Essay: Was Edmund Burke A Conservative? (Irish Studies)


Edmund Burke (1729-97) was a British-Irish philosopher and politician who is generally considered the founding father of conservatism. According to the monograph The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States (1992): “[T]he writings of Edmund Burke constitute the benchmark of conservative thought” (Aughey 1992, 2). However, Terry Eagleton, a renowned Irish leftwing critic and professor of Cultural Theory, is very critical of the assumption that Burke should be the touchstone of British conservative thought. In his essay “Saving Burke from the Tories” from the New Statesman (July 4, 1997), Eagleton asks the question: “How did an Irish Whig come to be transformed into an English Tory?” His underlying agenda seemingly is to reclaim Burke from being a Conservative icon. In his article, Eagleton argues that in order to get another perspective on Burke, one should read Burke’s arguments against the Penal Laws that oppressed Irish Catholics during the 17th and 18th centuries (Eagleton 1997, 32).

In this essay, I will examine Eagleton’s question: was the early Burke more a liberal politician than a conservative one in his attitude to Ireland and in particular to the Penal Laws and what were the historical and philosophical reasons for that in the 18th century? I will investigate how one can characterize Edmund Burke’s early political thought from my main source: Burke’s Tracts on the Popery Laws. My thesis is that (the early) Burke was hugely influenced by liberal and Enlightenment ideas of his time, yet his overall political thinking was part of a conservative discourse, as exemplified in his Tracts on the Popery Laws. As such, I find it difficult to agree with Eagleton’s attempt to reclaim Burke from being a conservative or a Tory. Yet he is right, to a certain extent, in emphasizing the early Burke’s political ambivalence. Although one must not forget that it is very difficult to compare 18th century political ideology to contemporary political ideology because of the change of historical context and semantic transformations of political concepts.

The origin of conservatism
Before proceeding with the discussion of Burke’s conservatism, one must also consider that conservatism is a political ideology defined later in history and the term ‘conservative’ has gone through considerable transformations during the centuries. Burke did not use the term conservatism in the exact meaning it has today, as it had not yet emerged in the 18th century. Although in his Reflections on the Revolution in France he did state: “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation” (Reflections 2009, 21). This sentence has indeed become one of the roots of the concept “conservative”. Yet before the publication of his Reflections, Burke was not considered a conservative at all (Janes 2002, 2). If one goes back to the beginning of his authorship, one finds writings that are indicating an Enlightenment liberalism – especially when analyzing his writings on the conditions in Ireland (Janes 2002, 2). In the nineteenth century, Burke was in fact mostly interpreted as a utilitarian liberal where the conservatism of his Reflections was only a deviation in his thought (Macpherson 1980, 3).

The ideology ‘conservatism’ has in the Anglophone world by a large degree been defined by and through a later conservative mythologizing of Burke’s writings and persona, making him the very origin of the conservative ideology both in Britain and the US – however different the two interpretations of Burke’s conservatism might be (Aughey 1992, 7). In this essay, I will mainly focus on the British version. According to the monograph The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and United States, Burke can be understood as one of the original designers of the conservative ideology (if one can speak of an ideology). In any case, when analyzing an ideology like conservatism, it is obvious that we also have to understand its origin and genealogy.

Although originally terms of abuse, ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ are terms that have been used in a political context in England since the 1680s in order to describe the political coalitions or groupings. They did not resemble the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ from the beginning, nor were they political parties in the modern conception of a political party (Sack 1993, 46). However, in 1742 David Hume did, in his essay Of the Parties of Great Britain, define the terms in close analogy to ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’: “A Tory, […] since the revolution [of 1688], may be defined in a few words, to be a lover of monarchy, tho’ without abandoning liberty; and a partizan of the family of Stuart,” while a “Whig may be defin’d to be a Lover of Liberty, tho’ without renouncing Monarchy; a Friend to the Settlement in the Protestant Line” ( §28). In other words, Tories are associated with ‘order’ and ‘monarchy’ and Whigs are the believers in ‘liberty’. Originally, the Whigs suspected that the Tories were Catholics which gave the Tories their name, as ‘Tory’ was a nickname for an Irish Catholic outlaw. However, the distinction between the Tories being supporters of Stuarts (Catholicism) and Whigs being supporters of Protestantism changed in the 18th century via a semantic transformation and they became to signify the opposition between ‘court’ and ‘country’, ‘nobility’, and ‘gentry’ – or between ‘court’ and ‘patriot opposition’ in the new party formations ( §29).

