Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (Kirk)

Contemplating Edmund Burke’s influential role in shaping modern political parties and political theory, Russell Kirk proclaims:

If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke… [A]fter his death Burke became the intellectual founder of a new and more powerful party, the Conservative—a fusion of Tories and conservative Whigs—which now endures as the oldest coherent policy party in the fluctuating twentieth-century world.

Throughout his political and literary career, Burke opposed the “arbitrary exercise of power” and “denial of justice,” warning against the dangers of absolute power. He championed “the cause of the unfortunate” and  “never had feared to attack the powerful, or to defend the weak, or to oppose to established interests the high power of his imagination.” Burke, as a “philosopher in action[,]…maintained to his last day the cause of justice in society.” In Edmund Burke:  A Genius Reconsidered, Kirk traces these themes throughout Burke’s actions and writings regarding the American Revolution, Economic Reform, the prosecution of Warren Hastings, and French Revolution.

Born in Ireland, Burke moved to London in 1750 to study law. He quickly gave up his legal career in favor of traveling across Europe. His first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind, appeared in 1756. His early fame as a writer and passion for British government launched his political career in December of 1765, when he became a member of the House of Commons for Wendover.

The first decade of Burke’s political career was spent addressing the American Revolution. Burke argued that in order for the Colonies to be enjoy the benefits and protection offered by British rule, they “must give away some natural liberties.” More broadly, Burke believed that “to enjoy civil advantages, so we must sacrifice some civil liberties for the advantages to be derived from the communion and fellowship of a great empire.” However, he agreed with the Colonists that people should relinquish all of their natural rights, asserting “a commonwealth dare not exclude from active participation in its affairs and privileges a great mass of its population.”

Burke opposed revolutions, generally, because he believed reform should be a slow, gradual process.  Although he did not advocate for abrupt, violent change, Burke was considered a friend of the Colonies. According to Burke, the American Revolution “had not been a real revolution so much as it had been a war of independence.”

Burke’s arguably best work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, published on November 1, 1790, came much later in his political career. Kirk writes:

Reflections must be read by anyone who wishes to understand the great controversies of modern politics…Written at white heat, the Reflections burns with all the wrath and anguish of a prophet who saw the traditions of Christendom and the fabric of civil society dissolving before his eyes. Yet his words are suffused with a keenness of observation, the mark of a practical statesman. This book is polemic at its most magnificent, and one of the most influential political treatises in the history of the world.

Ironically, Burke spent most of his political career out of office, but this did not curtail his influence on contemporary Great Britain or impact on modern political theory. Although Burke searched for and incorporated historical perspective and analysis throughout his speeches and written works, Kirk offers, “Rather than writing history, he shaped history.”

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