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Edmund Burke is difficult to classify. Born in Ireland in 1730, he entered parliament in 1765 having already achieved literary distinction for several philosophical works, including On the origins of the sublime and beautiful (1757). His subsequent career as a Whig statesman, politician, and reformer spanned the tumultuous decades of the late eighteenth century and culminated, less than a decade before his death, in his famous polemic against the French Revolution, Reflections on the revolution in France (1790). Over the course of his life, Burke opined with such frequency on so many topics that the nature of his ‘philosophy’ remains an open question, and scholars continue to offer strikingly different interpretations of his life and legacies. ‘Burke's legacy to history’, historian Richard Bourke summarized, ‘has been a complicated affair’.



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The completion of this article was made possible by support from the National Academy of Education and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Fellowship. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for the Historical Journal for their suggestions.



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1 Bourke, Richard, Empire and revolution: the political life of Edmund Burke (Princeton, NJ, 2015), p. 16.

2 Bourke, Richard, ‘What is conservatism? History, ideology and party’, European Journal of Political Theory, 17 (2018), pp. 449–75. It pays to note that scholars have certainly not focused exclusively on Burke vis-à-vis conservatism. Three examples of important work along these lines include Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and empire: a study in nineteenth-century British liberal thought (Chicago, IL, 1999); Pitts, Jennifer, A turn to empire: the rise of imperial liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, NJ, 2005); and Sartori, Andrew, Liberalism in empire: an alternative history (Berkeley, CA, 2014). As discussed below, O'Neill engages seriously with this literature on Burke, liberalism, and empire.

3 Bourke argues that Burke ‘saw himself as a partisan of a progressive strand of Whiggism’. Bourke, ‘What is conservatism?’, p. 461.

4 Bromwich, David, The intellectual life of Edmund Burke: from the sublime and beautiful to American independence (Cambridge, MA, 2014), p. 19. Bromwich depicts a dynamic, complex figure showing how Burke's thought evolved over – and in response to and as a result of – his decades of public service and writing. He situates Burke's ‘fast paced’ thought within a richly told narrative of politics – portrayed by Bromwich as a ‘mesh of hints, arranged signals, tacit acknowledgements, and compromises’ (pp. 58, 147).

5 Robin, Corey, The reactionary mind: conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, (2nd edn, New York, NY, 2018), p. 39. Robin here held firm to this assessment originally given in 2011. Scruton, Roger, Conservatism: an invitation to the great tradition (New York, NY, 2018), p. 26. Additional recent examples include Norman, Jesse, Edmund Burke: the first conservative (New York, NY, 2013), and Levin, Yuval, The great debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the birth of right and left (New York, NY, 2013).

6 Portraying Burke as a scholastic natural law theorist was especially popular among his mid-twentieth-century interpreters. Two notable examples include Strauss, Leo, Natural right and history (Chicago, IL, 1953), and Stanlis, Peter J., Edmund Burke and the natural law (Ann Arbor, MI, 1958). For an overview of such interpretations, see Maciag, Drew, Edmund Burke in America: the contested career of the father of modern conservatism (Ithaca, NY, 2013), ch. 10.

7 Bourke, Empire and revolution, p. 17, passim.

8 O'Neill himself draws attention to Bourke's work, which appeared during the final stages of his project. O'Neill's emphasis on the relationship between conservatism and empire provides an important addition to studies on liberalism and empire, which include three books mentioned above: Mehta, Liberalism and empire; Pitts, A turn to empire; and Sartori, Liberalism in empire.

9 Cannadine, David, Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empire (Oxford, 2001), and Said, Edward W., Orientalism (1978; repr. New York, NY, 2003).

10 Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the revolution in France, ed. Mitchell, L. G. (1790; repr. Oxford, 2009), p. 21.

11 For an early account of the limitations of ‘abstracting leading ideas’ to find interconnectedness between them, see Skinner, Quentin, ‘The limits of historical explanations’, Philosophy, 41 (1966), pp. 199215, at p. 213.

12 Lacey acknowledges that Burke did not label himself ‘conservative’.

13 Maciag, Edmund Burke in America, passim.

14 For a discussion of such historically minded approaches to the study of political thought, see Skinner, Quentin, Meaning and context: Quentin Skinner and his critics, ed. Tully, James (Princeton, NJ, 1988), pp. 2967, 231–88.

15 In the following discussion, I adopt Jones's model of combining the two as ‘C/conservatism’.

16 See, in particular, Maciag, Edmund Burke in America, passim.

17 Regarding her chronological demarcation, Jones notes that while the proposal for Irish Home Rule was defeated in the summer of 1886, ‘the issue was established as the most bitterly contested feature of British politics in the years down to Gladstone's retirement in 1894’ (p. 115).

18 Jones provides a more extensive discussion of party and other political reconfigurations of the 1880s, namely the important split among Liberals, with Liberal Unionists ‘gradually merg[ing] into close political cohabitation’ with the Conservative party (p. 151).

19 Skinner, ‘The limits of historical explanations’, p. 208. See also Bourke, ‘What is conservatism?’, pp. 449–52.

The completion of this article was made possible by support from the National Academy of Education and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Fellowship. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for the Historical Journal for their suggestions.


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