A New Generation of Conservative Thought

Edmund Burke: Conservative Statesman Par Excellence

Edmund Burke

The Institute is named after the illustrious 18th-century parliamentarian, writer and orator, Edmund Burke. Burke is commonly regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. In his speeches and writings, he articulated the concept of an organic society: a social order that is sacred, natural, historical and traditional. He believed that social change was best achieved when eschewing abstract thought divorced from experience; instead, he favored renewal of the polity in harmony with a regard for individual liberty, respect for the accumulated wisdom within existing institutions and a concern for the greater good of the community. His political theory can best be summarized by his most famous phrase: "Society is a contract between the past, the present and those yet unborn."

Burke did not develop a systematic political philosophy but his writings and speeches on the specific controversies of his age nonetheless contain the principles that have inspired conservatives from his day to ours. Burke's thought is characterized by the belief in a divine order which forms the basis of law and government. His political views were shaped by his Christian heritage. Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1729 in a family of modest means and deep religious sympathies. Burke's father was a Protestant solicitor and his mother was a Roman Catholic. The young Burke was highly emotional and artistic. He abandoned his initial pursuit of legal studies at Trinity College in order to pursue a literary career. In 1759, he married the Catholic Jane Nugent who bore him his only son. Burke's personal life was a happy one--and further enriched by a lively circle of distinguished friends. In 1765 he entered the British House of Commons as a Whig Secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham. It was mostly from this platform that Burke articulated his views on just government.

Burke quickly gained prominence due to his eloquence, erudition and strong principles. He was a staunch opponent of the government's abuse of power. He therefore resisted many of the policies of King George III. He opposed the King's attempts to regain some of the prerogatives that the monarchy had lost in the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Burke defended the independence of the House of Commons. He also favored widening the basis for political participation. He articulated an original justification for the existence of political parties: parties were to be forged on principles that would provide strength and consistency while in office and constructive criticism while in opposition.

Burke spent much of his political career as a champion of just causes. He lamented the British government's corruption and fiscal extravagance. He also accused King George III of misgoverning the Thirteen Colonies. Burke was sympathetic to the American revolutionaries. His speeches on American Taxation (1774) and on Conciliation with America (1775) are amongst his most notable. Burke also sought to reform the harsh penal laws that barred Catholics from serving in the House of Commons and from holding public office; he supported closer trade links between Ireland and Great Britain. He spent much of his later years attempting to improve British rule of India. He decried the racist disregard among British governors for the lives and well-being of the local people. He favored applying Western legal standards to the East. Thus Burke adopted several progressive ideas in his day.

Yet his best work and his reputation as the founder of Anglo-American conservatism emerged when Europe became engrossed by a remarkable revolution which erupted in France. In 1789, French revolutionaries toppled the absolute monarch, Louis XVI, and began to destroy the privileges of the French aristocracy. In 1790, Burke penned Reflections on the Revolution in France. This was a critique of the radical attempt to restructure French society based on egalitarianism ideals and without due regard for the nation's history and traditions. Burke predicted that contrary to the aspirations of the revolutionaries, the revolution would end not in more liberty for the individual but in war and dictatorship. Once France became embroiled in war with its European neighbors, Burke supported the British military campaigns against the French state. Burke even ended his longtime friendship with his Whig colleague, Fox, in order to support the Tory minister's war against revolutionary France. When Burke died in 1797, the fate of both France and Europe remained unsettled. Burke had lived long enough to see the accuracy of his prophecies and to witness the long trail of blood that had been unleashed by radical fury. It would not be until 1815, after the dictatorship and wars of Napoleon Bonaparte, that peace would return to Europe.

Burke's writings and speeches on the French Revolution made him renowned throughout Europe. Traditionalists since then have turned to Burke's thought to find inspiration on how to defend existing institutions from radical assaults. Indeed, Burke failed to perceive some of the positive elements that would eventually emerge from the French Revolution. But his writings nonetheless continue to provide guidance on how to accommodate the forces of change and innovation while preserving the foundational ideas of Western civilization.

The Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal is based on the notion that society must renew itself in an organic manner in order to remain viable. And therefore, we seek good government by championing policies that preserve the best of the past, accommodate the new conditions of the present, and will be embraced by the citizens of the future…