Edmund Burke and the Law

NPG 655; Edmund Burke studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century philosopher and statesman, died on this day in 1797.  Burke was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin.  After graduation, Burke’s father, who was a lawyer, sent him to Middle Temple in London to study law.  Burke quit his studies to travel through Europe and pursue a literary career.  His writings cover a broad range of topics including aesthetics, political science, and ethics.

Below are Burke’s most notable quotes regarding the law:

Natural Law

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.

All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they have no power over the substance of original justice.

There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity — the law of nature, and of nations.

Manners are of more importance than laws. The law can touch us here and there, now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.

In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.

Government, Citizens, and the Law

The power of discretionary disqualification by one law of Parliament, and the necessity of paying every debt of the Civil List by another law of Parliament, if suffered to pass unnoticed, must establish such a fund of rewards and terrors as will make Parliament the best appendage and support of arbitrary power that ever was invented by the wit of man.

It is the function of a judge not to make but to declare the law, according to the golden mete-wand of the law and not by the crooked cord of discretion.

People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws; and those, who have much to hope and nothing to lose, will always be dangerous, more or less.

To execute laws is a royal office; to execute orders is not to be a king. However, a political executive magistracy, though merely such, is a great trust.

The most favourable laws can do very little towards the happiness of people when the disposition of the ruling power is adverse to them.

Laws are commanded to hold their tongues among arms; and tribunals fall to the ground with the peace they are no longer able to uphold.

Law in America

In no country perhaps in the world is law so general a study [as in America]…. This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources…. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on the law exported to the Plantations.

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