During George III’s reign with Edmund Burke as an MP for the Whigs, the party formations mainly divided either, on the one hand, around Lord North (Tory), William Pitt the Younger (Tory) or around the Marquis of Rockingham (Whig) and Charles James Fox (Whig – although in coalition with Lord North) on the other hand. In the beginning of the 18th century the Tories were Jacobins who supported the Catholic Stuarts (Sack 1993, 4) and they were against the Whig government and the Hanoverian succession. In some cases, the Tories were even directly involved in plots working on getting the Stuarts back on the throne. Besides the Jacobite Risings in 1715 and 1745, the Attenbury Plot was the most serious Jacobite and Tory attempt to recapture the crown ( Gradually, the Tories became supporters of ‘King and Church’ (Sack 1993, 4) and represented the nobilities and the Ascendency in Ireland (O’Brien 1992, 52). The Tories had in general moved from being Jacobites into being Royalist and Protestants (Sack 1993, 4).

Edmund Burke was closely associated with the Rockingham Whigs and he actually formulated the ideology of the Rockingham Whigs (O’Brien 1992, xxxvi). Only later as a new political climate arose because of the French Revolution (1789), the terms ‘Tory’ and “Whig” were defined in a ‘new’ and ‘old’ terminology, exemplified through Burke’s own writing Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791). Gradually, during the end of the 18th century, ‘old’ Whigs and Tories adjusted to the ‘new’ political vocabulary when the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’, ‘radical’ and ‘reactionary’ came into being through the French Revolution ( §38/39). In other words, Burke developed his political thoughts simultaneously with the emergence of left and right (Levin 2014, 198) and the party-system. This suggests that it is difficult to answer the question if Burke was a conservative or a liberal from the concepts alone or by comparing them to the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’. However, one can conclude that Burke was a Whig in the sense that he was a part of and even the creator of the political formation labelled ‘Whig’ by formulating to political agenda of the Rockingham government where he was also shortly appointed Paymaster of the Forces.

The Penal Laws
The Irish question was very important in the development of Burke’s political philosophy and early political opinions. In this paper, I will focus on Burke’s writings on the Penal Laws, yet one could also have investigated his later writings in which he argued for Irish free trade. In particular, the Penal Laws, which had been enacted mainly by the monarchs (King William III, Queen Anne, King George I and II) and passed by the Irish Parliament in the 17th and the 18th century, made a great influence on Burke’s early thinking. The Penal Laws restricted the rights of the Catholic population (and Protestant dissenters) in Ireland severely and the purpose of the Penal Laws were to limit Catholic influence and force people to convert to Protestantism or the Anglican Church. It was the intention of the political establishment in Ireland and Britain after the Glorious Revolution (1688-89) to make the entire colonized Ireland convert into Protestantism by the force of these laws. Furthermore, the Penal Laws supported the Protestant Ascendency’s right to maintain and enhance their economical possessions and political power in the colonized Ireland.

The Penal Laws were gradually repealed during the late 18th century, beginning with George III’s dismantling of them in Burke’s lifetime ( The Penal Laws discriminated against Catholics (and Protestant dissenters) in Ireland on a variety of fields: Intermarriage of Protestants and Catholics was disallowed; Catholics could not take care of Protestant children from a mixed marriage; by converting to Protestantism, one could reclaim the land from one’s Catholic family as an inheritance. There were restrictions on rights to keep school and on the right to buy land; Catholics could not serve in the army, hold public offices or enter legal profession. A Catholic could not vote for or become an MP in Dublin or in London. It was even a felony to teach the Catholic religion, and treason as a capital offence to convert a Protestant to the Catholic faith (

Through all of his political career, Edmund Burke saw the consequences of the Penal Laws as devastating for the Catholic population in Ireland, as he said in a Letter to William Smith (1795), the Penal Laws were “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man” ( The question of abolition of the Penal Laws was a cause of great concern to Burke, especially in the beginning of his political career, as we will see in my analysis of his Tracts on the Popery Laws.

Tracts on Popery Laws
Burke’s text Tracts on the Popery Laws is a fragment consisting of four remaining chapters, as chapter one is missing or was never written. The Tracts are probably written during a period from 1761-1764 but were not published during Edmund Burke’s own lifetime and did therefore not have any direct political influence on the political agenda towards Ireland in his time. Yet the Tracts might have been shown or prepared to be shown to people of influence, for example Burke’s employee William Gerard Hamilton, the Chief Secretary for Ireland. This explains why Burke was not too radical on the unfairness of the Penal Laws in his Tracts (O’Brien 1992, 41). Also Burke was born in Dublin into a well-to-do Irish family where his father was an attorney who had converted to Protestantism. Burke’s mother was a Catholic as a large part of his family. Burke himself was a Protestant, yet his Irishness could be a burdensome inheritance when seeking a public career and it has been an ongoing debate if Edmund Burke actually concealed his Catholicism in order to achieve his position in society (O’Brien 1992, 44) and that might also have restricted him from publishing.

