Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Edmund Burke > On Taste
Edmund Burke (1729–1797).  On Taste.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
General Introduction
EDMUND BURKE was born in Dublin in January, 1729, the son of an attorney. His father was Protestant, his mother Catholic; and though the son followed his father’s religion, he was always tolerant of the other faith. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took his B.A. in 1748, coming to London two years later to study law. But his tastes were more literary than legal, and on giving up law, against his father’s wish, before he was called to the bar, he was forced to resort to his pen for a livelihood.  1
  The first of his productions to gain notice was his “Vindication of Natural Society, by a late noble writer,” an ironical imitation of the style and arguments of Bolingbroke, carried out with great skill. This pamphlet already showed Burke as a defender of the established order of things. In the same year, 1756, appeared his famous “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.”  2
  For five years, from 1759 to 1764, Burke’s time was largely occupied by his duties as secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, practically his only publications being in the “Annual Register,” with which he was connected for many years; yet in this period he found time to form intimacies with the famous group containing, among others, Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Dr. Johnson. During the short administration of Lord Rockingham, Burke acted as that nobleman’s private secretary, and in January, 1766, he became a member of the House of Commons. Almost at once he came into prominence as a speaker, displaying in the debates on American affairs, which then occupied the House, much independence and a disposition toward a wise expediency rather than a harsh insistence on theoretical sovereignty in dealing with the colonists.  3
  In 1768 Burke bought an estate in Buckinghamshire, for which he was never able to pay in full; and during most of his life he was in financial difficulties. During the Grafton ministry his chief publication was his “Thoughts on the Present Discontents,” in which he opposed the reviving influence of the court, and championed the interests of the people. American affairs continued to engage the attention of Parliament, and throughout the struggle with the colonies Burke’s voice was constantly raised on behalf of a policy of conciliation. With the aid of his disciple, C. J. Fox, he forced the retirement of Lord North, and when the Whigs came into power in 1782 he was made paymaster of the forces. Aristocratic jealousy, and the difficulties of his own temperament, kept him out of a cabinet position then and later.  4
  The next great issue on which Burke employed his oratorical talents was the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Beginning in 1787, it dragged on for seven years, Burke closing his colossal labors with a nine days’ speech. Though Hastings was acquitted, Burke’s fervid indignation in supporting the impeachment, and the impeachment itself, were indications of the growth of the sense of responsibility for the humane treatment of subject peoples.  5
  Meantime, the sympathy expressed in England for the French Revolution in its earlier stages roused Burke to express his opposition in his famous “Reflections.” In the debates which followed, Burke became separated from his friends Sheridan and Fox, and finally from his party, and he closed his political career in practical isolation.  6
  On his retirement from Parliament in 1794, the King granted him a pension which Pitt found means to increase, but even this well-earned reward he was not allowed to enjoy without the grudging assaults of enemies. His last days were spent in vigorous support of the war against France; and he died July 8, 1797.  7
  Burke never attained a political office in any degree proportioned to his ability and services, but he succeeded, nevertheless, in affecting profoundly the opinion of his time. Latterly the House of Commons tired of his fervid and imaginative eloquence, unwilling perhaps to make the effort necessary to follow his keen intellectual processes, but he found through his writings a larger audience. “Bacon alone excepted,” says Buckle, Burke was “the greatest political thinker who has ever devoted himself to the practise of English politics.”  8


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