Reflections on the Revolution in France | Study Guide

Edmund Burke

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Edmund Burke | Biography


Early Years

Born in Dublin on January 12, 1729, to an Irish Catholic mother and an Anglican father, Edmund Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Then he traveled to London to study law, but he was attracted to politics and philosophy rather than to law. He published his first major work in 1757, an essay titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. That same year he married Jane Mary Nugent.

In 1765 Burke found an influential political patron in the Marquess of Rockingham, a leader of the Whig Party in Parliament. Rockingham appointed him his secretary—a post he held until Rockingham's death in 1782. In 1774 Burke was elected a Member of Parliament for Bristol, which was then the second–largest city in England. By this time he had formed close friendships with some of the leading literary, artistic, and political figures of the day. Some of these friends included novelist and poet Samuel Johnson, novelist Oliver Goldsmith, and portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Political Career

Burke was closely involved in some of Great Britain's most complex and controversial political issues of the late 18th century. He worked to reduce economic hardship and social prejudice in his native Ireland. He argued for a conciliatory attitude toward the American colonies, criticizing Britain's taxation policies as incoherent and unwise. He meticulously investigated the administration of justice in India, where Britain had built an empire over the past two centuries. This investigation led to the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a British official who served for more than 12 years as the governor–general of Bengal. During the trial Hastings was acquitted.

Like all British politicians, Burke was drawn into the whirlwind of the French Revolution, which began with the storming of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789. By late 1790 he had completed a lengthy pamphlet on the Revolution, his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was an immediate best seller in England but was outsold in turn by American revolutionary Thomas Paine's fiery response, The Rights of Man, published in London in 1791. Paine had acquired considerable repute as the author of Common Sense, published in support of the American Revolution in 1776.

Late Years

Burke's later years were clouded by frustration and sorrow. His only son, a Member of Parliament, died in 1794. Burke opposed the French Revolution to the end of his life, arguing that only intervention from abroad could restore order in that country. With the disintegration of public order during the Reign of Terror (1793–94) when the revolutionary government executed those suspected of being against the Revolution, some of Burke's most lurid predictions came true.

Burke died on July 9, 1797. He is remembered in Britain for his prudent, rational, pragmatic approach to government, along with his insistence on respect for the British constitution.

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