the French revolution are not at all those of the American revolution.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Good hub on Burke. It has been along time since I studied him in college.I think it is time to take another look.

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