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Who Was Edmund Burke?

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke

by Conor Cruise O’Brien
University of Chicago Press, 692 pp., $34.95


Edmund Burke died 195 years ago, but he remains the most appealing of conservative writers—not least because it is unclear whether he is a conservative at all. He supported Catholic Emancipation in his native Ireland, he was revered in revolutionary America for his defense of the colonists’ rights, he was a ferocious critic of the Crown’s meddling in British politics, and an anticolonialist before his time. Isaac Kramnick’s interesting study, The Rage of Edmund Burke,* describes him as “an ambivalent conservative,” which is one way of putting it. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s new book reminds us that it is as plausible to regard him as essentially a liberal—pluralist and antitotalitarian, but neither reactionary nor authoritarian.

That is contestable, too. The Burke of 1790, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France urge the British not to emulate the French, is a good deal less authoritarian than the Burke of 1796, whose Letters on a Regicide Peace demand a Holy War abroad and repression in Britain to extirpate the revolutionary infection wherever it is found. The description of Burke’s deepest allegiances is more than a matter of taste; the difference between liberal hostility to revolutionary violence and the conservative or imperialist defense of the status quo has preoccupied American intellectuals for the past half century. The Burke of the Letters on a Regicide Peace was invoked by conservatives like Russell Kirk to argue in favor of “rolling back communism” in the 1950s and 1960s; while in 1969 Conor Cruise O’Brien challenged the idea that Burke would have welcomed US intervention in Vietnam and argued that Senator William Fulbright could “claim descent from Burke with just as much validity as the practitioners of counter-revolutionary containment.”

However they disagree about his lessons for the twentieth century, nobody has ever denied that Burke was a uniquely eloquent critic of schemes and projects for the wholesale remodeling of society sprung from the brains of philosophers, literary intellectuals, and dissenting clerics. His insistence that society is essentially organic and unamenable to rationalistic social engineering made him the founding father of the sociological tradition that condemns all forms of individualism as simplistic and inadequate. Indeed, an attachment to that organic vision unites one kind of conservative with radicals who find themselves more at home with Burke than with Jeremy Bentham or J.S. Mill. The alliance extends only to social analysis, of course. Radicals—Marx is a good example—deny Burke’s inference that since everything is organically connected with everything else we must proceed delicately and cautiously; they conclude that to change anything we must change everything.

But that is enough to explain why there were conservatives for whom Burke’s vision of society had no appeal. The French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre read him without enthusiasm. Burke’s Reflections claimed it was habitual allegiance and affection—what he called “prejudice”—that held society together and allowed government to exercise authority over willing subjects. It was prejudice that he feared the rationalists and revolutionaries would undermine. But de Maistre thought the basis of authority was the hangman, the figure he described as “the horror and the bond of human society,” who secured social order by a salutory terror. Between two such minds there could be no sympathy, whatever their shared detestation of the revolution.

Reflections on the Revolution in France remains the rhetorical masterpiece of counterrevolutionary writing, and in Conor Cruise O’Brien, Burke has found his proper interpreter—one who relishes the rhetoric without neglecting the underlying argument. One of the pleasures of reading The Great Melody is the chance to enjoy the rhetorical glories of the speeches and letters that O’Brien quotes lavishly and at length; but another is watching O’Brien’s own political intelligence working hard, and not always comfortably, in pursuit of the underlying thought.

You could not stand for five minutes with that man [Burke] beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.” Dr. Johnson’s famous tribute to Edmund Burke might, without absurdity, have been paid to the latest of Burke’s innumerable commentators and biographers. Conor Cruise O’Brien has inestimable advantages over his competitors in the field; he, too, has been a practicing politician, a diplomat, and a government minister, as well as a scholar and a distinguished journalist. Burke’s attacks on Britain’s treatment of her American and Indian colonies strike a particular chord with O’Brien, who served alongside Dag Hammarskjold during the Congo crisis in 1960–1961, and resigned in protest at the way France and Britain were, in his view, undermining the United Nations’ efforts to hold an independent Congo together. And Burke’s agonizing over his native Ireland strikes a particular chord in the heart of a man who served in the Eire government from 1973–1977, and found his liberal allegiances strained to breaking by the terrorism of the IRA.

Edmund Burke’s Irishness dominates his book, not least because Burke himself had to obscure his Irish origins and suppress his Irish sympathies to make his way in English politics, and O’Brien is naturally fascinated by the impact of this suppression and restraint on Burke’s visible political life.

Burke was born in Dublin in 1729. His mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic; by the time Edmund was born, his father was a member of the Established Church. It seems he had been a Catholic, too, but subscribed in 1722 for the sake of his career as an attorney. Catholics were excluded from the universities, from the learned professions, and from political life. In Ireland, where they formed the great majority of the population, they were governed by Penal Laws that threatened their right to hold property, and guaranteed that if they fell foul of the law they woud be at the mercy of a bigoted judge and a bigoted jury. It was not forty years since the Battle of the Boyne had secured Ireland for the Protestant William III and had driven the Catholic James II into exile. It was only fourteen years since the rising of James II’s followers in 1715, and still another sixteen until the Jacobite uprising in 1745. In neither case was the peace threatened in Ireland, but the frightened Ascendancy—the ruling Protestants—presumed Catholics guilty of treason until proved otherwise.

Burke was brought up a Protestant and attended Trinity College, Dublin; but as a child he was taught at a “hedge school”—an unrecognized Catholic school—conducted in the ruined castle of Monanimy in County Cork, and then at a Quaker school in Ballitore. Since his family on both sides were Catholics who could trace their ancestry to Norman Irish gentry, it is easy to imagine that Burke would have regarded the Protestant Ascendancy as an imposed and illegitimate regime of pure force, and would have regarded his father’s conversion with particular disgust. But we have no direct evidence; such sentiments would have destroyed the career that Burke made for himself in the tangled politics of mid-eighteenth-century England.

He arrived in London in 1750, and first attracted notice with two remarkable books. A Vindication of Natural Society was a parody of Bolingbroke’s attack on the artificiality of human society, and his Philosphical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful still repays reading by anyone interested in Burke’s political ideas—or in aesthetics generally. It was disliked by Tolstoy, which in these matters is a recommendation. These books appeared in 1756 and 1757; his political career began soon after, but almost accidentally. Burke was chronically short of money, and for a time combined literary work as editor of the Annual Register with the post of private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a politician known as “one speech Hamilton.” This was a dead end, but Burke had earlier applied to the government for appointment as consul at Madrid as a way of supporting himself. George III’s ministers must have regretted giving the post to somebody else—failure kept Burke in Britain, where he became one of their sharpest critics, in and out of Parliament.

Burke’s route into politics was conventional for a man of slender means. In 1765 he became the confidential secretary and adviser to the Marquess of Rockingham, the most talented and energetic of the Whig magnates of the day. That Rockingham was a Whig was not especially significant; government had been carried on for the past twenty years by coalitions that were uniformly Whig—committed to maintaining the government that emerged from the Revolution of 1688, and bent on excluding its opponents from political office and social influence. The central issue was how far political leaders trusted and cooperated with the King and his court. With the accession of George III in 1760, it was this issue that revived party politics, and gave life to the conflict between Whig and Tory. In choosing his patron, Burke chose his future: Rockingham was not a friend to George III, nor was George III to Rockingham. Until the French Revolution of 1789 led Burke to break with his Whig patrons and allies, he was no friend of the King, either.

When Burke began to serve him, Rockingham was first secretary of the treasury—the title of prime minister was not yet current. He secured Burke a seat in Parliament, at Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and Burke bought a small estate at nearby Beaconsfield. This was a premature token of his desire to join the landed gentry. He could not afford it, and it kept him on the brink of bankruptcy for the rest of his life. From Rockingham, Burke received a very great deal of money, a seat in Parliament, and a stage on which to exercise his talents of persuasion. Friends and enemies alike took it for granted that he would become a leading figure in the Rockingham faction.

What Rockingham got was advice, and the most persuasive voice and pen of the day. But his ministry was short-lived, and Burke spent the sixteen years after 1766 in opposition; Rockingham’s second ministry of 1782 was shorter still, and ended at his death. From 1770 to 1782, the government was in the hands of Lord North, a man whose ability to remain on good terms with George III was the most important of his political talents. His government was retrospectively described as Tory, but is better termed “Court Whig.” North was an efficient minister and an effective parliamentarian, but is best remembered as the minister who lost the American colonies, and along with his royal master provided the target of Burke’s rhetoric.

Although Burke campaigned strenuously against the British government’s policy of repression in America, much else provoked him. Burke had the traditional Whig suspicion of the Crown’s designs upon the liberties of the British people.

By the late 1760s, George III’s determination to take an active part in government had begun to create furious controversy. Burke’s first famous essay, “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” of 1770, enunciates the principle that “in all disputes between the people and its rulers, the presumption was at least upon a par in favour of the people.” Burke not only insisted that constitutional monarchs must be ruled by their parliaments, but set out the modern theory of party government, too. Until then, “party” was a synonym of faction, and primarily a pejorative term. After Burke’s redefinition of a party as a body of men united to promote the public interest on shared principles, political parties were recognized as essential to representative government.

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    Basic Books, 1977.

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