R. Bayne Powell Collection/Bridgeman Images

Edmund Burke; miniature portrait, English school, 1795

Edmund Burke, who died in 1797, remains a figure to reckon with more than two centuries later. He has been and still remains an inspiration to American conservatives, most strikingly to those lamenting the absence of an American cultural aristocracy early in the twentieth century, and to those at the height of the cold war who took their cue from his Letters on a Regicide Peace and sought the rolling back of communism by any means possible, including war.

It is, on the other hand, a paradox of American conservatism at the present day that it celebrates an American Revolution that was enthusiastically promoted by Thomas Paine and defended reluctantly and as the least of the evils that had by then become inescapable by Burke himself. Burke’s greatest speeches on America—Conciliation with America in particular—sought to preserve Britain’s “empire in the west” by well-judged concessions, not to advance republicanism and independence. Paine’s radical Common Sense was another matter entirely.

The Burke David Bromwich presents in his new book The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke is certainly a formidable figure, but one who resists recruitment for twenty-first-century causes. It is his elusiveness that makes him a live presence; he was a traditionalist and a progressive, an enlightened critic of Enlightenment run amok, a secular thinker who insisted on the indispensability of religious faith. He thought it pointless to insist on rights whose enforcement would bring disaster, as when British governments asserted their right to tax the colonies and brought on a revolutionary war; and yet he had no doubt about the reality of rights.

Burke was an eighteenth-century Whig, not a twenty-first-century liberal or conservative, but both of the latter can engage with him with advantage. David Bromwich has been thinking about him for more than a quarter of a century, and by now has an unrivaled sensitivity to the workings of his mind; like Burke, Bromwich is a formidable critic, ranging over politics, literature, higher education, and much else, and on every page of Edmund Burke, one can feel him responding to Burke across the whole range of Burke’s interests as if he was in the room with him.

It is a brave author who writes about Burke and after almost five hundred pages stops before reaching the French Revolution and Burke’s very critical Reflections on it. Most readers define Burke by his opposition to the Revolution, and admirers see his judgment vindicated by its descent into chaos, the Terror, and Napoleon’s military dictatorship, all of which he foresaw in outline. But Burke was sixty years old in 1789, and had first entered parliament in 1766; he had been a successful writer in his twenties when he published A Vindication of Natural Society and the Enquiry into our ideas of the sublime and beautiful that framed the discussion of aesthetics until Kant and beyond. He was an influential political figure from the first, though in opposition rather than in government.

In any event, David Bromwich is a brave writer, and although he often glances toward the Burke of 1790, his focus on the first three decades of Burke’s life as a thinker, writer, and political actor yields riches that could not be had if his last years monopolized our attention. Bromwich defends the goal of seeing Burke whole with an appeal to Henry James:

“The way to judge him,” wrote…James of Balzac, “is to try to walk all round him—on which we see how remarkably far we have to go.” The same is true of Burke.

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin in 1729; his father was a prosperous lawyer who intended his son to enter the same profession. Burke’s Irish origins were always a problem. His political enemies were quick to call him a covert Roman Catholic and to give color to the lie by saying he had been educated at the Jesuit college of St. Omer in France. In fact, Burke attended a Quaker school in the countryside near Dublin and at the age of fourteen enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin.

Nonetheless, Burke’s mother was a Roman Catholic, as was his sister; his father was a Protestant. The legal profession, Parliament, the universities, and Trinity College were all barred to Catholics. Trinity was as Protestant as Oxford or Cambridge. Burke founded a literary and debating society that combined with the college historical society to become the first such institution in the British Isles and the training ground of generations of Irish statesmen. To Burke himself it afforded an opportunity to hone his rhetorical talents, debate political issues—the last Jacobite rebellion was in 1745 while he was a sixteen-year-old student—and display a flair for satire that appeared first in verse, but reappeared in his political speeches and other writings for the rest of his life.


When Burke abandoned the idea of a legal career is obscure. He made a stab at becoming a lawyer after he graduated in 1749, and entered the Middle Temple to read for the bar; but he was describing his own reaction when he wrote a little later:

The study of our jurisprudence presented to liberal and well-educated minds, even in the best Authors, hardly any thing but barbarous terms ill explained…. Young men were sent away with an incurable, and if we regard the manner of handling rather than the substance, a very well-founded disgust.

The distinction between law’s substance and the jurisprudence of the lawyers was of the essence. Burke was an emphatic believer in the rule of law; in its absence, brute force, cruelty, and sadism would have free reign. It was another matter with the mystique of the legal profession.

