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 longevity of North’s ministry was perhaps its greatest achievement, although he is remembered today only for the loss of the American colonies.

The Rockingham ministry lasted barely twelve months, and Burke spent all but a few months of his career as a Whig on the opposition benches. Opposition had its virtues; assailing government policy on America, India, and France, he could write with a freedom that would have been harder to sustain while defending a government of which he was part. Burke was at the center of British political life for almost the entire final third of the eighteenth century. In those years, Britain digested its gains from the Seven Years’ War—better known to Americans as the French and Indian War—lost its American colonies, consolidated its hold on India, found the governance of Ireland an insoluble puzzle, struggled with the closely related issue of the civil rights of Catholics and Dissenters, and approached the end of the century at war with Revolutionary France.

Meanwhile, forces that Burke only half-reckoned with were stirring. There was an increasingly evident mismatch between the system of parliamentary representation controlled by landholding aristocrats and the new commercial and industrial realities. Birmingham, already the third-largest city in Britain and the heart of the industrial revolution, had no members representing it in Parliament, while Old Sarum, a deserted village outside Salisbury, sent two MPs. Not long before the end of Burke’s parliamentary career, the young Charles Grey, who worked with Burke on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the corrupt governor of India, introduced a bill into the House of Commons to modestly reform the system. Forty years later, as the second Earl Grey, he was central in the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The political system that had to handle all these issues was unlike any other. It was, as Richard Bourke repeatedly reminds us, a parliamentary monarchy. Just what that was puzzled many eighteenth-century observers, especially Europeans. They could not decide whether Britain was a genuine monarchy, ruled by a sovereign with the aid of his advisers, or a republic ruled by ministers answerable to Parliament in which the hereditary head of state had a definite but limited part, in effect serving as a hereditary president. George III wished to remodel the system in a monarchical direction; Burke was among those who wished to prevent him from doing so.


Misleadingly for modern readers, periods when the House of Commons was dominant were described by eighteenth-century observers—as Burke himself put it—as the reign of “democracy.” The popular vote only partly determined who ruled. Burke saw the British political system as a “mixed regime” in which Crown, Lords, and Commons were together sovereign; the division of sovereign authority meant that each could serve as a check on the others, and both political stability and executive effectiveness demanded a willingness to cooperate with opponents across party lines. The elected lower house provided the “democratic” element, the House of Lords the aristocratic element, and the king the monarchical element.

On the face of it, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was evicted and William III installed in his place, meant that Parliament was sovereign. William III owed his crown to Parliament’s vote. But the Crown disposed of immense powers of patronage, and members of Parliament were no more immune to the offers of sinecure positions for themselves and their families than anyone else has been. Believing that the influence of the Crown had gone too far, Burke favored limiting it. Nonetheless, he was sure that the British Constitution was uniquely favorable to the freedom of its subjects; a mixed regime, he argued, reflected a pluralist society. In creating their own constitution, the newly independent Americans paid it the tribute of emulating the structure of the mixed regime while eliminating the hereditary elements that were central to the system that Burke spent his political energies defending.

Burke did not think the American Founding Fathers were simply wrong to abandon the hereditary principle. He thought that England was lucky to have the right kind of hereditary governing class but late in life said that the American Constitution was the right model for the peoples of the New World. That probably extended to the inhabitants of Canada. He certainly thought well of federalism, and approved of the American concern to provide checks on executive power and to ensure the rule of law.

Burke’s defense of the British aristocracy was characteristically subtle. In the original Aristotelian sense, aristocracy was government by hoi aristoi, “the best men.” If they were committed to a life of public service, as Burke thought they should be, a wealthy landed nobility was a great asset; but so too were men of talent, scientists, artists, and literary figures. A society committed to social mobility would allow such men to rise to positions of influence. Burke, of course, was such a man.

This was the “open aristocracy” that Montesquieu before and Tocqueville after Burke praised, and all three drew a contrast with the French aristocracy, which was more nearly a closed caste, one that had become politically irrelevant under the absolute monarchy, and had been compensated for its political impotence with financial privileges that made the aristocracy obnoxious to the common people. Not all varieties of open aristocracy were acceptable; Burke thought a government of oligarchs drawn from the lowest ranks of society was the worst of regimes. One of the counts against the French Revolution was that it had created such a regime, as ambitious parvenus looted the resources of the church and the property of the old aristocracy. It is easy to imagine what Burke’s reactions would have been to post-Soviet Russia.

