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Political History - Modern Conservatism: Part 1 - 1760, It All Began With Edmund Burke [175]

Updated on March 11, 2013




YES AND NO. You will easily recongnize some of the principles being espoused then by Edmund Burke, commonly known as the Father of Conservatism, in 1770 and being repeated by the likes of Paul Ryan today. But then, there are several which you will find President Obama being the proponent. Burke established his principles of Conservatism in his defense of the American battle not for independence but for a form of commonwealth status, a status actually sought by most of our founding fathers before King George and Parliament made that dream impossible.

In an ironic twist of fate, which we will explore a bit later, and where the Conservative myth departs from Conservative reality, we find while Edmund Burke was a staunch supporter of America within the Brithish Parliament, he was just as strong opponent of the French revolution. In America, during the Washington and Adams administration, and during the battle for the 1801 Presidency the fight between John Adams and the Federalists; and Thomas Jefferson, with his Democratic Republicans was an amazingly nasty affair, almost leading to a real civil war. What was one of the two major issues? Support of the French in their revolution. John Adams-Federalists (strong central government) supported the British-Burke position (although Burke had died in 1797), while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans (weak central government) were very strong proponents of the French revolutionaries. Keep in mind the current view of the French by today's conservatives to complete the irony.

So, what did Edmund Burke and the original Conservatives believe in? Well, a mixture of conflicting philosophies, some of which are considered conservative today and others which people probably consider rather liberal now. Let's consider them.


Today's conservatives are frequently referred to as "reactionaries", as opposed to liberals being called radicals. The term 'reactionary' derives from the French revolution, as do 'conservative', and 'right'. According to Wikipedia, "The French Revolution gave the English language three politically descriptive words denoting anti-progressive politics: reactionary, conservative and right. Reactionary derives from the French word réactionnaire (an early nineteenth-century coinage), and conservative from conservateur, identifying monarchist parliamentarians opposed to the revolution.[4] In this French usage, reactionary denotes "a movement towards the reversal of an existing tendency or state" and a "return to a previous condition of affairs."

To Edmund Burke, being Conservative meant being a traditionalist, to keep things the same, to maintain the status quo and if things must change, change must happen slowly. He had moved beyond the tradition of believing in a pure monarchy; that was too conservative. But he did think that a monarchy was a necessity so long as it was leavened by a Parliament consisting of aristocratic property owners.

The French Revolution turned this on its head, which was why he opposed it. The American challenge to Brittain, however, did not. All the Americans wanted to do was copy England except with a Parliament of property owning American aristocrats still holding alligiance to the same King, thereby maitaining tradition.

Regarding the American Independence movement, Burke had this to say on April 19, 1774, about the repeal of the tea duty:

"Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it.... Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it.... Do not burthen them with taxes.... But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question.... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side...tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation either to his feelings or to his understandings.[47]"

However, in a speech declaring his views on the French Revolution, he said this:

"Since the House had been prorogued in the summer much work was done in France. The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures...[there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy...[in religion] the danger of their example is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind; which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.[71]"

The difference between the two feelings is that the Americans were trying to work within the British system and adapt it to our puculiar situation, maintaining the monorchy while the French chose to throw the "baby-out-with-the-bathwater", as it were.


EDMUND BURKE'S STYLE OF CONSERVATIVISM REJECTS the theory of the "Rights of Man", as proposed by Thomas Paine, a political enemy, and embraces the need for societal prejudice and class structure, In Burke's view, there is no such thing as a "social contract" between the people and their government; only a contract between themselves and their Christian God. Instead, Burke's conservative principles took him back to tradition and the creation of the British Constitution as the legitimate source of "men's rights" and made this famous quote, that a nation, or those who comprise a nation is a compact between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who will be born."

In "Reflections on the Revolution in France", Burke observes, regarding where Englishmen derived their rights to liberty, that:

The Revolution was made to preserve our antient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.... The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror. We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon [scion] alien to the nature of the original plant.... Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta. You will see that Sir Edward Coke, [a hero of Thomas Jefferson] that great oracle of our law, and indeed all the great men who follow him, to Blackstone, are industrious to prove the pedigree of our liberties. They endeavour to prove that the ancient charter... were nothing more than a re-affirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom.... In the famous law... called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, "Your subjects have inherited this freedom", claiming their franchises not on abstract principles "as the rights of men", but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers.[81]"

In this statement, Edmund Burke rejects the ideas of "natural rights", "social contracts", and the "rights of men" as put forward by John Locke, Thomas Hobbs, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine, You can easily see the sense of tradition of in Burke's statement as he continually refers to Englishmen "inheriting the rights to liberty" from historical English documents and actions. Further, Burke claims that:

"We fear God, we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected".[82]

Clearly, this 1780s Conservative viewpoint is at odds with the modern liberal view of where individual liberty derives from.

