Burke, Edmund (1729–1797), a British statesman, writer, and orator. Burke was the leading conservative political philosopher of 18th-century Europe. Burke held that the established order, maintained by a privileged aristocracy, reflected the wisdom of the past and should not be tampered with. He abhorred democracy and the French Revolution, and distrusted the political abilities of the masses. He is recognized today as the father of conservatism.
Burke, who believed that aristocratic rule should be just, was a champion of the downtrodden and the oppressed. He favored greater leniency in dealing with the American colonists and just treatment for the Irish Catholics and for the colonial subjects in India. As an orator in Parliament, Burke was sometimes powerfully eloquent, but often intemperate and overly emotional.
Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland, where his father was a prosperous attorney. At 14 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. At his father's insistence he moved to London in 1750 to study law. He disliked law and studied so indifferently that in 1755 his father stopped his allowance, and Burke turned to his true interest, writing. His first significant works were two treatises—A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), a satire attacking rationalism; and Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), a book on esthetics. In 1759 Burke started the Annual Register, a review of the year's political and economic events.
Burke became a part of the London literary circle and joined Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other writers in founding the Literary Club. Burke, however, was drawn more to politics. He found the Whig party congenial to his views.
In 1765 Burke became private secretary to Lord Rockingham, prime minister of Great Britain. The same year he was elected to Parliament, where he served nearly 29 years. In his first speech, in 1766, he demanded repeal of the Stamp Act, a tax law that aroused bitter opposition in American colonies. He insisted that British authority could be reconciled with greater autonomy for the colonists. His most outstanding speeches for the American cause were “On American Taxation” (1774) and “On Conciliation With America” (1775).
One of Burke's greatest concerns was the plight of the impoverished and persecuted Irish Catholics, and he repeatedly urged reform of British policies toward Ireland. He also campaigned for greater freedom for Catholics in England and for the abolition of the African slave trade.
Burke and other leading Whigs in 1786 charged Warren Hastings, governor general of India, with “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Although the charges were unfounded, Hastings was impeached. Burke attacked Hastings with such unreasoned vehemence that he alienated even members of his own party. (Hastings was acquitted at his trial in 1795.)
Many Whigs also had been dismayed over Burke's denunciation of the French Revolution. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), however, is a classic work of conservative political theory and received praise throughout Europe. Burke retired from Parliament in 1794.