by Francis Canavan

Editor’s Foreword




The first three volumes of this set of
Select Works of Edmund Burke, fully edited by Edward John Payne (1844-1904), were originally published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, from 1874 to 1878. Liberty Fund now publishes them again, with a fourth volume of additional writings by Burke. The original set has been praised by Clara I. Gandy and Peter J. Stanlis as “an outstanding critical anthology of Burke’s essential works on the American and French revolutions”; and they went on to say: “The scholarship and criticism is perhaps the best on Burke during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.”

E. J. Payne was born in England to parents “in humble circumstances,” as the
Dictionary of National Biography phrases it. No doubt for that reason, the
Dictionary goes on to say that he “owed his education largely to his own exertions.”
*2 Nonetheless he was able at age twenty-three to matriculate at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, from which he transferred to Charsley’s Hall. He graduated B.A. in 1871, with a first class in classics. The following year he was elected to a fellowship in University College, Oxford. He was married in 1899 and therefore had to resign his fellowship, but was re-elected to a research fellowship in 1900. To the end of his days he took an active part in the management of College affairs.

He was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1874, but devoted himself mainly to research and writing, especially on English colonial history and exploration, on which subjects he published rather widely. He also wrote on music, and was an accomplished violinist. His introductions and notes to these
Select Works show him also to have been well versed in English, French, Italian, and classical literature as well as in history.

The first of these volumes contains Burke’s great speeches on the crisis between Great Britain and her American colonies,
On American Taxation (1774) and
On Conciliation with the Colonies (1775). They are preceded by his pamphlet
Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), which sets forth the political creed of the Whig faction led by the Marquis of Rockingham, for whom Burke acted as spokesman. The unifying theme of all three documents is Burke’s fear of arbitrary power divorced from political prudence. In the
Present Discontents it was the power of the Crown and in the American speeches it was the sovereignty of the Mother Country that he argued were being exercised in an arbitrary and foolish manner.

The second volume is devoted wholly to Burke’s best-known work,
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); the third, to his
Letters on a Regicide Peace (between Great Britain and revolutionary France), which were written in 1796 and 1797. In these volumes he again expresses a detestation of arbitrary power, in this case of the sovereign people, which in practice was really the power of an oligarchy posing as a democracy.

The fourth volume contains writings that express Burke’s views on representation in Parliament, on economics, on the political oppression of the peoples of India and Ireland, and on the enslavement of African blacks.

One of the attractive features of Burke’s political thought is his keen awareness of the way in which reason operates in political judgments. He so heavily emphasized the roles of tradition, even to the point of calling it prejudice, and of sentiment and emotion in politics that it is easy to overlook his insistence that it was reason, not will, that should govern in the affairs of men. Mere will was arbitrary; reason recognized and took into account the complexity of reality. But it was practical, prudential reason, not abstract ideology, that should determine political decisions.

Thus, in his American speeches, while he did not deny Great Britain’s right to tax the colonies, he severely questioned the wisdom of trying to do so without the consent of the colonists. His objection to the French Revolution, and to the British radicalism that agreed with it, was not to democracy in the abstract (though he thought it unsuited to any large country), but to the doctrine of the “rights of men,” which the new French government had stated early in the Revolution in these terms: “The Representatives of the people of France, formed into a National Assembly, considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of government, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration those natural imprescriptible, and unalienable rights.”

Noble as that sentiment may be, it presumes that the purpose of politics and of the state can be reduced to a question of rights. The end of all political associations is the preservation of rights, and denying or ignoring them is the sole cause of public misfortunes. It follows that if a nation were to get its conception of rights straight, it would have solved all the problems of society. Burke was a strong and sincere defender of people’s rights in other contexts, but he was repelled by the ideological simple-mindedness of the French
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).

Despite what Burke often seems to mean in his denunciations of “theory” and “metaphysics,” he did not reject principles or an overarching natural moral order. On the contrary, he often appealed to them, particularly in his arguments against political oppression in India and Ireland. His objection was to the ideological mind that reasoned in politics as if it were engaged in an exercise in geometry, proceeding from an initial principle to practical conclusions that followed with necessary logic, without regard to “the wisdom of our ancestors,” present circumstances, and the nature of the people as conditioned by their history. “For you know,” Burke wrote to Sir Hercules Langrishe in 1792, “that the decisions of prudence (contrary to the system of the insane reasoners) differ from those of judicature; and that almost all of the former are determined on the more or the less, the earlier or the later, and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.”
*3 But the decisions of prudence were nonetheless rational judgments that should not be considered irrational because they were not modelled on mathematics.