Regarding "Class Structure and Prejudice" an excerpt from Wikipidia gives us some insight:

"Burke's ideas placing property at the base of human development and the development of society were radical and new at the time. Burke believed that property was essential to human life. Because of his conviction that people desire to be ruled and controlled, the division of property formed the basis for social structure, helping develop control within a property-based hierarchy. He viewed the social changes brought on by property as the natural order of events that should be taking place as the human race progressed. With the division of property and the class system, he also believed that it kept the monarch in check to the needs of the classes beneath the monarch. Since property largely aligned or defined divisions of social class, class too was seen as natural—part of a social agreement that the setting of persons into different classes is the mutual benefit of all subjects."

Now, this quote from Wikipedia does not have a source. So, I provide the following quote from Burke's "Thoughts on the French Revolution" to provide insight to both his prejudice and his belief in class structure and to bolster the Wikipedia article:

"The Chancellor of France, at the opening of the states, said, in a tone of oratorical flourish, that all occupations were honorable. If he meant only that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in asserting that anything is honorable, we imply some distinction in its favor. The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person — to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they,either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature."

This statement leaves no doubt in my mind where Edmund Burke stands on the role of class structure in society and government.


EDMUND BURKE DOES NOT THINK MUCH OF DEMOCRACY, period. This belief, felt by many of the founding fathers. Again, referring to Wikipedia (the source is the footnote at the end):

"Burke was a leading skeptic with respect to democracy. While admitting that theoretically in some cases it might be desirable, he insisted a democratic government in Britain in his day would not only be inept but also oppressive. He opposed democracy for three basic reasons. [1)] First, government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. [2)] Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. [3] Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.[58]"

Again, we see evidence of Burke's prejudice against the lower classes and support of a class system. Yet, as we shall shortly find out, he began the movement toward religious freedom. In any case, those who framed the Constitution after it was clear the Articles of Confederation was a failure understood these problems with pure democracy and constructed our republican form of government in such a way as to avoid its pitfalls.


ACCORDING TO CONSERVAPEDIA, EDMUND BURKE, firmly believed that "a national established church a requirement for sound government." Edmund Burke was the son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother; unusual for his day. His early education was at a Quaker school and his advanced education at Trinity College, he remained a committed Anglican Christian after that. was

Unlike many conservatives today who are more of a fundamentalist pursuasion, Burke was not particularly dogmatic but his faith in Christianity was profound and he held no tolerance for non-Christians or atheists. On the other hand, Burke was at the forefront of preaching tolerance within the Christian faith itself, especially between Catholics and Protestants.

Bottom-line, no separation between church and state.


EDMUND BURKE BELIEVED POLITICAL PARTIES WERE a fundamental necessity to the good order of government. During his time, most people in England considered a political party to be, at best, a group that followed a powerful leader, or, at worst, a faction of political schemers. Burke, on the other hand, thought of a political party as having a beneficial purpose, as "a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed." and a politician as "the philosopher in action" who attempted to implement a principle by enacting party programs. Burke himself was a Whig, in opposition to Torries. The fundamental difference between the two at the time was the relationship between the King and the Pariament. Whigs were of the mind that the King and Parliament were on at least equal footing if not Parliament holding the upper hand, while the Torries held that the Monarch was supreme.

Just a few years later, the framers of the U.S. Constitution tried to reject this idea and created a government built around the theory of "no Party". George Washington did his best to keep this hope alive, but it quickly succumbed to human nature with the creation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties in America.

Nevertheless, in Burke's conservative world, there is obviously a place for political parties.


WHILE EDMUND BURKE DIDN'T BELIEVE IN THE "RIGHT'S OF MAN" AND "SOCIAL CONTRACT" theories, his belief in those things via the route of tradition, meaning the British Constitution, was very strong and broad. He believed it applied to all Englishmen at home but those abroad as well. Consequently, not only was "no taxation without representation" a by-phrase in the colonies, so was it in Parliament, at least when Burke and his adherents were speaking. They asserted that,

"Throughout English history, he reminded his colleagues in Parliament, taxation had always been at the center of the English fight for freedom. English liberty, he said, was founded on the principle that the people must "possess the power of granting their own money" to the government." [CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION, Bill of Rights in Action, Summer 2007 (Volume 23, No. 2)]

That was his fundamental argument, and a winning one while the Whigs were in power before the French Indian war, that led to the benevolent overlooking by Parliament of most laws that impinged of the colonial rights of self-government and economic freedom. Burke went so far as to argue that Parliament didn't have the right to govern the colonies at all because they were too far removed to provide the proper representation which the British Constitution guaranteed all Englishmen (sound familiar?). Only the colonialists were in a position to govern themselves as proper subjects of the monarch and subservient to the Church of England.

