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The Reputation of Edmund Burke

  • Thomas W. Copeland


Of the many books which have been written about Edmund Burke, very few compare in importance with a book which was never written. Burke's “official biography” was first promised by his literary executors four years after his death; it was to be the final volume in their edition of his Works. When contemporaries realised, as they soon did, that the bringing out of the Works was going to take many years, some guessed that the biography might be postponed indefinitely. Sir James Mackintosh late in 1806, having remarked of Burke that “perhaps a fit biographer is more important to his just fame than ever such a person was before to a great man,” added a sharp comment:

Ten years have almost passed since Mr. Burke's death. This is by no means a long time to employ in writing his life; but it is too long to elapse before it is begun. I hope this is not the case with Dr. Lawrence.

Alas! it was exactly the case. When Dr. French Laurence, the most energetic of Burke's literary executors, died in 1809, he had seen through the press four volumes of the octavo edition of the Works but no portion of the promised biography. He had collected biographical materials, which are still among Burke's papers, but nothing was thrown into form. His collaborator and successor, Dr. Walker King, went on collecting materials, and renewed the promise of a biography, but he too put off its execution until his other tasks could be accomplished.



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1. Mackintosh, Robert James, Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh (2nd ed.; London, 1836), I, 316.

2. Letter to a Noble Lord” in Works (Boston, 1894), V, 200201.

3. Laprade, W. T., “Edmund Burke: An Adventure in Reputation,” J. M. H., XXXII (1960), 321–32.

4. Beveridge, Albert J., Abraham Lincoln 1809-1858 (London, 1928), I, 520.

5. Morley, John, Burke (London, 1887), pp. 8182. A more recent writer echoes and heightens Morley's praise of the two speeches: “… they comprise the whole canon of political wisdom. For any crisis of affairs, for any crucial public decision, somewhere in their depths an oracle is to be found. They are our Sibylline Books.” Hobhouse, Christopher, Fox (London, 1934), pp. 8485.


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