There is a vast literature on Edmund Burke, his life, his thought, and his times. One will find an exhaustive bibliography of it in Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982, by Clara J. Gandy and Peter J. Stanlis (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1983).
What is offered here is a small selection of books for the general reader who may want to fill out the background to, and deepen his understanding of, Burke’s actual texts. It draws very heavily on the work of Gandy and Stanlis, supplemented by this editor’s own knowledge and further help from Professor Stanlis. It in no way pretends to be a guide to the scholarly research on Burke, for which the full Gandy and Stanlis bibliography will be indispensable.
First, however, the reader may want to read more of Burke’s writings than are contained in these volumes. The first set of Burke’s works was begun during the last years of his life by his disciples and literary executors, Walker King and French Laurence. After his death, they began anew with a set of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke in sixteen volumes, published in London by F. C. and J. Rivington from 1803 to 1827. According to Paul Langford, all subsequent editions of Burke’s works, until the one of which Langford is now the general editor, derived essentially from this Rivington edition. The best and most readily available of them are the eight-volume set published in London by Henry G. Bohn in 1854 and the twelve-volume one published in Boston by Little, Brown in 1901.
All of these editions are being replaced for scholarly work on Burke by The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, under Paul Langford’s general editorship, which commenced publication by the Clarendon Press in Oxford in 1981 and is not yet complete at the time of this writing. Similarly, all previous publications of Burke’s correspondence have been replaced by The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, published in ten volumes, under the general editorship of Thomas W. Copeland, by the University of Chicago Press and the Cambridge University Press from 1958 to 1970.
Those wishing to get a better acquaintance with the world in which Burke lived and wrote also have a vast literature at their disposal. To mention but a few examples, there are Peter Laslett’s touching The World We Have Lost, Further Explored (London: Methuen, 1983), which describes life as it was in seventeenth-century England and as it remained without great change into Burke’s lifetime, and Dorothy Marshall’s Eighteenth-Century England (New York: D. McKay, 1962). The aristocratic society that was Burke’s political milieu is described by authors whose feelings about it range from left to right: M. L. Bush, The English Aristocracy (Manchester University Press, 1984); John Cannon, Aristocratic Century (Cambridge University Press, 1984); and G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963) and The Gentry (London and New York: Longman, 1976).
Biographies of Burke are rather few in number, and their authors were limited in access to source materials prior to 1949 and the early 1950s, when the Earls Fitzwilliam, the heirs of Burke’s political patrons, put a large collection of Burke’s previously unpublished papers in the Sheffield Central Library for use by scholars.
The best of the nineteenth-century biographies is Sir James Prior’s Memoir of the Life and Character of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, which had five editions, the last of them reprinted in 1967 by Burt Franklin in New York (but the second edition of 1826 is the best one). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the most influential biography was John Morley’s Burke, in the English Men of Letters Series, which established the dominant utilitarian interpretation of Burke’s thought until after World War II; first published in 1879, it has been several times republished (e.g., London: Macmillan, 1936).
Written in the first half of the twentieth century, The Early Life, Correspondence and Writings of Edmund Burke, by Arthur P. I. and Arthur Warren Samuels (Cambridge University Press, 1923), is still useful for this period of Burke’s life. Bertram Newman’s Edmund Burke (London: Bell and Sons, 1927) is not a great biography, but it is serviceable. The best political biography of Burke is Carl B. Cone’s Burke and the Nature of Politics: vol. 1, The Age of the American Revolution; and vol. 2, The Age of the French Revolution (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957, 1964). Russell Kirk’s Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (New York and New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1967) is a more popular biography. Charles Parkin’s article “Edmund Burke” in the New Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed., 1980) is a brief but excellent scholarly biography. A new biography that surpasses all previous ones in exhaustive research and wealth of detail is Edmund Burke, by F. P. Locke, volume 1 of which was published in 1998. Volume 2, at the time of this writing, was still being written.
Interpretations of Burke’s thought, which encompasses not only his political principles but his much broader philosophical and theological views, vary widely. Those who wish to get an idea of the broad scope of these variations may read the introduction to chapter 5 of the Gandy and Stanlis bibliography. To simplify the matter here, however, we may say that the dominant and largely British interpretation focussed on Burke’s emphasis on concrete historical facts and developments, on contingency in human affairs, and on “expediency” and practicality in political judgment. In this interpretation, Burke emerges as a utilitarian who ejected from political thought “metaphysics” and natural law in the form of natural rights. After World War II, a school of interpretation arose, mainly on the American side of the Atlantic, that held that Burke had inherited a classical and Christian conception of natural law that furnished him with his view of the world, of man, and of the supreme norms of politics.
