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This article restores the context of political action to Burke's thinking about politics. It begins with the specific case of his interventions in the parliamentary debate over the Quebec Bill in 1774, and proceeds from this focal point to establish the centrality of the theme of conquest to his political motivation and understanding in general. Burke's preoccupation with conquest drove him to examine eighteenth-century British politics within a set of comparative historical frameworks. These frameworks encompassed the trajectories of both modern European and imperial politics and ancient historical development. The objective of Burke's politics of conquest was to overcome the destructive influence of the spirit of conquest. That objective involved deciding upon and justifying courses of action with reference to these comparative historical frameworks of understanding. Careful investigation shows that while Burke's approach to this task was powerfully influenced by Montesquieu, his arguments invariably entailed serious criticism of Montesquieu's conclusions. Properly understood, these criticisms show that Burke himself did not endorse the political principles that were later taken to constitute “Burkian conservatism”. The article draws the conclusion that a thorough grasp of the politics of conquest in Burke's thinking will force us to reposition him in the history of political theory.

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Much of the research for this article was undertaken under the auspices of a John Carter Brown Library Associates' Fellowship. I am grateful to the electors to that fellowship, without which access to many of the materials used here would have proved difficult. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom for an award that supported research leave during which I undertook academic work of which this article forms a part. Portions of the argument presented here were delivered as papers at the Université de Sorbonne, Paris IV; the University of Sussex; Harvard University; Edinburgh University; and Universität Bayreuth. I am grateful for the comments I received on each of these occasions. I am particularly grateful to the anonymous reviewers of this article for their scrutiny, to Ian McBride for his discussion of the underlying argument and to Nicholas Phillipson for his generous advice.
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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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