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The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

8 July 2008

Finally had a chance to finish this review, which was sitting in my files for longer than I’d liked. Finishing my review of Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons is next on my list, though I may have an older review available to slip in for Sunday.

The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

In the late 1700s, the British House of Commons contained a number of notable politicians whose friendships, rivalries, and ongoing intrigues might not seem out of place in today’s newspaper columns and political talk shows. The modern forms of today’s political party systems were still in their infancy, but their origins can be seen in the accounts of arch-rivals Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger facing each other across the floor of the Commons, as their respective groups of followers mobilised into constantly shifting tendencies and factions. One of the great ‘political personalities’ of the era was an Anglo-Irish MP named Edmund Burke, who had begun his political career as a private secretary of the second Marquess of Rockingham (one of several men who served very brief terms as Prime Minister in the 1760s and 1780s) but who soon developed a name for himself in the Commons for his oratorical style and his strong stances on several controversial issues of the day. The historian Edward Gibbon once described Burke as ‘the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew’, and Gibbon was certainly not alone in admiring Burke’s eloquence while simultaneously regarding many of the man’s opinions as rather beyond the pale.

In his time as an MP and a statesman, Burke was a defender of the rights of the Catholic minority in the United Kingdom, a critic of the harsh practices of slavery in Britain’s West Indian colonies, and a supporter of the grievances of the American colonists against the British crown. He also denounced the conduct of the British East India Company and its corrupt administration of the terrorities it had conquered on the Indian subcontinent. In the mid-1750s, he even wrote the essay A Vindication of Natural Society, a rationalist critique of Britain’s traditional social order that he would later claim was a piece of political satire, not meant to be taken as an indication of his personal beliefs. (This claim has since been disputed, though it works well enough as satire.) Yet in modern times, Burke is perhaps best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a polemical letter-essay written in November 1790 which condemned the events and philosophical underpinning of the French Revolution in no uncertain terms. His fierce opposition to the French Revolution made him highly unpopular with many of his friends and political allies, most of whom found it surprising that he would support the tenets of American Revolution but denounce the revolution that followed in France. Later commentators, however, would identify Burke’s Reflections as one of the fundamental documents that laid out the philosophical basis of modern conservative thought — its emphasis on the guidance of tradition and the existing social order as opposed to outright revolutionary change provided a basic underpinning of the various schools of conservatism that would develop in the years to come.

Isaac Kramnick, editor of The Portable Enlightenment Reader, has developed this volume of the Viking Portable Library to include a representative selection of Burke’s writings, illustrating Burke’s thoughts on social and political topics ranging from the abuses of British colonial power in India and the Americas to the radical philosophies of writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the proper conduct expected of members of Parliament and the aristocratic leaders of Great Britain. Kramnick’s introductory essay to this volume is an exceedingly good addition to Burke’s writings, primarily because it looks at how different historical schools of thought have regarded Burke and his philosophies in the centuries that have passed since his death. (In essence, American historians are more likely that their English counterparts to look favourably on Burke’s philosophical contributions, in large part because of the influence of Sir Lewis Namier’s re-evaluation of the history of Parliament in George III’s era.) For those who only know of Edmund Burke through his Reflections, or through the reactions of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Thomas Paine who regarded Burke as worse than reactionary, The Portable Edmund Burke is a fine, compact means of looking at the expanse of the man’s writings and evaluating them on their own terms.

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