Burke believed in a common human nature created by God as the supreme norm of politics. But he knew that human nature realizes itself in history through conventional forms, customs, and traditions, which constitute what he called the second nature of a particular people. Convention can and often enough does distort our nature, but it is not of itself opposed to it. Burke would have agreed with the remark of the late Sir Ernest Barker: “Once oppose Nature to Convention, and the whole inherited tradition of the ages goes by the board.”
*4 Convention, made as it should be to satisfy the needs of nature, is not nature’s enemy, but its necessary clothing. The statesman must therefore frame his policies with a practical wisdom that understands his people, their history, their traditions, their inherited rights and liberties, and their present circumstances. To do otherwise is to court disaster.

Burke thought that in the French Revolution it was the National Assembly that was courting disaster; in the American Revolution it was the British government. He never favored America’s independence from Britain, because he always strove to be an enlightened imperialist for whom the British Empire could and should be a blessing to all its member countries. But when American independence came, he was able to accept it gracefully, and he even praised the new Constitution of the United States. Or so, at least, he is reported as saying in the House of Commons on May 6, 1791: “The people of America had, he believed, formed a constitution as well adapted to their circumstances as they could.” It was, to be sure, a republican constitution, but, given the circumstances of the Americans, it had to be one: “They had not the materials of monarchy or aristocracy among them. They did not, however, set up the absurdity that the nation should govern the nation; that prince prettyman should govern prince prettyman: but formed their government, as nearly as they could, according to the model of the British constitution.”

In regard to France, however, he was uncompromising. There he saw the Revolution as an attack not only on monarchy and aristocracy, but on the religion, morals, and civilization of Christendom, inspired by a rationalistic ideology—”rationalistic” because it was founded not on reason, but on intoxication with abstract theory.

Nor did Burke divorce reason from emotion. On the contrary, he held that our reason can recognize our nature through our natural feelings and inclinations. To cite but one example, he is reported to have said in the Commons on May 14, 1781, that the obligation of kings to respect the property even of conquered enemies “is a principle inspired by the Divine Author of all good; it is felt in the heart; it is recognized by reason; it is established by consent.”
*6 Burke was well aware, of course, that man is subject to disordered passions as well as to natural feelings. But for that reason he said that “the wise Legislators of all countries [have] aimed at improving instincts into morals, and at grafting the virtues on the stock of the natural affections.”
*7 Reason cultivates rather than tries to exterminate natural affections, because it is through them that it recognizes our natural good.

Man of his times though he was and defender of a now-defunct aristocratic order of society, Burke still speaks to us today. Harold Laski was a Marxist who did not mourn the demise of the aristocratic order; nonetheless he said that Burke “wrote what constitutes the supreme analysis of the statesman’s art” and was “the first of English political thinkers.” Laski therefore concluded that “Burke has endured as the permanent manual of political wisdom without which statesmen are as sailors on an uncharted sea.”
*8 This set of Burke’s
Select Works offers a valuable introduction to that wisdom.

Francis Canavan

Fordham University

Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982 (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1983), no. 916.

Second Supplement (1912), 3:85.

Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, in
Miscellaneous Writings, the companion volume to
Select Works of Edmund Burke (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), p. 202.

Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors (New York: Barnes and Noble, 4th ed., 1951), p. 75.

The Parliamentary History of England (London: Hansard, 1806-1820), 29:365-66.

Ibid., 22:230.

First Letter on a Regicide Peace, in
Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 3 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), p. 127.

Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1920), pp. 15, 26, 172.

Vol. 1, Biographical Note by Francis Canavan

P. 7 below.

Vol. 1, Introduction by E. J. Payne

All Notes below written by Payne.


The coalition should be judged, not by the better standard of political morality which dates its prevalence from the younger Pitt, but by that of the early part of the century, to which it properly belongs. The fruits of a long and honourable opposition were far more prodigally cast away, by the selfishness of a few, on the occasion of the fall of Walpole, and that by the hands of such men as Pulteney and Carteret.

See the remark on Lord Chatham,
post, p. 63. Burke, in a letter to a private friend, calls Lord Shelburne, who was Chatham’s lieutenant and the link between the elder and the younger Pitt, “weak, wicked, stupid, false, and hypocritical,” in one breath, and exults at having at length “demolished” and “destroyed” him. Time has placed things in another light. Chatham and Shelburne founded the modern school of independent statesmen.

Volito vivu’ per ora virom.

