Born in 1729 in Dublin, Edmund Burke was the son of an Irish government lawyer who grew up among a variety of Christian traditions. Though raised in his father’s Protestant faith, his mother was Catholic, and in his youth Burke was sent to a Quaker boarding school. This upbringing prefigured Burke’s later advocacy for greater religious tolerance.
At age fifteen, he began studies at Dublin’s Trinity College, a bastion of Protestant scholarship since the Reformation. His reading included Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, Homer, Juvenal, Lucian, Xenophon, and Epictetus. But his education was not exclusively classical, and his letters record praise for Shakespeare and Milton. At the same time, there was already evidence in these formative university years that Burke was not one to be swept along by the currents of the Age of Reason. In a world that had been shaped by Newton, Bacon, and Locke—and was to be transformed in his own lifetime by Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and Paine—he expressed skepticism, writing to a friend in 1746 that “we are just on the verge of Darkness and one push drives us in … I would therefore advise more to your reading the writings of those who have gone before us than our Contemporaries …”
Burke thrived in the academic setting, and it was at Trinity that he wrote the first draft of what would become his only systematic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. By age nineteen he had completed this treatise and was awarded a bachelor’s degree. He lingered at Trinity for some time beyond the formal end of his studies, leading some to speculate that Burke contemplated an academic vocation. But it was not to be: in 1750, Burke crossed the Irish Sea bound for London’s Inns of Court, intending to follow his father into the legal profession.
Studying for the bar at the still-famous Middle Temple, he was apparently unenthusiastic about a career in the courts. By 1756 he had turned his attention to polemical writing, anonymously publishing A Vindication of Natural Society, a critique of the Tory official and philosopher Lord Bolingbroke. The next year, The Sublime and Beautiful was released, and he was married to Jane Nugent.
In 1759 Burke began editing the Annual Register, a journal of contemporary affairs that survives to this day. He clearly had a promising future as a commentator on public affairs. Yet journalism did not provide the stable living needed to support his new family. Thus by the time he was thirty, Burke had turned his attention to a less anonymous realm—politics.
He began by working for a parliamentarian who was later appointed as one of the chief administrators of Irish affairs. As one of his advisors, Burke spent several years traveling back to Dublin, renewing his sympathy with the plight of Catholics. After a few years, however, Burke found a new patron, Lord Rockingham, leader of a faction of the Whig party. In a short time, Burke became one of his closest confidants, and with their party ascendant—and Rockingham briefly in the position not yet known as prime minister—Burke’s political future seemed secure.
From the time he entered Parliament in 1766 as the member for the tiny constituency of Wendover (known as a “rotten borough” because the seat was controlled by a powerful landowner), Burke was focused on reconciliation with the American colonies. The short-lived Rockingham administration was successful in repealing the much-loathed Stamp Act, making Burke known to and admired by many colonists. Although Burke and the Rockingham faction were soon out of power, they continued to mount an unpopular opposition to war with the American colonies.
For most of his twenty-eight-year tenure in Parliament, Burke remained in this kind of loyal opposition, along the way continuing to wield his pen in tracts such as Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, a work that offered the first defense of modern political parties. After his election to the parliamentary seat of Bristol in 1774, Burke informed his constituents that representation required that he be more than their delegate; he must vote in the national interest as well.
America was not the only cause that was to figure prominently in Burke’s political life. For over a decade he fought what he saw as the abuses of the East India Company and one of its agents, Warren Hastings. While the question of Indian governance dominated Burke’s efforts for many of the years after the American colonies declared independence, the late 1780s brought the cause that was to secure his reputation for generations to come.
At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, Burke was sixty years old, and contemplating retirement. His hostile reaction to the uprising—which he saw as an excessive repudiation of inherited tradition based on the dangerously abstract interpretation of the “rights of man” expressed even by the moderate French revolutionaries—surprised many who had seen him as a moderate reformer. Burke had once hosted such important revolutionary figures as the Comte de Mirabeau and Thomas Paine at his country home. One such French visitor asked for Burke’s observations on the revolution across the channel; he used the occasion to develop fully his thoughts on the Revolution. The resulting work was published in 1790 as Reflections on the Revolution in France. Even though the worst excesses of the French Revolution were still a few years off, Burke’s work prophetically anticipated them.
The Whig party split on the issue of the French Revolution, and Burke retired from Parliament in 1794. That same year, his son Richard died. Burke spent the rest of his life defending his characterization of France’s Jacobins as a malevolent force. His last published work, Letters on a Regicide Peace, argued that Britain should not negotiate with the new French leadership.
Upon his death in 1797, Burke was interred in the churchyard near his country home of Beaconsfield. He requested burial in an unmarked grave, worried that if the Jacobins ever crossed the English Channel, his body might be the target of desecration.
For further biographical reading, see:
Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, London: 2013.