The British parliamentary monarchy had come into existence in its eighteenth-century form after the last Roman Catholic monarch had been driven into exile; it then survived two attempts to restore James II’s Stuart heirs in 1715 and 1745. Its success was no sure thing. Burke was fifteen years old when the second uprising to restore the Stuarts took place, and his later emphasis on the fragility of British political arrangements was not solely a rhetorical device designed to frighten advocates of change. His fear was deeply felt. But the direction from which Burke anticipated threats to the delicate machinery of shared power changed over the years. In his early years in the House of Commons, he opposed George III and his allies. At the end of his life he warned against French Revolutionaries and the English friends of the French Revolution.

He was not in general apprehensive about “the people out of doors,” which is to say the great majority of the population who had no part in day-to-day political life. He was, as his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes plain, very apprehensive about intellectuals, lawyers, politicians, and demagogues whose misguided ideas and unbridled ambition might lead the lower classes astray and turn politics into mob rule. The abilities that could make such men valuable to society could make them a menace if their ambition was aroused and then thwarted.


Richard Bourke’s book is nothing if not ambitious. He sets out both to track Edmund Burke through every last inch of his political and parliamentary career and to track the sources of his thinking through philosophers, historians, and lawyers from Aristotle and Cicero to John Locke and beyond. Burke spent most of his political career in opposition, and the story of his parliamentary and extraparliamentary maneuvering to try to assemble a winning coalition has a certain melancholy quality. The same is not true of his writings, which even at their most embittered have tremendous verve. Whatever else his Reflections on the Revolution in France may be, it is written in captivating prose.

Almost every popular account of Burke asks whether he was a liberal or a conservative—on the left or on the right. His confrontation with Thomas Paine in the 1790s over the French Revolution and the rights of man makes the temptation to frame the question in such terms almost overwhelming. Paine insisted that every generation had the right to choose its own form of government. Hereditary monarchy was irrational, and reverence for tradition allowed the dead to rule the living. The French were exercising the right to remake their form of government that the Americans had exercised in 1776. Burke thought that the Revolutionaries had opened the door to anarchy and bloodshed, and was proved right by events. Their confrontation is often portrayed as a victory for conservatism over liberalism; but we should beware of anachronism. It was only in 1865 that a British Liberal Party, dedicated to free trade, gradual enlargement of the franchise, and peace abroad, fought an election under the “Liberal Party” label.

Burke was a “reform Whig,” which is to say he looked to governments to provide efficient and uncorrupt administration, promote security and prosperity for everyone, and include economic interests beyond those of the traditional aristocracy. He wanted to diminish and eventually abolish the law and customs limiting the rights of Dissenters and Catholics. He shared Adam Smith’s view of the benefits of free trade and the obstacles to trade caused by the kind of minute regulation that the French engaged in. He was a believer in progress. When he sneers at enlightened opinion in the Reflections, it is utopian rationalism he attacks, not reasoned argument.

Burke’s writings defend the ideal of a government of laws; they are above all hostile to arbitrary authority. The British system at its best preserved a delicate balance between autocracy and democracy; tipped one way it would become the royal despotism that the Whigs feared James II had meant to install, tipped the other, it would succumb to populist pressures that could also lead to despotism, just as the Civil War of the 1640s led to the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. Readers of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France are often astonished by his thoughts about the likelihood of the Revolution ending as a military autocracy; they seem to anticipate Napoleon’s rise to power years later. In fact, Burke was drawing a moral from Britain’s 1640s. His constant thought was that those years of civil war and the rule of Oliver Cromwell were a political disaster, while the peaceful changes in the 1680s were a political success: a revolution that would preserve the monarchy, confirm the sovereignty of Parliament, and protect the rights of Protestant sects, though not to the extent of conceding full political rights to non-Trinitarian Dissenters.

Bourke makes some telling criticisms of Burke, particularly of his acceptance of the right of conquest. Burke was savage in his indictment of the greed and cruelty of the East India Company’s government of India, and not much less savage about the misgovernment by the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. It is easy to think of him as an “anti-imperialist,” comparable to Enlightenment anti-imperialists such as Diderot. But Burke’s view was different. He said that he felt the loss of America as the loss of half his own self, and died lamenting the prospect that the contagion of the French Revolution might mean the loss of the remainder of the Empire. He was unabashed in defending the British Empire as legitimately acquired and held by right of conquest.

