Edmund Burke (1729-97) was an Irish statesman and philosopher, political thinker. Son of an Irish Protestant attorney and a Catholic mother, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He came to London in 1750 and entered the Middle Temple. He made many lasting friendships with literary and artistic figures, including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, and the Blue Stockings; he championed emerging writers such as Fanny Burney and George Crabbe.
In 1756 he published A Vindication of a Natural Society, in answer to the deism of Bolingbroke, and in 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into…the Sublime and Beautiful. In 1759 he started the Annual Register, to which he contributed until 1788.
In 1765 he was elected MP for Wendover. He published his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, partly in relation to the Wilkes crisis, in 1770. In 1773 he visited France, where he saw Marie Antoinette, a vision that inspired some passages of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In 1774 he became MP for Bristol, making speeches On American Taxation (1774) and On Conciliation with America (1775); he was moved to the Malton seat in 1781.
Burke’s attacks on the conduct of the American war contributed to North’s resignation in 1783. He was active in the investigation of the East India Company, delivering speeches on the East India Bill (1783) and On the Nabob of Arcot’s Private Debts (1785), and he opened the case for the impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788). He supported William Wilberforce in advocating the abolition of the slave trade. The French Revolution prompted his Reflections and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), a defence against the charge of political inconsistency. Two Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796) appeared after his retirement in 1794; his Letter to a Noble Lord (1796) defends the pension he received.
Burke’s political life was devoted to several causes: the emancipation of the House of Commons from the control of George III and the ‘king’s friends’; the emancipation of the American colonies; the emancipation of Irish Catholics; the emancipation of India from the East India Company; and opposition to the Jacobinism of the French Revolution. For this last, he was attacked by radicals, such as Thomas Paine and William Godwin, who considered he had betrayed his faith in political liberty. Goldsmith had described him in 1774 in a mock epitaph as one who ‘born for the universe, narrowed his mind, | And to party gave up what was meant for mankind’ (Retaliation). But Wordsworth in The Prelude saluted him as one who declares the vital power of social ties | Endeared by custom’. His prose was enormously admired by William Hazlitt. Matthew Arnold declared that ‘almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought (1864).