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Editor’s Foreword - Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 1 
Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.
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The first three volumes of this set of Select Works of Edmund Burke, fully edited by Edward John Payne (1844–1904), were originally published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, from 1874 to 1878. Liberty Fund now publishes them again, with a fourth volume of additional writings by Burke. The original set has been praised by Clara I. Gandy and Peter J. Stanlis as “an outstanding critical anthology of Burke’s essential works on the American and French revolutions”; and they went on to say: “The scholarship and criticism is perhaps the best on Burke during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.”1
E. J. Payne was born in England to parents “in humble circumstances,” as the Dictionary of National Biography phrases it. No doubt for that reason, the Dictionary goes on to say that he “owed his education largely to his own exertions.”2 Nonetheless he was able at age twenty-three to matriculate at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, from which he transferred to Charsley’s Hall. He graduated B.A. in 1871, with a first class in classics. The following year he was elected to a fellowship in University College, Oxford. He was married in 1899 and therefore had to resign his fellowship, but was re-elected to a research fellowship in 1900. To the end of his days he took an active part in the management of College affairs.
He was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1874, but devoted himself mainly to research and writing, especially on English colonial history and exploration, on which subjects he published rather widely. He also wrote on music, and was an accomplished violinist. His introductions and notes to these Select Works show him also to have been well versed in English, French, Italian, and classical literature as well as in history.
The first of these volumes contains Burke’s great speeches on the crisis between Great Britain and her American colonies, On American Taxation (1774) and On Conciliation with the Colonies (1775). They are preceded by his pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), which sets forth the political creed of the Whig faction led by the Marquis of Rockingham, for whom Burke acted as spokesman. The unifying theme of all three documents is Burke’s fear of arbitrary power divorced from political prudence. In the Present Discontents it was the power of the Crown and in the American speeches it was the sovereignty of the Mother Country that he argued were being exercised in an arbitrary and foolish manner.
The second volume is devoted wholly to Burke’s best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); the third, to his Letters on a Regicide Peace (between Great Britain and revolutionary France), which were written in 1796 and 1797. In these volumes he again expresses a detestation of arbitrary power, in this case of the sovereign people, which in practice was really the power of an oligarchy posing as a democracy.
The fourth volume contains writings that express Burke’s views on representation in Parliament, on economics, on the political oppression of the peoples of India and Ireland, and on the enslavement of African blacks.
One of the attractive features of Burke’s political thought is his keen awareness of the way in which reason operates in political judgments. He so heavily emphasized the roles of tradition, even to the point of calling it prejudice, and of sentiment and emotion in politics that it is easy to overlook his insistence that it was reason, not will, that should govern in the affairs of men. Mere will was arbitrary; reason recognized and took into account the complexity of reality. But it was practical, prudential reason, not abstract ideology, that should determine political decisions.
Thus, in his American speeches, while he did not deny Great Britain’s right to tax the colonies, he severely questioned the wisdom of trying to do so without the consent of the colonists. His objection to the French Revolution, and to the British radicalism that agreed with it, was not to democracy in the abstract (though he thought it unsuited to any large country), but to the doctrine of the “rights of men,” which the new French government had stated early in the Revolution in these terms: “The Representatives of the people of France, formed into a National Assembly, considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of government, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration those natural imprescriptible, and unalienable rights.”
Noble as that sentiment may be, it presumes that the purpose of politics and of the state can be reduced to a question of rights. The end of all political associations is the preservation of rights, and denying or ignoring them is the sole cause of public misfortunes. It follows that if a nation were to get its conception of rights straight, it would have solved all the problems of society. Burke was a strong and sincere defender of people’s rights in other contexts, but he was repelled by the ideological simple-mindedness of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).
