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Edmund Burke

From 1729
 to 1797

Born, raised, and educated in Ireland, Edmund Burke was one of the most well-known British statesmen and political philosophers of the eighteenth century. After gaining early recognition for his literary skills, Burke entered Parliament in 1766 and remained there for the next two decades.

Burke is often remembered for his vehement opposition to the French Revolution, presented in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. He saw in the French Revolution a fatal danger: A zealous but misguided state can destroy the delicate attachments on which a free society is built.

Because of his defense of tradition, Burke is sometimes thought of as a reactionary. Yet he loved liberty and favored many classical liberal positions in politics, religion, and economics. Burke never separated religion and liberty; he maintained that liberty is only possible because it is part of the eternal and transcendent moral order. His great concern was that freedom should never be confused with license; that true liberty must always be understood as ordered liberty.

In economics, Burke believed that private property is the foundation of a just social order and the spur to personal industry and national prosperity. He argued passionately against intrusive government monopolies and in favor of widespread access to acquiring property, which he thought serves as a powerful check on encroachments by the state. In his view, moral education by intermediary social institutions-the family, the church, the local community-can only flourish if the property that supports those institutions is secure. His support of economic liberty earned him the respect of Adam Smith, and his powerful defense of morally informed liberty earned Burke the admiration of Lord Acton, who regarded him as a timeless model of humane learning, religious virtue, and enlightened political action.

Sources: Selected Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke edited by Peter J. Stanlis (Regnery Gateway, 1963), and The Political Economy of Edmund Burke by Francis Canavan (Fordham University Press, 1995).