Today, January 12, is generally agreed among scholars of Edmund Burke to be the great man’s birthday. That agreement is no small matter. It’s a kind of achievement. But it only goes so far, because there is still no real agreement on the exact year in which Burke was born—with plausible claims placing it between 1728 and 1730.
Born to a middling family in Dublin well before the age of bureaucracy, Burke’s arrival would not have been chronicled in an official register, and isn’t noted in any other clear and reliable source that has come down to us. And neither Burke himself nor the people in his close circle have left us any clear answer to the question. On the contrary, some of Burke’s friends, including his close associate and protégé French Laurence, can be found expressing in writing some uncertainty about exactly what year he was born.
The wonderfully intense debates that have long characterized Burke scholarship are neatly encapsulated in the arguments about when he was born. For more than a century after Burke’s death, they consisted of biographers waving scraps of evidence and insisting they were conclusive. Then came an attempt at a magisterial resolution through modern methods of scholarly research (in this case well exemplified by a 1937 essay entitled “Burke’s Birthday,” by the great historian Dixon Wecter). But the results of that work then quickly came under question again. And in more recent years, leading Burke scholars have decided to just accept the uncertainty and live with it. F.P. Lock, whose superb two volume biography of Burke sets the standard these days, offers some evidence for 1730 and takes that as his starting point, but humbly acknowledges that we just can’t be sure.
There is something fitting, even downright Burkean, in that shrouding of Burke’s origins in a veil of uncertainty and imprecision. So let’s wish him a happy birthday without worrying about how old he is.