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Edmund Burke’s Whig Sensibilities

The career of Edmund Burke spanned many years and many controversies in Parliament. Burke was a bulwark of the Rockingham Whigs, a faction of mostly aristocratic parliamentarians whose tenures as both government and opposition were largely motivated by a particular goal: the prevention of the royal aggregation of power.  The history of Whiggism has been indissolubly tied to the consistent checking of royal privilege and power, and the embers of 1688 are very much alive in Burke’s writings, though, perhaps ironically, he is best known for his defense of monarchy and his revulsion for revolutionaries.  Before the most famous of his works, his Reflections, was published for the first time in 1790, Burke was known for his ardent opposition to the powers of the crown, which he believed were growing, and his support for the reasonable, equitable, and more-or-less parliamentarian rule of law: these are the marks of a good Whig.[1] This paper will seek to describe the politics of Edmund Burke, and explore what extent Edmund Burke’s earlier pre-revolutionary writings demonstrate his Whig philosophy.
Of course, to ascribe a political philosophy writ large to Burke’s speeches at face value may be rather dangerous, and, as the many and contradictory assessments of Burke’s political and philosophical persuasions will warn us, an ambiguous one.  It seems prudent to begin with the observation that Burke was in a sense a political realist, rather than an ideologue or idealist.  In his speeches on the American war, we see his belief  that Parliament indeed retained the rights to tax the colonies as it saw fit.  However, he qualified this belief:  “besides the abstract point of right,” he wrote, “there is in every country a difference between the ideal; and the practical constitution… those who are not for governing with an attention to circumstances of times, opinions, situations, and manners, they will not govern wisely, they cannot govern long…”[2]  We can see that any assignment of Burke to an ideological stricture  must be made with care and caution.  We also see evidence of one of the hallmarks of Burke’s particular brand of Whiggism and a defining characteristic of his statesmanship: his disdain for abstraction and his practicality.
A particularly strong Whiggish aspect of Burke’s earlier writings was his constant support of limits to Royal Prerogative.  He saw King George III’s patronage and influence on those in the leadership of the government itself to be fundamentally undermining the essence of governmental separation.  To Burke, as a good Whig, the ultimate source of authority in the governmental sphere was Parliament.  He saw the Court of King George to be attempting ever so slowly and quietly to tip the scales of influence towards the court, weaken the government, and lessen the constitutional government of the people.  “The Power of the Crown, almost dead and rotten as prerogative, has grown up anew, with much more strength, and far less odium, under the name of Influence.”[3]  He writes of these machinations in his “Thoughts on Present Discontents,”

            This is done upon their favorite principle of disunion, of sowing jealousies amongst the different orders of the state, and of disjointing the natural strength of the kingdom; that it may be rendered incapable of resisting the sinister designs of wicked men, who have engrossed the Royal Power.[4]

The Parliament, thought Edmund Burke, must always be on its guard against the machinations of those who would subvert its rightful pre-eminence in favor of autocracy.  Whether or not his accusations against the Court were true, and they do seem rather conspiratorial–the idea of a shadow government operating behind the scene is reminiscent of the ever present deep-state conspiracy–Burke was certainly upholding in principle a very traditional Whig position.  This letter, with its strong words against the Court, was rather dangerous to write in the day.  Another MP, Wilkes, had recently been charged with seditious libel and had caused great controversy.  While Burke’s expositional argument about the burgeoning Royal power is a Whiggish act in and of itself, his solution is also strongly parliamentarian and even nearly populist.[5]  Although he argues that Parliament should step in to put an end to this cabal, he also says that failing this, “I see no other way for the preservation of a decent attention to public interest in the Representatives but by the interposition of the body of the people itself…” [6]  This is an extremely strong statement, and one that sounds remarkably like the American cause in the American Revolution.

Following consistently with the Whiggish principles we have examined so far, Burke took a similar position on the American discontents.  He placed the blame for the American rebellion on the poor governing of the Parliament.  In his speech on American Taxation, he said, “Tyranny is a poor provider: it knows neither how to accumulate, nor how to extract.  I charge therefore to this new and unfortunate system [of taxation] the loss not only of peace, of union, and of commerce, but even of revenue.”[7]  He pleaded for conciliation, telling the Parliamentarians that “The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable; but whether it is not your interest to make them happy?”[8]

