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Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729 - July 9, 1797) was an Irish-born British philosopher and statesman, remembered principally for his criticism of the French Revolution and his discussion of the sublime. He is regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He is often quoted as saying, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Respected as a magnificent orator throughout his 30 year parlimentary career, Burke was often, perhaps unfairly, accused of inconsistency. He eloquently defended the English Revolution of 1688, and yet attacked the French Revolution bitterly. He was infuriated at the notion that Britain should learn from the French experience and allow all citizens the vote, and argued that traditonal ruling practices in general and the monarchy in particular were essential elements of a stable, ordered society. Burke pitted the chaotic, uncontrollable changes of the French Revolution against (as he saw it) the British tradition of order and liberty. To Burke, the moral claim of the revolution to be in defence of the natural "rights of man" was a nonsense: although the British parliament depended on the approval of the British people for its authority to rule, this did not mean that citizens had the right to chose their rulers.

Burke was a ruthless critic, however, of the excesses of established government: he campaigned against the persecution of Catholics in Ireland, denounced the East India Company and had the Governer General of Bengal impeached, and even expressed sympathy for the American Revolution. For Burke, there was no inconsistency in these views: it was the duty of citizens to submit to traditional authority, but it was equally the duty of rulers to act wisely and fairly. His strong criticism of the excesses of British rule in Ireland, India and America was not motivated by any wish to support the notion of natural rights, on the contrary, he argued, it was simple pragmatism: by ruling in a way that was manifestly unfair and exploitative, traditional authorities risked formenting the worst of all possible outcomes, popular revolution.

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Burke made several famous speeches while serving in the British House of Commons.

  • On Conciliation with the Colonies (http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext04/burke10.txt) : "The proposition is peace. Not peace through the medium of war; not peace to be hunted through the labyrinth of intricate and endless negotiations; not peace to arise out of universal discord fomented, from principle, in all parts of the Empire, not peace to depend on the juridical determination of perplexing questions, or the precise marking the shadowy boundaries of a complex government. It is simple peace; sought in its natural course, and in its ordinary haunts. It is peace sought in the spirit of peace, and laid in principles purely pacific . . ."


  • It was Burke who first called the mob "the great unwashed".

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