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The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography
and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke

by conor cruise o’brien
university of chicago press, 602 pages, $34.95

At the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 11th Street in Washington, D.C., a wandering tourist will find himself standing beneath the gaze of a statue of Edmund Burke, the British parliamentarian and political thinker, who never once set foot on these shores. This is particularly surprising for us today, for we tend to know Burke, when we do, as the father of modern conservatism, while we have come to understand America’s founding principles as resolutely liberal and progressive. Why then would a man oftentimes denounced as a reactionary be publicly honored in the capital of a nation founded to be novus ordo seclorum

An answer inevitably leads us into the exceptionally complex and confusing riddle of Burke’s political thought. In the 1770s, Burke was an influential advocate of the American cause in the British Parliament. First he argued against taxing the colonies altogether, and then after the fateful breach in 1776 he argued that American independence should be recognized and the war brought swiftly to an end. Indeed, Burke’s speech “On Conciliation with the Colonies” used to be a set piece in American high school curricula. Further enhancing his reputation for several generations of Americans was the fact that Burke was a lifelong Whig rather than a Tory. As such, he led efforts in the 1780s for British constitutional reforms which eventually limited the prerogative of the Crown, thereby consolidating parliamentary sovereignty. Through most of his life, Burke can fairly be described as a moderate progressive in the terms of his day.

But from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 until his death in 1797, Burke’s writings seem to reveal an increasingly intransigent critic of almost everything we have come to understand as modern in politics, religion, and society. Both publicly and privately he championed counterrevolutionary war, a “long war,” until full restoration of the French monarchy could be realized and Jacobinism extirpated. In the process of justifying his antagonism to the Revolution, an antagonism that surprised his fellow Whigs, Burke explored almost every theme that was to become a leitmotif of Anglo-American conservative thought. Continental antiliberals also found his arguments congenial, and a frequently quoted passage from Reflections on the Revolution in France illustrates why this should be so. After conjuring a vision of the Queen of France in her youthful glory, Burke waxes indignant at her rude treatment by Revolutionary democrats, and he laments the passing of the ancien régime:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

Now the American regime, whose claims Burke had supported in the 1770s, was itself founded on the rejection of just these deferential, feudal values, the passing of which Burke here laments. In the emerging polarization of modern ideologies, those who had cheered Burke’s support of the People and Progress in the 1770s now found him on the side of Monarchs and Reaction. Upon reading the Reflections, Marie Antoinette reportedly wept, while Thomas Jefferson remarked on the “rottenness of [Burke’s] mind,” and suggested that only “wicked motives” could explain his political apostasy.

Given the prospect of (at least) “two Burkes,” most sympathetic commentators have sought to find a unifying thread by which he can be made consistent. It may be observed, for example, that Whiggery is not identical to liberalism, nor is the American Revolution identical to the French. Burke was a great friend of that arch-Tory, Samuel Johnson, and he never had a good thing to say about democracy nor, with some notable and stinging exceptions, a bad thing to say about hereditary aristocracy. Burke is thus “really” a conservative. On the other hand, the popular and magnanimous sentiments of Burke’s early career can be brought to the fore while his response to the Revolution is contextualized into a pragmatic anti-utopianism. In such a perspective, Burke is seen as a critic, not of the French aspiration to achieve such modern political goals as liberty, equality, and fraternity, but only of the Revolution’s violence and radical instability. The rest is rhetoric, and Burke is thus “really” a liberal. In his much-praised thick new book, Conor Cruise O’Brien holds an extreme form of this latter view.

The title of O’Brien’s “thematic biography” is taken from a line in Yeats’ poem “The Seven Sages”:

American colonies, Ireland,
France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great
melody against it.

O’Brien variously defines the “it” mentioned in this couplet as “oppression,” “unjust authority,” “authoritarianism,” and “the arrogance of power.” In O’Brien’s view, opposition to “it” is the central moral motivation of Burke’s politics, and if we understand this, we can find the deep consistency in Burke’s words and actions.

Key to making this interpretation plausible is O’Brien’s ingenious and well-constructed argument that Burke identified much more closely with Irish Catholicism than has previously been acknowledged. Burke’s own father had conformed to the Established Church in order to practice law in an Ireland where Catholics suffered under the Penal Laws; Burke’s mother remained a Catholic, though she conformed sporadically; Burke married a Catholic. O’Brien further conjectures that as a child Burke was probably educated by a priest and may even have been secretly baptized a Catholic. His cousins, members of the Irish Catholic gentry, were often in jeopardy during the periods of vindictive anti-Catholic agitation that for centuries were a recurring experience in the English-speaking world. And there are some indications that in his twenties, in London, Burke found himself strongly attracted to the faith of his fathers.

Thus O’Brien suggests that Burke may be understood rather like a Marrano Jew: he is not fully converted to his new faith and he feels great sympathy for those he has left behind, but under the restrictive laws of his time and as a public figure, he must cover this sympathy with loud declarations of conventional views. Far from being a convinced defender of the Establishments of the British Constitution, Burke secretly harbors a sense of fundamental injustice in the status quo.

