Childhood & Early Years
Edmund Burke was born on 12 January 1729 in Dublin into an ancient family that traced their lineage to William de Burgh, the Anglo-Norman knight, who settled in Ireland in 1185. Later they assimilated into the Gaelic society, becoming níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin (more Irish than the Irish themselves).
Edmund’s father, Richard Burke, was a successful solicitor, practicing in superior courts of Dublin. It is believed that he was born Catholic, but on March 13, 1722, six years before Edmund’s birth, he joined the Church of Ireland on practical consideration.
Indeed, without taking the oath of allegiance, he could not have become a solicitor. Moreover, it is believed that he took the move to secure the future of his sons, who were yet to be born. However, Edmund’s mother, Mary née Nagle, who came from a déclassé County Cork family, remained a Roman Catholic.
The couple had four surviving children. Their only daughter, Juliana, was brought up as a Roman Catholic; but the sons, Garrett, Edmund and Dick, followed their father’s faith and joined the Church of Ireland.
Richard was known to be hot tempered, but honest and pragmatic. He chalked out his sons’ career with care. While Garrett joined the legal fraternity after five years of apprenticeship with him and Dick went into commerce, only Edmund was earmarked for university education.
Although Edmund appreciated his father’s concern for his career, he missed the fatherly warmth he craved so much. He found it when he went to live with his mother’s Catholic family in the Blackwater Valley in County Cork due to some unspecified illness.
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In County Cork
In County Cork, he discovered a loving father-figure in his Uncle Patrick Nagle and remained close to him throughout his life. It was also the place where he learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and acquired a rudimentary knowledge of farming.
For his formal education, he was sent to a ‘hedge school’, which was held in the ruined castle of Monanimy for fear of persecution. Slowly he realized that to talk too much might also invite prosecution. Maybe his lifelong reticence began under such circumstances.
Eventually, he became aware of the extent of persecution faced by the Catholics and how much they resented it. He also realized that it was his father’s conversion to the Church of Ireland, which had actually saved the properties for the Nagles. It had a lifelong effect on him.
Therefore, when Edmund left Blackwater country for Dublin, he was much wiser. Sometime thereafter, he was sent to a boarding school at Ballitore in County Kildare, where he studied until 1744.
After graduating from school, Edmund Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin, for his university education. Although it is not known if he actually excelled in studies, one can surmise that he thrived in the academic setting of the college, establishing a debating society, known as Edmund Burke’s Club, in 1747.
It is also known that he read extensively not only classics, but also authors like Shakespeare and Milton. The first draft of ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ was most probably written during his Trinity days.
After graduating from Trinity College in 1748, Burke remained there for some more time, perhaps contemplating a career in academics while his actual aspiration was to become an author. However, neither of his desires materialized for his father had already decided a career in law for him.
In 1750, Edmund Burke was sent to London to study law at the famous Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court which produced barristers. Initially he thought that he could pursue his interest in literature simultaneously with studying law, but he was soon disillusioned.
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He found the study of law rather dull. Instead, he became more involved in the city’s cultural world and spent more time listening to writers, who regularly met at Grecian Coffee House near Fleet Street than studying law. Soon he also took up the pen.
During his early years in London, he was highly influenced by Dr. Christopher Nugent, an Irish Catholic doctor, who treated him for some unspecified ailments. Nugent was not only one of the first members of the Literary Club, but could also easily ascertain psychological trouble and deal with it.
Burke had later said that Nugent not only cured his physical ailment, but also taught him how to live. More importantly, he soon developed a relationship with his daughter Jane.
When Richard Burke came to know of it, he strongly disapproved of the match because he thought marrying a Catholic would ruin Edmund’s career. Moreover, when he learned that his son intended to give up the study of law, the estrangement was final. He also stopped supporting him financially.
Edmund Burke now began to support himself by writing for a bookseller, travelling around England and France. In 1755, he contemplated moving over to the colonies, but gave up the idea when his father objected.
In the spring of 1756, he had his first major work, ‘A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind’ published. Intended as a satire aimed at Lord Bolingbroke's theory of deism, the work is considered to be the first literary expression of philosophical anarchism.
In 1757, he published his second work, the work he had started while he was studying in Trinity College. Titled, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, it attracted the attention of established philosophers and writers like Immanuel Kant, Denis Diderot and G. E. Lessing.
In the same year, he co-authored ‘An Account of the European Settlements’. He also signed a contract to write the history of England from the time of Julius Caesar to the end of Queen Anne’s reign. Although he began working on it immediately, he stopped at the year 1216. Many believe that he gave up the project sometime in 1762 because David Hume published his ‘History of England’, which spanned more or less the same period.
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Meanwhile in 1758 Burke cofounded ‘The Annual Register’ with Robert Dodsley, remaining its chief editor till 1789. Originally known as ‘A View of the History, Politicks and Literature of the Year’, it recorded events happening around the world on a yearly basis. Till 1766, he was the only major contributor to the journal.
