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Edmund Burke: Philosophy, Works & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Would Edmund Burke have been a member of the 'Tea Party,' or could he even have been the GOP's next presidential candidate? Find out in this lesson when you learn more about the ideology and works of this fundamental but forgotten political theorist.

Conservative Thinker

With as crazy as politics (and politicians) can seem in the U.S., we might have a hard time figuring out exactly what each individual or faction is trying to accomplish. However, we can usually at least tell the difference between the two major political parties: Democrats and Republicans.

For the most part, Democrats are considered 'liberal,' advocating more government spending and involvement as well as dramatic social and political change. On the other hand, Republicans tend to favor lower taxes and a system that preserves a people's traditional sociopolitical values and institutions known as conservatism.

American conservatives actually owe their origins (probably much to their chagrin) to a British political philosopher, Edmund Burke. The political ideas contained in Burke's speeches and writings from the mid-to-late 18th century were crucial in the formation of modern conservatism worldwide. Despite his underlying influence, however, Burke has been largely forgotten or neglected by political theorists in the modern era.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) British author, orator, and political theorist
Portrait of Edmund Burke

Slow and Steady: The Philosophy of Edmund Burke

There were three main items on Burke's conservative agenda, so let's take a look to see if we can recognize some still at work today:

1) Sociopolitical change should be gradual and continuous. Being conservative, Burke strongly believed in the preservation of certain values and institutions (i.e. social stratification), but thought they should adapt to fit changing ideas and circumstances. Many in America today follow similar trains of thought, such as the many conservatives who fight to preserve Christian ethics as fundamental principles to our society.

2) Politics is based on practical experience rather than theoretical principles. One of the major critiques Edmund had of the French Revolution was that much of the action taken during the conflict was based on abstract (and so unsound) concepts. He held that sociopolitical systems were built from ages of mindfully deliberate human interaction, and that this wealth of experience was worth much more than an abstraction.

3) Societies and their members create their identities. With so many different types of people living in America, we might find it difficult to describe a coherent 'American society.' According to Burke, though, each society has its own distinct identity and it gives that identity to its members, and vice versa. For instance, American society identifies its members as diverse people, and likewise, America's diverse citizenry identifies American society as the 'melting pot' we know it as today. Come take a closer look at some of Burke's ideas in a few of his works, which sometimes have even more to do with America than you might think!

Works by Edmund Burke

Speeches on Conciliation with America

When Americans think about the Revolution, it's culturally ingrained in us to see the British as our enemies, so it might be hard for some of us to imagine there was anyone pulling for us back in England. Though a prominent British politician of his day, Edmund Burke was a native Irishman who openly opposed British oppression not only in Ireland but in India and the American colonies, as well. Between 1774 and 1775 - as things were really heating up across the Pond - Burke delivered two Speeches on Conciliation with America, in which he urged the British government to consider the costs of aggression with the colonies resulting from inflexibility and a refusal to acknowledge the colonists' rights and roles as British subjects.

Reflections on the Revolution in France

Of course, Burke was unable to prevent hostilities from escalating to all-out war in the American colonies, and this was precisely the sort of useless waste that he wanted to avoid. When he wrote this critique of the French Revolution in 1790, Burke was able to fully expound on why such revolutionary activities should be avoided. As a conservative, Edmund favored more restrained policies and actions based on real principles rather than abstract concepts when it came to changing governmental institutions. Violent conflicts like the French Revolution, then, were too much of a shock to the sociopolitical system, which led Burke to predict other bloody conflicts that eventually came true with the conquest and fall of Napoleon.

Quotes from Edmund Burke

To get to know him in his own words, take a look at some of the most famous quotes from the speeches and written works of Edmund Burke:

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