If not the law, what? Burke soon became known as a young man with a voracious appetite for literary success: “in love with authorism.” There were many models to emulate; at Trinity, he had written skeptical verses in the style of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. Now he set out to write a satire on the idea of a “natural society,” mocking the complaints against the artificiality of eighteenth-century society that we associate with Rousseau’s Discourses on the arts and sciences and on the rise of inequality. Burke’s target was Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, who had died in 1751. A Vindication of Natural Society was published anonymously in 1756; it caught the style of its target so faithfully that it was rumored that Bolingbroke’s literary executors took pains to disclaim it as a newly discovered work.

What was the point of the joke? Bromwich is not entirely sure. Bolingbroke had been a Tory politician close to power in the reign of Queen Anne, had supported the Jacobite rebellion of 1715—a disastrous attempt to restore Stuart rule—and gone into exile, and had returned as the leader of the Country Party, a coalition of Tories and Whigs hostile to the corrupt politics of Robert Walpole and the Hanoverian court. He was also a rationalist, a Deist, savagely anti-Christian, and insistent that reason and nature were sufficient guides to morality and politics. It is possible that Burke’s motive was only to make a literary stir, but possible, too, that he was thinking aloud about how solidly social convention was rooted in raw human nature, a question that never left him.

As a satire, A Vindication of Natural Society has always been thought to fail by keeping too little distance from its target, and all too plausible in attacking social conventions. But Bromwich suggests that Burke was more friendly to complaints against the artificiality of modern commercial society than he was ready to admit. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality had appeared in 1754, and Burke may also have been responding to Rousseau’s claim that as we had departed further and further from our natural condition, we had made ourselves increasingly miserable. Burke respected Rousseau’s intelligence, if not his religious views.

Burke took seriously the tension between nature and artifice; in the best-remembered passage of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, denouncing the outrage of the mob that burst into the queen’s bedroom and dragged her and Louis XVI off to prison, he admits that viewed in one light, stripped of her royal aura, Marie Antoinette is but a woman; but if her more than mortal charm that Burke praises so extravagantly is an illusion, and he thinks it is not, it still would be a necessary one. In the face of Enlightenment rationalism, Burke fears that

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover all the defects of our naked, shivering nature…are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

It is of the essence that the heart “owns” and the understanding “ratifies.” Not every attachment that we find in our “wardrobe” is to be endorsed; we must choose from what we are given. Individual liberty is not absolute, but it is indispensable, and how we use it tells ourselves and others who we are. The concept of “moral imagination” is central to Bromwich’s analysis, here and elsewhere.

Burke’s literary reputation was secured by A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published a year later in 1757 and revised in 1759. Like the Vindication it was published anonymously, but its authorship was an open secret. Once again, it holds the key to Burke’s subsequent thinking but its implications are enigmatic. Burke was writing against an intellectual background in which taste and morality were held to be inextricably connected; a person of refined taste would, so it was assumed, necessarily be a person of good morals. Moreover, judgments of taste were held to be far from arbitrary; well-informed judges would be of one mind about the aesthetic qualities of works of art. The vulgar might lack taste, and fall for excitement and mere spectacle, but not so the educated and well brought up.


There were dissenters; the Abbé Du Bos in 1733 had maintained that every didactic justification of the role of art was defeated by our experience of particular works of art. Art often excites emotions at odds with a humane regard for the interests of our fellows; Du Bos observed that we are most stirred by works that cause us something close to pain.

Bromwich says that Burke set out to “reject utterly the connections between sublimity, good taste, probity, and sanity.” His technique was in a broad sense scientific and psychological: to give an account of the emotions excited by our experience of the sublime. One thing that startled Burke’s readers was the calm with which he insisted that we find the sufferings of other people interesting, so interesting indeed that their depiction gives us pleasure. This was a very Hobbesian view, and part of the claim that at the heart of sublime feelings lies fear—not such qualities as good taste and sane reasoning.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden; drawing by James Ferguson

Burke admired Milton, and like Milton admired the Book of Job. The God of the Book of Job is not a benign bureaucrat running the universe in a broadly humanitarian fashion; he is the God of power. “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” was the question with which He turned back Job’s demand to know the purpose of his sufferings. Other writers had claimed that the fear of God was unlike our fear of earthly creatures, but not Burke; fear is an emotion sparked by the perception that something untameable and uncontrollable may do us harm. The horse pulling a cart is tame and useful and “has nothing of the sublime,” but the creature described in the Book of Job, “whose neck is cloathed with thunder, the glory of whose nostrils is terrible, who swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage,” is another matter entirely.

