Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Edmund Burke and the Rockingham Whigs

Ahead of this evening’s IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, Dr Max Skjönsberg from the University of Liverpool revisits his paper from the previous session, discussing political philosopher and MP Edmund Burke’s alignment with the Whig party…

Edmund Burke (1729/30-97) is the best-known proponent of party in parliamentary history and the history of political thought. In his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), he famously defined party as ‘a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.’ This canonical pamphlet was written as a defence of the Rockingham Whigs, which he had joined five years previously, first as private secretary to its leader, the Marquess of Rockingham, and shortly afterwards as a member of parliament. The Rockingham Whigs only held power for two brief periods, in 1765-6 and in 1782, although the successor party, the Portland Whigs, shared power with Lord North in 1783, and elements of it went into coalition with the Younger Pitt from 1794. The Rockingham party connection prided itself on its Whiggism – understood as safeguarding the Revolution Settlement and the balance in Britain’s mixed constitution – and attachment to one another; in other words, on public as well as private loyalty. This was a bundle of principles which Burke more than anyone else laboured to theorise and sanctify over several decades under the heading of ‘party’.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), James Northcote, Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Starting already in the eighteenth century, commentators have regretted Burke’s involvement in partisan politics, especially since it was to entail many years in opposition. ‘Had he devoted those powers and exertions to the illustration of the “noblest study of mankind,” – of man, in his faculties, in his social and civil relations, which he applied to the propagation of party creeds,’ wrote Robert Bisset in his largely sympathetic biography from 1800, ‘his utility to society must have been much greater than it was at that time.’ Bisset cited Oliver Goldsmith, who in his unfinished poem Retaliation from the year of the author’s death (1774) had written: ‘[Burke] Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his mind / And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.’ In 1805, Burke’s old friend Hannah More lamented that he had exerted himself violently and ‘unworthily in party’. However, More and Goldsmith, the latter being Burke’s contemporary from Trinity College Dublin, knew that Burke was no simple party hack, and no minion of the Whig grandees, as Sir Lewis Namier and his disciples believed. What attracted Burke to the Rockingham Whigs was his conviction that Whiggism was beneficial for the country, and that party solidarity was necessary for principled politics to be put into action.

Samuel Johnson told James Boswell: ‘I remember being present when [Burke] shewed himself to be so corrupted, or at least something so different from what I think right, as to maintain, that a member of parliament should go along with his party right or wrong…It is maintaining that you may lie to the publick.’ However, Johnson had misunderstood Burke, who had written in the Present Discontents that if one disagreed with one’s party more than one time out of ten, one had chosen the wrong connection. ‘Men thinking freely, will, in particular instances, think differently’, he had argued. What was crucial was agreement on ‘leading general principles in Government’. Burke had chosen freely to associate with his party, knowing the principles upon which it was founded.

In the 1760s, 70s, and 80s, Burke emerged as a key opposition speaker and publicist. However, he split dramatically with his party, and in particular with Charles James Fox, its leader in the Commons, following his public condemnation of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). For elements of the Whig family, this represented the fall of absolute monarchy, but for Burke it represented the triumph of violent democracy and a threat to Britain’s mixed constitution. Many of the ‘old Whigs’ agreed with him, but most toed the line until Portland joined Pitt’s government in a coalition in 1794. While nineteenth-century Whigs regretted the split between Fox and Burke, they continued to regard Burke as providing the intellectual foundations for the still important ideal of aristocratic independence under the banner of the Whig party, and cite the Present Discontents as setting out the theory of party solidarity.

M.S.

This evening the IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar welcomes Dr Aaron Graham, presenting a paper on Jamaican legislation in the 18th century British Atlantic world. For more information, click here. A full list of upcoming seminars can also be found here.

Further reading:

  • The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Thomas W.  Copeland et al. (10 vols., Chicago, 1958–1978).
  • The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Paul Langford et al. (9 vols., Oxford, 1970-2015).
  • Richard Bourke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton, 2015).
  • David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Cambridge, 2014).
  • Paul Langford, The First Rockingham Administration, 1765-1766 (Oxford, 1973).
  • F.P. Lock, Edmund Burke (2 vols., Oxford, 1998-2006).
  • Frank O’Gorman, The Whig Party and the French Revolution (New York, 1967).
  • Frank O’Gorman, The Rise of Party in England: The Rockingham Whigs, 1760-82 (London, 1975).
  • Lucy Sutherland, Politics and Finance in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1984).

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