Edmund Burke (1730-1797) was an Irishman and a prominent Whig politician in late 18th century England, but he is now most commonly known as “the founder of modern conservatism”—the canonical position which he has held since the beginning of the 20th century in Britain and the rest of the world. But it took a great deal of time for Burke’s complex and various intellectual productions on Ireland, America, India, France, and British politics—which took the form of books, letters, pamphlets, and periodical contributions—to be boiled down to a neat, though rather vague, body of political principles, usually identified as tradition, historicism, religion, property, and hostility to abstract thinking. Below is a list of five other things you may not know about the legacy of Edmund Burke.
1. Burke was heavily criticized in his lifetime and in the years following his death.
Burke was depicted as a suspected Jesuit, a deathbed Catholic convert, and his speeches were so long Burke gained the nickname “dinner-bell.” His Irishness led to denunciations of his “adventuring” and one commentator mocked his oratory as “stinking of whiskey and potatoes.” After his passionate denunciations of the French Revolution, many in his party branded him intellectually inconsistent and his writings on France the ravings of a madman.
2. Burke was greatly admired by Liberals in Victorian Britain—but only to a point.
Mid-Victorian Liberal men of letters such as John Morley, Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), and James Fitzjames Stephen (Leslie’s brother) sought to recover Burke as a substantial intellectual figure in the history of ideas. To these Liberals, the French Revolution was increasingly seen as not simply a social and political transformation, but also a new ‘stage’ of human intellectual life. In addition, Burke was an increasingly relevant thinker to a society preoccupied with notions of slow, gradual, developmental change within a broadly empirical framework.
3. Burke was an important source of inspiration in the debates over Irish Home Rule.
The dominant Liberal figure of the 19th century was William Gladstone, a towering intellectual moralist with a powerful oratorical style. When Gladstone, as Liberal Prime Minister, introduced the second reading of the first Irish Home Rule Bill in Parliament on 8 April 1886, he did so with the support of Edmund Burke: he stated that he had come to his conclusion through his readings of Burke, and he expressed a sincere wish that his supporters and detractors would do the same. What followed was a Burkean reading revolution, which had significant results for the legacy of Burke and the identity of the Liberal Unionists, who broke from Gladstone over the question of Irish devolution in 1886.
4. Burke was once central to English Literature syllabi in schools and universities.
Burke’s speeches may not have been much fun to listen to (if you believe his 18th century detractors), but his eloquent prose style was what kept people reading Burke, even when he was politically out of fashion. So, when new schools and universities were created—and as the academic disciplines taught in those institutions expanded to include history, English, and the ‘moral’ as well as the natural sciences—Burke found himself placed in the Premier League of English Literature and was taught alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.
5. Burke wasn’t christened “the founder of conservatism” until 1912—115 years after his death.
It was only with the development of academic studies of Burke’s “political philosophy” that Burke was widely recognised as a significant and—most importantly—consistent thinker, and that this body of thought was best labelled “conservative.”
Featured image credit: ‘Cincinnatus in Retirement. falsely supposed to represent Jesuit-Pad driven back to his native Potatoes. see Romish Common-Wealth.’ Caricature of Edmund Burke by James Gillray. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.