Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Biography of Edmund Burke

British statesman, parliamentary orator and political thinker, played a prominent part in all major political issues for about 30 years after 1765, and remained an important figure in the history of political theory.

Burke was Irish, born in Dublin in 1729. His father, a solicitor, was protestant, his mother Roman Catholic. He entered Trinity college, Dublin, in 1744, and came to London in 1750. Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society was published in 1756 and in 1757 A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful appeared. Also in 1757, Burke married Jane Nugent, the daughter of an Irish Catholic doctor.

His political career started in 1765 when he became the private secretary of one of the Whig leaders in Parliament, the marquess of Rockingham. Burke soon proved to be one of the main characters in the constitutional controversy in Britain under George III, who at the time was trying to establish more actual power for the crown. Although the crown had lost some influence under the first two Georges, one of the major political problems in 18th century Britain was the fact that both the king and Parliament had considerable control over the executive. Burke responded to these affairs in his pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), in which he argued that although George's actions were legal in the sense that they were not against the letter of the constitution, they were all the more against it in spirit. In the pamphlet Burke elaborates on his famous and new justification of a party, defined as :... a body of men united on public principle, which could act as a constitutional link between king and parliament, providing consistency and strenght in administration, or principled criticism in opposition" (...431-32).

Concerning the imperial controversy at the time Burke argued that the British government had acted in a both unwise and inconsistent manner. Again, Burke claimed that Britain's way of dealing with the colony question was strictly legal and he urged that also "claims of circumstance, utility, and moral principle should be considered, as well as precedent"(...432). In other words, if the British, persistently clinging to their narrow legalism, were not to clash with the ideas and opinions of the colonists on these matters, they would have to offer more respect and regard for the colonies' cause. Burke called for "legislative reason" in two of his parliamentary speeches on the subject; On American Taxation (1774) and On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation With America (1775). However, British imperial policy in the controversy would continue to ignore these questions.