In the Tracts, we find some of Burke’s earliest political assumptions which are not straightforward conservative, yet not straightforward liberal either. Eagleton’s thesis that “Modern-day conservatives […], should think twice before they light their candles at the shrine of Edmund Burke” (Eagleton 1997, 33) is an interesting questioning of Burke’s contemporary legacy and tribute to his ambivalence, but a comparison between Modern and 18th century conservative standpoints is an almost impossible analytical undertaking because of the transformation of the historical context, which indirectly also might be Eagleton’s point. Yet I will try to distil the discourses of the different political and philosophical tendencies in his early thinking and compare them to the discourse of conservatism understood as a set of general ideas. I will narrow down conservatism into consisting of three philosophical discourses: a) As a discourse conservatism is associated with an ideology that is a counter-reaction to the universal ideas of the Enlightenment (Aughey 1992, 41, 58) and as a discourse antithetical to the key-concepts of the Enlightenment as for example natural rights, consent of the people, and the social contract-principle. In other words, conservatism is the political support of “monarchy and church” (Aughey 1992, 41, 58). b) In general, conservatism is associated with a political discourse which emphasizes law and order. Traditional institutions and practices are the foundations of society rather than the radicalism of revolution (Aughey 1992, 13). Reforms in society should preserve rather than destroy. Justice is fulfilled when law and order is maintained in accordance with the traditions of institutions. In addition, conservatism is the belief in an organic development of society and institutions through history and a belief in natural rights only if they are given by God or founded through institutional tradition (Aughey 1992, 35). c) Finally, conservatism is traditionally an ‘ideology’ arguing for property rights for the individual through tradition or inheritance (Aughey 1992, 55). In the following, I will analyze how these three discourses are displayed in Burke’s Tracts on the Popery Laws and judge if they become hegemonic.

a. Enlightenment ideas
In his Tracts, Burke is clearly influenced by the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. He believes in reason, improvement, freedom of religion, and social reforms for the general population in Ireland. Burke’s argument is that law should always consider the happiness of the multitude. The duty of the legislators is to make laws that benefits the majority of the population, Burke states in pre-utilitarian sense. Laws are oppressive if they are not for the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people, which is not the case in Ireland where the Catholic population suffers from the Penal Laws.
“Now as a law directed against the mass of the nation has not the nature of a reasonable institution, so neither has it the authority: for in all forms of government the people is the true legislator” (Tracts 2002, 62).

The underlying political principle in Burke’s argumentation seems to be the Enlightenment philosophy of the ‘consent of the people’ by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and especially John Locke (1632-1704). Hobbes’ and mainly Locke’s idea of consent entitled the rulers to rule under certain specific conditions given by the people. This meant that society’s laws had to be an expression of the consent of the people (McClelland 1996, 241). The Tracts seem to unfold the idea that every individual in society has natural rights or a natural liberty which in turn made it possible for the individual or the people to consent by free will to the rulers of the state or to laws. The underlying discourse in Burke’s Tracts is that the “government of the people are the true legislators,” and laws and institutions in society should be designed on the grounds of consent of the people. Furthermore, Burke also argues for the existence of natural rights in his rejection of the Penal Laws:

“Everybody is satisfied that a conservation and secure enjoyment of our natural rights is the great and ultimate purpose of civil society, and that therefore all forms whatsoever of government are only good as they are subservient to that purpose to which they are entirely subordinate liberty” (Tracts 2002, 73).