Despite what Burke often seems to mean in his denunciations of “theory” and “metaphysics,” he did not reject principles or an overarching natural moral order. On the contrary, he often appealed to them, particularly in his arguments against political oppression in India and Ireland. His objection was to the ideological mind that reasoned in politics as if it were engaged in an exercise in geometry, proceeding from an initial principle to practical conclusions that followed with necessary logic, without regard to “the wisdom of our ancestors,” present circumstances, and the nature of the people as conditioned by their history. “For you know,” Burke wrote to Sir Hercules Langrishe in 1792, “that the decisions of prudence (contrary to the system of the insane reasoners) differ from those of judicature; and that almost all of the former are determined on the more or the less, the earlier or the later, and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.”3 But the decisions of prudence were nonetheless rational judgments that should not be considered irrational because they were not modelled on mathematics.
Burke believed in a common human nature created by God as the supreme norm of politics. But he knew that human nature realizes itself in history through conventional forms, customs, and traditions, which constitute what he called the second nature of a particular people. Convention can and often enough does distort our nature, but it is not of itself opposed to it. Burke would have agreed with the remark of the late Sir Ernest Barker: “Once oppose Nature to Convention, and the whole inherited tradition of the ages goes by the board.”4 Convention, made as it should be to satisfy the needs of nature, is not nature’s enemy, but its necessary clothing. The statesman must therefore frame his policies with a practical wisdom that understands his people, their history, their traditions, their inherited rights and liberties, and their present circumstances. To do otherwise is to court disaster.
Burke thought that in the French Revolution it was the National Assembly that was courting disaster; in the American Revolution it was the British government. He never favored America’s independence from Britain, because he always strove to be an enlightened imperialist for whom the British Empire could and should be a blessing to all its member countries. But when American independence came, he was able to accept it gracefully, and he even praised the new Constitution of the United States. Or so, at least, he is reported as saying in the House of Commons on May 6, 1791: “The people of America had, he believed, formed a constitution as well adapted to their circumstances as they could.” It was, to be sure, a republican constitution, but, given the circumstances of the Americans, it had to be one: “They had not the materials of monarchy or aristocracy among them. They did not, however, set up the absurdity that the nation should govern the nation; that prince prettyman should govern prince prettyman: but formed their government, as nearly as they could, according to the model of the British constitution.”5
In regard to France, however, he was uncompromising. There he saw the Revolution as an attack not only on monarchy and aristocracy, but on the religion, morals, and civilization of Christendom, inspired by a rationalistic ideology—“rationalistic” because it was founded not on reason, but on intoxication with abstract theory.
Nor did Burke divorce reason from emotion. On the contrary, he held that our reason can recognize our nature through our natural feelings and inclinations. To cite but one example, he is reported to have said in the Commons on May 14, 1781, that the obligation of kings to respect the property even of conquered enemies “is a principle inspired by the Divine Author of all good; it is felt in the heart; it is recognized by reason; it is established by consent.”6 Burke was well aware, of course, that man is subject to disordered passions as well as to natural feelings. But for that reason he said that “the wise Legislators of all countries [have] aimed at improving instincts into morals, and at grafting the virtues on the stock of the natural affections.”7 Reason cultivates rather than tries to exterminate natural affections, because it is through them that it recognizes our natural good.
Man of his times though he was and defender of a now-defunct aristocratic order of society, Burke still speaks to us today. Harold Laski was a Marxist who did not mourn the demise of the aristocratic order; nonetheless he said that Burke “wrote what constitutes the supreme analysis of the statesman’s art” and was “the first of English political thinkers.” Laski therefore concluded that “Burke has endured as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.”8 This set of Burke’s Select Works offers a valuable introduction to that wisdom.
[1 ]Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982 (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1983), no. 916.
Second Supplement (1912), 3:85.
Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, in Miscellaneous Writings, the companion volume to Select Works of Edmund Burke (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), p. 202.
Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors (New York: Barnes and Noble, 4th ed., 1951), p. 75.
The Parliamentary History of England (London: Hansard, 1806–1820), 29:365–66.
First Letter on a Regicide Peace, in Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 3 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), p. 127.
Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1920), pp. 15, 26, 172.