James Sayers/British Library Board/Bridgeman Images

Edmund Burke as Cicero, attempting to impeach Warren Hastings, the former governor of Bengal, 1786

A country was justified, he believed, in acquiring an empire by force when it intended to pursue what was called in the late nineteenth century a civilizing mission. John Stuart Mill justified the “despotic” rule of the British in India as an educational process by which the native population would become self-governing citizens of a liberal state. This was not what Burke had in mind. The concept of an imperialism that would extinguish itself by its own success was entirely alien to him. In his view the title to rule was based on the fact of conquest. It was, for him, a title acknowledged in international law, with a very long historical pedigree.

Nonetheless, if empires originated in conquest, Burke argued, they could not and must not continue as they had begun. They must attend to the needs of the populations over which they exercised their dominion, and thereby secure their acquiescence; this was the point at which prudence and morality coincided. One could not expect a population to accept as legitimate a regime that treated them as a beaten military foe or as slaves to be exploited as their conquerors felt inclined. They must be well governed, with due but not excessive respect for their own conception of their physical and emotional welfare.

This was not very different from David Hume’s view that most governments originate in force and fraud and are then legitimated by the habit of obedience. It was very different from what was then the radical view that just as slaves retain the natural right to free themselves if they can, a conquered people is entitled to recover its freedom when the chance presents itself. This was John Locke’s view, and the view that radicals continued to hold in the 1790s. One implication, embraced by Thomas Paine and others and attacked by Burke, was that since the common people had never been asked to consent to the government under which they lived, they were in the position of a conquered people; they were entitled to recover their liberty and reconstitute their government when they had the chance. English radicals sometimes invoked the idea of “the Norman Yoke,” arguing that Anglo-Saxon liberty had been extinguished by the Norman Conquest, but their ancient freedom remained the birthright of Englishmen. Burke thought all this was pernicious nonsense.

The running theme that gives intellectual coherence to Burke’s career against the background of the none-too-coherent processes by which governing coalitions were formed and dissolved in the late eighteenth century is his attachment to an ideal of balance—a view that accounts for his hostility to George III as much as his later hostility to French Revolutionaries and their English allies. Because it is so easy to read Burke “backward,” and think that his admiration for Marie Antoinette in his Reflections meant that he was starstruck by the spectacle of royal grandeur, it is easy to overlook the depth of his opposition to royal overreaching. It seemed to him that the danger of England’s parliamentary monarchy was that it might tip over into the royal absolutism of other European monarchies. Bourke reminds us that in the mid-eighteenth century Adolf Frederick of Sweden set out to abolish the parliamentary system that had been forced on Queen Ulrika Eleonora in 1719, and in 1772 Gustav III succeeded in reestablishing royal autocracy. Since George III was eager to establish a much more active monarchy when he came to the throne in 1760, Burke’s apprehensions were well founded.

Burke’s concern to preserve constitutional balance underlay his defense of political parties. His definition of a political party—a body of men united by a conception of the public interest—underlines the contrast between Burkean high-mindedness and the self-interested brawling of parties today. But Burke did not have anything like modern political parties in mind. What he saw of the first modern political party, the American Democratic-Republican Party created by Madison, he did not like. His own conception was of a coherent group of parliamentary allies, able to formulate and press for policies in the public interest. Such policies for Burke would have prevented the American Revolution or an approach to Catholic Emancipation.

His aim was the so-called “patriot” view that the country should be led by a man “above party.” Purely selfish factions were self-evidently bad; a mixed constitution required parties of principle, pushing on the one side toward greater “democracy,” and on the other toward the enhancement of royal authority. Parties needed to remain united for electoral purposes only up to a point, since many party leaders were members of the House of Lords, and others had safe seats in the Commons representing the “rotten” or “pocket” boroughs controlled by the grandees of their party. Burke won and subsequently lost a competitive election in Bristol, but he was safe enough, first as member for Wendover in Buckinghamshire and then for Malton in Yorkshire, both seats controlled by allies of his patron the Marquess of Rockingham. Finding safe seats in the House of Commons for people who are needed in government is still one of the tasks of the leaders of British political parties.

