Edmund Burke was born in Dublin in 1729. Educated in this city, it was not long before he quit ‘the bogs of Ireland’ and moved to London, where he got the job of being private secretary to Lord Rockingham in 1765, when Burke was 36. So far so slow, but the Irishman never wasted a moment of his long apprenticeship with Rockingham, which lasted until the latter’s death in 1872.
Edmund assumed his dead mentor’s mantle as leader of the ‘Rockingham Whigs’ (liberals) becoming a Member of Parliament in 1874. Thoughts on the present Discontent, his first important essay was published in 1780. In it he justified the concept of ‘party’ (most unpopular in the eighteenth century, when such an idea made people see plots and conspiracies when others gathered together under one label). Edmund Burke thought differently; he saw a party as a body of men united by common principles. He saw MPs as they should be – independent representatives following their own judgment, and conscience, should they have one, acting for the good of all men and not permitting restraint by their own constituents.
Importantly, Burke wrote a series of essays defending the rights of American colonists in the fight for independence, works still studied today, He supported the cry for no taxation without representation. His word spread rapidly across the Thirteen Colonies, so much so that it would not be exaggerating to say he was better known in America than in England (or Ireland). But he was Irish, and he did support the rebellious colonists, and paid the price in popularity.
Another bugbear of Burke’s was the ever-rising tide of corruption in politics, far worse in the eighteenth century than it is now, though today’s smells just as bad. Burke helped impeach Warren Hastings for supposed corruption in India. He even attacked (verbally) the Monarchy, called for more stringent control of royal patronage, an act which made the Georges unfriendly and unsympathetic.
In 1790 he surprised most thinking people by coming out as a theorist of counter-revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France. He chose to make fun of abstract natural rights, preferring the importance of instinct and emotion, custom, tradition and habit. He wrote that the best constitutions are those which are the product of many minds over a long period, much superior to theories produced by a single and limited intelligence. He pronounced: “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise”. Outraged by what was happening in terrorised France, Burke saw an urgent need for tradition, rank, property and religion, because, he stressed, of the imperfections and weaknesses of human nature.
He was not altogether opposed to change, but thought it should be limited to particular evils, and that no attempt to change all society rules and tenets should be made (“we must reform in order to preserve”).
Historians claim that Burke’s account of the origins of the French Revolution is ill-informed. He simply saw it as a ‘conspiracy of the moneyed interest’ (landowning) and philosophies dedicated to the destruction of Christianity, and of course time has proved him correct. Edmund Burke was among the first thinkers to spot that it would be the newly rich, whose fortunes came from acquiring property cheaply or even gratis, using the mob as an implement, who would shortly rule France; that camels were really horses designed by committees; that forced taxation would lead to national bankruptcy; that poverty would lead to violence and the Terror and that this would end when some popular general, possessing the true spirit of command, would draw the eyes of all men upon himself.
Burke’s Reflections was translated into German, Spanish, French and Italian and became one of the world’s first ‘best-sellers’, but his dislike of the French Revolution ended his friendship with Charles James Fox (who was all for it) , and split the Liberals.
Edmund left politics in 1794 and he died in 1797, but his influence is still with us. His works are quoted from almost every day in the world press, somewhere, along with Descartes and others. His words are said to have influenced Metternich himself.