Vindication of Natural Society, George III, statesman, French Revolution, biography
[Edmund Burke, French Revolution]
Rockingham, Lord North, Warren Hastings, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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Edmund Burke biography
Reflections on the Revolution in France

  In January 1729 Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, where his father had a successful practice as an attorney. After a younger childhood of indifferent health where he often occupied himself through reading widely Burke was educated (from 1741) at a small private school in County Kildare and subsequently (from 1743) at Trinity College, Dublin.

  After his studies in Dublin, where he does not seem to have given any evidence of being a distinguished student, Burke studied law briefly (from 1750) in London before moreso embarking on a literary career. During these years Burke lived in considerable obscurity without the benefit of any advantageous connections. The switch away from the law towards literary pursuits seems to have led to a withdrawal of a paternal allowance that had previous helped to support his studies.

  In these times Burke was irregularly involved in several of London's numerous and informally organised debating societies and also earned a modest living writing for booksellers. His first important work was A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), which was represented as being a posthumous work flowing from the pen of the British statesman Henry Bolingbroke.
  Published anonymously, just a few years after Rousseau had famously lamented the many flaws of artificial society, it attracted considerable attention and was often taken as a serious statement of its authors beliefs rather than the satire it actually was. Soon afterward Burke published an essay, the Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1756).
  From 1759 he began a 30-year association with The Annual Register, a British yearbook of which he was editorial sponsor. In these times Burke had contacts with some of the more important literary figures in London and began to have ambitions towards embarking upon a political career and was helped in this by an introduction (in 1759) from one of his friends, Lord Charlemont, to a member of parliament named William Gerard Hamilton.

  After 1761, when he became private secretary to Hamilton after Hamilton's appointment as the British chief secretary for Ireland, Burke demonstrated his aptitude for political service. In this posting in the country of his birth Burke, as a person who was personally committed to order and justice, had plenty of opportunities to be reminded of certain civil disabilities to which Roman Catholics were subject and also of limitations that were placed by law on trades and industries in Ireland.

  In 1688 (in the case of William and Mary) and in 1714 (in the case of the "Hanoverian" George I) the British thrones had been settled on persons whose were chosen primarily because the alternative would be a catholic monarch who, rightly or wrongly, was seen as a potential suppressor of both political liberties and protestantism.
  From 1688 these "monarchs of choice" had found it necessary to act in consultation with the British "Political Nation" in pursuit of broadly agreed policies. From 1760 and the accession of George III however, a new Royal outlook became evident in that this monarch, deeming that external threats to his throne were effectively a thing of the past, decided to largely abandon any consultational approach in favour of a system based on attempts at appointing ministers who would follow policies approved by himself as King.

  There was a court sponsored ministry headed by the Earl of Bute (1760-3), that was replaced by a "whig" ministry led by George Grenville which offered to be somewhat responsive to the King's wishes. This ministry became unpopular at home, through such things as limitations on the press, and in the American colonies, through such things as the impositions of taxations, and was itself replaced by a more independent "whig" ministry in 1765.

  Burke became private secretary to the incoming (July 10th 1765) prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquis of Rockingham, and in January 1766 Burke was elected as a Whig to Parliament as a representative for the "pocket borough" (pocket boroughs being constituencies effectively in the gift of powerful persons - in this case a Lord Verney) of Wendover. Almost immediately Burke began to gain a reputation as a rising champion of a more principled approach to governance at home and abroad. From soon after his election Burke, in elevated and almost philosophical terms, sought the repeal of the Stamp Act that was so resented in the American colonies. Although this "Rockingham" administration only remained in office for about a year one measure they did secure was a repeal of the Stamp Act.

  Although Burke was to spend most of his twenty five or so years in parliamentary circles in opposition to policies as sponsored by George III (including those of the ministry of Lord North 1770-1782) he was nonetheless highly influential as a parliamentarian and political commentator. Later notable interjections by Burke into American colonial issues being a pamphlet, "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents" (1770), and two speeches, "On American Taxation" (1774) and "Conciliation with America" (1775), in which he urged a policy of justice and conciliation.

  Burke was elected as a member of parliament for Bristol (then the second city in England) in 1774 but lost this seat within a few years after championing such locally unpopular causes as the rights of catholics and a liberalisation of Irish trade. From 1782, and the fall of Lord North, Lord Rockingham briefly headed a ministry and Burke was appointed to a moderately well paid office of state.
  For the rest of his political life (to 1794) Burke sat in parliament for Malton a pocket borough that was initially under Lord Rockingham's, and then Lord Fitzwilliam's, control.

  Burke took a deep interest in India and advocated a reversal of the British policy that allowed the East India Company to exploit the population of that country. From 1781 parliament was made aware of most serious allegations against an Indian colonial official named Warren Hastings. After April 1783 much of Burke's time and effort went into the framing of an India Bill that was intended to provide for the government of India but his efforts were frustrated by the intruigues of the court party in the House of Lords in December 1783. In February, 1788, Burke began a four-day-long opening speech in Westminster Hall in impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings for high crimes and misdemeanors committed in India.
  Although Hastings was acquitted in 1795 after a trial that lasted seven years, Burke had made the English aware of the oppression in India and helped to lay the foundations for a moral and responsible public opinion in Britain in relation to India.

  The revolution in France was initially greeted with enthusiasm by many persons across Europe. Most of the leaders of the Whig interest were amongst those who showed some enthusiasm for events that they believed could well pave the way for advances by the kingdom of France and its people. Charles James Fox a prominent Whig, and sometime ally of Burke, said "How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best."

  Burke, who had in earlier times seemed to champion human rights in relation to the American colonies, Ireland and India soon appeared as a critic of the developments in France. A young frenchman wrote to Burke towards the late summer of 1789, the year of the first appearance of revolution in France, inquiring of Burke for his lack of enthusism. Burke wrote in reply setting out some of his reasoning and offered his correspondent his own interpretation of liberty.

  ... Permit me ... to tell You what the freedom is that I love and that to which I think all men intitled. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty. As if every man was to regulate the whole of his Conduct by his own will. the Liberty I mean is social; freedom. It is that state of things in which Liberty is secured by the equality of Restraint; A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one Man and no Number of men can find Means to trespass on the liberty of any Person or any description of Persons in the Society. This kind of Liberty is indeed but another name for Justice, ascertained by wise Laws, and secured by well constructed institutions. ...
  Burke continued his opposition with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event (November 1790). This hugely influential text, which was read in numerous editions throughout Europe, encouraged European rulers in their hostility to the French Revolution. Burke's opposition to the way the Revolution seemed to be tending was based on his perception that various assaults on the pre-existing feudal order, be they as they may in line with reason, were nonetheless fatally destructive of the practically necessary and inherently valuable stability of civil society.

  Burke retired from Parliament at its close of session in 1794, his son Richard, who despite his father's high ambitions was unfortunately lacking in abilities, succeeded in representing the constituency of Malton.
  Arrangements were made to raise Burke senior to the hereditary peerage as Lord Beaconsfield with an associated income that would be applicable across three generations. The untimely death of Richard Burke was a most grievious personal blow to his father and also rendered this bestowal of a peerage impractical. Burke was however awarded a substantial pension (£2,500) for the remainder of his days.

  Edmund Burke died on July 8th, 1797, and although there were proposals that his remains should be interred in Westminster Abbey Burke's will left explicit instructions that interrment should take place after a private funeral at Beaconsfield.

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Edmund Burke
Reflections on the Revolution in France