The path from a search for literary fame to election as member of Parliament for Wendover in 1765 was not direct. Bromwich has not written a political biography, but exactly what his title promises: an account of “the intellectual life.” Nonetheless, Burke’s intellectual life was that of someone who was what Cicero had been in the last days of the Roman Republic: a novus homo, a “new man,” not a member of the aristocracy, but one whose path to public eminence depended on his talent.

Burke himself embraced the comparison with Cicero. But it made him decidedly touchy about his dependence on his aristocratic patrons, and Bromwich gives an engrossing, if pretty depressing, account of Burke’s relations with his first benefactor, William Gerard Hamilton, whom he served as private secretary for six years from 1759. Hamilton was later known as “single-speech Hamilton”; he gave a well-received maiden speech, and never spoke again in the Commons before his death in 1796. He and Burke seemed well matched by temperament, education, and political allegiance, and Burke accompanied Hamilton to Dublin when he became Irish secretary.

Relations soured when Hamilton wanted Burke to commit himself to serving as his secretary for life. Burke treated this as an invitation to servitude; Hamilton treated Burke’s response as rank ingratitude. His memorandum on Burke’s behavior ends with the words “Jew—Jesuit.” It is easy to think that both sides were in the wrong, but the affair says a lot about the tensions inherent in a society built on patronage but open to the claims of middle-class merit. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary definition of a patron as “commonly, a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery” was a coda to his dealings with Lord Chesterfield, but catches the potential for an explosive falling out in such relationships.

However, Burke was by 1765 on his way to the parliamentary career for which we remember him. He became the Marquess of Rockingham’s secretary in July 1765, and abandoned literature for party politics; his friend Oliver Goldsmith complained half-seriously that Burke had “narrowed his mind,/and to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” Rockingham was a Whig magnate, and by 1765 had experienced the effects of George III’s determination to be at the center of government, and to use his Tory confidants to pursue his own policies. In joining the Rockingham Whigs, Burke thus committed himself to a long career in opposition to royal privilege. It was accepted that the king had a good deal of latitude in choosing his ministers; only after the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 did the monarch’s personal antipathies become irrelevant to the choice of prime minister.

Still, George III was pressing against the limits of what was consistent with the idea of a mixed constitution in which king, Lords, and Commons cooperated in playing their respective parts. That this was happening when relations with the American colonies were rapidly deteriorating, and domestic opponents of the monarchy had a demagogic leader of genius in the person of John Wilkes, meant that Burke entered public life at a moment of maximum confusion.

The heart of Edmund Burke is Bromwich’s account of Burke’s response to this situation. No summary can do it justice: it is both nuanced and heavily dependent on extended quotation from Burke at his most eloquent. Something that Bromwich might perhaps have made a little more of is that for all Burke’s reverence for Parliament, his most famous speeches were written to be read outside Parliament as well as listened to within the House of Commons; his enemies said that when he rose to speak, members of Parliament left the chamber to seek their dinner. He was a savage critic of persons and policies he opposed, and a persuasive advocate of causes he believed in, but not a cut-and-thrust debater.

One of the nuances that Bromwich keeps in sight throughout is Burke’s attitude toward popular and extraparliamentary protest. His view of the “mixed constitution” was that it could not rest on a democratic basis, although monarchy and aristocracy could be broadened by introducing a popular element. As Bromwich notes, Burke’s view was not very different from James Madison’s, although they had very different ideas about how often and under what conditions a wider electorate should register its opinions. Burke was an unswerving opponent of any alteration of the existing system of parliamentary representation, which meant septennial Parliaments, safe “pocket boroughs” (Wendover and Malton were two that Burke represented), and some very curious franchises.

Burke’s conception of politics was aristocratic, and Bromwich quotes at length his letter to the Duke of Richmond in which he compares the aristocracy to “great Oaks” and persons like himself to “melons” that ripen and swell and die in a season. It is, as Bromwich notes, a very odd idiom in the mouth of a writer who is telling his aristocratic addressee how to do his political duty. Odd as these positions may seem, they reflected Burke’s sincere belief that a political system poised uneasily between absolute monarchy and republicanism needed the stability that only a landed aristocracy could provide.

The importance of the English aristocracy was agreed to by many writers, Montesquieu among them, but where Montesquieu gave a sociological analysis of the value of an aristocracy that was socially and politically useful and open to new talent, in contrast to a closed caste serving no purpose to justify its privileges, Burke emphasized the role of character as crucial to making wise decisions. Here, as elsewhere, Burke’s affinity with Bromwich emerges rather unexpectedly. Bromwich has been an unsparing critic of President Obama, and one hears in his criticism an echo of Burke’s anger at the character failings of the aristocratic leaders of his day.