A government is only valuable to it subjects in the sense that it is of any good to the people it governs and that it is able to secure their basic human rights. In this passage, however, he uses the concept ‘conservation’ in a conservative way, although it is the natural rights which have to be conserved, and government is subordinate liberty. Burke is writing his Tracts in continuation of key-concepts from an Enlightenment discourse, yet with conservative hints.

b. Justice
Burke is also influenced by the new Enlightenment ideas when advocating for a new approach to law and justice: “A law against the majority of the people is in substance a law against the people itself” (Tracts 2002, 62). Laws are conventionally created by the consent of the people, meaning they can be changed if the circumstances of the particular law have changed, although that is, of course, also in accordance with British tradition of Civil Law. Burke did not believe in any abstract rights. Interestingly, law is also founded on a more original justice, according to Burke: “All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice” (Tracts 2002, 64-65). The original justice can be understood as natural rights given by God: “I mean the will of Him who gave us our nature, and in giving, impressed an invariable law upon it” (Tracts 2002, 63). Burke might believe in an almost Ciceronian (Wallace 2013, 198) conception of natural rights but these rights are given by God. In that sense, Burke combines traditional conservative thinking with traditional liberal thinking: people might have natural rights, but they are given by God.

According to Burke, the real purpose of repealing the Penal Laws is also to maintain peace and order and avoid revolution in Ireland. Burke is opposed to the prevalent argument of the political establishment for maintaining the Penal Laws: “The great prop of this whole system is not pretended to be its justice or its utility, but the supposed danger to the state, which gave rise to it originally, and which, they apprehend, would return if this system was overturned” (Tracts 2002, 90). Burke is indirectly referring to the consequences of the Glorious Revolution and the actions taken in order to secure power of the Protestant victors, yet he finds it an over-reaction to enact such harsh laws as the Penal Laws, as they will only encourage revolution and rebellion among the Catholic population in Ireland: “it will show that an attempt to continue them in that state will rather be disadvantageous to the public peace than any kind of security to it” (Tracts 2002, 92). In other words, in order to preserve order and peace in society, and avoid revolution, the Irish parliament should repeal the Penal Laws. As Burke emphasizes at the very end of his Tracts: “nothing can be more absurd and dangerous than to tamper with the natural foundations of society, in hopes of keeping it up by certain contrivances” (Tracts 2002, 94).

c. Property
Finally, the question of property is significant in the Tracts. Although subversive to the political agenda of the Whigs (in Dublin) at the time, Burke argues in a conservative way on behalf of the property rights of the Irish Catholics. In fact, conservatism becomes subversive when Burke deals with the Irish question and the consequences of the Penal Laws, as Eagleton suggested in his article (Eagleton 1997, 32). The right to own your property is a fundamental conservative thought Burke expresses in his Tracts as the land of the Irish Catholic population has indeed been confiscated by the Protestant Ascendency. This could be interpreted as a Lockean emphasis on property, but Burke’s idea of property is also based on pragmatism and inheritance, while Locke’s ideas on property are based on property acquired through labor and the persona (Locke 2014, 740). In that sense, Burke’s conservative values, pragmatism and emphasis on inheritance work as the argument for the right of the Catholic population of Ireland to maintain their property. “I must observe that although these penal laws do indeed inflict many hardships on those who are obnoxious to them, yet their chief, their most extensive and most certain operation is upon property […] For a law against property is a law against industry” (Tracts 2002, 88).

Natural rights and history
In continuation of my analysis above, the question if Burke was conservative can be condensed into the question if Burke founded his philosophy on ‘natural rights’ or ‘history’. Indeed, in his essay Eagleton admits that especially Burke’s reaction to a theory of natural rights was the main reason why Burke in the first place could be interpreted as the founding father of conservative thought. Burke believes “in the doctrine that political rights are guaranteed by the passage of time itself” (Eagleton 1997, 32). This traditionally very conservative standpoint was of course against the liberal ideas of such radicals as Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft who wanted to ground human rights on nature. C.B. Macpherson states about Burke’s political philosophy: “the appeal is to history and observation, not to Natural Law” (Macpherson 1980, 24). Although ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ are not exactly the same (Hobbes 2008, 86), O’Gotman holds that Burke’s definition of natural rights just had another definition than the traditional Enlightenment definition: “Burke’s natural rights amounted to the normal benefits of social living, those of order, security, justice and peaceful possession of property and labour” (O’Gorman 1973, 166).

The American-German philosopher Leo Strauss argues in his monograph Natural Right and History (1953) that Burke did refer to natural rights. “[Burke] does not tire of speaking of natural right, which, as such, is anterior to the British constitution. But he also says that ‘our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution whose sole authority is that it has exited time out of mind’” (Strauss 1953, 319). Based on this quote, the British Constitution, as it has evolved through history, is the fundamental principle in Burke’s political philosophy, yet anteceded by natural rights. Furthermore, Yoval Levin writes in his recently published work The Great Debate (2014): “It is not hard to see why some readers would take such declarations as evidence that Burke sees an accessible natural law above the position law” (Levin 2014, 74).

