Burke was born in Dublin, probably on 1 January 1729. On graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1748 he studied law at the Middle Temple in London. Seeking a literary career, he published A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), a satire on rationalist philosophy, and Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), a treatise on aesthetics. Burke was quickly taken up by Goldsmith, Sheridan, Reynolds and other worthies, and was a founder member of Samuel Johnson's Club. In 1758 he was invited to edit the first Annual Register and continued to do so for almost twenty years.

In 1761 Burke became private secretary to the chief secretary in Ireland, W. G. Hamilton. After a breach with Hamilton in 1765, he became private secretary to Lord Rockingham, who briefly headed a Whig administration at Westminster. He entered parliament in 1766 as MP for Wendover and later sat for Bristol - losing that seat for insisting that he was a representative of his constituents and not their delegate - and Malton.

Burke had a distinguished parliamentary career, raising the standard of debate and fostering the party system. He took the lead in impeaching Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of India, in 1787. Though he never held a major office of state, his views have influenced politicians for two centuries.

Burke was also an active pamphleteer. Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) challenged George III's misuse of his powers; Burke then contributed to the debate on America in Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) and Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777). Having vainly urged a conciliatory approach in America, Burke argued that the government should not repeat its mistakes in Ireland. A Letter to a Peer of Ireland (1782) criticised the penal laws against Roman Catholics, and his Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792) called for Catholic emancipation.

Burke's best-known work is Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he foresaw the dangers which events in France posed to the ordered liberty of England. His views led to a breach with Whig friends, such as Sheridan and Charles James Fox, and to Thomas Paine's famous reply, Rights of Man (1792). Burke retired from parliament in 1794 and died at Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, on 9 July 1797.