who was edmund burke?


Everyone claims Edmund Burke as his patron saint, political forefather, lodestar and compass point, ancestral bulwark against the tide of whatever seething modern ill he despises. The right wing trumpets Burke, who excoriated the murderous rebellion in France; the left wing salutes Burke, who excoriated his imperial colleagues for their overweening and rapacious greed in India and America; Christians celebrate Burke, who considered religion a crucial and indispensable pillar of civic life; the Irish savor a native son who became, as Hazlitt noted, “the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons”; the English honor the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling. But Edmund Burke the actual man is faded away—the man his wife called Ned, fond of vulgar puns and lewd jokes, an ample man, thin as a lad and then never again; the chatterbox “never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off,” as Samuel Johnson said (probably with a tinge of self-recognition); the man whose first schooling was in a ruined castle in rural Cork, because Catholics were forbidden education under imperial law; the man who lost one son early and the other too soon; the man who would launch into such furious and vituperative speech in Parliament that his friends would have to haul him down into his seat by his coattails; the man “quick to offend [but] ready to atone,” in his own words; the man whose one refuge from politics and creditors, friends and enemies, passions and plots, was a tiny “root-house,” as he called it, a mile from his heavily mortgaged estate house through the Buckinghamshire woods—a “tea-house,” as a young friend described the place, set amid “roots of trees, moss, and so forth, with a … little kitchen behind and an ice-house under it.”

more from Brian Doyle at The American Scholar here.