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A Renewed Glance at Edmund Burke

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The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  Dante has written many blog posts on a variety of subjects:  Canon Law Update; Citizenship in the Vatican City State; Medieval Canon Law; and The Papal Inquisition in Modena, just to mention a few.

Edmund Burke by James Watson, engraver, (c. 1740-1790)

While reviewing Diritto Costituzionale (Constitutional Law), an Italian book recently acquired by the Law Library of Congress, I came across a brief passage titled, “Dallo ‘stato di naturaalla nascita delLeviatano’” (“From the ‘State of Nature’ to the Birth of the ‘Leviathan’”).  I knew something about the relevance between the supposed “State of Nature” and the “Natural Rights” theory, which was popularized in the 17th century by John Locke (1632-1704).  Still, I decided to do some more research on the topic.  It led me to think that perhaps few issues connect philosophy, economics, religion, and law more closely than the theory of the “State of Nature.”  Many philosophers—ancient, patristic, academic, enlightened, modern, and contemporary—have dedicated considerable resources to explaining away the existence (or inexistence) of a supposed “State of Nature” in which human beings allegedly found themselves at some point in time.  With that in mind, I decided I would like to highlight some of the major contributions and milestones in Edmund Burke‘s  life as a statesman, orator, political theorist, a “counter-enlightenment” thinker—all of which earned him the sobriquet of the “father of British Conservatism.”  To provide some chronological context, it is worth noting that Edmund Burke came into the debate on the “State of Nature” almost two hundred years after Thomas Hobbes, and one hundred years after John Locke.

Edmund Burke was a renowned British statesman, and perhaps one of the most controversial political and legal philosophers of 18th-century Britain—and perhaps of all time.  While a Protestant member of the Whig Party, he is said to have been a conservative with respect to many historic events of his day but a liberal or revolutionary with respect to others.  For example, in his landmark work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, he famously and prophetically decried the motifs, guiding principles, and philosophical ideas of the French Revolution of 1789.  (For an interesting analysis of this work, see this article prepared by Paul Halsall, PhD for Fordham University‘s Internet Modern History Sourcebooks.)

Burke has been credited for averting a phenomenon such as the French Revolution from taking place on British soil.  On the liberal side, however, he was a staunch defender of, among other causes, the American Revolution—a position that even earned him charges of treachery.  In fact, Henry Rogers, RN once stated that

Burke’s philosophy of the rights of men offers a powerful rejoinder to that of liberal individualism.  It is built upon a political method that is critical of abstract reasoning based on principles divorced from historical circumstances and highly critical of the associated concepts of the social contract, the state of nature, absolute rights and the democratic theory of political representation.

Therefore, it goes without saying that Burke had many admirers but that his enemies could also be counted in legions.  Accordingly, Sir James Prior, in his Memoir of the life and character of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke; with specimens of his poetry and letters, and an estimate of his genius and talents, compared with those of his great contemporaries, indicated that Burke “seemed to court unpopularity almost perversely throughout his public life” (p. 136). A few decades after his death, one of his biographies stated: “There is no man, perhaps, in the history of English oratory, who comes near to Mr. Burke.”  Another declared that

One of his chief excellences is in being an original and profound thinker […]  that, possessed of a fancy and imagination singularly brilliant, of vast stores of knowledge, of a liberal and philosophical turn of mind […] enlightened patriotism […] viewed in whatever light, he must always be considered a most extraordinary man—extraordinary in his talents, in his acquirements, in his rise, in his progress, and in his end […] a man whose abilities […] will live to be the admiration of that hour when all of us shall be mute, and most of us forgotten.

As a writer, Burke was extremely prolific as he pondered and delved into a wide array of topics.  Sir Robert Rhodes James compared him to Winston Churchill because “he wrote and spoke so much, and on so many subjects, that he can be called as an authority on almost everything” (pp. 144-5). One of the many interests on which he wrote was that of the rights of men—just as  his peers, both contemporary and posthumous, had written.  And it is on this matter, the rights of men, where Burke’s philosophical ideas monumentally clashed with those of his contemporaries—particularly on the topics of democracy, sovereignty, natural rights, state of nature, and social contract.

In fact, Burke’s philosophical ideas had an incredible impact on politics and the law of the British Empire of his day.  As a Member of the House of Commons of Great Britain, Burke’s role was crucial for the passage of, for example, the bills conceding the independence to the Irish Parliament (Prior, p. 238); the drafting of the India Bill (pp. 244, 247); the Act of Uniformity; the Bill for Restraining Dormant Claims of the Church; the Bill for the Relief of Protestant Dissenters; the Bill for Shortening the Duration of Parliaments; and the Bill for Repealing the Marriage Act, among others.  His oratorical skills were at the center of the constitutional proceedings for the impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings, on the use of arbitrary power, and the limitations imposed by the law on governing other jurisdictions (Prior, pp. 434-43).

Because of Burke’s zeal and passion for the causes he espoused, which were many, to say the least, we could continue at length.  Instead, I would encourage you to venture into the vast collections of the Law Library of Congress, and those of the greater Library of Congress, and find a treasure of pastime of your own in his philosophical thought and legal erudition.  I do invite you to stay tuned for subsequent posts on “State of Nature,” “Social Contract,” and “Natural Rights” as this is merely an introduction to a series on Burkean thought.

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