Edmund Burke, one of the greatest political writers and orators in history, is born in Arran Quay, Dublin, on January 12, 1729. British statesman, parliamentary orator, and political thinker, he plays a prominent part in all major political issues for about thirty years after 1765, and remains an important figure in the history of political theory.
Burke is the son of a mixed marriage – his father, a solicitor, is protestant, his mother is Roman Catholic. He enters Trinity College, Dublin in 1744, and studies law at Middle Temple in London in 1750. He fails to secure a call to the bar and instead begins a literary career. He writes several books and is editor of the The Annual Register before entering politics. Burke’s A Vindication of Natural Society is published in 1756 and in 1757 A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful appears. Also on March 12, 1757, Burke marries Jane Nugent, the daughter of Christopher Nugent, an Irish Catholic doctor.
His political career begins in 1765 when he becomes the private secretary of one of the Whig leaders in the Parliament of Great Britain, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. Burke soon proves to be one of the main characters in the constitutional controversy in Britain under George III, who at the time is trying to establish more actual power for the crown. Although the crown has lost some influence under the first two Georges, one of the major political problems in 18th century Britain is the fact that both the king and Parliament have considerable control over the executive. Burke responds to these affairs in his pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), in which he argues that although George’s actions are legal in the sense that they are not against the letter of the constitution, they are all the more against it in spirit. In the pamphlet Burke elaborates on his famous and new justification of a 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.”
Concerning the imperial controversy at the time, Burke argues that the British government has acted in a both unwise and inconsistent manner. Again, Burke claims that Britain’s way of dealing with the colony question is strictly legal and he urges that also “claims of circumstance, utility, and moral principle should be considered, as well as precedent.” In other words, if the British, persistently clinging to their narrow legalism, are not to clash with the ideas and opinions of the colonists on these matters, they will have to offer more respect and regard for the colonies’ cause. Burke calls for “legislative reason” in two of his parliamentary speeches on the subject, On American Taxation (1774) and On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation With America (1775). However, British imperial policy in the controversy continues to ignore these questions.
Burke’s view of the revolution in France is a much different story. He publishes Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, attacking the revolution’s motives and principles. Many writers oppose his views, the most famous being Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man. Burke is a consistent advocate of Catholic emancipation, which politically damages him, but he is never an advocate of self-rule for the Irish.
Edmund Burke dies in London on July 9, 1797. Many quotes from his writings and orations have come down through the years, perhaps one is most applicable to the situation in Ireland today: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”