In the World of Politics
Also in 1758, Edmund Burke was introduced to William Gerard Hamilton. In 1761, when Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Burke became his private secretary and moved to Dublin with him. During this period, he once again became conscious about the extent of persecution faced by the Catholics.
After about three years, a conflict developed between Burke and Hamilton. Therefore, he left his position and returned to London. He now received patronage from Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.
When in July 1765, Rockingham became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, he appointed Burke as his private secretary. In the following December, he entered the House of Commons from Wendover, a borough constituency of the House. His maiden speech was highly appreciated by all.
Burke now focused on reconciliation with the American colonies and persuaded the government to repeal the much-loathed Stamp Act. This made him popular among many colonists.
When in 1766, Rockingham’s government fell, Burke was offered a similar post in the new set up. However, he chose to remain with Rockingham and sit in the opposition. The two remained lifelong friends. He also served as the elder statesman’s secretary until the latter’s death in 1782.
Concurrently, he also continued writing. In 1769, he published ‘Observations on a Late State of the Nation’ in response to ‘The Present State of the Nation’, written by British Whig statesman George Grenville.
Sitting in the opposition, Burke also took a leading role in the debate concerning the constitutional role of the executives. At that time, the main problem was who would have greater control over the governance: the king or the parliament?
King George III, who had come to the throne in 1760, was trying to reassert his rights. While Burke argued strongly against unrestrained royal power, he also talked about the role of political parties in preventing abuses and published his views as ‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents’ on 23 April 1770.
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Subsequently he argued for free market in corn and secured the right to publish debates held in parliament. He was also instrumental in the passing of the Repeal of Certain Laws Act 1772.
In 1774, he entered the House of Commons from Bristol, a great trading city with a genuine electoral contest. Yet when in 1778, a parliamentary motion for revising restrictions on Irish trade was brought in, he supported it whole-heartedly. This he did in spite of opposition from the members of his constituency.
In the same year, he published ‘Two Letters to Gentlemen of Bristol on the Bills relative to the Trade of Ireland’. In it, he said that, “… the gain of others is not necessarily our loss, but on the contrary an advantage by causing a greater demand for such wares as we have for sale."
Although Burke considered himself English, he had full sympathy for the Irish and did much to alleviate their misery. Therefore, when George Savile introduced bills to repeal some of the penal laws against Catholics, Burke supported him wholeheartedly.
However his stand on such issues was not appreciated by his electorates and when the election was held in 1780, he lost the seat. For rest of his political career, he represented Malton, another pocket borough under the Marquess of Rockingham's estate.
In 1781, Burke was appointed Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on East Indian Affair and was charged with investigating “alleged injustices in Bengal, the war with Hyder Ali, and other Indian difficulties.” From now on, India became one of his prime concerns.
In March 1782, Rockingham returned to power. He appointed Burke Paymaster of the Forces and a Privy Counselor without a seat in Cabinet. As Rockingham died in July 1782, Burke did have not much time on hand, yet he managed to introduce two acts and abolish 134 offices.
In April 1783, when Lord Frederick North formed a government in coalition with Charles James Fox, Burke was once again appointed to the post of Paymaster of the Forces. However, the coalition failed within a few months and William Pitt the Younger of Tory party became the new Prime Minister.
For the rest of his political life, Burke remained in the opposition, but continued to work. It was mainly due to his effort that Warren Hastings was impeached in 1796.
In 1789, he was contemplating retirement. But as the French Revolution erupted, Burke became agitated and wrote, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France.’ The work, published in 1790, anticipated the worst excesses that were yet to come.
In 1794, Burke retired from Parliament due to his perceived failure to impeach Warren Hastings. However, he did not stop working and spent the rest of his life establishing the Jacobins as a ruthless and malevolent force.
In 1796, he published ‘Letters on a Regicide Peace or Letters ... on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France.’ It was a series of four letters written to the British Prime Minister William Pitt, in which he voiced his opposition to any negotiation with the new French leadership.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1757, Edmund Burke married Jane Mary Nugent, daughter of Dr. Christopher Nugent, the Irish doctor who played a pivotal role in guiding him when he first came to London. She was sixteen when he first saw her. They first developed a friendship, which soon turned into romance.
The couple had one surviving son, Richard Burke, born on 9 February 1758. He later became a barrister and succeeded his father as a Member of Parliament from Malton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, soon after this, he fell ill and died on 2 August 1794.
Towards the end of his life Edmund Burke developed some kind of stomach ailments. He died on 9 July 1797 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. In accordance with his wish, he was buried there in the parish church alongside his son and brother. He was survived by his wife, Mary Jane Burke.
Today, Burke is regarded as the father of modern British conservatism by most political historians.