Edmund Burke: Constructing the Father of Conservativism

Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1

But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2

Many at this time saw Burke as a liberal utilitarian. The liberal Morley, who wrote two major books on Burke, in 1879 described Burke’s thought as combining ‘utilitarian liberalism’ and ‘historic conservatism’. Morley also noted Burke’s suitability to the historical focus of the nineteenth century3:

The historic method, fitting in with certain dominant conceptions in the region of natural science, is bringing men round to a way of looking at society for which Burke’s maxims are exactly suited; and it seems probable that he will be more frequently and more seriously referred to within the next twenty years than he has
been within the last eighty.

It’s likely Morley would not expected these interest to have come from the Tory side of British politics, and originally it didn’t. Gladstone, converted to the Irish Home Rule cause in 1885, was a serious and constant reader of Burke at that time, particular of Burke’s works on the American colonies. On 13th April 1886, Gladstone first invoked Burke in the argument for Home Rule4:

I should like to quote Mr. Burke – and I hope we shall hear much of Mr. Burke in the course of this discussion – for the writings of Mr. Burke upon Ireland, and still more upon America, are a mine of gold for the political wisdom with which they are charged, applicable to the circumstances of to-day, and full of the deepest and most valuable lessons to guide the policy of a country.

Gladstone’s argument drew on Burke the Irish Whig rather than Burke “the father of conservatism”. Gladstone appealed to the need for political ties (including the Union) to be voluntary, the alternative to Home Rule as coercion, Home Rule as a stable end-state rather than a step towards separation, and the example and precedent of Grattan’s parliament (analogous at least to Home Rule)5.

This appeal, though copied by followers and allies such as John Redmond, was not success with all. Many Liberals, for example, did not see voluntary ties as the key aspect of Burke’s political thought. These included Morley, who saw Burke as a stalwart for the 1688 constitution. Morley spoke for Home Rule, but never invoked Burke doing so.

(William) Edward Hartpole Lecky
by Herbert Rose Barraud, published 1890
NPG Ax5505
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Others in the Liberal Party were equally unimpressed. These Liberal Unionists, including LEH Lecky, AV Dicey and Matthew Arnold, saw Burke as an advocate for civil and religious liberty, and highlighted the issue of Irish Protestants in a Catholic Ireland, and pointed out that Grattan’s Parliament was a parliament of loyal Protestants. Lecky argued explicitly that Home Rule meant Rome Rule not liberty, while Dicey depicted those against the current constitutional position (the Home Rulers) as “Jacobins” in various articles and books that used Burke’s Reflections as a key source6.

The Liberal Unionists saw the 1880s Liberal split as paralleling the earlier Whig split of the 1790s, and themselves, called traitors by Gladstone’s supporters as Burke had been by Fox’s, as heirs to Burke. This was underlined when the split became permanent, and Burke’s Appeal from the new to the old Whigs, defending his adherence to ‘old Whig’ principles, gained a new resonance. The Liberal Unionists saw themselves as the ones holding to established political beliefs, as Burke had. Lecky even signed off letters as an ‘Old Whig’ 7.

It was, then, the Liberal Unionists who first reclaimed Burke from Gladstone, invoking his Irish letters to argue for guarding against separatism, and his Speech to the electors of Bristol (1774) for parliament as a national institution without local attachments. The Conservatives followed suit, and the Gladstonian links to Burke loosened. “This was a great sea-change: the Home Rule debates had convincingly re-imagined Burke as a proto-Liberal Unionist, agreeable to and allied with Conservatives.”8.

This political reworking informed the development of a political theory from Burke’s work in the 1890s. In the universities, those with philosophy backgrounds turned to Burke, building on the historicism perceived in his work earlier in the nineteenth century. Burke’s lack of a theory of government gave full scope to interpretation and the development of a political theory of “conservatism” 9

William Graham’s English political philosophy, from Hobbes to Maine (1890) was one of the first works attempting to produce a systematic politics for Burke. The Saintfield-born Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Queen’s, Belfast aimed to show different schools of political thought: Liberal, Radical, Socialist and Conservative10

Graham saw Burke as a Whig with Conservative instincts, and the Reflections and the Appeal as (more or less) a political system. “This Conservative ‘theory’ was a justification of established government, religion and property based on prescription, regardless of injustices.” This system, Graham believed, Burke had created after the French Revolution, “for the Conservatives in England, and indeed all over Europe”11 Due to popularity of Graham’s book and further work by academic theorists (including a young John Maynard Keynes and John McCunn) Burke was identified with the “political philosophy” called conservatism12. ‘Burkean conservatism’13:

came to symbolize relatively vague concepts, such as hostility to constitutional change (including the critique of abstract ahistorical thought in politics, and the need for balance in the constitution), and support for private property, religion, historicism, and the organic nature of society.

This political philosophy could have emerged without having any further relevance. This did not happen with Burkean conservatism, due to the need for the Conservative Party to reposition itself, due to the influx of Liberal Unionists, and the rise of Labour and the spectre of socialism. Intense discussion over Toryism and Conservatism led to the adoption of an active conception of maintenance. These naturally meshed with two aphorisms from Burke’s Reflections: “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” and ‘I would not exclude alteration neither; but even when I changed, it should be to preserve”14

Another factor was the tendency at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Edwardian era to retrospectively view nineteenth century politics as reaction for and against the French Revolution. This clearly linked to Burke, and Liberal tendencies to see themselves on the side of Paine and Rousseau increased the Conservative attraction to Burke. By 1912 one of the most prominent Edwardian Conservatives, Lord Hugh Cecil, was proclaiming Burke “the father of Conservativism” and reducing Burke into a six point Conservative political theory 15

“The overall result,” Emily Jones concludes, “was that Burke, a Whig statesman cherished in the mid-nineteenth century more for his powers of rhetoric than his principles, was increasingly regarded as a great Conservative and/or Tory philosopher across the political spectrum in a way that was quite unlike earlier discussions of his life and thought.” The major elements of Burkean conservatism were in place in Britain by 1914, ready for their adoption and adaptation later in the century by American conservatives such as Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis16

Burke’s position as the Father of Conservatism is, therefore, more a contingent attribution born of historical circumstances, opposing positions and political need than one based on a reasoned analysis of his works. But given the content of conservatism, this seems more appropriate than not.

Featured Image: Statue of Edmund Burke, Trinity College Dublin. © Philip Halling (CC BY-SA 2.0)


  1. Richard Bourke (2017) “Edmund Burke and the Origins of Conservativism” Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (lecture on YouTube) 8:35-9:36.
  2. Emily Jones (2015) “Conservatism, Edmund Burke and the Invention of a Political Tradition, c. 1885 – 1914” The Historical Journal, 58, 4, pp. 1115–1139. Quote on p. 1116.
  3. Jones (2015), p. 1117. Quote on p. 1123, from John Morley (1879/2015) Burke, Chapter 10 (last page) (ebooks at Adelaide)
  4. Jones (2015), p. 1119. Quote on p. 1119 from Hansard (1886) “Government of Ireland Bill” HC Deb 13 April 1886 vol 304 cc1439-550 (online).
  5. Jones (2015), p. 1119.
  6. Jones (2015), p. 1120-21.
  7. Jones (2015), p. 1120-22.
  8. Jones (2015), p. 1122. Quote on p. 1122.
  9. Jones (2015), p. 1123.
  10. Jones (2015), p. 1124. John Rae (1912) “Graham, William (1839-1911)” in Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement (Wikisource).
  11. Jones (2015), p. 1124. Quote from William Graham (1890) English political philosophy, from Hobbes to Maine, London: Edward Arnold, p. xxi.
  12. Jones (2015), pp. 1125-1128
  13. Quote from Jones (2015), pp. 1123
  14. Jones (2015), pp. 1128-1130.
  15. Jones (2015), pp. 1130-1135.
  16. Jones (2015), pl. 1137-9, p. 1117. Quote on p. 1138.
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