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Edmund Burke

Edmund BurkeBorn: 1-Jan-1729
Birthplace: Dublin, Ireland
Died: 9-Jul-1797
Location of death: Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Mary and All Saints Churchyard, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Philosopher, Politician

Nationality: Ireland
Executive summary: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Irish philosopher and politician, distinguished all over the mon of his times for eloquence and political foresight, was born in 1729 in Dublin, where his father had an extensive practice as an attorney. As a schoolboy, he displayed those traits of character and the germs of those powers which ultimately gave him greatness. In 1744 Burke entered Trinity College Dublin, of which he became a scholar. His undergraduate course was not unmarked by the ordinary distinctions of successful application; but it would appear that he mainly devoted himself to his favorite studies of poetry, oratory, history, and metaphysics. In February 1748 he graduated B.A. and in 1751 took his degree as Master of Arts. In the interval (1750), being destined for the English bar, he proceeded to London, to keep his terms at the Middle Temple. To legal studies, however, he never took kindly, and ultimately he abandoned the idea of becoming a barrister. During the years 1750-56 he would appear to have occupied himself in travelling through England, enjoying the society of literary men, in study, and finally in writing for various periodicals.

Burke, when yet at university, had achieved a local reputation for literary talent and eloquence. Among the compositions of his undergraduate life, the most noticeable perhaps was his translation of the conclusion of the second Georgic of Virgil, which shows poetic talent of no mean order. His first important publication, however, was the celebrated Vindication of Natural Society, written in imitation and ridicule of the style and reasoning of Lord Bolingbroke, in which, with well-concealed irony, he confutes his lordship's views of a society by reductio ad absurdum. This work, published anonymously in 1756 at the age of 26, attracted considerable attention. Soon after, in the same year, appeared his well-known essay, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful -- a work containing a comprehensive induction of the various sources of ideas referred to, but which must be pronounced a failure, so far as it pretends to analyze into their primary elements the emotions of the sublime and beautiful.

The essay on the Sublime and Beautiful attained him a rapid popularity, and its author soon found himself courted by all the eminent men of his time. David Garrick was already one of his friends; among them he soon could count Joshua Reynolds, Soame Jenyns, Lord Lyttleton, William Warburton, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson. Notwithstanding this popularity, however, his progress continued slow; for three years yet, he had to occupy himself with periodical writing, devoting his leisure principally to political subjects. What is considered a joint work of Burke and his cousin, William Bourke, appeared in 1757 -- An Account of the European Settlement in America -- and shows how carefully at this date he had studied the condition of the colonies. In 1761, W. G. Hamilton ("Single-speech Hamilton"), then Secretary for Ireland, having appointed him his private secretary, he returned to Dublin, where, during two years of service, he demonstrated his aptitude for political business, receiving in 1763 a pension on the Irish establishment of 300, which, however, he did not long enjoy.

Returning to London, Burke in 1764 along with Reynolds founded the Literary Club, the history of which is associated with almost every considerable name in the literature of the period. But literary society did not call off his attention from the chances of a political career. He became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham (Charles Watson-Wentworth), on his becoming Prime Minister, and at the same time entered parliament as a member for Wendover. Here his eloquence at once made him the reputation of being "the first man in the Commons." The Rockingham administration, however, lived only a few months, and with it terminated his second political employment. Burke's parliamentary life extended from 1766 to 1794 without intermission; he was successively member of Wentworth, Bristol, and Malton; twice he held the post of Paymaster of the Forces, once under Rockingham and again under Lord North, with the standing of a privy councillor. After a career in parliament remarkable for the laboriousness, earnestness, and brilliancy in which every duty was discharged, and extending over nearly 30 years, he retired at last, receiving the thanks of the Commons for his numerous public services, and rewarded by the government, on the express request of the sovereign, with pensions amounting in all to 3700. It would be wrong, however, to omit that as Paymaster of the Forces he, with a scrupulous regard to public economy, sacrificed all the perquisites of the office, exhibiting a severe integrity unexampled among public men; and that in his relation with the constituency of Bristol, which was alienated from him by his advocacy of the claims of the Roman Catholics and of the opening up of the trade of Ireland, he was first to maintain the doctrine of the independence of parliamentary representatives -- that they are not machines to vote for measures approved by their constituencies simply for that reason, but men and thinkers chosen by them to calmly consider and legislate for the good of the commonwealth. It must also be mentioned that during his career he rendered more important service to the cause of humanity than any man of his time; he prepared the way for the abolition of the slave trade, a measure which was destined to ripen to success in the hands of William Wilberforce; he advocated the cause of humanity in India against the voracious greed of the stockholders, who regarded its millions simply as materials for plunder, and largely contributed to improve the government of that country. Towards America he advocated a policy of justice and conciliation, which, had it been adopted, may well have averted the horrors of the American Revolutionary War. And to the advocacy of every cause which he espoused, he brought a capacity for patient research that was unlimited, and an eloquence that has never been transcended.

Before proceeding to remark on the character and powers of Burke, a very brief notice must be taken of his leading literary efforts connected with his political labors. Omitting a variety of valuable letters -- several on the condition of Ireland -- notice must be taken of his Observations on a Pamphlet on the Present State of the Nation, being his first political pamphlet, published in 1769 in answer to one variously ascribed to Fox or George Grenville. In 1770, he published a pamphlet On the Cause of the Present Discontents. On the 13th of February 1788, he commenced his celebrated speech opening the trial of Warren Hastings, probably the most remarkable trial in the 18th century. This speech lasted over four days, and has been characterized as "a tempest of invective and eloquence." No idea can be conveyed of the effect which it produced. The trial lasted seven years, and closed with another great and splendid oration from Burke, lasting over nine days. Hastings, it is well known, was acquitted. While this trial was advancing, Burke found time to take part in all he current business. In 1790 appeared his Reflections on the Revolution of France, which sold in tens of thousands, and is said to have produced an effect never produced before or since by any political essay. Hereafter, the world showered honors on Burke, too numerous to list. Having, in 1791, withdrawn from the Whigs on the French question, he offered for the consideration of government, Thoughts on French Affairs, which, however, was not published until after his death. Heads for Consideration on the Present State of Affairs, and Reply to a Noble Lord, next followed, the latter being relative to himself personally. His last work, Thoughts on a Regicide Peace, showed that he retained to the end of his life his whole powers unimpaired.

Burke died on the 9th of July 1797, in his 68th year.

Wife: Jane Nugent (m. 1757)

    University: Trinity College Dublin (1744-)

    UK Member of Parliament Wendover, 1765-
    UK Member of Parliament 1774-82, Bristol
    Brooks's Club
    Literary Club

Is the subject of books:
Edmund Burke and His World, 1979, BY: Alice P. Miller
Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions, 1988, BY: Stanley Ayling

Author of books:
A Vindication of Natural Society... (1756)
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)
Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770, pamphlet)
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)


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