Doing the Right Thing

Burke was a conservative who believed in incremental, evolutionary change, and opposed what today would be called social engineering. As a member of parliament he was also important in establishing the idea of political parties, and politicians as independent representatives, rather than as delegates acting directly according to the wishes of their constituents.

His most important writing is his book “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), in which he supported the French monarchy against the revolutionaries. That book prompted a famous response in the form of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” (1791-92). On the other hand, he was an outspoken supporter of the American colonies and favored gradually curtailing the power of the British monarchy. He also published an annual survey of world affairs, “The Annual Register”, for about thirty years. He was active in the governing of India, which led to his instigation of Warren Hastings famous impeachment trial. Burke’s opening speech in that trial lasted four days.

Burke was born in Dublin; his father was a lawyer. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin and then in London. He served as private secretary for the chief secretary to Ireland and then for Prime Minister Wentworth before being elected to parliament.

In 1757 Burke married Jane Nugent; the couple had many literary and artistic friends including lexicographer Samuel Johnson, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and actor David Garrick. Burke’s son, on whom he placed his political hopes, predeceased him.

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