J.H. Burns

J.H. Burns is Professor of the History of Political Thought at University College London. From 1961 to 1979, he was general editor of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.


J.H. Burns, 2 March 1989

It is doubly appropriate that Professor Burrow’s 1985 Carlyle Lectures were published in 1988, for the year that marked the tercentenary of the revolution whose principles became the touchstone of Whig orthodoxy also turned out to be the year in which, after well over a century, the term ‘Liberal’ lost its separate identity in our political vocabulary, having become merged in a composite destined to be known for short as ‘Democrats’. There is a fine irony in this. Democrats, after all, is precisely what many Liberals in the past were concerned to maintain that they were not. Professor Burrow’s concern is with political thought rather than with the dusty confrontations of the party arena; yet there is a sense in which the point just made is relevant to his theme. That theme is, centrally, that our understanding of liberal thinking in England has been distorted by a failure to pay sufficient attention to its 18th-century antecedents. This is to invite us to take seriously the Whig roots of the Liberal family tree.


J.H. Burns, 20 March 1986

Only in the imagination of the authors of 1066 and All That was there ever a custom of executing public men ‘for being left over from the last reign’. Had such a custom prevailed – and Queen Victoria for one might have wished at times that it had – Henry Brougham would surely have been an obvious candidate. In respect of high office at least, the ‘public career’ with which Robert Stewart’s book is concerned ended in the reign of William IV: but Brougham – who, if he had indeed been decapitated, would surely have walked and above all talked for long enough after the event – lived on until Victoria had reigned for over thirty years. When he died at last in 1868, the Daily Telegraph sounded a Last Post for ‘the old drum-major of the army of liberty’; and if there were other less generous memories, time had no doubt softened the bitterness which his by then distant political activities had so frequently generated. As with the white cobra in Kipling’s ‘The King’s Ankus’, the fangs had long been harmless, the poison-sacs dried up. Yet Brougham had been a terror and a torment in his time. To Lord Sefton he was ‘the Archfiend’; Lady Grey, in a shrewder assessment, identified him with Dryden’s Achitophel. No one, it is true, had ever been able to deny his extraordinary abilities, or the almost frenetic energy with which he applied them to the innumerable objects he had in contemplation at any given time. Yet the game was played out, for all practical political purposes, when, in November 1834, he unceremoniously handed back the Great Seal to the King’s secretary in a bag, ‘as a fishmonger might have sent a salmon for the king’s dinner’. Brougham never held public office again.’

What do we mean by it?

J.G.A. Pocock, 7 January 1993

This volume is one of a series. Professor Burns has already edited the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought: c. 250-c. 1450 (1988), Dr Goldie is to join with Robert Wokler in editing...

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A captious person might mutter that The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe is a little ‘hobbitical’: it reminds one of Professor Tolkien’s hobbits, who ‘liked...

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Parliamentary Sovereignty

Betty Kemp, 22 December 1983

The publication of Bentham’s Collected Works is likely to produce more new or revised views than the publication of Burke’s Writings and Speeches: indeed, it has already done so. The...

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