20 Nov The remarkable Mr. Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke was born in Dublin on 12 January 1729, the son of a Protestant solicitor and a Catholic mother. He died on 9 July 1797. After becoming elected to the House of Commons, Burke was expected to take the oath of Allegiance and abjuration, the oath of supremacy, and declare against transubstantiation: no ‘Catholic’ has been known to have done so in the eighteenth century. Despite the fact that not ever denying his Irishness, Burke frequently identified himself as “an Englishman”.
As a young child he occasionally spent time out of the unhealthy air of Dublin with his mother’s family in the Blackwater Valley in County Cork. He received his initial schooling at a Quaker school in Ballitore, County Kildare, some 67 kilometres from Dublin; and perhaps, like his cousin Nano Nagle at a Hedge school. He continued to be in correspondence with his schoolmate from there, Mary Leadbeater, the daughter of the school’s owner, throughout his life. In 1744, Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, a Protestant establishment, which up until 1793, did not permit Catholics to take degrees. Afterward he went to London to study law. He quickly gave this up and after a visit to Europe settled in London, concentrating on a literary and political career. He became a member of parliament in 1765. He was closely involved in debates over limits to the power of the king, pressing for parliamentary control of royal patronage and expenditure.
Britain’s imposition on America of measures including the Stamp Act in 1765 provoked violent colonial opposition. Burke argued that British policy had been inflexible and called for more pragmatism. He believed that government should be a cooperative relationship between rulers and subjects and that, while the past was important, a willingness to adapt to the inevitability of change could, hopefully, reaffirm traditional values under new circumstances.
He also maintained a keen interest in India. He concluded that Indian governmental corruption had to be resolved by removing patronage from interested parties. He proposed that India be governed by independent commissioners in London, but a bill to this end was defeated, prompting impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal.
Speaking in a parliamentary debate on the prohibition on the export of grain on 16 November 1770, Burke argued in favour of a free market in corn: “There are no such things as a high, & a low price that is encouraging, & discouraging; there is nothing but a natural price, which grain brings at an universal market.” In 1772 Burke was instrumental in the passing of the Repeal of Certain Laws Act 1772, which repealed various old laws against dealers and forestallers in corn.
In May 1778, Burke supported a parliamentary motion revising restrictions on Irish trade. His constituents, citizens of the great trading city of Bristol, however urged Burke to oppose free trade with Ireland. Burke resisted their protestations and said: “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong“.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave Burke his greatest target. He expressed his hostility in ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790). The book provoked a huge response, including Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’. Burke emphasised the dangers of mob rule, fearing that the Revolution’s fervour was destroying French society. He appealed to the British virtues of continuity, tradition, rank and property and opposed the Revolution to the end of his life.
Burke retired from parliament in 1794. His last years were clouded by the death of his only son, but he continued to write and defend himself from his critics. His arguments for long-lived constitutional conventions, political parties, and the independence of an MP once elected still carry weight.