Edmund Burke is a son of Richard Burke, who was an attorney-at-law of middling circumstances, fretful temper, and punctual honesty. Richard was a protestant, originally from the province of Munster in Ireland, and married a wife from thence. Her name was Nagle. She was of a popish family; I cannot say whether she legally conformed to the Church of England, but she practised the duties of the Romish religion with a decent privacy.
Her husband was more concerned to promote his children's interest in the world than to trouble himself about controverted points of religion; therefore brought his sons up in the profession of that which he thought the most public road to preferment — the religion of the country, established by law. His three sons, Garrett, Edmund, and Richard, were educated at Ballitore school, and there fitted for their several destinations in life. They constantly went with the other Protestant boys to their place of worship, and betrayed not the least inclination to the errors of the Church of Rome, about which they seemed to concern themselves no more than the rest of their school-fellows. Edmund was a lad of most promising genius, of an inquisitive and speculative cast of mind, which was improved in him by a constitutional indisposition, that prevented him from suffering by those avocations from study which are the consequences of puerile diversions. He read much while he was a boy, and accumulated a stock of learning of great variety. His memory extensive, his judgment early ripened, he would find in his own mind, in reasoning and comparing in himself, such a fund of entertainment, that he seemed not at all to regret his hours of solitude; yet he was affable, free, and communicative, as ready to teach as to learn. He made the reading of the classics his diversion rather than his business. He was particularly delighted with history and poetry, and while at school performed several exercises in the latter with a manly grace. The day after he left Ballitore, he was admitted into the University of Dublin. Though the course of study which then obtained there was not at all adapted to his taste, yet he went through his college exercises with reputation and success; and seems to have extracted from every science whatever was fine and useful in it, leaving the rest to mere scholars.
From the University he went to the Temple. He read the law for a time with that intense application which it necessarily requires; but he found that it would neither suit his habit of body, or mind, to adopt that profession for a means of livelihood. He, therefore, followed the bent of his own inclination in those literary researches and productions which could not fail to recommend him to the distinguished notice of those who had ruminated on the causes of things, and gone somewhat farther than ordinary (tho' perhaps out of the beaten track) into the extensive regions of knowledge. By these he was introduced to the acquaintance of men in power, who made him easy in his circumstances, and on whom he reflected honour, as long as they were worthy to be his patrons. The rise of his fortune neither made him forget his friends nor himself. Conscious of the fallacy of human reason, as well as of the uncertainty of human condition, he is neither elevated by his learning, nor his situation: he is neither opinionated, nor proud. He argues with an irresistible cogency, yet with a modesty and gentleness which is more persuasive than any argument.
He has studied the English language with a surprising accuracy, and speaks it with fluency and propriety. He is rather too precipitate in his speech; for his ideas crowd so fast upon his imagination, and his judgment ranges them so quickly in order, that he has not the delay of deliberation and recollection. The innate goodness of his heart, thinks more of informing his audience of that which he believes it will be their advantage to know, than of acquiring to himself the fame of a fine speaker to himself. And as he is not tinctured with that self complacency which acquiesces entirely in itself, he bears about him that modest diffidence which every accompanies true genius. He is in haste to finish his own speech, that he may hear and be better informed by that of others. Rarely in one man does there happen such an union of good qualities. There is combined in him the contemplative sagacity of a philosopher, and the easy politeness of a courtier; the prudent reserve of a man of business, and the open frankness of a friend; a profound knowledge of books, and universal acquaintance with men and things; a most delicate and lively invention, a most exact and refined judgment.
He has a person and parts which command our admiration and respect: He has a manner and disposition which win love and esteem.
Though deep now engaged in scenes of political business, and conversant in the intrigues of States, that "amor patriae" which warmed his earliest youth, still predominates in his soul. Neither a consideration of his own temporal interest, nor that of any other, can check its flame. In his public life he is noble, wise, and steady; in his private, just, benevolent, and humane.
The great, the good, and the amiable qualities, are most happily blended in his character; and into this composition enters a certain unaffected simplicity of manners and conduct, which characterises the whole man with a peculiarly pleasing distinction. He is of a speculative, yet he is also of a social cast. He took to wife, the daughter of Dr. Nugent, born also in Munster, but educated in England; a genteel, well-bred woman of the Romish faith, whom he married neither for her religion nor her money, but from the natural impulse of youthful affection and inclination, which guided his choice to an agreeable object, with whom he promised himself happiness in a married state. This connection has given rise to an opinion that he was addicted to the errors of that Church, but without any foundation in reason for such a conclusion. He is well satisfied that there are many errors of that Church; but at the same time thinks there may be some (though fewer) in his own. He thinks the Clergy of the Church of England, to be in the general a very worthy class of people, attends them at their places of devotion, and no others; and is intimately acquainted with several of the first rank in that body: yet he believes in religion as he does in politics, that no human system is on all sides perfect; and as there is a mixture of good and bad people among the professors of every religion, that there is also a mixture of right and wrong tenets amongst the principles of every profession.
He knows the prejudices of education are strong, and human understanding is comparatively weak. He believes Papists are wrong; he doubts if Protestants are altogether right. He has not yet been favoured to find that clue which could lead him to the indubitable certainty of true religion, undefiled with the mixture of human inventions, to which his own spirit as a man (though truly excellent) can no more guide him, than their fine parts and reasoning could guide the ancient poets, philosophers, &c. who, notwithstanding their noble exertion of the rational faculties in investigating the works of nature, remained in the grossest ignorance and absurdity respecting the truths of Christianity: And surely, in a matter most essentially necessary and interesting, it is not to be imagined that Divine Wisdom and Goodness, would leave us destitute of the means of infallible certainty.