The Reading Room
What Irish Enlightenment? The Case of Edmund Burke
Four times I have posed, in these pages, the question: “What Irish Enlightenment?” And answered with the “cases” of John Toland, Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, and Maria Edgeworth—a priest/academic, a satirist, a philosopher, and a novelist. With Edmund Burke, a towering parliamentarian and intellectual called today “the father of conservatism,” these figures are offered most often as the leaders of the European Enlightenment in Ireland.
Born in Dublin, province of Leinster, Kingdom of Ireland, in 1729 (exact date unknown), and dying in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1797, Edmund Burke sits comfortably within the dates of the European Enlightenment, 1685–1815—whereas, for example, Toland, Swift, and Edgeworth do not. Our other “cases” have been “Anglo-Irish,” but Burke’s Irish roots run deep. The Burke dynasty in Ireland can be traced to a knight, William de Burgh, who followed Henry II in his 1171 invasion of Ireland—and stayed, becoming one of the old English families assimilated to Gaelic society (and so the Gaelicized “Burke”).
Burke was born, educated, and lived his life in the final decades of the Enlightenment, however, and, while he espoused its ideas, such as religious toleration, economic liberalism, and freedom under limited government, he forged a new ideology when it came to the Enlightenment’s two great political revolutions. In those two upheavals, in America and France, he perceived only futility—and much worse—the Enlightenment’s passion for reasoning from first premises as to why customs, social structures, and governments must be cast aside and replaced by ideals arrived at by logic. He expressed this, as we shall see, in no uncertain terms: “I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.” And later: “The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror.”
In the experience of human society, its proven principles, and its eras of progress and happiness lie the wisdom needed to protect the present and guide the future. These ideas came to be called “conservatism,” a term not associated in Burke’s time with politics.
His deep Irish roots did not spare Edmund the sectarian clash of Catholicism, Presbyterianism, and establishment Anglicanism that keynote the Irish Enlightenment’s “agenda” of challenges. His father, a Dublin solicitor, was Church of Ireland, but his mother, from County Cork, was Catholic. All evidence is that Edmund went with tradition, the Anglican Church of Ireland, but his mother’s faith gave his political opponents an avenue of attack.
He followed the faith of his father all his life, practicing Anglicanism (his sister opted for the Church of Rome), but his political enemies assailed him for his secret sympathy with Catholicism and a secret education at a Jesuit College in France. It was nonsense, but its political significance was not. Membership in the Catholic Church would disqualify Burke from public office under the penal laws of Ireland.
When put to the test, after election to the British House of Commons, Burke took the oath of allegiance to the Anglican communion, declaring himself to be against the doctrine of transubstantiation. Small wonder that addressing sectarian conflict, religious tolerance, and a secular political regime characterized the Irish Enlightenment. (Ultimately, the effort failed and left Ireland with the sectarian conflicts that have continued into the twenty-first century. But that is another story.)
Edmund’s early education was Quaker at a school in County Kildare. He then enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, a purely Protestant establishment that did not admit Catholics until almost half a century later. It was at Trinity that the “conservative” Burke innovated the organization of a debating society that is the oldest undergraduate society in the world. (You can read the minutes of its meetings even today.)
If there is irony in the early years of the great parliamentarian, it is because he set out to be a writer and philosopher, achieved impressive early success, and drifted into politics, at first, in pursuit of making a living.
When Burke graduated from Trinity in 1748, his father dictated the next step: law. Burke traveled to London and gave it a try at the Middle Temple but soon gave it up to travel to the Continent and to make his living as a writer. It may have to do with the Irish temperament—or Ireland’s fate to be an instrument of English aspiration—but both Jonathan Swift and (as is less well known) Maria Edgeworth both were brilliant satirists of English pretensions, manners, and political conceits. And Burke’s first notable publication was a parody so skillful that leading men of the time failed to get the joke. From 1752 to 1754, the Letters on the Study and Use of History, and then the collected works, of Lord Bolingbroke were posthumously published. Burke responded with a reductio ad absurdum of Bolingbroke’s brief for deism and its rationalist roots. In A Vindication of Natural Society, Burke so brilliantly parodied the style and mode of thought of Bolingbroke that some thought the work bona fide Bolingbroke. Reviews were laudatory, focusing a great deal on the quality of writing. In a later edition, Burke informed the readers that it was a satire.
