Edmund Burke by Harvey Mansfield

Harvey C. Mansfield, "Edmund Burke," History of Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., 3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.


For almost all his adult life, Burke was a politician; for almost thirty years he was a member of the House of Commons, busy with the affairs of his party in the daily management of men and issues. His speeches, pamphlets, and books sound the grand themes of political philosophy, but not for their own sake. Burke did not primarily address other political philosophers and did not construct a system or theory in political philosophy. He spoke to the rulers and to the educated of his time, supporting “the cause of the Gentlemen,” as King George III once said to him. This closeness to politics has brought Burke to the notice of historians and of conservatives in our day, the former generally disapproving of him, the latter approving.

Absorbed as he was, Burke looked at public issues with almost matchless penetration. Among observers of modern politics only Tocqueville and perhaps Churchill are his rivals in seeing the meaning of events. Like Tocqueville and unlike Churchill, Burke did not enjoy the ruling view that an office of command affords. His highest office was Paymaster General, a dignified secretaryship lacking in glory. Though the ablest in his party, prominent in debate, and influential to the point of indispensable in the management of affairs, he never sought and was never trusted with leadership. He was indeed distrusted by the leading statesmen of his time for the very energy he used in their behalf, for his eagerness to act against dangers of which only he could see and feel the full measure, and for the passion displayed in the gorgeous rhetoric they admired. “Much to admire, and nothing to agree with,” was Pitt’s famous summary judgment on Burke’s longer persuasions for counterrevolution against the French Revolution. And when, in 1788, it looked as though Burke’s party might regain office during a regency for George III, who had gone mad, Charles Fox and his confidants omitted him from a list of leading office holders: he was too heated in counsel, too passionate in his prosecution of Warren Hastings, to seem responsible to them.

In our day historians, particularly those influenced by that master of minute investigation, Sir Lewis Namier, have taken up this distrust and faulted Burke rather than his contemporaries for it. They find him pretentious, his behavior extreme, and his words exaggerated. If Burke once spoke of foolishness in the individual, wisdom in the species, they consider Burke foolish in his own time, wise only for posterity. For to see deep into the roots of events, into the “cause of the present discontents,” cannot but seem a sort of inflation as daily occurrences are put in a trend and seen as effects. Burke’s attempts to invest the mundane with significance seem to make it lose its character as mundane, and while historians may find his eloquence thrilling, they also fear it and distrust him. Even his prescient understanding of the character, importance, and future of the French Revolution is obscured by the extreme partisanship to which his understanding compelled him . He loses credit for his foresight because he acted on it.