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Edmund Burke in United Kingdom

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), British statesman and political writer. His is one of the greatest names in the history of political literature. There have been many more important statesmen, for he was never tried in a position of supreme responsibility. There have been many more effective orators, for lack of imaginative suppleness prevented him from penetrating to the inner mind of his hearers; defects in delivery weakened the intrinsic persuasiveness of his reasoning; and he had not that commanding authority of character and personality which has so often been the secret of triumphant eloquence. There have been many subtler, more original and more systematic thinkers about the conditions of the social union. But no one that ever lived used the general ideas of the thinker more successfully to judge the particular problems of the statesman. No one has ever come so close to the details of practical politics, and at the same time remembered that these can only be understood and only dealt with by the aid of the broad conceptions of political philosophy. And what is more than all for perpetuity of fame, he was one of the great masters of the high and difficult art of elaborate composition.

A certain doubtfulness hangs over the circumstances of Burke’s life previous to the opening of his public career. The very date of his birth is variously stated. The most probable opinion is that he was born at Dublin on the 12th of January 1729, new style. Of his family we know little more than his father was a Protestant attorney, practising in Dublin, and that his mother was a Catholic, a member of the family of Nagle. He had at least one sister, from whom descended the only existing representatives of Burke’s family; and he had at least two brothers, Garret Burke and Richard Burke, the one older and the other younger than Edmund. The sister, afterwards Mrs French, was brought up and remained throughout life in the religious faith of her [v.04 p.0825]mother; Edmund and his brothers followed that of their father. In 1741 the three brothers were sent to school at Ballitore in the county of Kildare, kept by Abraham Shackleton, an Englishman, and a member of the Society of Friends. He appears to have been an excellent teacher and a good and pious man. Burke always looked back on his own connexion with the school at Ballitore as among the most fortunate circumstances of his life. Between himself and a son of his instructor there sprang up a close and affectionate friendship, and, unlike so many of the exquisite attachments of youth, this was not choked by the dust of life, nor parted by divergence of pursuit. Richard Shackleton was endowed with a grave, pure and tranquil nature, constant and austere, yet not without those gentle elements that often redeem the drier qualities of his religious persuasion. When Burke had become one of the most famous men in Europe, no visitor to his house was more welcome than the friend with whom long years before he had tried poetic flights, and exchanged all the sanguine confidences of boyhood. And we are touched to think of the simple-minded guest secretly praying, in the solitude of his room in the fine house at Beaconsfield, that the way of his anxious and overburdened host might be guided by a divine hand.

In 1743 Burke became a student at Trinity College, Dublin, where Oliver Goldsmith was also a student at the same time. But the serious pupil of Abraham Shackleton would not be likely to see much of the wild and squalid sizar. Henry Flood, who was two years younger than Burke, had gone to complete his education at Oxford. Burke, like Goldsmith, achieved no academic distinction. His character was never at any time of the academic cast. The minor accuracies, the limitation of range, the treading and re-treading of the same small patch of ground, the concentration of interest in success before a board of examiners, were all uncongenial to a nature of exuberant intellectual curiosity and of strenuous and self-reliant originality. His knowledge of Greek and Latin was never thorough, nor had he any turn for critical niceties. He could quote Homer and Pindar, and he had read Aristotle. Like others who have gone through the conventional course of instruction, he kept a place in his memory for the various charms of Virgil and Horace, of Tacitus and Ovid; but the master whose page by night and by day he turned with devout hand, was the copious, energetic, flexible, diversified and brilliant genius of the declamations for Archias the poet and for Milo, against Catiline and against Antony, the author of the disputations at Tusculum and the orations against Verres. Cicero was ever to him the mightiest of the ancient names. In English literature Milton seems to have been more familiar to him than Shakespeare, and Spenser was perhaps more of a favourite with him than either.

It is too often the case to be a mere accident that men who become eminent for wide compass of understanding and penetrating comprehension, are in their adolescence unsettled and desultory. Of this Burke is a signal illustration. He left Trinity in 1748, with no great stock of well-ordered knowledge. He neither derived the benefits nor suffered the drawbacks of systematic intellectual discipline.

After taking his degree at Dublin he went in the year 1750 to London to keep terms at the Temple. The ten years that followed were passed in obscure industry. Burke was always extremely reserved about his private affairs. All that we know of Burke exhibits him as inspired by a resolute pride, a certain stateliness and imperious elevation of mind. Such a character, while free from any weak shame about the shabby necessities of early struggles, yet is naturally unwilling to make them prominent in after life. There is nothing dishonourable in such an inclination. “I was not swaddled and rocked and dandled into a legislator,” wrote Burke when very near the end of his days: “Nitor in adversum is the motto for a man like me. At every step of my progress in life (for in every step I was traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport. Otherwise no rank, no toleration even, for me.”

All sorts of whispers have been circulated by idle or malicious gossip about Burke’s first manhood. He is said to have been one of the numerous lovers of his fascinating countrywoman, Margaret Woffington. It is hinted that he made a mysterious visit to the American colonies. He was for years accused of having gone over to the Church of Rome, and afterwards recanting. There is not a tittle of positive evidence for these or any of the other statements to Burke’s discredit. The common story that he was a candidate for Adam Smith’s chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow, when Hume was rejected in favour of an obscure nobody (1751), can be shown to be wholly false. Like a great many other youths with an eminent destiny before them, Burke conceived a strong distaste for the profession of the law. His father, who was an attorney of substance, had a distaste still stronger for so vagrant a profession as letters were in that day. He withdrew the annual allowance, and Burke set to work to win for himself by indefatigable industry and capability in the public interest that position of power or pre-eminence which his detractors acquired either by accident of birth and connexions or else by the vile arts of political intrigue. He began at the bottom of the ladder, mixing with the Bohemian society that haunted the Temple, practising oratory in the free and easy debating societies of Covent Garden and the Strand, and writing for the booksellers.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

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The standard life of Burke is that by Sir James Prior, Memoir of the Life and Character of Edmund Burke with Specimens of his Poetry and Letters (1824). The lives by C. MacCormick (1798) by R. Bisset (1798, 1800) are of little value. Other lives are those by the Rev. George Croly (2 vols., 1847), and by T. MacKnight (3 vols., 1898). Of critical estimates of Burke’s life the Edmund Burke of John Morley, “English Men of Letters” series (1879), is an elaboration of the above article; see also his Burke, a Historical Study (1867); “Three Essays on Burke,” by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen in Horae Sabbaticae, series iii. (1892); and Peptographia Dublinensis, Memorial Discourses preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, Dublin, 1895-1902; Edmund Burke, by G. Chadwick, bishop of Derry (1902).



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This entry was last updated: October 21, 2016

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