There are those who deny that Burke’s thought deserved to be called a political philosophy. One example, despite the title of his book, is Frank O’Gorman, Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: Allen and Unwin, 1973). O’Gorman, a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Manchester when he wrote the book, sees Burke as no more than an ideologist for the Rockingham Whigs. A more recent example is Isaac Kramnick’s The Rage of Edmund Burke (New York: Basic Books, 1977), which psychoanalyzes Burke as a frustrated bourgeois with a love-hate relationship with the aristocracy whom he served, and perhaps a self-suppressed homosexual. Another highly psychological examination of Burke is Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
In the nineteenth century, works by Henry Buckle, Sir Leslie Stephen, and William Lecky placed Burke in the empirical, pragmatic, and utilitarian school of thought. We may take John Morley’s Burke, already mentioned, as the most influential example of this school. Burke, he says, overthrew “the baneful superstition that politics . . . is a province of morals.” John MacCunn, in The Political Philosophy of Burke (London: Edward Arnold, 1913; New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), emerges from this tradition by bringing out the higher and wider dimensions of Burke’s thought, including his belief in a higher moral law.
In the post–World War II period, Charles Parkin pointed out the connection in Burke’s political thought between natural-law morality and politics in The Moral Basis of Burke’s Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1956). In 1958, there appeared a full-length account of the role played in Burke’s thought by the classical and medieval conception of natural law: Peter J. Stanlis’s Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; now available from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Wilmington, Del.). It was followed by Francis Canavan’s The Political Reason of Edmund Burke (Duke University Press, 1960), which argued that Burke’s insistence on the concrete, experiential, and variable elements in practical political judgment was fully compatible with the older doctrine of natural law, because that doctrine included the Aristotelian and medieval understanding of practical reason and prudence. Burleigh T. Wilkins wrote a critical review of the clash between the utilitarian and natural-law interpretations of Burke’s thought in The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), and came down on the natural-law side.
Along the same line are works by Canavan, Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1987); Stanlis, Edmund Burke: The Enlightenment and Revolution (New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991); and Joseph L. Pappin III, The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke (Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 1993).
While one cannot identify Gerard W. Chapman simply with either the utilitarian or the natural-law school, his Edmund Burke: The Practical Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1967) is a valuable examination of the way in which Burke’s mind worked in making practical and prudential political judgments.
Critiques of Burke’s criticism of the radical democratic ideology of the age of the French Revolution may be found in R. R. Fennessy’s Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963) and Michael Freeman’s Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1980). Daniel E. Ritchie has edited a collection of essays on Burke’s thought from different points of view, including major chapters from a number of the books in this bibliography, in Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction Publishers, 1990).
Monographs on the major areas of Burke’s political concern that are addressed in the documents included in this set of volumes are surprisingly few. We do have Thomas H. D. Mahoney’s Edmund Burke and Ireland (Harvard University Press, 1960), but there is no monograph covering Burke on America, on India, or on France.
Harvey Mansfield, Jr., has furnished useful background to Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in his Statesmanship and Party Government (University of Chicago Press, 1965), and James Boulton has a chapter on that document in his The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963). George H. Guttridge’s English Whiggism and the American Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942) performs a similar function for Burke’s speeches on American taxation and conciliation with the colonies, as does Stanlis’s Edmund Burke on Conciliation with the Colonies and Other Papers on the American Revolution (Lumenburg, Vt.: The Limited Editions Club, Stinehour Press, 1975).
Sir Ernest Barker has essays on Burke and Bristol and on Burke and the French Revolution in his Essays on Government (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951). Steven Blakemore has edited essays on Burke and the French Revolution (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1992), and Peter Stanlis edited Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment and the Modern World (University of Detroit Press, 1967), which contains essays on Burke and the American and French revolutions. Boulton’s The Language of Politics has a chapter on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The Gandy and Stanlis bibliography is of the opinion that “perhaps the best general treatment of Burke and India” is in vol. 2, pp. 95–139 and 154–256, of Carl Cone’s Burke and the Nature of Politics, and that the most authoritative text on it is vol. 5 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke.
There is no one book devoted to the subject of Burke and France, nor any single book in English on Burke and the French Revolution. There are almost innumerable periodical articles, however, and introductions to the numerous editions of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. For background, one may consult Frank O’Gorman’s doctoral dissertation, The Whig Party and the French Revolution (London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967), which sets Burke’s attack on the French Revolution in the British political context of that time. But all books on Burke’s political theory must treat his criticism of the Revolution in some depth.
The only monograph on Burke’s economics is Francis Canavan’s The Political Economy of Edmund Burke (Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 1995), but there is a large periodical literature on the subject. For background to the Speech on the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, the reader may consult George Stead Veith’s The Genesis of Parliamentary Reform (London: Constable and Co., 1913; Hamden, Conn.: Shoestring Press, 1965) and John Cannon’s Parliamentary Reform, 1640–1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
There is a large literature on Burke’s influence on subsequent thought, a subject too large to enter here, but Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, 7th rev. ed. (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1986), should be mentioned for its examination of Burke’s impact on American thought, as should G. P. Gooch’s Germany and the French Revolution (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1927) for that country.
Last modified April 13, 2016