In Defense of Edmund Burke


Craig Shirley has an article at Breitbart in which he has some critical words for some contemporary Republicans, with which I will not argue.  He also has some critical words for the great British conservative Edmund Burke, with which I will argue.

Here’s Shirley on Burke (among other things):

High Tories, Neo Cons, Establishmentarians, Big Government Republicans, NSA Republicans, are American, and conservative of a sort, but they are not American conservatives. They frankly more resemble British Tories, which is why they often cite Edmund Burke as being the father of American conservatism. But Burke believed in the divine right of kings, never really challenged the authority of the elites who ruled London, and believed in institutions over individuals.

Besides the fact that he overstates Burke’s influence on contemporary American politics–hardly anybody cites Burke as the “father of American conservatism”–he also gets Burke wrong.


Burke did not believe in “the divine right of kings.”  He explicitly rejected and criticized this theory, in his great Reflections on the Revolution in France, as a form of imprudent dogmatism, since it implied that God approved of one form of government more than others, and because it suggested that some person could have (because of his bloodline) an indefeasible right to rule, regardless of the practical consequences.  Burke did believe in a limited, constitutional monarchy that he thought the British should leave in the form in which they had inherited it, since it had been hallowed by tradition and tested by history.

Shirley also says that Burke “never really challenged the authority of the elites who ruled London, and believed in institutions over individuals.”  I assume that by “the elites who ruled London” he means “the elites in London who ruled Britain.”  At any rate, Burke identified four great causes to which he had dedicated himself over the course of his career: the emancipation of Catholics from the legal disabilities under which they suffered in Britain, the prosecution of Warren Hastings for his misgovernment of India, conciliation with the American colonies (Burke was in favor of the Americans in their dispute with the mother country over taxes!), and his criticism of the French Revolution.  It is pretty obvious that the first three of these all had something to do with protecting individuals from abusive governing institutions, and with challenging at least the use the elites in London (or their agents) made of their authority.  (Given the lawlessness with which the French revolutionaries acted, you could easily attribute his opposition to it to a desire to protect people from unrestrained authority, too.)

For what it’s worth, here’s Winston Churchill’s assessment of Burke (from Churchill’s essay “Consistency in Politics,” which can be found in his book Thoughts and Adventures).  Churchill begins by observing that Burke’s speeches and writings provided material for both the liberals and conservatives of Churchill’s day.  Then he adds this:

On the one hand he is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority.  But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this great life appears a mean and petty thing.  History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations.  His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect.  No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now for the other.  The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons, drawn from the same armoury, used in a different quarter but for the same purpose.



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About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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