Edmund Burke: The Conscience of a Nation

By Joseph E. Gannon

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
-- Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was one of the most famous political thinkers of the 18th century. Through his speeches and writings, he raised the level of political debate in England, attempting to make moral principles a part of English politics. When this silver-tongued Dubliner spoke, the British people listened. A champion of Catholic emancipation, Burke wielded his influence to weaken the heinous Penal Laws. He was born on Jan. 12, 1729, in Arran Quay, Dublin.

Burke was the son of a mixed marriage, his mother Catholic and his father Protestant. He would later marry an Irish Catholic woman. Perhaps it was these two factors which led him to advocate a compassionate policy toward Ireland for most of his life. Burke graduated from Trinity College in 1748 and studied law at Middle Temple in London; however, he failed to secure a call to the bar and instead began a literary career.

"June Nugent Burke" by Joshua Reynolds

In 1756, Burke published his first book, "A Vindication of Natural Society" and an essay titled "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful." In 1757, he married June Nugent, the daughter of a Catholic physician, and in 1759 he became editor of the Annual Register.

By 1761, Burke had begun to involve himself with politics. That year, after living in England, he returned to Dublin as secretary to W.G. Hamilton, chief secretary for Ireland. He left that post two years later to become secretary to the new prime minister, Lord Rockingham.

In 1765, Earl Verney brought him into the House of Commons as a member for Wendover. His first speeches in the early months of 1766 impressed the members of Parliament. In the space of a few short weeks, Burke rose from obscurity to being recognized as one of the leading figures in the House of Commons. He now began to make his own mark in politics through his writing and public speaking.

Burke had come to Parliament just as the controversy over the Stamp Act was beginning. He urged repeal of the act and consistently supported a policy of reconciliation with the American colonies. Burke wrote four well-known pamphlets on the America question from 1770 to 1777: "Thoughts on the Present Discontents" (1770), "American Taxation" (1774), "Conciliation with the Colonies" (1775), and "A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol" (1777).

Burke's colleagues in Parliament never took his advice on the American colonies, but many since have recognized the wisdom of the policy he advanced. In commenting on Burke's writings on the American question, John Morley, the Liberal politician and writer, said that "taken together they compose the most perfect manual in our literature, or in any literature, for one who approaches the study of public affairs, whether for knowledge or practice.'' After Yorktown, it was Burke and the Whigs who would eventually force King George III to recognize the futility of continuing the war in America.

Burke was the leading Parliamentary proponent of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland. Since the late 17th century, Catholics in Ireland had been barred from full citizenship and the vast majority forced into abject poverty by the Penal Laws. During the last part of the 18th century, the threat of French intervention in Ireland and Burke's efforts together forced the passage of several reductions of the severe restrictions of the Penal Laws.

The championing of that cause would cost Burke his MP seat in 1780, but he returned to Parliament as the member from Malton and became Paymaster of Forces when a Whig, Lord Rockingham, became prime minister again. When Lord Rockingham died in July 1786, Burke resigned and never held public office again, but he continued his involvement with British politics and writing for the rest of his life.

Burke was a constant critic of British colonial policies, and, in the 1780s, his investigation into The East India Company led to the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor general of India. Although Hastings would eventually be acquitted of all charges, the entire affair led to reforms in England's administration in India and helped bring the inequities of England's colonial system before the public. Burke believed this was the most important political contribution of his career.

Burke is often remembered for his vehement opposition to the French Revolution, which he expounded in 1790 in what is, perhaps, his best-known work: "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The work was widely published and read all over Europe, and his articulation of what he viewed as the dangers of the Revolution caused a sensation in England. It caused him to break with many of his longtime friends and colleagues in the Whig party and invoked replies from many English writers, the most famous one being Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man."

In what might seem a contradiction, given his support of the civil rights of Irish Catholics, Burke was opposed to the Volunteer movement in Ireland and to the establishing of Henry Grattan's Irish Parliament. Burke's opposition to these movements may well have been his fear that Grattan's Parliament would not be a government of all the Irish people but merely one that continued, and perhaps even strengthened, the long tradition or Irish Protestant rule and Irish Catholic subservience. Burke was never an advocate of any form of Irish independence, though he supported the emancipation of Irish Catholics within the British Empire.

Burke's writing on the Irish question are less known than those of his on the American and the French Revolutions, but he left behind several that would have served the British well -- had they ever been heeded. In his "Speech at the Guildhall" (1780), "To a Peer of Ireland on the Penal Laws" (1782), and "To Sir Hercules Langrishe" (1792), he sends them a clear message: Your foolish colonial policies have lost America and your foolish policies will lose Ireland. His counsel was ignored but the correctness of his theme has been proved by history.

Burke died in London on July 9, 1797, one year before Ireland erupted in revolution. That revolt might have been avoided if some of Burke's ideas on Catholic emancipation and other legislative reforms had been more fully implemented by the English government. Then, as ever, the country's rulers seemed to suffer from a complete inability to make the compromises that could avoid repeated disasters on that long-suffering island. As Burke once said, in words that should echo down to those debating Ireland's future today: "All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter."

Burke is not a hero of Irish nationalists, nor should he be, for he never was a proponent of Irish republicanism. But he did help put the corruption of England's colonial system before the English people. Most of all, he started the process that would eventually bring the despised malignancy known as the Penal Laws to an end; for this, he should be well remembered in the land of his birth.

Selected Bibliography:

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Tags: 18th, Century, Ireland


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