Edmund Burke Biography
BURKE, EDMUND (1729-97) An English statesman and orator. He was born in Dublin, where his father had an extensive practice as an attorney. As a schoolboy he displayed those traits of character and the germs of those powers which ultimately gave him greatness. His preparatory training was gained at a school in Ballitore, county Kildare, kept by Abraham Shackleton, a member of the Society of Friends. To this man, whom he always held in affectionate esteem, he believed he owed the best part of his education. In 1743 Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he seems mainly to have devoted himself to his favorite studies of poetry, oratory, history, and metaphysics. He made himself acquainted with Latin writers, particularly with Cicero, whom he accepted as a model in eloquence, in policy, in ethics, and philosophy. In February, 1748, he graduated B.A. and in 1751 took his degree as master of arts. In the interval (1750), being destined for the English bar, he proceeded to London, to keep his terms at the Middle Temple, where he had been entered in 1748. To legal studies, however, he never took kindly, and ultimately he abandoned the idea of becoming a barrister. During the years 1750-56 he would appear to have occupied himself mainly in traveling through England and on the Continent, enjoying the society of literary men. When yet at the university Burke had achieved a local reputation for literary talent and eloquence. Among the compositions of his undergraduate life the most noticeable perhaps is his translation of the conclusion of the Second Georgic of Vergil, which shows poetic talent of no mean order. His first important publication, however, was the celebrated Vindication of Natural Society, written in imitation and ridicule of the style and reasoning of Lord Bolingbroke, in which, with well-concealed irony, he endeavored to confute his lordship's views of society by a reductio ad absurdum. This work, published anonymously in 1756, attracted considerable attention. Soon after, in the same year, appeared his well-known essay, The Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful-a work which gained the praise of Johnson and Lessing.
The essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, although of little real value, attained rapid popularity, and its author soon found himself courted by all the eminent men of his time. Garrick was already one of his friends; among them he soon could count Reynolds, Soame Jenyns, Lord Lyttelton, Goldsmith, Hume, and Dr. Johnson. Notwithstanding this popularity his progress continued slow; for three years he had to occupy himself with periodical writing, devoting his leisure principally to political subjects. What is considered a joint work of Burke and his cousin, William Burke, appeared in 1757-An Account of the European Settlements in America-and shows how carefully at this date he had studied the condition of the Colonies. During the next year he began his writing for the Annual Register, the first volume of which appeared in 1759. In 1761 Mr. W. G. Hamilton (Single-speech Hamilton), then Secretary for Ireland, having appointed him his private secretary, he returned to Dublin, where during two years' service he demonstrated his aptitude for political business, receiving in 1763, in reward for his services, a pension on the Irish establishment of £300, which, however, he did not long enjoy.
Returning to London in 1764, he became a member of the literary club which met at the Turk's Head in Gerard Street, and whose history is associated with almost every considerable name in the literature of the period. But literary society did not call off his attention from the chances of a political career. He became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, on his becoming Premier (1765), and entered Parliament as a member for Wendover (1766). Here his eloquence at once gave him the reputation of being the first man in the Commons. The Rockingham administration, however, lived only a few months, and with it terminated this, his second political employment. He was successively member for Wendover, Bristol, and Malton; his parliamentary life extended without intermission to 1794. Twice he held the post of paymaster of the forces, once under Rockingham, and again under Lord North, with the standing of a privy councilor. After a career in Parliament remarkable for the laboriousness, earnestness, and brilliancy with which every duty was discharged, and extending over nearly 30 years, he retired at last, receiving the thanks of the Commons for his numerous public services, and rewarded by the government, on the express request of his sovereign, with pensions amounting in all to several thousand pounds. He administered the office of paymaster of the forces with scrupulous regard to public economy and sacrificed all the perquisites of his office, exhibiting a severe integrity then unusual among public men. In his relations with the constituency of Bristol, which was alienated from him by his advocacy of the claims of the Roman Catholics and of the opening up of the trade of Ireland, he was the first to maintain the doctrine of the independence of parliamentary representatives-that they are not machines to vote for measures approved by their constituencies simply for that reason, but men and thinkers chosen by them calmly to consider and legislate for the good of the Commonwealth. During his career he rendered more important service to the cause of humanity than any other man of his time in Europe: he prepared the way for the abolition of the slave-trade, a measure which was destined to ripen to success in the hands of Wilberforce; he advocated the cause of humanity in India against the voracious greed of stockholders, who regarded its millions simply as materials for plunder, and largely contributed to improve the government of that country. Towards America he advocated a policy of justice and conciliation, which had it been adopted would have averted the horrors of the War of Independence and retained the Colonies in amity with the mother country. To the advocacy of every cause which he espoused he brought a capacity for patient research that was unlimited and an eloquence that has seldom been equalled.
Burke produced a vast number of writings on many subjects. Among the more important are: Observations on a Pamphlet on the Present State of the Nation (1769), replying to a paper variously ascribed to Fox or Grenville; On the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770); the celebrated speech in 1788 opening the trial of Warren Hastings (q.v.), and the equally famous speeches on American Taxation (1774) and on Conciliation with America (1775), which may perhaps be regarded as the most splendid monuments of his eloquence and statesmanship. On the other hand, with strange inconsistency, Burke resisted the movement for the reform of parliamentary representation; and he failed utterly to grasp the true meaning of the French Revolution. In 1790 appeared his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which had a remarkable success. Eleven editions were issued within the first year, and by 1797 more than 30,000 copies had been sold. It was received with delight by George III and by every enemy of the Revolution; yet, as a contribution to the literature of social history, the book is worthless. Burke was an ardent lover of order; and, deceived by the violence of the Jacobins, the man who had stood so bravely for the rights of the English colonists and the Hindus was unable to perceive that the French people were struggling to free themselves from a class despotism far more oppressive. In his Rights of Man Thomas Paine made a trenchant reply to Burkes book; and it was also answered by Mackintosh in Vindiciú Gallicú, by Mary Wollstonecraft, John Thelwall, and some 30 other pamphleteers. Concerning its value there is the greatest divergence of opinion. To many it is the consummation of political wisdom; to others it appears unreliable, unfair, illogical, and intemperate. But friend and foe alike agree that it is the last great effort of Burke. From the day of its publication to the day of his death the mental powers of Burke steadily declined, as did also his influence.
Few men have been the subjects of higher panegyric than Burke, and, on the whole, few have better deserved praise. He was noble-minded, pure in his life, and a purist in politics. Intellectually he was most richly endowed. Possessing imagination, rare powers of observation, and indefatigable industry, there was no subject which he could not master, and none which, having mastered, he could not expound with unparalleled richness of language. But with these virtues and powers were conjoined defects, which, without bating their greatness, largely neutralized their influence. He was, it may be said, too literary to be a philosopher and too philosophic to be a politician. His career would seem to illustrate this position. His oratory astounded by its brilliancy rather than persuaded by its tone and argument; and in the long run the eloquence which failed to command the reason ceased to captivate the ear. The man who at first evoked the enthusiasm of the House by the brilliancy and power of his eloquence, did actually at last empty it by persistence in the monotonous splendors of his speeches. Passionate and in a great degree intractable, he was unsuited for party politics and drifted from all his connections, breaking up slowly all party ties and even the ties of friendship, till he reached at last almost a state of political isolation. At the same time it must not be forgotten how great an influence he, half philosopher, half politician, exercised on the counsels of the state; many of his views on politics and public economy were anticipations of science, as many of his previsions of the course of events were prophecies. He died on July 8, 1797.
There is an excellent edition of Burkes Works in 12 vols. (Boston, 1871); reprinted in 6 vols. in the Bohn series (London, 1880). His Letters, in 4 vols., were edited by Earl Fitzwilliam and Sir R. Bourke (London, 1844); and they are reprinted in the edition of the Works (London, 1852).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 178-179.