Burke’s view of the role of the common people is less easy to describe. This is not only a matter of his view of representation, rightly famous for his insistence that a representative did not owe his constituents obedience to their wishes but his best judgment of their and the national interest, as he rashly told the electors of Bristol after they had elected him in 1773. They would not have reelected him in 1780 when he decided not to stand again in Bristol, but to accept a Yorkshire constituency in Lord Rockingham’s gift. Those with the vote had no right to mandate their representatives, and those without the vote were represented if their long-term interests were faithfully consulted.

The influence of the public was also a matter of normality and crisis; in normal times, there was no room for attempts to sway the mind of Parliament by public protests, riots, and the like. In times of crisis, the unorganized common people legitimately acted as a backstop against governmental tyranny. George III found the politician John Wilkes’s outspoken attacks on him intolerable, and Wilkes was expelled from Parliament. But in 1765 Burke was feted at his election for Wendover with cries of “Burke and Wilkes,” “Wilkes and Liberty.”

That provides the key to Burke’s defense of the American Revolution. It was not a full-throated defense of the right of the people to choose their rulers and cashier them for misconduct, a doctrine in which Burke never believed, and which he violently repudiated when it was put forward by Richard Price in justification of the French Revolution. It was Jefferson’s view, and that of the English radical republicans of the 1640s. It was not Burke’s view.

Rather, he believed that in America the aggression had been on the side of the British government, and the Americans, not the British, were defending the status quo. The extent of Burke’s sympathy with the Americans is in fact less clear than the depth of his contempt for the policies of successive British administrations, whose failures were both strategic and tactical. They lacked any deep understanding of what long-term relationship could be sustained across three thousand miles of ocean, and they consistently launched initiatives that they later backed away from, imposing taxes that they could not collect and that they then abandoned, and employing foreign mercenaries in a hopeless attempt to cow rebels who would not be cowed. Burke refused to celebrate the early successes of the British army, and Bromwich is particularly persuasive in elucidating his fears of what a long war would mean for Britain. A nation, like a person, can become addicted to excitement and violence. (This has also been a theme of his many critical commentaries on US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Burke was not alone in thinking it better to let the American colonies go their own way than to try to retain them by military force. A military despotism was not a morally tolerable foundation for the British Empire. A war in which the British employed rebellious slaves and savage Indians was too hideous to contemplate. He might also have had some unease about what relationship was possible with a country, or set of colonies, already more prosperous in many areas than the mother country. Subsequently, he had a great deal to say about the way in which the wealth of India, extracted by the East India Company in the most corrupt and brutal fashion, was undermining the social and political position of the traditional aristocracy. It is also possible that he already feared that a closer connection between Britain and America would allow the newer and more vigorous society to dominate its elderly parent. Some of his contemporaries did.

For all that, the tone of Burke’s great speech on Conciliation with America, delivered in March 1775 and published two months later, is often exuberant. Bromwich insists that in 1774 and 1775 Burke believed there was only one establishment, “the great empire whose authority emanates from the House of Commons.” Still, he agrees that what most readers see as the moral that Burke means us to draw is at least latent in the text. America has become a distinctive political society. Its government is democratic, or “popular,” with the common people playing a more energetic and continuous role in political life than their British cousins. Bromwich wonders whether Burke was tempted by the thought that democracy had by now been proved by experience to be a durable form of government for the Americans, but no model for Britain.

It seems very likely that he was tempted in that direction. “Prescription” was the great support of political institutions: constitutional allegiances rest on habits of obedience that take time to build up. The ingredients of American liberty had been supplied by Britain, but they had developed a distinctive form in America, and prescription now supported an aristocratic government in Britain and democracy in America. America was too rough and raw to be a model for Britain, but that was not the point at issue.

Whatever doubts Burke might have entertained about the boisterousness of American life, its energy aroused him to flights of eloquence. “Look,” says Burke,

at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the whale fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Straits, whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes, and engaged under the frozen Serpent of the South…. No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils.

American agriculture, he observes, has already helped to save Britain from hunger. And how has this been achieved? “Through a wise and salutary neglect, a generous nature has been suffered to take her own way to perfection.” We shall have to wait for the second volume of this engrossing account to see how David Bromwich handles the Burke who responded so differently to the second great revolution of the late eighteenth century. His penetrating first volume makes us impatient to see what he will say.