Burke also has much to say about the nature of the citizenry and the ways in which the Parliament ought to respond to the voice of the people.  In “Thoughts on Present Discontents”, he distinctly lays out the rather liberal and Whiggish idea that people have no interest in disorder, and that it is incorrect to imagine the people as vicious.  Governments which are weak and disorderly are the real source of revolutions and uprisings.  “The revolutions which occur in great states are not the product of chance, or popular caprice.  Nothing provokes the nobility of a kingdom like a weak and disordered government.  As for the populace, it rebels not out of aggression, but to redress its grievances.”[9]  This is particularly interesting, and perhaps gives some insight into his Whig sensibilities.  It seems as if he cannot fathom a rebellion of the French scale, as he would live to see many years later.  He has a more positive opinion of the populace in general in “Thoughts,” and seems to believe in a natural predisposition to order that resides in the people, presuming some sort of innate rationality that prevents stupidity on a grand scale.  This is significantly different from his post-Revolutionary writings, and seems to take up the more liberal, more Whiggish side of the argument.  It is also significant that this piece is largely an attempt to solve what Burke saw as a constitutional crisis that was the fault of George III and also his bid for an increased executive role in the government.
All of these aspects of Edmund Burke’s earlier writings before the French Revolution reflect a Whiggish philosophy.  The political parties of Burke’s day were very different from contemporary political parties.  The notion of a party line was far from common, and the factions within the general Whig system of belief were often hugely divided.  There are some tenets, as we have seen here, which certainly seem to have been true about Whigs in general.  Their general disdain for Royal Power, and their love of Parliamentary superiority are clearly exhibited in Burke’s writings.  But Burke had a particularly interesting take on Whiggism which helps us understand his perspective on all of the aspects we have discussed in his writings.  He believed, as did all of the Whigs, in a strong rule of law and in rights and in a less autocratic and more electoral form of government, ie. the English Parliament.  In the American conflict, however, he was not concerned with asserting Parliamentary power.  Not only was this a practical move, but it is also part of his Whiggish philosophy.  Burke maintained a strong belief that those rights in which all Whigs believed were “lived rights, rooted in, and primarily identifiable through, customary actions and mores.”[10]  In his historical work An Abridgment of English History, Burke wrote of the revolution against King John which resulted in the Magna Carta.  It was the barons’ intuitive sense of the overbearing king’s disregard for their ancient and traditional rights, he would argue, that would give rise to the Magna Carta.  This insight, that rights, and the rights of Englishmen in particular, come from generations of accrued tradition and a lived experience, would provide great support for his attempts to lessen royal prerogative in the spirit of both 1688 and 1215 .  However, a belief in this system of rights and tradition would naturally also manifest itself in a rather sympathetic support for the American cause, since the American colonies had been for generations accustomed to certain rights and governmental functions which they themselves performed.  Changing these, innovating in the government after generations of traditional self-government, fundamentally contradicts the Whiggish spirit of 1215 and 1688, even if it is indeed contrary to Parliamentary power.

Burke’s writings before the French Revolution show him to be a solid Whig.  Though the meaning of the word could vary, and though there were factions in the Whig ideology, Burke’s views are rooted in a fundamentally Parliamentarian, rule-of-law, anti-autocratic position.  But it is not a position of pure ideology: Burke sees these things as inherited aspects of English life.  These prerogatives have been handed down through the ages, and must be preserved.  And this animating principle of Burke’s belief, in the inherited nature of rights and of liberties, makes the narrative of Burke’s pre-revolutionary writings cohesive.  He must oppose Royal Prerogative in favor of Parliament as thoroughly as he must also support the American cause over that of Parliamentary power.  He upholds his traditionally Whiggish beliefs well, and in the spirit of 1215 and 1688, stands up for the customs of the people and for the traditions of the nation in opposition to King and Parliament alike.


[1] Lee Ward, The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8.
[2] Edmund Burke et al., Party, Parliament, and the American War:1766-1774, vol. 2 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 49.
[3] Ibid., 258.
[4] Ibid., 269.
[5] Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (London: William Collins, 2014), 66.
[6] Edmund Burke et al., Party, Parliament, and the American War:1766-1774, vol. 2 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 311.
[7] Ibid., 461.
[8] Ibid., 135.
[9] Ibid., 255.
[10] Ian Crowe, An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 14.
Bourke, Richard. Empire and Revolution: the Political Life of Edmund Burke. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Burke, Edmund, P. J. Marshall, William B. Todd, and Paul Langford. Party, Parliament, and the American War: 1766-1774. Vol. 2 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
Crowe, Ian. An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers From Hobbes to Marx. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Jones, Emily. Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914: An  Intellectual History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Norman, Jesse. Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. London: William Collins, 2014.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. The Great Melody. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992.
Ward, Lee. The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.