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Edmund Burke: The First Conservative Hardcover – May 21, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1ST edition (May 21, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465058973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465058976
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Edmund Burke’s writings, among which the best known and influential is Reflections on the Revolution in France, are foundational to conservative political philosophy. This work traces Burke’s ideas about politics and government as they emerged over his lengthy career in the latter half of the 1700s in the British House of Commons. Dividing his treatment into biographical and philosophical halves, Norman, presently a Conservative Party MP himself, anchors Burke’s outlook in his youthful experiences in Ireland, which instilled in him repugnance for injustice and abuse of power. Touching on Burke’s advocacy of reform in public issues of his day, Norman implicitly deploys Burke to challenge a caricature of conservatism as a reactionary ideology. Burke promoted repeal of restrictions on Catholics, reconciliation with the rebellious American colonies, free trade, and parliamentary supremacy in the British constitution. Depicting Burke as an advocate of gradual rather than radical social and political progress, Norman draws a clear contrast between the credence Burke gave tradition and its repudiation by Enlightenment rationalists. Still an important name in the contemporary political vocabulary, Burke is well defined by Norman. --Gilbert Taylor


Daniel Hannan, Wall Street Journal
“You won’t find a more impressive political philosopher than the 18th-century MP who more or less invented Anglosphere conservatism. And you won’t find a pithier, more readable treatise on his life and works than this one. I reckon any open-minded reader will finish the book as a conservative.”

Financial Times
“[A] superb new biography. Norman aims to place Burke above Hume, Smith, Mill, Marx and Rawls in the pantheon. Not only that, he seeks to reclaim Burke as a conservative thinker – one who has much to teach today’s politicians. Implicitly, this also requires Norman to answer the question, ‘what is conservatism?’ For if Burke is the father of conservatism, as Norman attests, then his children seem like runaways.... Norman succeeds in elevating his subject, showing what is conservative about Burke, and why he matters today. Ironically, he makes such a strong case that it would seem perverse if only Tories took something from Burke’s legacy. Burke may be a conservative but, as he would have explained better than anyone, his is an inheritance for all of society.”

Sunday Business Post, UK
“A Conservative MP himself, Norman has been tipped as a future prime minister – but this stimulating book suggests that he may well have an alternative career as a writer instead.”

History New Network
“Norman’s book is far better as history than it is as contemporary prescription. And that is what it’s meant to be. It provides a wonderful (re)introduction to the life and thought of an often neglected political thinker. Norman writes exceptionally well. His prose flows, he has an eye for the apposite anecdote, and he handles abstract arguments smoothly and precisely. If the political gig doesn’t work out, this book shows that he has a future as a historian.”

The Economist
“[A] succinct history of Edmund Burke’s life and thought."

E. J. Dionne, Washington Post
“Norman’s Burke biography ought to be one of the hot books for the right over the next year. Like Burke (1729-1797), Norman is a philosopher as well as a politician. He offers a brisk and engaging introduction to the iconic thinker’s life and thought.”

Clive Crook, Bloomberg View
“[A] fine new biography.... Burke has a lot to teach us. Norman’s splendid book is a good place to start.”

American Spectator
“[A] superb new biography.... Norman makes a strong case for Burke’s continuing relevance.... Norman succeeds in bringing Burke to life and championing his thought. The greatest of Irishmen has much to teach both liberals and conservatives, and a politics guided by his spirit would ennoble us all.”

Wall Street Journal
"Well written and informative. In this history one discovers Burke’s continuing importance, even if our age of hyper-individualism and headlong social experimentation seems ill-suited to his genius.”

National Review
“An engaging, highly readable, and impressively comprehensive overview. It handles the intricacies of English history and politics with great mastery and conveys Burke’s character and personality as few of his biographers have managed to do.... In the biographical first section...Norman finds just the right balance between fast-paced storytelling and gripping historical detail, and he shines a light both on Burke’s great strengths as a thinker, writer, and orator and on his great weaknesses.”

Los Angeles Times Review of Books
“Norman has the knack for presenting in clear and cogent terms notions taken from political theory, philosophy, and the social sciences.... The call for political prudence, the emphasis on provisional solutions, and the reminder that change, while it must be moderated, is necessary: our era’s conservative activists are trampling these Burkean conservative ideals. At the very least, Jesse Norman’s account of Edmund Burke’s thought leads us to our own reflections on the current revolution in America.”