This account allows O’Brien to explain (away) Burke’s illiberal defense of civil and ecclesial Establishments as a mere rhetorical means by which Burke could pass as a good Englishman. For O’Brien, the “real” Burke was the consistent advocate of Irish Catholic emancipation-and American freedom, and the rights of the natives of India. He even goes so far as to suggest that Burke’s antagonism to the French Revolution arose because of the close connection Dr. Richard Price—against whom Burke polemicized in the Reflections—drew between the 1688 Revolution, the French Revolution, and Anti-Popery: the rise of Jacobin sympathies in the British Isles could thus ultimately affect the lives of Burke’s Irish cousins. Here the plausibility of O’Brien’s hermeneutic stretches very thin, and we are driven to reconsider the evidence for the traditional “conservative” interpretation of Burke.

O’Brien’s reconstruction of Burke’s Catholicism is surely a masterful work of historical speculation, and it is true that we can always detect a spirit of liberality in Burke’s writings and speeches. But this does not suffice to demonstrate that Burke is a liberal in any meaningful sense. In fact, the opposite may be true. Having offered us a Catholic Burke, O’Brien remains strangely silent about what this would imply about Burke’s relationship with the natural law tradition—that tradition in contradiction to which modern rights theories emerged. Of course much of what we understand to be virtuous in politics and morals was already present in natural law teaching, but on no Catholic theory of the eighteenth century was even so mild a liberalism as Locke’s tenable.

Now, Locke would have extended toleration to all but atheists and Catholics, and he seems to have believed that dissenting Protestants made the best (liberal) citizens. Burke likewise had no sympathy whatsoever for atheists, while as we have seen, he personally championed Catholic claims. But significantly, Burke was always hostile to Dissenters. He did virtually nothing to end their disabilities under English law, and he once sarcastically commented, “If mere dissent from the Church of Rome be a merit, he that dissents the most perfectly is the most meritorious . . . . A man is certainly the most perfect Protestant who protests against the whole Christian religion.” To support relief for Catholics but not Dissenters seems an unprincipled favoritism to us; O’Brien tries to explain the fact with an intricate account of the political dynamics of the period. But Burke himself argues contra Locke that the dissenting habit of mind is one unfit for civilized society, while Catholic habits of discipline render them excellent civil subjects. Only for this reason does justice demand that they be admitted to the benefits of the Constitution. In short, O’Brien’s discovery of Burke’s Catholicism may actually support a less liberal reading of his thought than previously could be credited.

Much other evidence could be adduced to demonstrate why it is inappropriate to understand Burke as a liberal—from his remarkable defense of prejudice after a century of enlightened attacks on obscurantism to his recognition of the “presumptive virtue” of hereditary aristocrats. Since O’Brien departs from his usual practice and sharply limits his quotations from the Reflections (he notes that this work is widely available, so quotation is unnecessary), this evidence does not appear in his already large volume. But even when O’Brien does offer passages traditionally thought to illustrate Burke’s conservatism, his interpretations are awkward. After quoting at length Burke’s furious denunciation of Rousseau in the 1791 “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” for example, O’Brien contents himself with the editorial comment, “Definitely a part of the Great Melody.” O’Brien admits to being himself a liberal foe of Jean-Jacques, for there are well-known totalitarian implications to the General Will. But Burke attacks Rousseau for quite different reasons, one of which is Rousseau’s belief that there are no moral obligations which are involuntary or unchosen—something that Rousseau holds in common with all mainstream liberal thought. For Burke, certain obligations are prior to any choice, and these obligations arise from the historical role into which the individual finds himself thrown by Providence. Burke shares this view with many contemporary communitarians and with all major conservative antiliberals. It is an antiliberal view. Too often it is forgotten that the Reflections was a prophetic work precisely because its hot rhetoric was written against the early, liberal phase of the Revolution, long before the advent of the Terror.

O’Brien concludes his book with an appendix containing a correspondence with Sir Isaiah Berlin over the question of Burke’s relationship to the “reactionaries,” among whom Berlin numbers Justus Moser, Joseph de Maistre, and T. S. Eliot. O’Brien objects to Berlin’s inclusion of Burke in such a group, and this exchange illuminates his political agenda. For while O’Brien’s book is certainly a (largely successful) attempt to save Burke’s importance from the dismissive histories of Sir Lewis Namier and his students, it is also an effort to wrest Burke’s political thought from contemporary “Burkean conservatives,” whom O’Brien simply equates with neanderthal McCarthyite Cold Warriors. It is because O’Brien has such a low opinion of conservatives that he believes that having shown Burke to have had humane sentiments and to have often opposed Yeats’ “it,” he has thereby wholly discredited the notion that Burke is one of them. It seems not to occur to him that few conservatives think of themselves as being proponents of “oppression,” “unjust authority,” “authoritarianism,” and “the arrogance of power.”

Fundamentally, O’Brien’s judgment is clouded by his equation of “liberalism” with every good thing in politics and morals. This common liberal presumption obscures both the highly reductive nature of liberalism and the panoply of human goods that lies beyond liberalism’s purview. Conservatives like Edmund Burke are identified in part by their less narrow—indeed, their more liberal—understanding of what constitutes the common good.

Mark C. Henrie is a doctoral candidate in political theory at Harvard University. He is writing his dissertation on “Edmund Burke and the Politics of Counter-Enlightenment.”

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