Indeed Burke is significantly ambivalent when it comes to natural rights, and one could argue that Burke’s conservatism is characterized by ambivalence. Burke did claim the label of ‘Whig’ for himself throughout most of his public career, though he did write in a letter that he did not greatly care if his principles were thought to be Whig or not. “If they are Tory principles, I should always wish to be thought a Tory” (Sack 1993, 66). One could also argue, as Eagleton, that Burke’s conservatism and belief in “prescription” had a subversive character, as his “appeal to tradition was in fact politically subversive” (Eagleton 1997, 32). Burke was, as we saw above, subversive when he argued against the obviously unfair treatment of the Irish population according to property rights. He was against the Penal Laws and he saw the great disadvantages of the economic inequality that the Ascendency bestowed upon the Irish society, yet he did that in order secure order and peace in the British Empire to which he was always a loyal and patriotic servant.

Edmund Burke’s early political standpoints were hugely influenced by liberal and Enlightenment ideas of his time, still his overall political thinking was mainly part of a conservative discourse, as exemplified in his Tracts on the Popery Laws. Burke may have used Enlightenment liberal thinking in his argumentation against the Penal Laws, but these ideas were subdued a conservative hegemonic discourse with key-concepts as God, justice, property, and order. As such, this paper does not entirely agree with Eagleton’s attempt problematize the prevalent interpretation of Burke as a conservative or a Tory, but he is right, to a certain extent, in emphasizing the early Burke’s political ambivalence – Although it is very difficult to compare 18th century political ideology to contemporary political ideology because of the change of historical context and semantic transformations of political concepts.

In the beginning of his article, Terry Eagleton asks the question: “How did an Irish Whig come to be transformed into an English Tory?” My answer would be that Burke has become an inseparable part of conservative mythology through the genealogy of conservatism. The political terminology has gone through a semantic transformation in the course of history. In the 17th and 18th century, the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ do not entirely match the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. But through the evolvement of the political formations in Britain’s parliament, and the related semantic transformation of the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’, they became to signify ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. Burke was closely associated with the Whigs as he was to become a minister in the Rockingham government, and he was one of the main contributors to the Whig policy in the second half of the 18th century, yet his thinking points towards later conservatism.

(Work in progress)

List of references
Primary sources:
Burke, Edmund. 2009 (1790). Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford.
Burke, Edmund. Tracts on the Popery Laws. In: Janes, Regina (ed.) 2002. Edmund Burke on Irish Affairs. Mounsel & Company. Dublin.
Janes, Regina (ed.) 2002. Edmund Burke on Irish Affairs. Mounsel & Company. Dublin.
Secondary sources:
Aughey, Arthur, Greta Jones and W.T.M. Riches. 1992. The Conservative Political Tradition in Britain and the United States. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Cranbury.
Hobbes, Thomas. 2008 (1651). Leviathan. Oxford University Press. New York.
Levin, Yuval. 2014. The Great Debate. Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left. Basic Books. New York.
Locke, John. 2014 (1690). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature. London.
Macpherson, C.B. 1980. Burke. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
McClelland, J.S. 1996. A History Of Western Political Thought. Routledge. London.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. 1992. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke. Sinclair-Stevenson. London.
O’Gorman, Frank. 1973. Edmund Burke. His Political Philosophy. George Allan & Unwin Ltd. London.
Rabinow, Paul (ed.). 1991. The Foucault Reader. Penguin Books. London.
Sack, James J. 1993. From Jacobite To Conservative. Reaction and orthodoxy in Britain c. 1760-1832. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Strauss, Leo. 1971 (1953). Natural Right and History. 7th Impression. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Eagleton, Terry. “Saving Burke form the Tories.” In: New Statesman; Jul 4, pp. 32-33. 1997.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. “Burke, Ireland, and America.” In: National Review, Sept. 15, pp. 35-40. 1997.
Wallace, Nathan. “Matthew Arnold, Edmund Burke, And The Irish Reconciliation”. In: Prose Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3. December 2012. Pp. 197-223. Routledge 2012.

The Attenbury Plot. Cambridge University Library:
Accessed 31.03.2015.

Encyclopedia Britannica, web-site: Accessed 31.03.2015.

Laws in Ireland for the Suppression of Popery. Penal Law. University of Minnesota Law School Library: Accessed 31.03.2015.

William F. Byrne, Edmund Burke and the Politics of Empire. First Principle Journal: Accessed 31.03.2015.

Yaday, Alok. Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th-Century British Literature. George Mason University:
Accessed 31.03.2015.

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