Michael Gerson, Washington Post
“Conservatives would be well advised to listen to a Whig.”

David Frum, CNN.com
“A distinguished book.... As Norman tells it, Burke was a thinker and politician who rejected the demands of ‘I want’ in favor of the duties of ‘you should.’... Here is a conservative who has much to say in the era of predatory finance and selective bailouts. A politician himself, Norman shrewdly appreciates that Burke’s contributions emerged from an active career. Burke understood the limits of the possible because he himself had often bumped up against them – hard.”

“[An] outstanding biography.”

“Norman himself is a practicing, indeed a rising, politician, and so he is clear-sighted about Burke’s practical failures. But he is also a subtle historian of ideas. He does an excellent job of extracting from his subject’s speeches and writings why, in his view, Burke is the first and most important conservative thinker.”

New Criterion
“Not since Cicero had a major political thinker been a practicing politician in the center of the arena. So it is refreshingly welcome to have Burke reassessed today by another politician.... Norman boldly summarizes Burke’s thought for our time.”

Matthew D'Ancona, Sunday Telegraph
"A must-read for anyone interested in politics and history.... Superb."

Evening Standard (London)
“[A] scintillating book.... Norman’s erudition and rebellious streak...has led to chatter about his potential as a Tory leader. He has something of Polonius about him. Just as with an earlier pamphlet called The Big Society, he has now, under the guise of history, articulated much of what our government stands for.”

Washington Times
"[A] lucid and thrilling exposition of [Burke’s] political philosophy.... The second part of the book is pure brilliance, a refreshingly candid and discursive examination of Burke’s philosophy, and how the West might be wise to readopt it.... There are many, many original and excellent thoughts about Burke in this volume, too many to be discussed here.... Any amateur or professional student of political philosophy should take Mr. Norman’s book seriously.”

AC Grayling, Prospect
“[A] lively new biography.... [An] affectionate account of the life and thought of one of Norman’s heroes.... Norman’s biography is an engaging attempt to show how the intellectual debates of the 18th century can be deployed in today’s politics.”

Scotland on Sunday
“[A] fluent and precise book.”

Sunday Business Post
“This is a book about 18th century politics with a 21st century context.... [A] heartfelt tribute to the great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke.... [An] impressive book.”

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“Contending that understanding Burke is necessary to understand politics today, this book is both a reminder of his importance and a refresher course on his outlook, bringing to the fore principles as relevant now as they were when Burke formulated them.”

Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“[Norman] provides a fascinating picture of the political scene in England in the 18th century…. A top-notch introduction to Burke and his paternity of political systems throughout the Western Hemisphere. Even better, the author points out where ignoring Burke’s thoughts have caused unnecessary difficulties.”

Library Journal
“Norman, himself a Conservative member of Parliament, first presents Burke’s life, then examines the man’s philosophy. The results serve as a solid, workmanlike introduction to the reformer and his time. The philosophical half of the book is clear, free of jargon, and accessible, painting Burke as a realist.... A sound introduction to a thinker who remains important two centuries after his death. Very lightly footnoted and with a select bibliography, this will be a starting point for readers new to the study of Burke’s life and ideas.”

Harvey Mansfield, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, Harvard University
“An excellent book, which unites biographical and political insights. The best short biography of Burke for nearly 50 years, and a pleasure to read.”

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
“Jesse Norman has brought back Burke in triumph—and not before time. Are you fed up with the selfish individualism of our age? Are you sickened by the shallow cult of money and celebrity? It is time you had a new look at Burke, the 18th century giant who first understood that we are all in this together; that human beings are social animals, tied to institutions by love and instinct, and that those institutions are themselves a source of strength and comfort and a hidden wisdom that we ignore at our peril. This is an overdue reassessment of a politician who was not only one of the greatest orators of any epoch, but the father of the modern political party, a man who campaigned with equal brio and genius against British exploitation of India and the bloody tyranny of the French revolution. Anyone who cares about politics will pounce on this book and devour it, as I did, in a sitting. A stunning performance.”