In A Vindication of Natural Society, Burke argued: "The writers against religion, whilst they oppose every system, are wisely careful never to set up any of their own." And he made the point that Bolingbroke’s arguments against revealed religion—arguments that are a dominant theme of Enlightenment philosophy—would tell equally against all social and civil institutions. This was the appearance in history of Edmund Burke as the champion of traditions and institutions, including religion, evolved from experience, successful in practice, and sanctified by service to civility, social accord, and human thriving.
Burke contracted to write a history of England and delivered it in part (it was published after his death), and he contributed to a publication on international political events. In 1757, he married the daughter of a Catholic physician, by whom he had one son, Richard, who survived infancy. At this time, he entered politics (1765) as private secretary to William Hamilton, recently appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. It opened the door to a political career. He became secretary to the liberal Whig Charles, Marquess of Rockingham, Prime Minister of Great Britain. (And became known, thereafter, as a “Rockinghamite” Whig.) He made an impression. In the same year, he entered the House of Commons as a member from a pocket borough “in the “gift” of Lord Fermanagh, a Rockingham ally.
With his first address (“maiden speech”) to the Commons, Burke achieved a kind of prominence, when William Pitt the Elder lauded his remarks and declared that the Commons was to be congratulated on its new member. By the end of the decade, Burke was leading the debate over the American colonies, soon to separate from the mother country and go to war. Almost at the same time, the politics of France became a new subject of debate.
Next came a debate, which Burke also led, about constitutional limits on the king. Royal power must not remain unrestrained; political parties must undertake constitutional limits on the king or limits by factions. He turned out publication after publication—in effect, editorials in the form of pamphlets. His theme was principled opposition to the abuse of power. Burke demanded a party with “unshaken adherence to principle” as opposed to “interest”—what defenders of the new American Constitution called “faction.” All this, of course, was pure Enlightenment political thinking with Burke’s impassioned perspective, as an Irishman, on the abuse of power.
As Burke’s influence in the Commons rose, he provoked opposition, first from Charles James Fox. An achievement that Burke attained against such opposition was securing the right to publish Parliament’s debates. Entirely consistent with such Enlightenment thinkers as Adam Smith and the French Physiocrats, whom he met while traveling, Burke led the advocacy of a free market in grain, arguing that prices are not intrinsically high or low but natural within a “universal market.” Thus, in 1772 Parliament passed the “Repeal of Certain Laws Act,” which revoked the hoary English corn laws.
Here seemed to emerge a consistency that came to define Burke, but that consistency is not easy to pin down. He upheld principle against faction and expediency but also upheld norms established by historical experience. He condemned the partition of Poland by the Russian, Austrian, and German empires, in 1773, as a first fatal breach of the political system of Europe and its “balance of power.”
He confronted his own constituency in Bristol on the principle that a “representative” to the Commons had been delegated to act on his own best, rational judgment of the true interests of his constituents—not as a messenger and advocate of their factional interests (in this instance, tariffs on Irish trade). And in his stand on free trade (which lost him his seat), he said the following:
“If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong.”
Here is Edmund Burke the Enlightenment man, insisting on following the dictates of reason and acting on principle. And the enemy, as in the American debate over the Constitution, is “faction” or “interests.” Burke fought many such political and intellectual battles, including for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, but two great controversies defined his political career and his legacy of ideas.
The greatest “English” commentator on the American War of Independence was an Irishman. Burke’s speeches in Parliament and his writing, including pamphlets, summoned England and King George III to uphold policies and practices that had kept the American colonies within the English orbit for more than a century.
No, he said, I am not talking about “rights” and where they begin and end. “I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. . . . Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. . . . If [English sovereignty] . . . and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery.”
America’s population was burgeoning, as were its manufactures and financial resources. Would Americans back down in the face of force? No more than would the British from whom most descended. “They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants. . . . a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it.”
It was a clarion call for tradition, the strength of ties (“common names . . . kindred blood”), and allegiance based on the rights of Englishmen. His proposition was “peace” resting upon common faith, common privileges. It was at once rigorously argued and an appeal not to “principle” but to the traditional, the commonsensical, and what had worked for so long. Many of Burke’s warnings proved prophetic. The colonists did not surrender in the bleakest times and won their battle in large measure because it was on American soil.
The challenge that defined Burke’s place in history, the French Revolution of 1789, still lay ahead.