While Burke's conservatism clearly embraced a church-state relationship, his beliefs in individual liberty led his fight to end laws that prohibited non-Protestants, except for atheists, from voting, holding public office, establishing schools, and even working in certain jobs. These prohibitions were largely confined to Ireland, although non-Protestants were discriminated against elsewhere as well. It is interesting to note that America's Pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic because of Protestant-on-Protestant discrimination, the out of power faction left England to establish their version, and only their version of Protestantism elsewhere.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the greatest of friends and bitterest of enemies during their lifetimes, and ended up on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common, the belief that for America to survive as a United States vs a united States, the People must be "Virtuous", in their application of the liberty which they have gained for this new nation to work. In those days, "virtuous" generally took on the Platonic and Aristotelian interpretations. Perhaps they both drew part of their inspiration from Burke when he said, regarding liberty:

“But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”
Edmund Burke


EDMUND BURKE WAS NOT REALLY A PHILOSOPHER, not in the normal sense anyway; he wrote only one philosophical book. Rather, he was a politician who, in the course of laying out his political vision, he simultaneously created new philosophical basis for conservatism, the essence of which was touched on in sections above. It is time, therefore, to draw them into some type of cohesive whole, which I think many of you might recognize.

OK, so what are, according to Burke, the fundamental underpinnings of being Conservative?

You must believe:

  • Liberty is an individual right
  • Liberty is not absolute and must be regulated by individual virtue or face losing it
  • The "Rights of Man" and related ideas are derived from tradition and not divinely
  • That the status quo is preferable to change, and if change must happen, it needs to happen slowly
  • That neither a democracy nor a monarchy alone is preferable to a representative Parliament balanced by a monarch.
  • Representatives must legislate according to their conscience rather as a puppet of their constituency
  • The Protestant Church must be integral in the operation of government
  • Conservatives must be tolerant of all religions but intolerant of atheists.
  • That egalitarianism is a not natural to human nature, rather what is natural, and should be maintained, is the historic class structure and gender distinctions
  • That those who cannot be fairly represented in Parliament due to external reasons (meaning the American colonies in this case), have a right to represent themselves under the King.
  • That there is a need for political parties.


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    • adagio4639 profile image

      Larry Allen Brown 

      3 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      You're absolutely right. I put up a Hub on Conservatism and Racism that didn't go over well with one particular guy. But he's completely unaware of the origins of his own ideology and it's reliance on Tradition and traditional values and unaware that White Supremacy is a Southern Conservative traditional value. He has no clue about Burke, let alone Russell Kirk. Most conservatives are totally unaware of either of them. They seem to think that their ideology just sprung up out of thin air I guess. When you present information like you have, they think that your making this stuff up. If they ever bothered to ask themselves where did this ideology come from, they'd find that it took them right to Burke as you've pointed out.

      Conservatism is that system of ideas employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against any fundamental challenge to its nature or being, no matter from what quarter.

      The Civil Rights movement was a direct challenge to the existing institutions of the time, and conservatism as an ideology is thus a reaction to a system under challenge, a defense of the status – quo in a period of intense ideological and social conflict. The very notion of a race of people that was; at our beginnings as a country, only considered to be 3/ 5’ s of a human being, now having equal footing with those that actually believed in this idea, is a direct challenge to a long held traditional social concept . It denied the idea of white supremacy as legitimate. It’s surprising how many people still cling to this idea, and will go to extreme lengths to perpetuate it. The idea that a person that could have been your slave at one time, could today be your boss, or even President of the United States, is more than some people can deal with on an emotional level. White supremacy as an institution is renounced, discredited, and dismantled, and that is a major blow to an existing traditional order and value, and conservatism is always a reaction to a challenge to an existing order. These are people that desperately need somebody to look down to in order to validate their own self-worth. “Sure, life is tough. But at least I’m White.” They can no longer rely on a policy that used to be institutionally enforceable. When that is removed by law, hostility is the result; hostility for those that have been emancipated by law and elevated to equal status, and hostility for the law itself including those that proposed it and passed it.

      I think most of them may have heard of Burke, but know nothing about him. "The human condition is a condition first and foremost, of fumbling in the dark. He says, just to give you a flavor of this), "The science of constituting a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori."

