Jesse Norman

Edmund Burke: The First Conservative

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Edmund Burke: The First Conservative Summary

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In his non-fiction historical biography, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative (2013), British author and Conservative Member of Parliament Jesse Norman summarizes the life and philosophy of Edmund Burke, an Irish-born statesman who served in the British Parliament between 1766 and 1794. Throughout the biography, Norman seeks to position Burke’s political theories as foundational to modern Western conservatism.

Divided into two parts, the first, “Life,” is a comprehensive survey of Burke’s life. In 1729, Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland to Mary and Richard Burke. His mother was Roman Catholic while his father, a successful solicitor, belonged to the Church of Ireland. Burke adhered to his father’s faith; had he not, his Catholic beliefs would have disqualified him from serving in public office. In 1744, Burke enrolled at Trinity College Dublin, an institution that prohibited Catholics at that time. There, he established a debate club called “Edmund Burke’s Club” which later became the College Historical Society, the world’s oldest surviving undergraduate society. After graduating in 1748, Burke began to study law at his father’s insistence but abandoned that pursuit in favor of becoming a writer.

In 1756, Burke published his first work, A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind, a work of satire written in opposition to Lord Bolingbroke’s passionate and popular defense of atheism. Around that time, he also wrote a book on aesthetics before abandoning “pure philosophy” to focus more on political theory. A year later, Burke married Jane Mary Nugent, the daughter of a prominent Catholic physician. Around this time, Burke also founded The Annual Register, a magazine focused on international politics.

Burke’s formal political career began in 1761 when he became the private secretary to his friend William Gerard Hamilton, who had just been appointed the Chief Secretary of Ireland. Four years later, Burke had risen to become a Member of the House of Commons of the British Parliament. Throughout his tenure, Burke argued passionately for formal restrictions on the monarchy and royal power. He also argued the importance of powerful political parties that could serve as a check on both royal power and smaller, extreme factions in government. His other political beliefs included favoring a free market in corn, free trade with Ireland, and a repeal of overly punitive penal laws against the Irish. Burke also expressed sympathy for American grievances against Britain in the lead-up to the American Revolution, though he hoped that Britain would meet some of the colonies’ demands rather than incite a violent conflict that would, in his mind, either result in British defeat or else completely ravage the country Britain so adamantly wanted to control.

In 1790, Burke published what is arguably his most popular and influential work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Although Burke admired the spirit of the French people who craved liberty from those who would oppress them, his natural antipathy toward anarchy and its attendant violence made it impossible for him to support the French Revolution.

In the book’s second part, “Thought,” Norman synthesizes many of Burke’s writings and musings to provide a survey of the man’s philosophies and the influence they have had on modern political theory. The main crux of the argument that Burke is the first “conservative” centers largely on his emphasis on the importance of property in both ensuring liberty and preserving the social order. Another important factor is Burke’s conviction that religion and ancestral traditions are crucial to maintaining a functioning society. Norman also addresses some of the biggest criticisms levied at Burke, namely the idea that his support of “liberty” and “authority” are inconsistent. However, Norman asserts this isn’t evidence of inconsistency, but rather, is indicative of a balance in opposing forces embraced by Burke.

Norman ends by providing six lessons that modern observers can take from Burke. The first is that the pursuit of individual liberty should not be divorced from one’s sense of duty to either God or community or society. The second is that modern conservatives could have avoided various “failures of policy and leadership” such as the Iraq War had they adopted a more Burkeian philosophy. The third is that the wheels of government move far too quickly and that political leaders should adopt more long-term thinking as opposed to reacting to the latest crisis out of either pragmatism or opportunism. The fourth is that while Burke supported free markets, he despised excessive power in all forms, including the “crony capitalism” that, in his day, was represented by the East India Company and today is represented by immensely powerful corporate interests. The fifth is that “good, stable government demands effective political parties,” meaning that while the party system in many Western countries may need to be reformed, the system shouldn’t be thrown out completely. Finally, “Burke provides a context within which to understand the loss and recovery of social value. His message is a vital and timeless insistence on the importance of human culture, in its widest sense.”

Whether or not Norman succeeds in drawing a line between Burkeian philosophy and modern conservatism is up to the reader. In any case, the book serves as a valuable primer on the life and theories of one of the most important political thinkers of all time.