- Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke by Richard Bourke
Exemplary in its detail and erudition, Empire and Revolution is a masterful scholarly and interpretive assessment of the complicated life and political career of Edmund Burke. Most of us have come to understand Burke as either a prescient liberal (basing our conclusions on his opinions regarding the American colonies) or a founder of nineteenth-century conservatism (in light of his views of the French Revolution). Facile readings of Burke have suggested that he was a liberal in his early political life but became more conservative as he matured. Richard Bourke contends that readers miss much of the quality of Burke’s political philosophy if they fail to attend to the circumstances in which his speeches and writings were produced. If we wish to understand Burke’s rhetorical methods and his political goals, Bourke argues, we must be more fully aware of, first, “the microscopic context of quotidian politics,” and second, “the intellectual context of eighteenth-century political thought” (18).
The Burke who comes to life in Bourke’s reading is an engaging rhetorician, a thoughtful and passionate defender of the British constitution, and a strong proponent of religious toleration. For Burke, maintaining the constitution would retain the stability of the state. Overseas dominions could threaten this stability, because if colonies became the prerogative of the executive branch, then the influence of the Crown could be employed to pervert the democratic branch of government. Like his contemporaries, Burke would not have been able to envision a world without empires, Bourke argues, and thus “justified the authority of civilised empire at every stage of his career.” As Bourke phrases it, Burke conceived that “British control of America was optimal for both parties; the separation of Ireland was anathema in any imaginable future; the conquest of Bengal was a legitimate act of war” (9).
Bourke’s stated goal is to reconstruct his subject’s political thought in the light of several major developments of his age. Despite the “plethora” of issues that [End Page 447] occurred across Burke’s thirty-year career in the House of Commons as a member of parliament, Bourke discerns five preoccupations across his lifetime: 1) the British constitution and constitutional reform; 2) the crisis of the American colonies, roughly from 1766 to 1783; 3) the management of the East India Company at Bengal and Madras, from the attempts at reform under Chatham to the impeachment of Warren Hastings; 4) Irish trade and government; and 5) the impact of the French Revolution on Britain and Europe. Bourke also accounts for Burke’s relatively orthodox views of the Anglican Church. He believed in the “revolution principles” that were the foundation of the monarchy of his era, and he enjoyed the strict discipline within the Church of England. Burke also expressed a belief in the importance of toleration of dissent in religious practice. Yet he wanted to monitor nonconformity lest it turn into faction. He was anxious to secure the Church against ecclesiastical laxity and to secure the state against heterodoxy. On these issues, Bourke concludes, he was unwavering.
With the goal of charting the “progress of Burke’s life in thought and politics” (25), Bourke works in roughly chronological fashion. The first part of the book, “Reason and Prejudice: Early Formation, 1730–1750,” covers Burke’s youth and coming of age in Ireland. Bourke notes that Burke had a personal experience of conquest: he came from a convert family; he was partly reared by Catholic relatives; he attended a Quaker school and a Church of Ireland university. In Bourke’s view, Burke well understood that his family had been expropriated in the seventeenth century during the reaction to the Irish rebellion of 1641 and the impact that this confiscation had upon the attitudes of the Catholic gentry and the nobility in Ireland. As Bourke frames the discussion, “The Cromwellian settlement and the subsequent seizure of Catholic estates in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution amounted to an experience of conquest on...