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Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Edmund Burke was born on 1 January 1729 (Old Style; 12 January New Style). His stated birthplace is Dublin although there is a strong tradition in County Cork that Burke was actually born at Ballywater, Shanballymore (Connor Cruise O'Brien, The Great Melody, 1992). Although his mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic and his father, Richard - a solicitor - had converted to Anglicanism, Burke was educated from 1741 at Abraham Shackleton's Quaker boarding school in Ballitore, Co. Kildare. Edmund Burke was brought up as an Anglican in order that he would not be limited by the Williamite Penal Laws against Catholics. In 1744 Burke successfully sat the entrance examinations for Trinity College, Dublin. He took his final examinations in 1748 and in 1750 he embarked on his legal training at the Middle Temple in London but appears to have lost interest in the Law as a career. He left England and spent some time wandering around England and France. He then took up a career in writing. His early publications include

In 1757 Burke married Jane Nugent, a Catholic; also it is from this time that his friendships with literary and artistic people such as Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and David Garrick began. In 1759 Burke became an assistant to William Gerard Hamilton MP. When Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland in April 1761 he asked Burke to accompany him as his private secretary, a job Burke accepted. Consequently, Burke had an officially minor, but significant role in the government of Ireland between 1761 and 1764 when Hamilton was dismissed. The two men quarrelled irrevocably in April 1765 and Hamilton terminated Burke's employment. Despite strong advice to the contrary, the second Marquis of Rockingham appointed Burke as his private secretary in July 1765; Burke remained with Rockingham until the marquis died in July 1782.

Rockingham, who was in the throes of establishing his first Ministry in 1765, arranged for Burke to enter parliament as MP for Lord Verney's pocket borough of Wendover at an election in December of that year. As Rockingham's private secretary, Burke became privy to the affairs of the inner circle of Rockingham Whigs and was employed to articulate the ideas of the party. The most famous of his works, which did this, was Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontent, published in 1770 after the leading Rockinghamites had read and amended Burke's first draft. The book appeared at the end of the Decade of Ministerial Instability.

In Thoughts, Burke argued that George III's actions in appointing ministers on personal grounds was favouritism and instead, public approval by the people through Parliament should determine the selection of the Prime Minister. This pamphlet includes Burke's famous, and new, justification of party, defined as a body of men united on public principle, which could act as a constitutional link between king and Parliament, providing consistency and strength in administration, or principled criticism in opposition.

Rockingham's first ministry (1765-6) was taken up by problems in America. Britain's imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765, along with other measures, provoked unrest and opposition, which soon developed into disobedience and conflict. Opposed to coercion, the Rockingham administration repealed the Stamp Act but asserted Britain's right to impose taxation when it passed the Declaratory Act in 1766. However, the Declaratory Act was the "price" Rockingham had to pay to get the Stamp Act repealed, and he had no intention of implementing the Declaratory Act. Rockingham's measures alleviated the difficulties with the colonies but subsequent administrations revived the attempts to tax America, resulting in war in 1775. Throughout the Anglo-American troubles, Burke followed the Rockingham line of conciliation. Burke's best-known statements on America are two parliamentary speeches

In 1774 Burke was elected as an MP for Bristol. He held this seat for six years but lost the seat when, as part of an on-going disagreement with the electors, he told them that he was Member of Parliament, not the Member for Bristol, and would vote as he thought best for the country, even at the expense of his constituency. Having lost his seat, Rockingham ensured that Burke had a safe seat: for the rest of his parliamentary career he was MP for Malton, one of Lord Rockingham's pocket boroughs.

Ireland was a continual source of problems for English politicians in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. Roman Catholics were excluded by the Williamite Penal Laws from political participation and public office. To these disabilities were added widespread rural poverty and a backward economic life aggravated by commercial restrictions resulting from English commercial jealousy. Burke consistently advocated relaxation of the economic and penal regulations, and steps toward legislative independence. In these aims, again he found allies in the Rockingham Whigs who wanted to see religious toleration for all and a lifting of the anti-Catholic legislation.

When the Rockingham Whigs took office in 1782, a variety of legislation was passed, reducing pensions and emoluments of offices. Burke was specifically connected with an Act regulating the Civil List, the amount voted by Parliament for the personal and household expenses of the sovereign. After the death of Rockingham in 1782, Burke continued his parliamentary career as an independent MP. Increasingly, he became distanced from the "new" Whigs led by Charles James Fox.

Burke devoted many years to matters concerning India. By 1763, Britain controlled most of the sub-continent although the government of India tended to be through the officers of the East India Company. In the 1760s and 1770s, Burke opposed interference by the English government in the company's affairs as a violation of chartered rights. However he learned a great deal about the state of the company's government and decided that the corrupt state of Indian government could be remedied only if its vast patronage was in the hands neither of a company nor of the crown. He drafted the East India Bill of 1783 (Fox's India Bill), which proposed that India be governed by a board of independent commissioners in London. The Bill was defeated as the result of the king's intervention: George III used the India Bill as a means of removing the Fox-North Coalition. Burke's indignation centred on Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1772 to 1785 and it was at Burke's instigation that Hastings was impeached in 1787. The impeachment was probably an injustice to Hastings, who was honourably acquitted in 1794. At the conclusion of Hastings' impeachment, Burke retired from Parliament.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was greeted with much enthusiasm by some people in England. Burke was hostile to it and also was alarmed by the favourable English reaction. He was provoked into writing Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) it provoked a host of English replies, of which the best known is Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791-92). As a prediction of the course of the Revolution, Reflections was strikingly accurate. Burke opposed the French Revolution to the end of his life, demanding war against the new state. His hostility to the Revolution was challenged by Fox, an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. Their long friendship came to a dramatic end in a parliamentary debate in May 1791 over the events in France. The two men never spoke to each other again.

Burke's last years were overshadowed by the death of Richard, his only son, on whom his political ambitions centred. He continued to write, defending himself from his critics, deploring the condition of Ireland, and opposing any recognition of the French government. Burke died on July 9, 1797 at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

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Last modified 19 December, 2012

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