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Ennobling Us All

Edmund Burke's life was noble, his thought sublime.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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Edmund Burke: The First Conservative
By Jesse Norman
(Basic Books, 325 pages, $27.99)

SAMUEL JOHNSON said of him, “you could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.” Wordsworth celebrated his “genius” in The Prelude. W.B. Yeats thought his lifelong opposition to tyranny a “great melody.” And in this superb new biography, Jesse Norman, a rising member of Parliament, convincingly declares Edmund Burke “the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the last 300 years.”

In politics, such encomiums are generally reserved for holders of high office. But Burke was neither prime minister nor a member of the Cabinet. Rather, his fame rests upon his dazzling polemical skill (he wrote like an angel), humane political philosophy (for Catholic emancipation in Ireland; against colonial abuses in India), and gift for prophecy (he foresaw the disaster of the French Revolution long before the guillotine fell). He championed “a moral, regulated liberty,” and resisted “metaphysical abstractions.” His philosophy was based on history and experience, and he left behind a roadmap for a more just society. And according to Norman, Burke was not merely the founder of modern conservatism but “the pivot of political modernity, the thinker on whose shoulders much of the Anglo-American tradition of representative government still rests.” 

This book is divided into two parts: the first a concise account of Burke’s life and career; the second a study of his thought and its influence down the centuries. This might be clunky in less able hands, but Norman pulls it off. Burke’s life was crowded with incident, but it is his legacy that most commands our attention. Separating the two allows the reader to concentrate on each more fully.     

Born in 1730 by the Liffey in Dublin, Burke graduated from Trinity College, that citadel of Protestantism in Ireland, at an unusually young age. An unremarkable student, he seemed destined to follow his father to the bar. But an early talent for composition set him apart, and upon his arrival in London at the age of 20, his ambition was evident. A man of endless industry, he poured out his views in pamphlet and tract. Under the patronage of Whig magnates, he entered politics, and in 1765 won a place in Parliament. He was soon acknowledged as one of the greatest orators of the age, and was the intimate companion of Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick, and other leading lights of London.   

His life was noble, his thought sublime. His campaigns against colonial injustice in Ireland, America, and India were driven by a profound respect for culture and tradition. Burke was a perpetual enemy of arbitrary power and a zealous proponent of limited government. He declared that “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle…of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Thus he illuminates the vast and vital space between the individual and the overweening state. Though Burke fought all his life for individual rights, he rejected radical individualism. And he conceived of society as a covenant between the generations—Thomas Jefferson’s spurious rot about the earth belonging only to the living would have been anathema to him.  

For all the elegance of his prose, Burke was a man on the make, a recognizable type in modern London or Washington. He scribbled where he could for modest sums and angled for political preferment. Though he was immensely civilized (his art collection included works by Pouisson, Titian, Reynolds, and da Vinci), his fiery and sensitive nature set him apart. Prone to self-righteousness, he possessed none of the equanimity that enables most leaders to shrug off criticism. And in an era exquisitely attuned to such things, his Irish accent remained “as strong as if he had never quitted the banks of the Shannon,” according to a contemporary. He never lost the air of the novus homo, in Norman’s phrase, though he served the British state more ably than most native Englishmen.   

NORMAN IS SAID to have his eyes on the Tory leadership; like Disraeli before him, he climbs the greasy pole with pen in hand. A product of Eton and Oxford, and a Ph.D. in philosophy, he combines politics and scholarship in a manner more common in Westminster than Washington. Boris Johnson, mayor of London and a rival in the race for Downing Street, dashes off witty works of popular history with ease; the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has authored polished biographies of Pitt and Wilberforce. There is no equivalent in America; books by politicians here are almost invariably bland, ghostwritten policy tracts or memoirs. This impoverishes our politics—historical ignorance and inarticulacy preclude statesmanship. Policies inspired not by the wisdom of the ages but by the whims of the moment are doomed to failure. The inability to explain them is both cause and symptom of our political maladies. 

“I like a little rebellion now and then,” wrote Jefferson in 1787, words that would have horrified Burke, as did the French Revolution that would so captivate the future president. Burke knew better. He saw what others did not: that the ferment in France would lead only to chaos. And in his greatest literary and philosophical triumph, Reflections on the Revolution in France, he set down in the twilight of his life a vision of society that combined respect for culture and tradition, a hatred of tyranny, and a firm belief that change should be gradual and in keeping with established norms.      

Norman makes a strong case for Burke’s continuing relevance—indeed, the thoughtful reader will find him a tonic after a decade of military misadventures and reckless domestic policy. One can imagine Burke condemning both the Iraq war (a rash attempt to plant the seeds of democracy in stony soil) and health care “reform” (a bureaucratic nightmare and exaltation of the executive) with the same zeal he brought to the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the autocratic governor-general of Bengal.  

Some might say that Burke can teach us little, that his support for the established order in the hierarchical 18th century makes him too remote.

But are things really so different? An Ivy League degree sets one apart as much as a peerage once did, and the former fluidity of American society is but a memory. Social mobility has given way to an entrenched class system. The question is not so much whether we should have an aristocracy—we do, for better or worse—but what role elites should play in  our society. Better they read Burke than fall under the sway of the fashionable nonsense and pernicious doctrines picked up at university. Too often, our elites fail to hold up their part of the social bargain, instead cherishing beliefs and advocating policies the wretched consequences of which rarely intrude upon their leafy college towns and chic urban enclaves. 

Jesse Norman succeeds in bringing Burke to life and championing his thought. The greatest of Irishmen has much to teach both liberals and conservatives, and a politics guided by his spirit would ennoble us all. King George III never asked Burke to form a government, but should Norman kiss hands with the monarch, Britain might be well served. Perhaps the strains of the great melody may yet be heard wafting from Downing Street.  

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About the Author
Michael F. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.