Burke’s father was a Protestant and his mother a Catholic. The girls of the family were brought up in the faith of the mother, the boys in that of the father. Mrs. Burke was born in a family similarly circumstanced.

“1793 and 1853,” Works, vol. i.

Hazlitt says with great truth, that those who looked upon him as a man of disordered intellect, did so “because he reasoned in a style to which they had not been used, and which confounded their dim perceptions.”

From the
Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, written to vindicate himself from this charge.

Contained in vol. ii. of these Select Works.


Oldham, Second Satire on the Jesuits:

Think Tories loyal, or Scotch Covenanters;

Robbed tigers gentle; courteous, fasting bears.

A friendly critic has called this (which is borrowed from Hallam) a “hard saying.” What can be more of the essence of Whiggism than the fundamental doctrine of the pamphlet that the title of Kinds merely
descends, and is not in any way strengthened by its descent?

Boswell, Life of Johnson, p. 509, ed. Croker.

Speech on the Jews’ Naturalization Bill, 1750. Eloquence of the British Senate, i. 521. Lord Egmont published in 1742 a capital pamphlet called “Faction Detected.” On his character and abilities see Walpole’s Memoirs of George III, vol. i.

p. 76.


p. 99.

p. 101.

p. 105.

Hazlitt borrows his argument from Bishop Taylor’s Discourse on Friendship.

Eloquence of the British Senate, vol. ii. The student is also recommended to the Section on the “Use and Abuse of General Principles in Politics,” in Dugald Stewart’s Philosophy of the Human Mind, Part i. ch. iv.

A. H. Müller, Verm. Schr. Th. i.

It can be read in the German translation, “Conservatismus und Reform, eine Abhandlung über E. Burke’s Politik,” Utrecht, 1852.

Variously termed
Greek, or

Notes for Speech on the Amendment on the Address, Nov. 30, 1774.

See the chapters in Mr. Morley’s “Edmund Burke, A Historical Study.”

note to p. 116, l. 34, inf.

Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.

Page 89, l. 26.

Edinburgh Review, vol. xlviii. p. 519.

“Il ne faut pas tout corriger.” So Erasmus: “Scio quidvis esse ferendum potius quam ut publicus orbis status turbetur in pejus.”

Liv. ii. c. 2

Ed. Croker, p. 336.

See his letter to Murphy, upon his Translation of Tacitus.

See, for instance, the Letter to W. Elliott, Esq., 1795. “There may be sometimes too much even of a good thing. A toast is good, and a bumper is not bad; but the best toast may be so often repeated as to disgust the palate; and ceaseless rounds of bumpers may nauseate and overload the stomach. The ears of the most steady-voting politicians may at last be stunned with ‘Three times three.’ “;

“Is erit eloquens,” says Cicero, “qui poterit parva summisse, modica temperate, magna graviter dicere. … Qui ad id, quodcunque decebit, poterit accommodare orationem. Quod quum statuerit, tum, ut quidque erit dicendum, ita dicet, nec satura jejune nec grandia minute nec item contra, sed erit rebus ipsis par et aequalis oratio” (Orat. c. 29, 36).

There is a product of his pen which is raised by the nature of the subject from that description, but which is altogether a lawyer’s work, full of patient research and mature judgment, the Report of the Committee to examine the Lords’ Journals in relation to proceedings on the same occasion. Charles Butler, the eminent conveyancer, considered this an ample refutation of the notion that he was not equal to the sbtleties of abstract jurisprudence. “It is one of the most valuable productions of his pen. It abounds in learning and profound observation, and embraces the whole of the subject” (Reminiscences, vol. 1 p. 139).

xvi. 26.

See South’s sermon, “The Scribe Instructed.”

Bishop Hurd well says: “The more generally the best models are understood, the greater danger of running into that worst of literary faults—affectation.”

Green, Diary of a Lover of Literature.

“I ask pardon for my blots (i.e. erasures and corrections). It is not proper, I am sensible, to send you a paper in that fashion; but I am utterly incapable of writing without them.” Correspondence, vol. iii. p. 196.

St. Luke xii. 27, 28.

The student must beware of abusing this useful figure, as in the following passage: “No individual can be happy unless the circumstances of those around him be so adjusted as to conspire with his interest. For, in human society, no happiness or misery stands unconnected and independent. Our fortunes are interwoven by threads innumerable. We touch one another on all sides. One man’s misfortune or success, his wisdom of his folly, often by its consequences reaches through multitudes.” Blair, Sermon VIII. Here the same proposition is repeated five times, without any material addition or illustration, the impression left being that of great poverty of thought. See
note to p. 116, l. 34, infra.

Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians, 1792.

This remark belongs, of course, only to prose.

See Argument, p. 221.

Hazlitt, Conversations of Northcote.

It may be useful to subjoin the opinions of two authorities well qualified to pronounce upon this point. In the first extract, Crassus is criticising the systems of “debating societies.”

“In quo fallit eos, quod audierunt, dicendo homines, ut dicant, efficere solere. Vere enim illud dicitur, PERVERSE DICERE HOMINES PERVERSE DICENDO FACILLIME CONSEQUI. Quamobrem in istis ipsis exercitationibus, etsi utile est, etiam subito saepe dicere, tamen illud utilius, sumpto spatio ad cogitandum, paratius atque accuratius dicere. Caput autem est, quod (ut vere dicam) minime facimus; (est enim magni laboris, quem plerique fugimus:) quam plurimum scribere, STILUS OPTIMUS ET PRAESTANTISSIMUS DICENDI EFFECTOR AC MAGISTER.” Cic. De Orat. Lib. i. cap. 33.
“I should lay it down as a rule, admitting of no exception, that a man will speak well in proportion as he has written much; and that with equal talents he will be the finest extempore speaker, when no time for preparing is allowed, who has prepared himself the most sedulously when he had an opportunity of delivering a premeditated speech. All the exceptions which I have ever heard cited to this principle are apparent ones only.” Brougham, Address to the Glasgow Students, 1825.

Speech on a Bill for shortening the Duration of Parliaments.

“There is now an elegance of style universally diffused.” Again, on the Divines: “All the latter preachers have a good style; every body composes pretty well.” Boswell, April 7, 1778.

“Sublime” and “Beautiful.”

HISTORY. The Histories if Bisset, Belsham, Adolphus, Massey, Phillimore, Bancroft, and Stanhope; Wraxall’s Historical and Posthumous Memoirs; Walpole’s Memoirs; Jesse’s Memoirs of George III; Rockingham Memoirs; Bedford Correspondence; Grenville Papers; The Annual Register; Almon’s Biographical Anecdotes; Letters of Junius; Chesterfield’s Letters; Macaulay’s Essays; May’s Constitutional History.

BIOGRAPHY. Boswell’s Life of Johnson; Butler’s Reminiscences; The Lives of Burke by M’Cormick, Bisset, Prior, and the recent work of Mr. Macknight, which, however, does not supplant the work of Sir James Prior as the standard biography; the brief Life of Mr. Burke by Mr. Sergeant Burke; Mr. Morely’s Edmund Burke, a Historical Study; the admirable Lecture on the Life of Burke to the Dublin Young Men’s Christian Association, 1862, by Sir Joseph Napier; Professor Robertson’s Lectures on Burke.GENERALLY. Professor Goodrich’s Select British Eloquence; Hazlitt’s Political Essays and Eloquence of the British Senate; Roger’s Biographical and Critical Introduction to Holdsworth and Ball’s Edition of Burke’s Works, 1834; Allibone’s Critical Dictionary, art. Burke; De Quincy on Style and Conversation; Mackintosh’s Memoirs and Works; Winkelmann’s (German) edition of the two Speeches in this volume; Müller’s Lectures, and Miscellaneous Writings (German).

Addresses were sent in the early part of the year from the counties of Essex, Kent, Surrey and Salop, the towns of Bristol, Liverpool, Leicester, Coventry, &c., and from almost every part of Scotland. The county of Middlesex led the way in petitions on May 24: and was followed by the livery of London, the electors of Westminster, and the freeholders of Surrey, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wilts, Gloucester, Hereford, Northumberland, and the most important cities and boroughs.

“More difficult … than to produce something altogether new.” Letter to Rockingham, July 30.

Burke’s brother Richard, and distant kinsman William Burke.

Burke to Rockingham, Nov. 6, 1769.

Rock. Mem. ii. 145.

The King.

Burke’s Correspondence, i. 229.

“No heroine in Billingsgate can go beyond the patriotic scolding of our republican virago. You see I have been afraid to answer her.” Burke to Shackleton, Aug. 15, 1770.

Milton (Par. Lost, iv. 121) names Satan “Artificer of Fraud.”

Select British Eloquence, by Chauncey A. Goodrich, D.D., Professor in Yale College.

See also Peel’s Speeches on the East Retford Franchise, May 5, 1829, and on New Zealand, June 17, 1845.