Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Burke: A Biographical Note

Related Links:
Related Links in the GSR:

Source: Introduction to 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.

Biographical Note

Since E. J. Payne does not furnish the details of Edmund Burke’s biography, it will be useful to the modern reader to include a brief sketch of Burke’s life here. (See also the chronological table in volume 2 of this edition.)

He was born in Dublin on January 12, 1729, of a Roman Catholic mother and a father who, according to the most likely account, had conformed to the Established Anglican Church of Ireland (whose head, as in England, was the King of Great Britain and Ireland) in order to be able to practice law, a profession forbidden to Catholics under the Penal Laws. Of the children of that marriage who lived to maturity, the boys, Garrett, Richard, and Edmund, were raised as Protestants; the one girl, Juliana, as a Catholic.

Since Edmund was a somewhat sickly child, he was sent to live from 1735 to 1740 with his mother’s Catholic relatives, the Nagles, in the country air of County Cork. He maintained cordial relations with them throughout his life. If Burke had a personal religious problem as a result of this mixed religious family background, he solved it by maintaining that all Christians shared a common faith which subsisted in different forms in the several nations of the commonwealth of Christendom. The points on which they differed were the less important ones which could be left for the theological schools to argue about. When the French Revolution came, Burke found it easy to insist that all Christian kingdoms and churches must forget their quarrels and unite against what he called “an armed doctrine” hostile to all religion and civilization. (On a visit to France many years earlier, in 1773, he had been shocked by the rationalism and even atheism that he encountered in Paris.)

From 1741 to 1744, he attended a school in County Kildare that was conducted by a Quaker, Abraham Shackleton. Again, Burke maintained friendly relations with the Shackleton family for many years. In 1744, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, the intellectual stronghold of Irish Protestantism; he graduated with an A.B. degree in 1748 and received an M.A. degree in 1751.

By that time, he had gone to London to study law in the Inns of Court. But although in later life he displayed a considerable knowledge and understanding of law, he found the method of study distasteful and, much to his father’s annoyance, abandoned the law for a literary career.

He began this with two books that attracted much attention: A Vindication of Natural Society, a satire on the Deism of the Enlightenment, in 1756; and a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in 1757. In the latter year, he married Jane Nugent, the daughter of a Catholic doctor; Jane herself may or may not have been brought up as a Catholic and, if she was, may or may not have continued to practice that religion after her marriage to Burke. In any case, the two children of the marriage, Christopher and Richard (who alone survived to maturity), were brought up in their father’s religion.

In 1758, Edmund became the editor of a yearly review of events and literature, the Annual Register, which continues publication to the present day. He also became private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton and went with him to Dublin in 1761 when Hamilton became Chief Secretary (a powerful post) to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It was there that Burke began, but never finished, his Tracts Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland. He returned to London with Hamilton in 1764 and, after a bitter break with him, became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham in 1765. The Marquis, one of the wealthiest men in both England and Ireland, was the leader of a Whig faction that resisted the efforts of the new young king, George III, to reassert the personal power of the monarch.

In 1765, a reluctant King George appointed Rockingham First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister). In the same year, Burke was elected to the House of Commons from the nomination borough of Wendover through the influence of Lord Verney, with whom the Burke family had become friendly. Burke immediately made a reputation in the Commons as an orator. The Rockingham administration fell from power in 1766, after it repealed the Stamp Act that had so outraged the American colonies. Burke remained one of Rockingham’s followers, however, and so spent most of the rest of his parliamentary life in opposition. In 1768, Burke bought an estate in Buckinghamshire, which made him a country gentleman but kept him in debt to the end of his days.

In the Commons, he quickly became the intellectual spokesman for the Rockingham Whigs. In that capacity, he wrote the party’s creed, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. During the American crisis, he argued for the Rockingham Whigs’ position and against the British government’s policies in his great speeches on American taxation and on conciliation with the colonies, and in other documents, such as his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.

Burke lost his seat in Parliament when Lord Verney, strapped for money, had to sell it (a practice fully acceptable in that time). But, now well known, Burke was elected to the Commons from the city of Bristol, where he delivered his famous speech on the role of a parliamentary representative (see Miscellaneous Writings, published with this set). Burke’s disagreements with his constituents on a number of issues (his Two Letters to Gentlemen in Bristol describe one of them) led him to withdraw from the Bristol election in 1780. The Marquis kept him in Parliament, however, by having him elected from the Yorkshire borough of Malton, a seat that Burke held until his retirement in 1794.

A second Rockingham ministry came into office in 1782 to make peace with the rebellious Americans. Burke, who was never invited to sit in a Cabinet, became Paymaster of the Forces. The post was supposed to be lucrative to its holder, but Burke chose to reform it. He also carried on the Rockingham policy of combatting royal influence in Parliament with a bill designed to reduce the king’s power of patronage. Unfortunately, the Marquis died in the same year, and Burke was again out of a job.

He became Paymaster again in 1783, however, when a coalition government led by Charles James Fox, who succeeded the Marquis as leader of the Rockingham Whigs, and the Tory Lord North, who had been King George’s prime minister during the American war, had a brief period in power. During this time, Burke delivered his Speech on Fox’s East India Bill (see Miscellaneous Writings).

Burke was again out of office when the coalition fell in 1783 and was replaced by a Tory ministry under the younger William Pitt. The following year, Pitt’s Tories won a smashing victory in a general election and remained in power for the rest of Burke’s life.

Two of the great causes that engaged Burke began in the 1780s: the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, which began in 1788 and ended with Hastings’s acquittal in 1795; and the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Burke’s principal and most famous writing on the latter subject is his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The most important of his other writings on that great cataclysm, A Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont, A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Thoughts on French Affairs, and Letter to William Elliot, have been published by Liberty Fund in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by Daniel E. Ritchie. Burke’s last and increasingly severe attacks on the Revolution are the Letters on a Regicide Peace.

Burke was also active in Irish affairs during this period, mostly through private correspondence, and he had a significant influence in the continued relaxation of the Penal Laws against Catholics in Ireland. His Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe is one piece of his writing on Irish affairs that was published in his lifetime.

Burke became a man without a party after his break in 1791 with Charles James Fox over the attitude to be taken toward the French Revolution. Burke’s last years were sad and bitter ones. Rejected by his own party, he was not received by the governing Tories except as an occasionally useful ally. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, dismissed Reflections on the Revolution in France as “rhapsodies in which there is much to admire, and nothing to agree with.” Burke retired from Parliament in 1794, having completed the prosecution of Warren Hastings, and was utterly disgusted, though not surprised, when the House of Lords acquitted Hastings in the following year. In 1794, Burke also suffered the loss through death of both his brother Richard and his son Richard, Jr. His son was the apple of his father’s eye and had been, Burke said, his main reason for continuing to live after the end of his parliamentary career.

Last modified April 13, 2016