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Faith and Freedom

Liberty and Power

Member of Parliament and mob

Edmund Burke loved liberty and understood how it could be lost, and how it could be saved. He shaped the course of history with his ideas. Hogarth's 1755 painting is
Chairing a Member of Parliament.

Sir John Soane's Museum


Born in 1729 (or 1730) in Ireland, Edmund Burke keenly felt the injustices of the Penal Law. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin, and in 1750 set off for London and the Middle Temple, with the intention of acquiring the training necessary to qualify for the Irish bar. However, "he showed little taste for the law, and developed a lasting dislike for the narrowness of those who practiced it" (Oxford DNB).

Instead he began to explore the English and Welsh countryside and to write. His first books enquired into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and described European settlements in America. He wrote a popular annual periodical that surveyed politics, art and science. His next career move brought him face to face with murder.

18th century broadcaster

In the 1750s Burke married. He became a father. Needing a better salary he became a secretary to an English minister of state in Ireland. There he was horrified by the "judicial murders of the Munster circuit" (DNB) and wrote a piece harshly criticizing the treatment of Irish Catholics.

Burke wanted his independence back, and he wanted change for Ireland. He returned to London, and in 1766 entered Parlliament.

He became the best speaker and debater in Parliament. Tactically skilled, rational and persuasive, he was capable of moving men to tears. Simultaneously he was tirelessly publishing political pamphlets.

Attacking the war makers during the American Revolution

During the American Revolution, he lost no opportunity "to highlight the irony of a German-descended king employing ‘the hireling sword of German boors and vassals’ to deprive British colonists of their English liberties" (DNB).

Burke's oratorical onslaught on the war makers culminated in his denunciation of the use of Indian irregulars by the king's forces on 6 February 1778. Horace Walpole called it ‘the chef-d'oeuvre of Burke's orations’ (H. Walpole, Last Journals, ed. A. F. Stewart, 1910, 2.104). It relied on his most characteristic skills, capturing the attention and delight of the House by a sustained battery of good-humoured wit against the Treasury bench that had ministers themselves in convulsions, and suddenly turning with dramatic effect to the savagery of war: The Indians of America had no titles, sine-cure places, lucrative governments, pensions, or red ribbons, to bestow on those who signalized themselves in the field; their rewards were generally received in human scalps, in human flesh, and the gratifications arising from torturing, mangling, scalping, and sometimes eating their captives in war (DNB (Writings and Speeches, 3.356).

Liberty without wisdom or virtue

Burke believed that liberty without wisdom or virtue is -

"The greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. . .Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption. . ."

Contemporaries of Burke, such as George Washington and John Adams, agreed that freedom was impossible without virtue. What was their definition of virtue?

The 7 Virtues

1 Justice (fairness, honesty, equity, keeping promises)

2 Prudence (wisdom, foresight, reason, and common sense)

3 Temperance (balance, flexibility, self-discipline, the enjoyment of pleasure, but not in excess)

4 Fortitude (endurance, bravery, valour, perseverance, gallantry, guts, and a sense of humour)

5 Faith (Following and trusting in God.

6 Hope (the belief that your life is part of a transcendent story and that all things are possible)

7 Love

Statue of Burke with bullet holes

Statue of Burke in Bristol, with recently acquired bullet holes.
Burke said, An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth, to argue another Englishman into slavery.

Image: Bristol Indymedia

Virtue cannot exist without freedom

But just as Burke believed that real freedom could not exist without virtue, he also believed that virtue could not exist without freedom, a point lost on society's social engineers -

"It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss of the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist."

Painting of Edmund Burke

Burke looks slightly worried in this painting,
but also determined. His life-long friends included Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, and Mrs Montagu.

Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Burke's letters, books and speeches in Parliament shaped his age and ours

Burke shape the course of history with his books and speeches - possibly he had a greater effect after he was dead than while he was alive. A small collection of his quotations -

Falsehood has a perennial spring.

Would twenty shillings have ruined Mr Hampden's fortune? No! but the payment of half twenty shillings, on the principle it was demanded, would have made him a slave.

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear.

It is a general popular error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws.

Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though but for one year, can never willingly abandon it.

There is. . .a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.


While many people in Britain and America were happily celebrating the first act of the French Revolution, Burke predicted the tragic second and third acts - the September Massacres, the Terror and the mass executions that culminated in military despotism. He explained why in his book Reflections on the French Revolution.

Today, having freed themselves from the "cult of the Revolution", French historians speak of Burke's "penetrating clairvoyance". There was a reason for his prophetic powers.

Burke based his ideas on facts, not theories. He preferred his politics to be based on facts as well. Like you he knew that the devil was in the details.

Three big 20th century theories - fascism, socialism and communism - were imposed on the peoples of Europe and Asia without reference to them or to the facts of life. Burke would have been saddened but not surprised to see the catastrophically tragic results. He wrote -

The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without enquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered?
Even liberty has to be examined with a realistic eye -
The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.

Burke could and did speak savagely -

He described with 'a fearful clarity' the ultimate obscenity of a creed, the ‘rights of man’, that degraded humanity while professing to serve it. He called it ‘the cannibal philosophy’ (DNB).

In the 1790s, he liberated himself from his party. He remained in Parliament but spoke directly to the public.

Our Challenge

To make real change, Burke urged us to think about changing the cause of the vices, not just the politician who happens to be in office -

Wise men [and women] will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear.

For instance, in Britain today candidates are selected by a party. They would be far more likely to respond to the people they represent if they were nominated by a constituency-wide vote. This could help to break the power of the whips. As you recall, when the people wanted a vote on Lisbon and the party whips didn't, MPs were whipped into line and the people were denied the referendum they had been promised.

In America, it might help to end the selling of tax write-offs to special interests by establishing a flat tax. Break the link between earmarks and campaign contributions which undermines democracy. Make gerrymandering illegal.

"Wise men [and women] will apply their remedies to vices, not to names." That's our challenge from Burke - a man who has fired the imagination of generations and whose words hold good today.

Burke "was never to enjoy financial security by making his career in politics" (DNB). He gave much of what he had to charity. He died in 1797.

English bulldog puppy

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass