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Edmund Burke Historical Legitimacy Notes

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*Cross-reference - PO201 Studying the History of Political Thought; Hobbes: Conflict in the State of Nature; Paine & the Priority of the
Present // PO230 Adam Smith // PO219 Environmental Politics & Green Theory


1. On what grounds does Burke reject the French Revolution?

2. Is Burke's defense of tradition coherent? [2014]
'Burke advocates following traditions, but he does not explain why traditions are valuable'. Assess this judgement.

3. In what ways, if any, is Burke's 'intergenerational contract' a contract? [2017]
Is Burke's contrast between generations plausible? [2013]

4. Does Burke have a political theory? [2016]
Is there a coherent political theory in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France or simply a rhetorically inflated preference for the way things are?

5. How far is Paine's Rights of Man appropriately understood as an answer to Burke's Reflections?

'The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but secures what it acquires'.
'We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations,
and of ages.'
'Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which exist in total independence of it... and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practi`1cal defect. By having a right to everything, they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.'
'All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle... are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off...'
They should not think it among their rights to... commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole fabric of society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of a habitation'.
'Society is indeed a contract... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born'.


Burke was born in Dublin on January 12, 1729 to a Protestant solicitor and Catholic mother. This was significant given the anti-Catholic sentiment which pervaded Northern Ireland.

In 1774, Burke was elected to the British House of Commons where he became a proficient commentator on major issues of his time; especially those pertaining to British colonialism in North America, India and Ireland:
East India Company* - led impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, on grounds of misrule and corruption.

American Revolution - sympathized with the grievances of American Colonies (inflicted by British taxation policies) and supported their 'right of rebellion' against metropolitan authority.


Catholic emancipation in Ireland

Critical of patronage politics, of loose housekeeping in the Royal exchequer, and of colonial exploitation; Burke was an agent for change, rationalization and reform. It is ironic, then, that his greatest work - Reflections on the Revolution in
France (1790) - is the paragon of modern conservatism, marshalling one of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution.

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