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Customer Reviews

I recommend this book as an historical and philosophical book worth of your time.
Jesse Norman, the author of this book, and himself a politician, has written a fine and helpful introduction to Burke's life and thought.
John Mccarthy
Yeats: "American colonies, Ireland, France, and India/ Harried, and Burke's great melody against it."
James T. Kennedy MD

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Sheppard's Pie on May 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover
[ASIN:0465058973 Edmund Burke: The First Conservative]] Irish by birth, Edmund Burke was a renowned English Parliamentarian and above all friend and supporter of the founders of our Nation. This new biography by current British Parliamentarian, Jesse Norman, is an engaging story told at a brisk and page turning pace. You feel that if you met Burke today it would be an enjoyable encounter - especially if you like robust debate.
The second half shows how Burke's 18th century observations and profound thinking on humankind, politics and the exercise of power can provide a blueprint, on both sides of the Atlantic, for the wellbeing and good governance of 21st century society.
An engaging and compelling argument that is very well worth a read. A must for anyone who is interested in politics and more importantly values democracy.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on May 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book. It is both an intelligent summary of the life of Edmund Burke and an analysis of this great man's significant and continuing impact on political theory. It should be in the hands and heads of all (whether conservative or liberal) who aspire to political careers, as well as those who are simply interested in exploring the theoretical underpinnings of well-governed nations.

That the author, Mr. Norman, is a working politician in Great Britain makes this effort all the better. He has produced a thoughtful, well-written book without the tiresome jargon of the academic.

Here one is reminded of the valuable role of party in governance, the need for balance when seeking political change, and the importance of society for the individual.

I especially liked an explanatory passage (p. 233-236) citing Abraham Lincoln as "the very model of a Burkean political leader."
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By John Mccarthy on July 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Edmund Burke was not a philosopher, nor was he a systematic thinker. Rather, he was a politician whose perceptions and observations arose in and emerged from the specific political issues in which he was engaged.

It is these perceptions and observations, rather than the particular issues that engaged him, that have stood the test of time, and whose relevance continues to be of import today.

Burke was a staunch defender of and advocate for social and political order who placed significant weight on customs, traditions, and sentiment. As such, he was an intrepid opponent of tyrannies from any quarter that had no respect for the traditions, customs, affections and sentiments of ordinary men and women. Consequently, on the one hand, he thought that the French Revolution was an abomination while, on the other hand, he despised the role of his own country in attempting to put down the American Revolution as well as its role in attempting to subjugate Ireland and the Indian subcontinent.

In the end, Burke was an advocate for the social and political values of the 'small platoons,' the lesser social groupings - the family, the clubs, the churches and local organizations - rather than the state.

For all of us today who still prize these 'small platoons' and who feel them threatened by Leviathon, Burke continues to be a spokesman for values that we hold dear. Now, more than ever.

Jesse Norman, the author of this book, and himself a politician, has written a fine and helpful introduction to Burke's life and thought.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By M. D. Olshan on June 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This splendid book is as much about a way forward for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic as it is a look backwards at the life of one of the great political philosophers.

It's a thoughtful, deeply researched, and brilliantly written homage to a somewhat neglected hero of the Right, but also a meditation on what a working politician can -- and should -- be.

(On a side note, by the time I reached the third chapter, I'd already ordered two additional Father's Day copies!)
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Samuel J. Sharp on June 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Jesse Norman is a British MP and philosophy professor seeking "to do for Edmund Burke what others have done for Adam Smith . . . to recognize him publicly as one of the seminal thinkers in the present age." This probably seems an easy objective to readers in America, where Burke maintains a prominent and durable place in the conservative intellectual tradition. Indeed, anyone who has already read Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" or Russell Kirk's summary of Burke in "The Conservative Mind" might want for new material from Norman's effort.

The book is organized into two parts, Life and Thought, but the distinction between them is not very drastic. Norman still discusses Burke's intellectual development during the biographical first part so this section is still essential reading even for those already familiar with Burke's life. Despite the subtitle, the argument that Burke is the first conservative is only taken up in the last few pages, and even then not with much vigor.

Where the book adds new value is in Norman's application of Burke's thinking on political parties and statesmanship to modern times. This is ground not extensively covered in other books on Burke, and Norman makes a persuasive case that there is much to learn when Burke is removed from the tired left versus right debate and instead allowed to speak on the model politician's proper exercise of his craft. Burke's argument for cautious, narrow reform rooted in experience and the temper of the public is well discussed. But Norman goes a step further and demonstrates why this approach is necessary given Burke's recognition of the limits of individual liberalism and the intricate, mysterious workings of society.
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