Burke saw himself as an eighteenth-century Cicero. In the first century BCE, Cicero had been a novus homo, a “new man” who worked his way up to the highest ranks of Roman politics by ability and hard work, and by serving the entrenched ruling families; and Burke saw himself as a man who could assist, encourage, and sometimes berate his noble leaders.

Nor was it only early in his career that he took Cicero as a rhetorical model. For seven years from 1788, Burke led the unsuccessful attempts to impeach the former governor of Bengal, Sir Warren Hastings, for mismanagement, brutality, and unlawful personal enrichment. When the case against Hastings collapsed two years before Burke’s death in 1797, he remarked bitterly that the English did not care how badly Hastings had behaved, whereas Cicero knew that the public was on his side when he made his name by prosecuting Verres, the governor of Sicily.

Burke entered Parliament in 1765, and for the next seventeen years he was preoccupied with the fate of Britain’s American colonies. Empire and Revolution shows how real was the fear that the weakening of British power caused by the failure in America would allow the French to recover their losses in India from the Seven Years’ War at the same time the American colonies secured their independence. Britain would be losing its empire both in the East and the West. Defeat on the Ohio, so George III and his ministers feared, would lead to defeat on the Ganges.

During the long-drawn-out slackening of Britain’s grasp on its American colonies, Burke was at his best as a political analyst. He was very slow to accept that the colonies were irreparably lost, adjusting his ideas of what might be done to avoid that disaster as affairs worsened. He never denied there was a tension between the legislative supremacy of the British Parliament as a matter of law and the needs of distant and increasingly strong-willed colonies to depend on their own local management. A mark of Burke’s superior political intelligence was his highly plausible theory of government at a distance—governments ought not to attempt to govern colonies in detail. It was impossible to incorporate the colonies into the British state; three thousand miles of ocean forbade it. It was equally impossible to exercise a despotic rule over such spirited people; they were, after all, defending English liberty.

Burke was not enamored of the behavior of the colonists; he called the council that sprang up in Boston after the official council had been dissolved “a ‘Vermin’ substitute.” Nonetheless, as his wonderful speech on conciliation with America demonstrates, he was desperate to avoid a complete separation. He admired the energy of the Americans, thought the time might come when Britain would benefit from friendly relations with America, and clung to the hope that wiser policies would preserve the imperial tie.

When those hopes were dashed, he accepted that independence was the only answer. The success of the American Revolution raises the old question of whether Burke’s approval of it was consistent with his outraged reaction to the French Revolution. Burke’s initial response to the French Revolution was in fact optimistic. It was, he briefly felt, impossible not to admire the spirit of the French; perhaps 1789 might be a French 1688. He changed his mind almost at once. It was the implications for British politics that alarmed him, as Richard Bourke makes clear. The target of Burke’s Reflections was the Reverend Richard Price, a Unitarian minister, who, in a sermon on the love of country, claimed that we have a natural right to choose our rulers and to cashier them for misconduct. Burke, of course, thought we had no such right. What was less clear, and what his long battle against Thomas Paine and Rights of Man never completely clarified, was what rights Burke was willing to recognize.

In Bourke’s account, Burke believed that we have a natural right of resistance. A sufficient degree of misgovernment dissolves allegiance, and we may resort to self-help. This is when the common people have an important part in politics, one that is essentially defensive. This was the American situation. Constructing a system of government and making it work was something else, not a question of natural right, but of skilled artifice; it was a matter of prudence. Like Gouverneur Morris, Burke agreed that “the people” were the source of authority, but this, he thought, gave the mass of the population no particular title to determine how authority was to be exercised. Paine and Price, to be consistent, had to think of political representation as personal representation, from which one-person-one-vote follows rather swiftly. Burke thought legitimate interests, not persons, should be represented.

What might Burke make of contemporary British politics? It seems a safe bet that he would have been appalled by David Cameron’s misjudgment in calling a referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. A parliamentary monarchy, even one in which the prime minister exercises the royal prerogative in the sovereign’s name, has no place for referendum. The task of government is to determine what is in the best interests of the nation and to govern accordingly; calling a referendum in a panic and scuttling off after it all went wrong is the antithesis of the responsible statesmanship that Burke called for. As for what he might have made of Donald Trump, words fail. Burke had an eye for rich adventurers who bought seats in Parliament on returning from India; but that someone like Trump would rise to supreme power would not have occurred to him.