      So here you can see a complete resistance to the logical reasoning that drove Hobbes and Locke in thinking about the structure of mathematics and a system of axioms.

      Conservatives like to claim that they use logic and reason when it's actually not in their DNA at all. Burke has, rather than a theory, he has an attitude or a disposition, an outlook, and that outlook is informed first and foremost by extreme distrust not only of science, but of anybody who claims to have scientific knowledge. You can tell from this the influence that he's had on modern Conservatives that don't accept evolution or deny climate change. They don't trust science. Neither did Burke. It's the Anti-Enlightenment in full bloom. Burke is a traditionalist conservative. He thinks that tradition is the core of human experience, and he thinks whatever wisdom we have about politics is embedded in the traditions that we have inherited. "They have served us over centuries," this is his view writing at the end of the eighteenth century, "they have served us for centuries. And so science is a really bad idea when applied to political and social arrangements because there isn't scientific knowledge, and anybody who claims to have it is either a charlatan or a fool, perhaps both.

      It's astonishing to me that so few conservatives recognize where their ideas actually come from. And even fewer have ever heard of Kirk, and Kirk just ripped off Burke and repackaged him for the 20th Century and people like Reagan bought into it probably never asking or looking any deeper than what Kirk wrote. Burke was very class conscious as was Kirk ( no surprise there) and Kirk justified prejudice and class consciousness as essential to the conservative mind. These were traditional values and that made them acceptable.

      Thanks for writing this Hub. Conservatives will avoid it, or else they'll tell you that you don't know what you're talking about...but I know that you do. I think that the strongest approach to debating these people is to NEVER define them or conservatism. They'll just deny it or tell you that you don't know anything about it. I let conservatives define themselves, and by that I mean I go to the source; the very men that defined conservatism. Burke, Kirk, Mannheim, Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation. These are the people that gave us the doctrine, the dogma, and the Canon that is called Conservatism. Reagan accepted them as Conservative, and I guess he knew something about that subject. He qualifies as Mr. Conservative in this country.

      Again, great Hub.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      3 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thank you, adagio4639, for your great, informative comment. Yes, most who call themselves conservative today want to redefine it in the image of a minimal-state liberal. When I mention this, they become quite upset at being called a liberal, lol.

      It is ironic, however, that Burke was a great defender of "America" in Parliament, but not for the normal reasons.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      Larry Allen Brown 

      3 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      Thanks for this very informative piece on Burke. I would wager that not many conservatives today ever heard of him. That's unfortunate because I think it's pretty important to understand the origins of the ideology that you embrace, and most of them don't. Burke IS the father of modern Conservatism. He was also the leading voice of the Anti-Enlightenment. He was a Traditionalist-Conservative. And American Conservatism is rooted in maintaining and preserving traditional values and existing institutions. Unfortunately that sometimes included some of the worst traditions and values imaginable. It's also strange that so few Conservatives know anything about Russell Kirk. He wrote the book, The Conservative Mind back in 1953 and it's really just warmed over Burke and updated for an audience that never heard of Burke. So a lot of people including Ronald Reagan thought that Kirk had come up with something great. A novel idea. Kirk described six basic “canons” or principles of conservatism:

      1. A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society.

      2. Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity.

      3. Civilized society requires orders and classes.

      4. Property and freedom are inseparably connected.

      5. Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason.

      6. Society must alter slowly.

      As you can see.....It's pure Burke. So Russell Kirk co-opts Burke and President Reagan gives him the Medal of Freedom for his great contributions to the Conservative movement. Wonderful

      Burke as the leading voice of the Anti-Enlightenment had a strange view of rights and was class conscious to the max. He is famous for propounding the doctrine that a Member of Parliament— which he was for a good part of his life— owes it to his constituents not to sacrifice his judgment to conform to their opinions. ( so screw the constituents...he knows best)

      He was unimpressed by the human capacity for reason to understand much, let alone to reshape the world in accordance with the particular wills of any generation. ( so screw logic and reason too.) and he was utterly dismissive of abstract doctrines of the rights of man But he was committed to the importance of protecting inherited rights and liberties from encroachment. So the only rights that he considered were the inherited rights of Englishmen. He had no concept of 'human rights" at all.

      "From Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our abilities, as an entailed inheritance derived from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any more general or prior right…. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and an house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors." Burke enjoyed being a part of the Aristocracy and wasn't about to let others into that exclusive club.

      Thanks again for this informative Hub on the origins of Conservatism. It's too bad Conservatives don't really know where their thinking comes from.


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