An Anglo-Irish Cicero

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Richard Bourke’s book, as its subtitle says, is an account of Edmund Burke’s political life, but he provides enough biography to allow the reader to see Burke in the round and appreciate the extraordinary range of talents that he possessed. Dr. Johnson famously observed, “You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.”

Burke’s origins were respectable but far from grand; his father was a Dublin lawyer, and his relatives included Catholic minor gentry, which made him vulnerable throughout his career to the charge that he was a covert Catholic. Born in 1730, he made his mark in his teens as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, but soon left Ireland for London, and before he was thirty was a considerable literary figure, the author of A Vindication of Natural Society, a satirical attack on religious skepticism, and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a work that students of aesthetics still turn to for its portrayal of our emotional responses to beauty in art and to the sublimity of nature. In 1758, he accepted the invitation of the publishers James and Robert Dodsley to edit (and write a large part of) the newly founded Annual Register, a review of the year’s events in politics, history, and literature. Burke could turn his hand to all of these, and he helped to edit the Register for the next three decades; the Register still exists, and serves the same purpose.

However, Burke wanted to make his name in politics. In 1759 he began a miserable six years as private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, the chief secretary for Ireland. But in 1765 he took the step that determined his career. He became private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham, a Whig grandee who had surprisingly been asked to form a government in spite of lacking any experience in the great offices of state.

Through Rockingham’s influence, Burke was found a seat in the House of Commons as member for Wendover; on December 24, 1765, he reported, “Yesterday I was elected for Wendover, got very drunk, and this day have a heavy cold.” The period was, to say the least, politically turbulent. George III had come to the throne in 1760, eager to have a more active part in politics than his predecessors; the immediate result was a rapid turnover of governments as leaders gained and lost royal favor. The labels of Whig and Tory meant little; willingness to follow the king’s wishes meant more; but personal connections and antipathies determined the fate of ministries and their policies as well. Not until Lord North—by then a Tory—became prime minister in 1770 was there a stable ministry enjoying the support of both king and Parliament. The…

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